Whilst, not so long ago, Auckland City was reeling with ways to welcome in the new millennium, most of the local art galleries seemed to coolly distance themselves from the hype; treating it as just another day in the life for the Sunday painter or the avant-garde. Re-Animator, however, was one exhibition that refused to let the momentous moment go un-noticed. In the last weeks of December, as the many millennium clocks around the world ticked off the seconds to the End of the Century, Pete Madden and Dane Mitchell put together a show that tried to bring back Modern Art from the dead. An onerous task perhaps, but the many young Frankensteins who contributed work to the show came up with a chaotic and dysfunctional collection which somehow seemed more dramatic and poignant than most of the rain-sodden fireworks displays and overcast dawn ceremonies that marked our step from one millennium to another. Madden and Mitchell (both with dubious art histories of their own) invited artists to remake their favourite or most detested art moments of the 20th Century; to speedily rework and resuscitate the old masters and the worlds scariest art disasters in time for the dawning of the year 2G.
Assembled together in the galleries and corridors that made up rm3 (opting this time to keep the art outside of the toilets) the works proved to be a decidedly motley crue (as I guess any proper group of zombies ought to be). It was a ragged and shabbily dressed mix of the old favourites from those foreign journals, a few local legends and even some more recent crowd pleasers. Despite the many rumours, McCahon didnt rise from the grave to personally represent for the festivities, but from the many Duchamps that turned out, to the Beuys, the Ricky Swallow, the Séraphine Pick and the Yoko Ono, it was almost as fantastically representative as the Stedelijks Exhibition of the Century, though perhaps more of a cross between Matthew Collings gossip-column bound This is Modern Art and that crazy karaoke TV show, Stars in Their Eyes.
Despite the many allusions that Madden and Mitchell made to old Z-grade Zombie films and sciences Frankenstein-like obsession with genetic engineering and bringing back the dead, the show seemed to hang at the other end of the geek-culture spectrum - with enough model-making and PVA glue to give any art-hobbyist an erection. Model making is of course the perfect way to get sentimental about the past. Any trip to the local model store will provide a whole world of kitset tributes to the olden-days: on one shelf a turn-of-the-century railway slum town, on another the Space Shuttle or a die-cast De Lorean, and in a corner, of course, the whole cast of characters from your least favourite sci-fi film. Several lengths of balsa wood and tubes of plastic cement later, Pete Madden had crafted a scale model version of Joseph Beuys Fat Chair and Nick Riviera had himself a shrunken copy of Hirsts The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (only this time the shark was plastic, floating in lumpy aspic inside a car-collectors display case). The artists model may have been left for dead, but in Re-Animator, model art was alive and kicking.
After years studying the Old Masters second and third hand in slides and foreign magazines it kinda made sense that Re-Animator should be made up of an army of miniatures and bad reproductions of The Real Thing. Just as that most professional of plagiarists, Gavin Turk once described his original half-assed copy of Manzonis Shit of an Artist as the result of experiencing art through bad photocopies and inspired anecdotes, Re-Animator seemed like a good chance to break out those dusty history books to try and relive those faded yet fabled acts of distant heroism and dismal failure. Whilst Turks run-in with the history books and bad photocopiers earned him a place in the celebrated Brit Pack, down here at the other end of the Earth New Zealand has also made a virtue out of the fact that we tend to experience the rest of The Art World so distantly. Whilst we could pat ourselves smugly on the back for being among the first in the world to watch the sun rise into the New Millennium, we have grown used to the idea that from our little corner of the world we must experience the glow of Modern Art from the periphery, second hand. After years spent dreaming of someone elses Utopia or trying in vain to build our own, artists like Julian Dashper and Michael Parekowhai rose to the fore, straddling the fence between local and international art - Men of the World doing New Zealand proud.
With Dasphers slideshow in the pages of Art Forum and Parekowhais kitset Duchamp readymades as preparatory sketches, the locally-based exhibitors in Re-Animator were given their own chance to turn The World of Art on its head Down Under style. After all the recent hullabaloo at home and abroad over both McCahon and Peter Robinson, Steve Carr continued the line of inheritance with Boy, Am I Sacred Now -proving that our Colin is more quotable than the Bible these days. Inspired by Kleins Leap into the Void, Ian John made his own death-defying belly flop from the heights of his Grey Lynn house. But whilst Kleins circus act was immortalised in a doctored photograph, Ian John - with adrenalin still coursing through his veins and an AJ Hackett t-shirt hidden under his polo neck - presented his audience with grainy 10-cent photocopies of the event. Leaping from on high, Ian John managed to relive Kleins experience for himself, but then denied us the chance to take part in the event ourselves with his knocked-off Xeroxes.
Engaging with the hyper-real on another level, Helena Brooks photographs of domestic environs seamlessly melted into Jean Baudrillards back catalogue. After tomes of foundation-shattering theory warned us about the end of artistic value in the age of mechanical reproduction, Baudrillard began to exhibit his own images, repainting himself as a post-postmodern photographic mystic on his quest for the aura of the pure object. Brooks works quietly joined the dots between Baudrillard-as-theorist and Monkey Magic-styled photo-spiritualist, perhaps making Brooks a post-post-postmodern photographic mystic. And of course there was Madden himself, who, amongst other works he had scattered around the gallery, provided a stunning prequel to Andre Serranos Piss Christ. By hanging a tiny crucifix in a carafe full of cask wine, Madden created a kind of night before for the heady media circus that followed Serranos urine-stained Jesus.
Some of the most effective works, however, almost sidestepped this model-makers tendency to dwell upon the past. In a show dedicated to arts obsession with history and history-making, a few pieces missed the revisionist boat altogether and were a happy reminder that the 21st Century might not be so bad after all. Rather than simply putting a spin upon someone elses work, some of the most notable works managed to spin in directions entirely of their own. Where Duchamp had once preserved his genius in plaster in the self-portrait With My Tongue in My Cheek, Tim Reed opted for more of a Kojak approach: drawing his own portrait and thrusting a Robin the Boy Wonder lollipop through its cheek. Like Tim Giggles himself, the drawing hung awkwardly on the wall - with the plastic Robin as a support and a few obscure Motörhead lyrics for reference-sake - but with a flick of the switch on the Boy Wonders back, the piece would begin to oscillate wildly: Tim Reed was on his own personal wheel of fortune.
The Dutch contingent on the other hand took a much more simple approach. Instead of reworking someone elses endeavours, Jan van der Ploeg created another of his grip series by cutting his signature ellipse shape out of a 10 Kronin note; whilst Ewoud van Rijn and Karin de Jong provided the standout Duchamp tribute of the show with some overlaid paper hearts fluttering quietly, à la Coeurs volants. Theorists may well have made careers out of interpreting old Marcel - and this show had more than its fair share of the man - but the simplicity of the paper hearts was the perfect way to sum up our obsession with Sélavys legacy.
It was no coincidence that rm3 was the chosen venue for this requiem for the 20th Century. In its short run since June 1997 the artist-run-space in question had already proved itself to be a hotbed of plagiarism and stolen art work: having jumped on Teststrip and Fiat Luxs bandwagon, the gallery went on to exhibit plenty of Mitchells stolen goods, Steve Carrs paintings of old hard rock album covers, and my own paltry attempts at art forgery. A few months before Re-Animator took place, rm3 had even extended to include a new room: unveiling its new blue walled gallery as Fiat Deux, a direct rip-off of Fiat Luxs gallery of olde. But perhaps it was the future state of affairs that were the most significant factor in rm3s death knoll for Modern Art: though we did not know it then, Re-Animator was (and I wipe a tear from my eye here) one of the last exhibitions rm3 was to host. Perhaps the mass of art-corpses (nature morte?) lying around the gallery space had been the nail in the coffin for rm3s lease above Real Groovy Records: fearing that rm3 was a dangerous cult with doomsday tendencies Real Groovy terminated the lease earlier this year.
The organisers had touted this show as the final rights for 20th Century Art and fittingly it ended up turning into an end-of-season sale: each work included in the exhibition was up for sale for ten dollars and, in the frenzy of red dots that ensued, people were buying art like it was going out of fashion. As Joyoti Wylie performed for the crowds - reciting Dorothy Parker by way of Yoko Ono - the gallery had a whole host of junior art collectors scrambling for the cheap plastic imitations like no one had ever figured that the whole kitsch thing was just so damn early 90s. In an act of supreme generosity, Madden and Mitchell had promised to give all the proceeds from this bargain basement sell-out to the Institute for the Blind; and in an act of supreme hardship rm3 ended up spending all the proceeds on rent. As is so typical of affairs of The Visual Arts, charity and the blind were the losers on the day. But like all good fairytales, everything worked out well in the end: rm3 lived on to bring 21st Century Art to the people of Auckland (for a few shows at least) and 6 months later the Blind Institute were given a big wad of cash to help buy several Braille copies of Log Illustrated.
And despite (or perhaps because of) Madden and Mitchells Last Rites for Modernism, there have been several more recent sightings of 20th Century Art. Like the yeti and Elvis, Modern Art still seems to be alive and well, enjoying a happy place in the 21st Century.
Nicholas Spratt is a co-founder of the Auckland artist-run space, rm212.