Every now and again there is an exhibition that is a landmark, one that gives you your bearings, tells you where you are. Sort of sums up a time and a place.
In March 2001, a poorly-designed photocopied leaflet was distributed widely around the South Island and, via e-mail, spammed worldwide to key members of the arts community. Claiming to advertise an exhibition of a large corporate collection, the leaflet, bearing not only a fabricated corporate identity for the collective Arps/ Kelaher/Associates, but also for the Blue Oyster Arts Trust (whose gallery was the venue for the exhibition), S*W*A*B studios, a non-existent advertising agency, and wealthy benefactor, the Paul Johns Foundation.
Claiming that the exhibition "focuses on emergent trends in late 20th Century corporate décor", the Office/Space leaflet was at once honest and dishonest. Whilst opening up a space for itself as a kind of mini-retrospective, which to an extent was true, Office/Spaces claim to corporate décor was somewhat of a chimera, framing it as an exhibition of discrete works of art. In actuality Office/Space was comprised mainly of fragments and remnants from installational works, far from complete in themselves as presented in the exhibition.
Office/Space presented history as fragment, as relic, as raw material rather than as museological fiction. But while Arps/Kelaher/Associates reference to corporate décor in its advertising leaflet relegated the work in Offices/Space to the status of physical object, it also drew connections between shared aesthetics and concerns, a certain minimal aesthetic, a propensity for fabricated corporate identity and a tendency towards the environmental over the contained.
Taking on the polyglot aesthetics of a bankruptcysale, Office/Space was an installation that spoke with many voices. These many voices, of artists practising in the area within the given time, spoke to each other in unexpected ways. One of the most interesting conversations was that between the work of perhaps the shows most established artist and the work of the most emerging.
This Doctor was astounded by the aesthetic and conceptual similarities between the work of one Peter Robinson (currently representing New Zealand at the Venice Biennale) and that of one Escher Kelaher (included in the show because of nepotism on behalf of one of the Associates - Escher recently started school). Both employed a certain faux naivety (to varying degrees of faux), and both had strategic approach that is evidenced in the directness with which they work. Strategy is important here, and both artists used strategy to different degrees of success. Kelaher was perhaps the more successful, having managed to use nepotism to its full potential, having now managed to gain a lengthy exhibition history before the age of six.
His work, Pirate Ship, was deftly assembled from a cardboard tube, a box that used to contain a vacuum cleaner and a hand drawn skull and cross bones flag, combining references to everyday domesticity with the rebellious potential of piratical fantasy. More try-hard in comparison is Robinsons work, Radio, which had similar raw qualities, but the phantasy this time was one of high-rolling art-superstardom, a bulky mocking of the eighties mobile telephone. In Office/Space, it was presented upside-down, revealing for the first time Radios hollow metallic core.
Working towards an ultra-democratic, lowest-common-denominator style of curation, the collective Arps/Kelaher/Associates enabled comparisons and dialogues to be created between artworks whose paths may have never otherwise crossed. Who could have predicted the outstanding success of a virtual collaboration between the younger old-media artist Ben Webb and slightly older old-new-media artist Sean Kerr?
A work of Webbs leant against the wall. The post-it note beside the large, angelic looking photorealistic self portrait (oil on canvas) told us that Webb is the up and coming local version of Julian Schnabel. With pecs. Light emanated from behind the painting, where a gap invited us to look behind. Behind, there were two sets of paintings from a series executed by Kerr both aptly titled double abuse, and arranged so that one set spelt "fuck you, you fuck", while the other "you fuck, fuck you", all illuminated by a single fluorescent tube lying on the floor.
This prefigured a possible response to Office/Space by artists included or not included, or by the audience. While attempting to open up spaces for new readings and possibilities for these artworks in their new context, there is an inherent danger in taking away their authority, autonomy and semiotic stability, of reducing them to base materials, and thus making the exhibition a mere index of the material that other exhibitions are made of.
But to be generous, Office/Space functioned as a retrospective in that it recovered works that had been exhibited in almost every major artist-run initiative in the South Island in the previous five years, including work by all the surviving members of the legendary Honeymoon Suite collective, fragments from numerous Oblique projects, High Street Project, Blue Oyster Gallery, CASKO and others. Every work in the show was accompanied by hand written post-it notes outlining lineages and unofficial histories.
Despite seeming to be curated by default according to what could be found within a certain time frame, geographic area and community, Office/Space drew together a diverse body of work, made by over 20 artists within a ten-year time-frame. Work was borrowed, and influential work being unavailable resulted in countless poor imitations of Eff Kooks and James Turrella among others fabricated. In some cases work was even admitted as stolen, without even knowledge of who the artist was, or the works possible value, or lack of, but nonetheless included.
But am I convinced? Office/Space is no landmark exhibition, or rather, it is a landmark that says, "This way to the tip." Formal and thematic lineages mutated, grew and changed in each others company, creating nets and webs rather than clear family trees, all before my eyes. In a show devoid of kineticism, nothing stayed put. The numerous charts and graphs that map the progress of art history must be in steep decline. As a doctor, I have to wonder about the conservation practices of a corporation that presents history as a mutating contingency. How do they sleep at night?
Dr Bruce Jenner is a veteran of numerous fitness machine instruction videos including the notorious "Powertraining Basics" with his wife Kriss. He currently lives in LA, where his work for Guthy Renker continues.