The emergence out of the winter hibernation in Christchurch was fittingly
accompanied by a lively bunch of installations called the Casko series.
This was facilitated by David Hatcher and staged at a disused industrial
fridge space called The Chiller. The venue was a poky little hovel, aptly
claustrophobic and far removed from the white-stained sanctums which
customarily legitimate art. The series itself marked an encouraging trend
where younger artists are initiating projects outside the confines of
government-funded institutions. Of necessity, one could say.
Anyways, during September every Thursday The Chiller became an exceptional spot
for sucking on a few Absoluts and checking out the latest offering from the CASKO kids.
Unfortunately, it took me a couple of weeks to locate the spot tucked down an
alley-way off High Street, and since the fare changed weekly and each show ran
for only three days, it was a fleeting and somewhat ephemeral affair.
My version of the play kicked off with the work of photographer Maria
Walls. Her installation unfolded in parts as the viewer moved through the
idiosyncratic spaces of the gallery. Each part used appropriated images, largely
of female nudes drawn from black and white movies. These were variously set to
confound the role of the voyeur. The central section, for example, in a space
lit by fluorescent lights and sporting formica walls, a series of "pin-ups" were
scattered willy-nilly round the place. These were A4 photocopies of computer
manipulated images of various female nudes which were gaffer-taped to the wall.
This casual presentation, and the burned-out images themselves, eschewed the
pin-up as a glossy seductress. Rather, the convention, played out in repetition,
was highlighted as a construction which serves the expectation of the viewer/voyeur:
an expectation thwarted by these banal and indistinct descriptions of the body.
In another room, a small surveillance mirror glared down from the corner of the
room as a manic siren removed and replaced her top on a T.V. monitor. Rather
than titillation, the atmosphere was somehow fraught as if the viewer had been
caught in the act of spying.The silent movie siren was moved back into the realm
of the virginal maiden at her toilet, as the ideological frame which supplies
us with our brief for viewing shifted into view.
If Walls's installation played on the clinical horror of the Chiller space, Michelle
Wise's work drew upon its seedier aspects. On the floor of the meat fridge
lay a foul mattress into which water was being pumped which produced a disheartening
wet patch. Again, the viewer felt privy to a private interior space which recalled
the body itself as an unstable system of seepages as well as a site of desire.
It had a lonely and somewhat unseemly aspect of private yearning made shameful
by an intruder's, or society's, gaze. In another room a vast sheet cascaded from
an extractor fan and fell down towards a drainage hole. This waterfall was accompanied
by the sound of trickling water which was in fact produced by the water pumping
in the other room, so was occurring in real time. This sensory play allowed a
cleansing aspect to emerge. While the white bed linen offered a sense of transcendence,
it was a purification rite contained by shame and sacrifice. This containment
opened a pathway from the religious to the mental institution, such that aspects
of control, repression and coercion were seen to impinge on the fluid and indefinable
nature of the (absent) body. Like all of the artists in the series that I managed
to get a look at, Wise's installation drew on simple means to transfom the space
in order to re-invent our relationship to everyday objects.
The clammy seediness of The Chiller, which Walls's and Wise's installations seemed
to hint at, was provocatively laid bare by Vanessa
Jack. She managed to deconstruct the space entirely by stripping the walls
and cutting out rectangular holes through which the urban landscape outside could
be imaged. Underneath the lining on the walls emerged a curious readymade "landscape" of
dank growths which were both repellant and beautiful: enough to make your skin
crawl but pretty as a willow tree. By allowing the outside space to impinge on
the interior, Jack asked us to consider both the banality of the urban landscape,
but also the viewer's, or artist's ability to make it to conform to a desired
aesthetic, contingent on our personal perspective. On the contrary, both "landscapes" were
momentary and existed in a state of flux. The artist could be considered an arcaeologist
of sorts, but the ephemeral artwork refused any scientific logic. The evocative
series of connections which the show conjured was typical of all the works in
this series. Unlike Signs of the times, which is on in Wellington as I write,
the smart young things weren't forced into a frame which made them look like
The CASKO artists, as Vanessa Jack's installation succinctly demonstrated,
were allowed an opportunity to energise an urban space and heighten our experience
of the everyday, and moreover, to refigure the conventional frame provided for
art. On the other hand, Signs of the Times duly demonstrated the strictures
placed on artists by the institutional stamp of approval. The show started promisingly
enough. To pass through to its innards, the viewer had to negotiate a screen
of red PVC strips, like a giant-sized butcher's door, which was a work by Anton
Parsons called Jamb (1997). Though one could neatly extrapolate, among
other associations, the gallery as a site of commercial transaction from this
piece, the tone quickly turned from wit to solipsism (lambs to the slaughter?).
This was exclaimed by the hideous pink and orange logo provided by the City Gallery
for the show, and the wall panel proclamation (in unreadable but supposedly "funky" font ,
accompanied by a liberal smattering of e-mail ">>" signs) which
spoke of `...a new generation of media savvy artists' who `testify to a new cultural
spirit'. Rather patronising and spookily avant-garde I should say. Gavin Hipkins
must have known that something was awry: he wisely, if a little reticently, chose
to have his enormous photographic work, The Track, unlit. His motif, evidently,
was inspired by the Berlin `36 and Munich `72 Olympic Games stadiums: a resolute
site for reconnaissance considering the make-up of the show.
It was not as if the works themselves promoted any kind of defining style or
approach. However, the artists chosen seemed to fit into the fairly conventional
modes of sculpture, painting and photography, and consequently the show, superficially
at least, seemed fairly well-mannered. Where, for example, were the video or
computer-based works, the performances, the installation work and/or other ephemeral
modes...that is, works which offer the possibility of engaging with or challenging
the authorising frame of the museum?
Parson's work, reminiscent of the flyscreens used in supermarkets, was unwittingly
apt if we take the artists here to be branded or barcoded. This was unfortunate
as the show clearly contained interesting work. For example, when I first viewed
Jim Speers's series of lightboxes as the installation Cigarettes and Real
Estate at the Manawatu Art Gallery in June, they seemed edgy: banal yet compelling,
beacons for the listless eye. Perhaps this was because at the Manawatu the works
were placed in a darkened gallery of their own, and thus were given space to
respire. These are the strongest works this artist has produced, to my mind.
But here in the bright lights of Signs of the Times, they were stuck on
a wall, jammed next to Kirsty Gregg's cushions (Softening the Blow), and
left to perspire as they took on their new, (sychophantic) role as lollies for
It was as if each artist was merely quoted, and signs the works became. But not
signs to challenge or evoke but rather transferable objects sanctioned by the
corporate frame of the gallery, and this was their signature.
Really, the title of the show said it all, and begged the advice: early `80s
retro is soooo 1989. But remember, kids, that old maxim, "it'll look good
on ya CV".