As an art exhibition, this one is slightly peculiar: a room
containing, what seems to be, seven public street signs, and
over the gallery's public address system, a recital of seven
very short stories. The signs look odd and don't make much
sense by themselves, but if you hang around and concentrate,
you'll find that what you are listening to are like fables,
grim but funny little yarns that have a twist and to which
perhaps you might look for guidance. As concise accounts of
small town tragedies, these modern cautionary tales serve
as pointed anecdotes recounting bizarre events that usually
lead to somebody's demise. But unlike normal anecdotes, which
usually tell you who the protagonists were and where certain
dramatic events occurred, these sparse accounts reveal the
writer's persistent avoidance of any proper name that might
identify a person or place.
It is not as if the artist has a great loathing of providing
a pleasurable text and only wants to use the bare bones of
structure to reluctantly convey the narrative. On the contrary
the writing here is not flat but vividly descriptive, and
evocative of life in small regional communities. Rather it
is as if the anecdotal is made bearable by 'numbing down'
the action, and any names that might locate the events in
an identifiable context are eliminated. You might even think
that by not including references to specific geographies or
social histories, the writer would be pitching for the universal,
using a tone like that of an informal newspaper report but
describing occurrences that create empathy and emotions understood
by all people everywhere. That he would be using anonymity
for that reason, to heighten that effect.
However I think that if you look closely at Clegg's history
of projects in art museums you'll realize that labeling and
classification by institutions or individuals are his major
preoccupations. In this Manawatu show, by exhibiting wall
signs in conjunction with stories that omit proper names,
he explores a theme first initiated in Collection [Disorders]
in Te Papa's 1994 Art Now exhibition. On that occasion
he attached incongruous labels quoting newspaper stories to
kitchen utensils that were hanging off the gallery wall. In
To Collect or Exchange [Govett-Brewster Art Gallery
1996] he sorted out and catalogued items he had exchanged
with the public for his own printed postcards
and displayed them in vitrines according to the choice of
card, while in recent Museum of Noname Objects installations
in the Waikato Museum of Art and History  and Sarjeant
Gallery , his videos seemed to function as names substituting
for mysterious, visible but out of reach, unnamed items.
In this show Clegg's signs are memory aids for audible but
not seen textual objects. The presence of the sharply designed
wall notices is obvious, but the absence of the spoken naming
words is not. Their lack in the stories seems so natural that
their omission is not immediately apparent. Surnames and placenames
are not needed, and their calculated denial actually enhances
the mood of each piece.
Any more overt ways of omitting them would distract, such
as reciting with pauses or 'underlining' with Victor Borge
style 'phonetic punctuation.' Nor are names replaced with
signifying lowercase letters. Instead the only proper name
used is that of a park called 'noname.' Clegg tells his tales
as if his memory for extraneous detail has failed, but providing
a flowing account of the sequence of events nevertheless.
In his exception's case, he is even succinct enough to explain
the reason for that particular park's [no]name.
Whereas in Collection [Disorders] Clegg used pieces
of string to fasten his labels to kitchen tools, in Professional
Man that string has been replaced by a kind of auditory
ribbon that links the signs on the exhibition walls to the
loudspeakers found throughout the gallery. However the voice
of the reader linking the exhibition's visual components to
the matching tales functions only with the help of the listener
who has to sift through what he or she is hearing, use their
memory to disentangle the yarns, and examine the connections.
There are many. For example, most of the stories feature
a solitary 'professional' man who has a private obsession
that leads to death by misadventure. A similar obsessiveness
is found in the seven signs, which seem designed by kindred
souls who are zealously over civic-minded. Their signmaking
compulsion is so overwhelming that in many instances the results
defy all commonsense. The notice promoting an 'ideal perspective
of an historic facade' is attached to the very same bus stop
that obstructs that view and which caused the death of the
protagonist. A 'Noname' park is given a name. 'Single-handed'
rowers are cautioned against 'unpractised' crossings, but
rowing with one hand invariably results in going in circles.
Note that the wording of the stories themselves is also similarly
contradictory, with the mental and physical deliberately confused.
People who once paused when they noticed the 'waiting man,'
after his disappearance began 'rushing to conclusions.' The
mental visualizations used by an ex-bowler to gain accuracy,
he then regarded as hallucinatory when applied to golf, and
useless anyway due to the height of the ball. However by tilting
his head sideways we are told, he cunningly regained his skill
by removing all 'bias error.'
Such beautifully ambiguous language and semantic shifts enhance
the absurdity of Clegg's accounts, undermining their 'objective'
reportage and diminishing, where pertinent, any sense of calamity,
so they become like violent cartoons. At the same time he
plays with the conventions of gallery display, conjuring up
new 'more extreme' variations as a celebration of their artificiality,
doing so not in a pretentious or dreary way, but enticing
the listener to participate in a sort of goofy comprehension
exercise that is highly affective [both tragic and funny]
in its content.
Like many artworks it also works as a reflexive comment on
the intrinsic properties of artworks in general, particularly
the relationship of objects to the textual commentaries that
guide us in our search for their intended or other meanings.
Because it makes the gallery visitor listen and not read,
it provides the bonus of opening up other pleasures beyond
the eye, pleasures that may occur in one's inner mental 'ear'
anyway while reading, but which here are exploited directly.