Some art exhibition somewhere - John Hurrell

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 [1998] and Sarjeant Gallery [1999], 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.