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Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work

Nick Archer

Visual Arts


Adam Art Gallery
24 March-13 May

During a recent art exhibition drought I popped along to Adam Art Gallery and caught the tail end of the excellent Darcy Lange video art exhibition. Most of you have had a chance to check it out as you walk past the gallery everyday. But for those who were either too busy or lazy to ever go in – Shame on you! It is your gallery, so make sure you at least make one visit during your studies. You may be impressed with how good it actually is.
The exhibition from 24 March-13 May, “Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work” was the first major exhibition to survey the work of this New Zealand artist. It featured works of film, video and photography produced over his extensive career, with particular emphasis on his ground-breaking video and film work of the 1970s.
Darcy Lange (1946-2005) was an early adopter of portable video cameras starting with the 1/2 inch open reel format and progressing to Umatic cassette Portapacs. He grew up near Uenui north of New Plymouth and his early work had a rural theme which included studies of the Waitara Freezing Works and Ruatoria Sheep Farming.
Lange studied at the Elam School of Fine Arts between 1964 and 1967, developing a body of hard-edge abstract sculptures. In 1968 he left New Zealand to further his studies in sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London. However, after graduating in 1971, he abandoned sculpture and fell in love with film, video and photography.
To further develop his craft he then went on to work in England, Spain and the USA before returning to New Zealand in 1974. On his return he staged a video exhibition as part of Auckland City Art Gallery’s Six New Zealand Artists show. During this time he garnered a reputation for his pioneering video work. Lange captured every day activities like people at work in factories, mines, schools, and on farms, who were recorded in real time as they performed their regular tasks.
Celebrated as one of the first artists to use the long take, Lange can be aligned with a range of conceptual artists and filmmakers who sought to explore the structural possibilities of still and moving images. I would put him up there with French New Wave film makers of the 1960’s like Francois Truffaut and Jon Luc Goddard. In the same way they took cheap equipment out onto the streets and took a slice of everyday life, Lange managed to capture a non fictualised and unacted account of reality. Lange differed however from Goddard in the sense that he was not explicit about the political and social effects of what was captured.
Like many artists of his time, Lange’s efforts were not purely formalist as they may appear at first glance. They were directed at developing a socially engaged practice that set out to establish a new relationship between the artist and his subjects. For example, he believed in the communicative power of video, establishing a relationship with his subjects by playing back the material to them while recording their responses. He also explored ways of displaying his works in the gallery with the aim of stimulating the active engagement of the viewer.
The theme of work in his video studies situates Lange in a long lineage of social documentary film and photography. This has its roots in the documentary efforts of American photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration in America in the 1930s; and has its more recent exponent in the film work of Frederick Wiseman, who is Lange’s contemporary. Structurally, however, it is closer in spirit to the work of conceptual artists such as Dan Graham and Michael Snow and critical documentary photographers like Allan Sekula.
On his return to New Zealand Lange continued to produce valuable records of working life, filming workers in various industries, in Taranaki and further afield. He also followed a number of the Maori land protests, treating these to the same objective processes of recording. One of his last series, which he developed in the 1990s, was a suite of video portraits of artists, poets and musicians.
Returning from one of his overseas trips in 1984 Lange also set up Real Pictures Video with Ian McDonald on the first floor of His Majesty’s Arcade in Auckland. From 2000 he filmed the series Artists at Work featuring NZ artists such as Jim Allen, Robin White and Maryanne Muggeridge at work in their studios.
Much thanks must firstly go to Mercedes Vicente the curator of this exhibition whose organistation of the exhibition and public events were excellent. Also kudos to The Film Archive for their extensive collation and resources made available and the Adam Art Gallery itself for showcasing video art which is a neglected medium in terms of gallery settings.
Finally to close the Public program the Adam Art Gallery hosted a panel discussion on Thursday 10 May on the concepts of form, art and documentary as they relate to Darcy Lange’s work. The panel was made up of film historians Roger Horrocks, Lawrence McDonald and Geraldene Peters, and artists Gavin Hipkins and David Cook.
Their discussion focused on the distinctions between documentary film and photography and conceptual art, distinctions that became less defined during the time that Darcy Lange began practicing as a documentary filmmaker, as conceptual art engaged increasingly with social and political concerns, and documentary film interrogated assumptions underlying its practice, including the neutrality of its methods.
One main point covered by the panel that I found interesting is that Lange’s works are very anti-Television. Rejecting the journalistic structure of the five second sound bite, they are long in duration and often are of just one shot. It wasn’t not all about dry and dull topic matters though, as during the question and answer section his coverage of the Bastion Point protests was described as highly emotional and captivating.
Following the panel discussion I asked one of the gallery staff about the current status of the footage. I was told that it is copywrited and since Darcy died in 2005 steps are being made for a trust to take care of his work. The Film Archive has all of the footage and you can go to the multi media plex downstairs at the Film Archive on Taranaki Street to view them.
It is my belief that his works should be put on the internet, even if it’s on Youtube. They are hardly the type of video that could be commodified and it is better that more people see them than have them gather dust in an ancient vault.
The future Darcy Lange’s are out there now walking around with their 3G cell phones and taking video footage of everday life. What better way to honour a pioneer in video art than to use the new media to introduce future generations to his work.