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Oh, the things I have seen…

Thomasin Sleigh

Visual Arts


Well, here we are. We have reached the end of our visual arts odyssey for the year. While on a Sunday I have oft whinged about the writing of Salient, inevitably once I got writing I really enjoyed it. It has made me make the effort to go and see a lot of shows that I wouldn’t normally have got to. And not only go to them, but think about them critically, try to tease them out and explain them for you fullas.
What I really hope is that some people who perhaps had no interest in the visual arts have read one or two of these reviews and enjoyed them. Maybe even felt compelled to go and see the shows themselves, maybe? It is every reviewers dream to inspire and interest their readers.
All the while that I was writing these things I was aware of the fact that the contemporary visual arts are notoriously baffling, frustrating and infuriating for the general public. When most people make the effort to go and see an art exhibition they are often confronted by a confusing array of signs and symbols that they can’t understand and don’t care to decode.
What I hope that I have done this year is untangle these messages for some people, and revealed what I thought some artists were trying to say to their audience. Of course I could have got it completely wrong, there is no way really of saying. I have tried to steer away from being overly critical and dogmatic. Mainly because I’m terrified by the fact that since I live in Wellington, which is really just a little village, I will no doubt bump into the artist that I have torn apart. And not being a confrontational creature, this thought terrifies. But much more constructive I think than to criticize is to try to understand; to try and pull apart and open up art in a way that makes it interesting, stimulating and exciting. I have really tried not to review too many shows that were on at the most well known galleries; Te Papa and the City Gallery, for example. What I wanted to do was reveal the myriad of different art spaces we have in our lovely city, and the plethora of activities that gone on inside them everyday. There are lots of busy people out there and we should appreciate and enjoy the efforts that they go to.
I have sort of measured the quality of the art I have been to see by the amount I amiable to write about it and the level that I am able to engage with it. I normally have to have some time to let a show gestate inside my head, let it settle and move around a little bit. Then, suddenly, things become clearer and easier to understand, and I am able to think of ways to attack the work; ways to get into it and take it apart, and make it more interesting for the reader. Occasionally this isn’t the case and I can write immediately and quickly, the work stimulates all these ideas, and the more I get writing, the more ideas come and the more I can’t stop myself.
Sian Torrington’s work at ROAR! Gallery was a case of this. It was one of the earliest reviews that I wrote and, I was so excited about the installation, entitled It’s a jungle in there, that once I started thinking about this show and the issues that the artist was raising I almost couldn’t stop. I realize that review was quite long. Sorry. I liked the delicacy and control that Torrington exercised; the careful maps of paper that crept across the walls made me feel like I was in a storybook. Most interesting though, was the artist’s use of negative and positive space, and the distortions that she imposed on her material.
Space was also distorted in one of my other favourite shows of the year, Peter Trevelyan’s work Persevertron at the Engine Room in Massey University. Trevelyan’s bizarre monolith stood alone in the middle of the empty room. Mirrors were arranged carefully within the object to extend and manipulate its inner space. You could put your arms and head in, and your body was repeated off into infinity. Not only was the space of the object itself distorted, but the viewer’s own sense of balance and personal space was fractured. This work extended out from its own physicality and impinged on that of its audience; commenting on and examining our spatial perceptions and awareness of our bodies.
What else, what else? Video work that has interested and excited me this year: Murray Hewitt’s work Burnings, which was in the show Smoke Signal at the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery earlier in the year. This piece stayed with me long after I had seen it. Its sense of disquiet and unease played on my mind. Hewitt, whose piece in Performance Week I wrote about last week, is an artist interested in the visual language of Southern America and American consumerism. This work depicted a figure, dressed in garb reminiscent of the Klu Klux Klan, lighting a set of goal posts in what seemed to be suburban New Zealand.
The work was a mass of contradictions and layers of visual vocabulary. “Goal posts = rugby = New Zealand.” “White sheets = KKK = America.” These elements struggled against each other and animated the work for me. The use of the video medium was also salient. (Ed- Wicked bad pun Thomasin! Quite a salient way to end your Salient year, wouldn’t you say?). We could watch in real time the monumental flaming of the goal posts. The use of video also heightened the feeling of voyeurism, as we drove past, spying on this apparently personal ritual.
There are several other artists and shows I have enjoyed; Douglas Crane’s video work at Aaron Laurence Gallery, and Regan Gentry’s piece Common Cold in Islanded at the Adam Art Gallery have stayed with me for a while and were exciting to write about. Len Lye’s Water Whirler down on the waterfront is a great piece of public art for Wellington. I think it is working again after some vandals attacked it. Nice one guys.
Finally, I would like to say thank you to my few contributors, Pippin Barr, Emma Prendergast, and Will Robertson who have all written for the page and their contributions were greatly appreciated. It is nice to have different perspectives and writing styles to mix things up a little bit. So there you have it. Art in Welly. Suck it up.