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April 3, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Seeing is believing

I like Terry Urbahn’s crumbly plaster sculptures. He made one at Enjoy towards the end of last year, complete with turrets and precarious candles that I was convinced were going to burn the place down. They made me think of Gormenghast: spirals and caverns and forgotten places; I found myself wanting to shrink down and walk around inside them. There are two in the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery (part of the City Gallery) at the moment. Although it would have been nice to walk around in them, they do look great in their little alcove, the light making the twigs cast ghostly shadows on the wall.

They are part of Urbahn’s piece Twin Peaks (revisited), which I immediately felt close to, given its reference to David Lynch’s bizarre yet compelling TV series. Perhaps these are apt adjectives for Urbahn’s own work, bizarre yet compelling. As is the case here, his work is often accompanied by jarring guitar music. Sitting on haphazardly painted speakers this work revels in the trashy and the DIY; it makes no excuses for its appearance. It is accompanied by a photograph of the artist sitting in a Buddha like pose in front of one his own plaster sculptures. I’m not sure how these two elements work together; the placement of the photo across the room from the sculptures was confusing and they didn’t seem able to communicate with each other.

The artist sits cross-legged, complete with aviators and a decidedly hippyish wig of long hair. He is backed by one of his own mystically glowing creations. The artist here is shown almost as a worshipper of his own art. Like Frankenstein, the creator is in abeyance of his own misshapen offspring. I think this plays around nicely with our idea of the artist as a singular author of his or her own work. Here, Urbahn presents himself not as creator – but rather a conduit for some sort of bizarre (but also willfully cheeky) supernatural force.

Urbahn makes up one third of the show, entitled Smoke Signals. Accompanying him is another Wellington artist, Murray Hewitt, and his video work Burnings. The video shows a figure, shrouded in a white robe reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, setting fire to a small set of rugby posts. Next to the video are the remnants of this endevour: the robe, shoes, and blackened stick. These are laid out tidily as items of evidential value, they seem to corroborate that the event took place in the absence of the artist himself. This work plays on this presence and absence. The figure (who I assumed to be the artist, perhaps foolhardily) is there in the video: we can see him, but his white cloak hangs empty and sack-like on the wall. The artist appears to be once again distancing himself from his work – this robe, with its masking hood, could indeed be filled by anyone.

The video also shows a drive-by shot from a car. Gliding past, the viewer becomes voyeur to this suburban inferno. Much like the keyhole photo of Urbahn, the viewer is implicated as almost predatory, prying into a personal and meditative act. Here again the artist is subservient to his art. The robed figure stands back in awe of the monumentally blazing goal posts, then slinks off defeated into the night.

Finally, Gavin Hipkins makes up the trio of Wellington-based artists in the show. On display are three photographs from Hipkins’ New Age series. These are photographs of places in Auckland and Northland, overlaid with photograms of jewellery, lace and beads. I really wanted to see more of these works. The way in which they were hung left the space feeling empty and I would have liked to see how they worked together as a collection. However, the Hirschfeld is small, and space dictates a higher level of efficiency in selection.

Hipkins’ landscapes are unpopulated and moody. These dark scenes are startlingly interrupted by the overlaid white of the beads. Heather Galbraith, Senior Curator at the City Gallery, has made the connection between the technique that Hipkins employs and the pseudo-scientific practice of photographing ‘ectoplasm’ in the 1920s and 30s. This trick purported to prove a psychic’s powers by showing white vapors emanating from their body (kind of like in The Sixth Sense where the photographs of the young boy always have a white flash near him). There is suggestion then that Hipkins is questioning photography’s claim to be an accurate record. History shows that techniques can be manipulated so that any ‘truth’ can be revealed.

Again, I felt that the artist was exploring this idea of the public and private. In Terry Urbahn’s and Murray Hewitt’s works we are witness to acts of meditation, of some kind of personal experience – even if, in Urbahn’s case, this is with tongue firmly in cheek. Here, in the work of Gavin Hipkins we see very public space, fields and parks overlaid with startlingly personal belongings. The beads and lace are very Victorian: I thought of rustling Victorian women, all ruffles and trimmings and smelling salts. Hanna Scott has written about The Sanctuary, a closely related body of work, “There is something almost prudish in this politely concealed eroticism, something titillating, a secret code of exchange.” It is this use of personal items, eerily intrusive on stoical New Zealand landscapes, that animates this collection
of photographs.

This show explores the territory of mysticism and the problems inherent in its documentation. My favourite part of the show is the drive-by shot in Murray Hewitt’s work, Burnings. This moment is truly creepy in its conflation of a strange religious ritual, immediately associated with Southern America, with the all too familiar background of New Zealand weatherboard state housing. As with all the works in this small show, Hewitt seems to be dealing with the continued popularity of quasi-religions, mysticism, the supernatural and the fact that for most people, “seeing is
truly believing.”

Smoke Signal:
Murray Hewitt, Terry Urbahn,
Gavin Hipkins
Michael Hirschfeld Gallery
17 March – 17 April

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