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March 7, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Letters to the Students of Radiant Life

The School of Radiant Living was a holistic movement in the mid-twentieth-century that was based on principles of nutrition, spirituality and physical well-being.

Louise Menzies’ work being exhibited at the Adam Art Gallery, Letters to the Students of Radiant Life, is the Auckland-based artist’s response to the archived material from the School, held at Victoria University Library’s J.C. Beaglehole Room. The School’s disciples were primarily responsible for their own self-education, operating independently within the larger collective. Menzies explores the role of the individual within a community, as well as the possibilities of alternative education systems.

The installation is based around a short film, showing a naked woman performing a set of exercises. The balcony she stands on is at the Havelock North house where the School’s headquarters was based. Banners printed with advertisements for the School of Radiant Living also hang in the gallery. Louise gave a performative lecture accompanying the installation, which acted as both a history lesson and an insight into her own creative process. To end the project, a publication will be launched in Wellington in May. Salient spoke to Louise about the teachings of the School of Radiant Living and her installation.

We mostly want to talk about what we’ve got in the Adam Art Gallery at the moment, which focuses on the School of Radiant Living. What was it about the school specifically that attracted you to work it into your art?

The School of Radiant Living, for me, is a really interesting example of these kinds of alternative social histories, which I’m more generally interested in and have kind of focussed in on a couple of recent projects. I was particularly interested in the way the School of Radiant Living presented itself as a school. I was really interested in the way that it tried to take on these quite practical proposals for self-education and I find the way it tried to build a collective platform for exploring the individual quite meaningful. I was really intrigued by how prominent it had been at the time and how it had really disappeared from most accounts of 20th century New Zealand history.
It sort of worked like a retreat. There were actually like twelve schools around the country. You would go and meet at these halls and have classes but it was based a lot on home study and texts that you would work on as a personal course. That’s a really interesting aspect of it to me; that it was more about the individual than the group.

Your work could be seen at a super-ficial level as a creative way of documenting the history of the School of Radiant Living but obviously you want to do something more than that—what sort of narrative or message are you looking to give us with what you’ve chosen to show?

For me, the work is not a documen-tation and the film is purely an imaginative response to aspects of the school. It’s been a great discussion point around the show, like what we understand documentary to be and how we tend to consider history and the treatment of the past; I quite firmly believe I haven’t created a documentary response. With the film I was really interested in how the body could express history but through a contemporary moment. Some people mistake it for found footage. I think I was really interested in trying to generate some ambiguity around how we relate to material from the past. I’ve just been working from documents—publications and mostly print ephemera and some sound recordings that exist from the school and I think it’s a really interesting question: what do you take from that material and when history is at its most documentary is that actually objective anyway? I think that responses to actual events are always reflecting the author in some way.

Is this the first time you’ve worked with film?

This is the first film I’ve made… I was really interested in what the medium could bring to the framework of the project… what the material could express. The presence of film is something I wanted to give to the gallery. I like how film at once speaks about the past because it’s become a more antiquated material, and also how it instantly talks about time and place in a far more specific way than video does.. I’m interested in the truth value of film.. I don’t necessarily propose that a filmic image is more truthful than a digital image but I’m interested in how it touches on that through its materiality.

What relation do the upcoming book and the lecture have to the exhibition?

I guess I was interested in how those particular forms—film, publication and a lecture—are educational. The publication is going to be out in May and that will conclude the project for me. The lecture is a really interesting chance to talk and present questions and aspects of the work that can’t find expression in the installation in the book. In a way, I’ve used those forms quite discretely to deal with different points of the research.

They’re all contributing to an overall experience and this seems to be something that is common in previous works—is the idea of the overall experience quite important to you?

I hope that the work has a couple of entry points… I think generally, for me as an artist, when you make work it always seems like a proposition or a proposal for people. I don’t really have any expectation on how someone can or will experience the work. I’ve been really enjoying thinking about the school as a kind of proposal and for me a great opportunity to show this work at the Adam was how it is an educational site; we’re in a kind of school. I feel quite interested in the question of the politics of education and of history and think that maybe reissuing some of this material and responding imaginatively to the history of this quite unusual, alternative school might oppose the context of a very official location like a university.

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