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March 20, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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21st Century Collecting: Showing Little and Saying Nothing

21st Century Collecting claims to “[raise] provocative questions about the nature of contemporary art practice and the challenges facing those who are its custodians.”
Unfortunately the Adam Art Gallery has fallen victim to its own ‘art-speak’, as the exhibition fails to propose any sufficient answers to these relevant questions, and instead draws attention to the inadequate way in which many of the works included have been displayed.

A significant portion of the artworks included have been seen either at the Adam in the past several years, or around campus as part of the Victoria University Art Collection. The entirely new and not previously exhibited acquisitions are relegated to the lower floors of the gallery, out of sight and out of reach for many new visitors who lack either the time or the courage to explore the gallery’s full depths. Presumably some of these works will be hung permanently on campus in future, but for the purposes of this exhibition, the flipside of what may have been a well-intentioned case of ‘saving the best for last’ means the visitor is greeted with what appears to be a hurriedly recycled mish-mash of old material.

The Congreve Foyer is populated by a Billy Apple, and a ‘Billy Apple'; the first, Billy Apple’s From The VUW Art Collection, is usually found in the University’s Art History department. The painting itself, being relatively small, looks
somewhat out of place on the long wall of the gallery on which it hangs, the entire wall having been painted the requisite red that the artist stipulates.

The second work, With All Kinds of Delays, is by Daniel Malone—who changed his name by deed poll to Billy Apple in 1996. Malone’s preference for this work to be attributed to ‘Billy Apple’ is prevented by the real Billy Apple’s trademark. The work itself consists of a glass brick cast from the shattered remains left when Malone threw a clay brick through the front window
of the gallery in July 2009, immediately after Window Cleaning 27 March 2009. The glass brick is displayed now on a pedestal, next to a television on the ground playing video documentation of the original 2009 act. The choice of display is
awkward, discouraging viewers from watching the full recording, and regular visitors will no doubt be surprised to see the brick again so soon.

Occupying the Upper Chartwell space is another familiar series from last year: John Lake’s The Campus. What made for a lively documentation of campus politics in its first form, shown on many screens with overlapping audio tracks, is here condensed and silenced. This strikes me as a lacklustre effort in capturing the work’s essence. Copies of Student, a revived 1930s student newspaper, make up an integral part of the work, but are dumped unceremoniously around a corner and it isn’t immediately obvious what they are there for.

Downstairs, the darkened Kirk Gallery shows films from Philip Dadson’s Polar Projects series.
recorded during the artist’s 2003 trip to Antarctica, these audiovisual works are powerful visions of an alien landscape, and the Kirk Gallery affords them the space and attention they deserve.

Also represented is Louise Menzies’ Letters to Students of the Radiant Life. Originally consisting of a video performance, lecture and collected ephemera from the archive of the bizarre School of Radiant Living, this work has been presented here as a series of framed documents. The publication which came out of Menzies’ 2010 work, Radiant Living, is trapped in a vitrine and cannot be read. The accompanying poster, a still from the video component of the original work, is not displayed. Very little information about either the School or the original artwork can be derived from this exhibition choice.

The Lower Chartwell gallery space—a wing filled with the Gallery’s newest acquisitions—contains new and exciting art, with which I was not able to spend much time. Large-scale photographs and paintings by Jae hoon Lee and Elizabeth Thomson, among others, are
visually enticing, but they are also the easiest to display. It isn’t clear what “provocative questions about the nature of contemporary practice” these works raise, and they don’t offer the same challenges of preservation and display that performance and video art does. A lack of accompanying documentation and a minimal public programme are not promising signs for finding the answers as to exactly how these works fit in the exhibition, nor for finding satisfying answers to the questions of how best to document and re-stage challenging formats of contemporary art. At best, 21st Century Collecting offers a select introduction to some New Zealand contemporary art practice, but should certainly not be taken as representative and makes no significant contribution of its own.

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