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March 24, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Topographies

In the late 1830s, when plans of Wellington were being drawn up, the New Zealand Company set aside a belt of green space in the hills around the central city for public use. In 1873, 1061 acres of land was officially gifted to the people of Wellington. Since then, areas have been developed, but a remarkable amount of it has remained intact. Go far enough west, or north, and the city just stops.

Skip ahead 140 years, outside Wellington, outside the Town Belt. Success, in artistic terms, is dependent on who can afford to get attention; who can afford access to institutions, dealers, critics; to fund themselves through unpaid internships. The internet was supposed to moderate this imbalance, the great democratiser of our time. Anyone can register a domain; anyone can, in theory, acquire an audience.

At the end of this year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers will release a number of suffixes, or gTLDs (generic top-level domains), such as .pizza, .sex, and .art. They plan to license individual gTLDs to private companies.

e-flux is an artist-run organisation that publishes a curated newsletter of event listings to around 50,000 subscribers. In their application for control of the .art gTLD, e-flux describes itself as “an established authority in the field of art.” Their proposal for control of the .art domain would allow them to act as gatekeepers, ensuring, so they say, content is “relevant, genuine, and of high quality.” Their plan for the gTLD involves two stages: the first would be to invite a select group of institutions, curators and artists to join. Once .art has established itself as a valuable asset, e-flux will then have discretion over who is allowed in – thus inflating the value by artificially reducing supply.

If this seems unwieldy, that’s because it is. Allow me to claw myself back. The similarity between the Town Belt and .art lies in the ostensible generosity of both proposals. It seems noble now, if one ignores the fact that the New Zealand Company was giving away land that didn’t belong to them, to invest so much in the preservation of an idyll so close to a metropolitan centre. The problem is altruism on this scale doesn’t really exist. Space itself was one of the most potent selling tactics used to encourage early settlers. Consider England the physical art world, with its overcrowding, massive inflation of land prices, and nonexistent access to opportunity. Early Wellington, in all its abundance, in its desire both to emulate and to form for itself a new set of rules, as an attempt to flatten hierarchies. The online landscape can’t reflect the physical because no area of internet real estate is more valuable than others. e-flux’s .art proposal would shift this balance.

Consider space, necessarily, as a site of conflict. Consider many different elements, all in combat for the foreground. Consider these things and you may be able to imagine how Jake Walker’s paintings operate. His current exhibition at City Gallery’s Hirschfeld Gallery (on display until 13 April) features a series of small canvases, some housed in fired-clay frames, accompanied by several sculptures. The paintings seem wrought, almost at odds with their own medium. Black paint is layered on thick and heavy, revealing the possibility of an image underneath, unearthing the process by which the work is made; structures upon structures, cannibalising each other. There’s evidence of Walker’s relationship with the architecture of Ian Athfield (Walker spent long periods of time at the Athfields’ Kilbirnie house as a child), in the protruding geometric shapes, speckled creams and pale blues, the way material elements are in dialogue with their environment, while refusing to synchronise with it. The paintings are produced horizontally, almost built, with a kind of clumsy calculation, with contour lines, peaks and crevasses. They resemble the way the edges of the city are built up, layered, torn down and half built again, with large open spaces for open views – competing for an atmosphere of paradise close to civilisation.

It’s unclear yet whether e-flux will be granted the rights to .art. It may well go to a company completely uninterested in artistic hierarchies. As for Wellington’s Town Belt, it may remain, or Wellington may expand. To speak in defence of it this late, however, is to risk defending by association e-flux’s proposal (since I have relied so heavily on the very tenuous comparison), but there’s comfort found in the understanding that the city is finite. Auckland sprawls. London goes on for days. Walker’s work acts as a meditation on this ceasing: for all the density in his painted landscapes, the ceramics, in their gracelessness, bring the paintings home, situating them in a place more comfortable.

 

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