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As the internet lost its shit over Jennifer Lawrence’s leaked nudes, a screenshot of a Daily Mail article emerged on Twitter. It may still be circulating, I can’t be sure. The article, surprisingly enough, contained none of the vitriol one would expect, but rather provided clarification for a pretty commonly used term. ‘The Cloud’, they reminded readers, is not an actual cloud.
Of the four pieces nominated for the 2014 Walters Prize, only one, Simon Denny’s All You Need is Data, translated easily from its initial staging to the Auckland Art Gallery exhibition of nominated works. Even then, Denny’s gauche, post-internet aesthetic hardly seems at home. Perhaps, then, when we speak about New Zealand’s “grandest”, “toughest”, most visible art prize, a caveat might be necessary. What the Daily Mail’s clarification illuminates is the disjuncture between the names we give things, and how we visualise them in spatial terms. More than anything else, the four nominees are united by their positioning of the gallery space as at once peripheral and central to the work. It’s parochial, anachronistic by now, to ask what art is, but when viewed together, from a safe distance, all four works seem to motion towards an examination of where art belongs.
Maddie Leach’s If you find the good oil let us know began in New Plymouth two years ago after Leach stumbled upon what she thought to be 70 litres of whale oil. The substance, it turned out, was mineral oil, and was subsequently used to produce a 2.4-tonne (about the size of a sperm whale) block of concrete, which was dropped into the ocean off the Taranaki coast. Leach, whose work is often site-based and often develops out of research and collaborative engagement, continues to refer to her work as sculpture. In an interview with curator Abby Cunnane, she writes: “my practice employs processes of construction and arrangement, and an interest in materiality and transformation that is allied to a sculptural mode of thinking.” The product of If you find the good oil contains letters written to the Taranaki Daily News (and the Noel Leeming advertisements that run alongside them) and documentations of the events outlined, all archived on Leach’s website. The weakness of the work, and here I am paraphrasing Janet McAllister’s argument published on The Pantograph Punch, is that situating it outside of the gallery does not necessarily mean the work is available to a different (or any) audience. The published letters are impenetrable, the website itself is not easy to navigate. I probably wouldn’t have found it had I not been looking.
Perhaps even more elusive is Luke Willis Thompson’s inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam (2012). Initially presented at Hopkinson Cundy (now Hopkinson Mossman) in Auckland, viewers were first met with an empty gallery. They were then directed outside, and led towards a waiting taxi, which drove them 20 minutes outside of the city to a suburban home. When inside, it soon dawned on the viewer, after examining family photographs, books and letters scattered on the floor that this home belonged to the artist’s family. The gesture is modest, a subtle reimagining of the contemporary public self, and an exercise in endurance and trust that extends beyond the artist himself, to his family, to the dealer with nothing on sale, to the viewer willing to accept what is on offer.
Simon Denny’s work is often invested in the changing ways we process and materialise information. All You Need Is Data, exhibited in Munich and New York, is made up of 89 canvases, merchandise and other paraphernalia from a 2012 technology conference, Digital Life Design. Denny’s work is mounted uneasily, as a chronological document of an exclusive invitation-only conference that concerns itself first with comprehending future technologies and later with utilising them for particular gains. The unity of such a project falls apart under the scrutiny. Deliberately ugly ink-jet printed placards are piled at all angles, mounted on metal piping that guides the visitor through the space, to an eventual dead end. Denny’s work makes itself physically available, certainly more so than the other three nominees, but there is something repellent about it.
In the very staging of an exhibition of the Walters Prize nominees, Auckland Art Gallery highlights the shortcomings of the physical gallery in dealing with contemporary art. Perhaps a caveat is necessary, when the prize’s website states its aim as “to make contemporary art a more widely recognised and debated feature of our cultural life.” What needs to be clarified is where this debate is to take place, and, if all of the nominees are so quick to efface themselves, to make themselves hostile to the viewer, who is invited to take part.
Simon Denny’s The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom opens at Adam Art Gallery, 3 October.
This article is the second in a two-part spotlight on this year’s Walters Prize. For part one, and for our coverage of Simon Denny’s upcoming exhibition, visit salient.org.nz