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March 20, 2016 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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What happens when an artist dies? Do we keep their texts?

Panel Discussion: When Artists Die (Thursday, March 10, City Gallery Wellington)

Panelists: Marie Shannon (partner of the late Julian Dashper), gallerist Gary Langsford, curator Kendrah Morgan, commentator Jim Barr, Len Lye Foundation director Evan Webb, and chaired by City Gallery chief curator Robert Leonard.

(In association with Julian Dashper & Friends, on till the 15th of May 2016)

 

Julian Dashper is a New Zealand art hero. He is an artist’s artist. He passed in 2009, aged 49, leaving a huge body of work to his partner Marie Shannon and their son. His status, alongside the City Gallery’s exhibition of his work—Julian Daspher & Friends, was the provocation for chief curator Robert Leonard to host the poignant conversation.

Marie Shannon spoke about organising and simultaneously restoring the studio of Julian, so as to catalogue his valuable work, but also with the need for it to stay the same—a memorial of sorts. Her perspective was personal, a reflection on both methods of cataloging, and methods of grieving. These are echoed in her work What I Am Looking At, currently showing at the City Gallery and the Dowse.

The audience asked about artists letters: is it right for personal communications to be kept, published, and shown posthumously? I thought it would be an easy question, but apparently, it is more complex. There are many fields to consider: the art market, as well as its relationship to research—art history, archiving, and preservation. Jim Barr spoke of communications, between him and significant artist friends, that he has donated to Te Papa, which were particularly scathing and ruthless in content. He suggested that there is potential that an artist’s writing, personal or not, could be considered an artwork for art history’s sake. Are letters different than Facebook? Perhaps a perfectly chosen GIF is the new drawing in the margins. I wonder whether screenshots of carefully chosen emoticons will be the new ‘artist letter’, the ‘artist’s texts’.

The climax might have been the enthralling debate between Jim Barr (patron and art blogger) and Evan Webb (Len Lye Foundation director) about whether an artwork was in fact an artist’s work if they hadn’t made it. It was, surprisingly, not what I had expected going into a panel discussion around what happens when artists die. It seemed to be a critique of the Len Lye Foundations’ work in recreating Lye’s artwork from spectualive sketches and drawings made decades before. The question of whether it was ethical to make artist’s work after death, was left hanging, after a stalemate between the panelists.

I find it interesting, in the same way it is interesting that people are infected by the Kardashian Kondition, that the market and culture becomes obsessed by artists to the point that a letter to their friend becomes important history. Maybe it is important. Maybe it is context that can provide insight into how artists were thinking politically or culturally. Or maybe it is just superfluous personal debris… in the end the market decides what becomes cultural capital. According to the one gallerist on the panel Gary Langsford, if the market wants Len Lye’s pants, then Len Lye’s pants they will have.

On every topic, including the more personal ones, it was hard for the panel to reach a consensus. The artist, the person, isn’t around anymore. So there is no way we could ever know whether their intention was lived up to or not. Which crumpled piece of paper was art, and which was a crumpled piece of paper. Some people might think they have the answers, but in the end the decisions made after an artists living years, are no longer theirs, and cannot be claimed as one. It would be silly to believe that they could ever be the perfect decisions, or anything more than a replica of what they may have done. Like any death, we just make the decisions we can—right or wrong.

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