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July 16, 2018 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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No Common Ground

Hard to Handle
Feminism is something that is necessarily impossible to isolate from other matrices of power, but also something that can subsume indigenous modes of being, and methods of resistance, into a narrative that is too general, and thus, reductive. With this in mind, I want to think about a common theme that emerged at the recent No Common Ground symposium, co-organised by the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, The Dowse Art Museum, and Enjoy Public Art Gallery— the use of materiality to escape conventional frameworks of interpretation. No Common Ground explored histories of queer practice, mana wahine, and feminist art, so in my discussion of materials, I don’t want to assume that these are aesthetics of feminist art, but acknowledge that these are more widely used to resist institutional narratives.
Something about innovative materiality can make an artwork hard to handle. Whereas media like painting, photography, and traditional sculpture carry the weight of historical connotations with them, new materials can elude this. What does it mean to be hard to handle though? Something that is slippery and challenging. This is the other part of being hard to handle; a perception that the ideas contained within the physical form of an artwork are too difficult for a public audience. Categorising something as “hard to handle” from an institutional standpoint is dangerous, as it is a way of avoiding responsibility for not creating space for narratives that are not normative and Pākehā.
Materiality is mobile, too. Pieces of detritus come together, snaking along a floor, objects that were meant to be ephemeral, made permanent but still somehow in flux, maintaining an ability to be rearranged, to become invisible, and to disperse. In Embodied Knowledges, currently on at The Dowse, Vivian Lynn’s Lamella Lamina (1983) installation combines architectural tracing paper and residue from Lynn’s methods of processing that involved asphalt, water, and oil pigments, and then the murky and translucent cylindrical forms are held by nylon line. The specificity of Lynn’s medium, created for this work, means that it is not confined by expectations. It can slip between states.
So, maybe mobility is the only thing we have. This kind of contingency of materials can also be seen in the work of Mata Aho Collective, who contributed to a panel at No Common Ground. They use Māori textile techniques and collaboration to produce large scale woven works. Kiko Moana, which was presented at Documenta 14, gets its vivid blue colour from tarpaulin, the kind that would be used to cover a car in a garage or for a hāngi pit. The familiarity of blue tarpaulin in Aotearoa, distinctly outside an art space, and its foreign-ness within it, means that Kiko Moana lets its viewers find their own way in.
Embodied Knowledges is on at The Dowse until 28 October.
The earth looks upon us / Ko Papatūānuku te matua o te tangata is on at Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi until 23 September.
Margins and Satellites is on at Enjoy Public Art Gallery until 4 August.

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