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But is it art?

May 26, 2015 Art

In May, artist Simon Denny will represent New Zealand at the world’s most prestigious art show, the Venice Biennale. Some claim he’s a genius. But others say his selection shows the art cognoscenti are out of touch with the public, who are funding the exhibition. Mike White explores why art is so controversial in New Zealand, and why so many remain so cynical about it.

By Mike White. This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of North & South magazine.


A man with a Scandinavian accent is droning on. Droning on about beds and how his exclusive mattresses are made from horse-hair, flax, wool and slowly grown pine from the north of Sweden.

“You yourself are part of nature – then what is more natural than sleeping in it.”

He might as well be wearing a white coat and administering a vial of Mogadon, such is the sonorous calm of his sentences.

All this is coming from a video screen in Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery, where Simon Denny’s exhibition The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom is installed.

Evidently, Dotcom was cossetted on one of these Hästens mattresses each night, before the cops raided his house and all his nights turned sleepless.

The gallery’s walls are covered with large canvases depicting the items confiscated from the German’s Coatesville castle: lots of cars, lots of stuff to do with bank accounts. Spray-painted over some of these are the huge face of Dotcom, his wife, Mona, and gun-aiming cops. There’s a mannequin dressed in a black hoodie and Van sneakers; an engine block; three toy cars; lots of number plates running up a wall; bags of shredded money; a jetski; and newspaper cuttings of the raid.

A woman at the desk says it’s been one of their most popular shows, and that would be in keeping with Denny’s profile as the country’s hottest artist. But what was the show really about – beyond being a symbolised inventory of Dotcom’s possessions?

“This exhibition exemplifies the artist’s critical and creative responses to the contested space of the media-sphere,” explains the gallery’s website. “Denny’s exhibition entails a dynamic slippage between information, images and objects. His aim is to see what happens when the logic that functions on the internet is sourced and applied to exhibition making and thus to complicate too-easy distinctions between image and function, original and copy. In focusing on Dotcom’s case, which perfectly bridges these domains, he also sets out to question the nature of property, seeking to engage what he calls, ‘the most important legal discussions of the moment’, which concern the testy relationships between intellectual property and creative copyright, consumer products and consumers’ rights, access to information and the individual’s right to privacy.”
The Scandinavian man’s voice echoes through the gallery. Somewhere in Sweden, pine trees grow slowly.


During an interview with North & South last year, painter Grahame Sydney accused those running New Zealand’s art galleries of living in a highbrow world divorced from the public.

“They appear to be talking to themselves, rather than to anyone else. They consider themselves arbiters of taste and judges of what the contemporary art world ought to contain – what people should be taking an interest in.”

The result was an adherence to the avant-garde that left gallery-goers utterly adrift. “So much is so esoteric, so extreme and so bewildering to so many.”

There are numerous examples that easily bolster Sydney’s view. Ten years ago, New Zealand’s entry to the Venice Biennale was The Fundamental Practice by et al, where “computer generated voices articulated extremist texts from within crudely constructed APUs (Autonomous Purification Units) resembling outhouses or sentry boxes”, in what became known as the “braying dunny” controversy.

In 2009, Dane Mitchell won the Waikato Contemporary Art Award and $15,000 for Collateral, which was a pile of rubbish taken from the discarded wrapping of other entries.

In 2009, Dane Mitchell won the Waikato Contemporary Art Award and $15,000 for Collateral, which was a pile of rubbish taken from the discarded wrapping of other entries. Berlin-based Mitchell hadn’t even arranged the rubbish – he’d just instructed Waikato Museum staff to tip it on the floor. (His entry fared better than a similar exhibit at the Tate Britain gallery in 2004 which was thrown out by a cleaner.)

Last year’s Walters art award finalists included Denny, who arranged canvases of presentations from a technology conference; Maddie Leach, whose work centred on a block of concrete dumped off Taranaki’s coast; and Tongan artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, who lived rough for three months near Auckland Art Gallery.

The jury selecting the finalists said they were the most outstanding contributions to New Zealand art in the past two years. The artists had produced works “that prove art’s traction as a means to engage the social, economic, cultural, technological and environmental realities we collectively face. Each project demonstrates a conceptual grasp of the legacies of art’s recent history and a commitment to modes of presentation that challenge expectations and shift attention away from objects to processes and situations. They are willing to test the boundaries of self and society and to question just where art begins and ends.”

The winner was Luke Willis Thompson’s inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam, which saw gallery-goers led to a taxi that took them to Thompson’s suburban house where they were left to wander.

Thompson said his work “operates axiomatically, no amount of ‘difference’ is explained or accounted for – what you get as an audience to the work is nothing more than a material testimony”.

He won $50,000, a trip to New York, and the chance to exhibit at Saatchi & Saatchi’s world headquarters. Judge Charles Esche, an English curator and writer, described Thompson’s work as an “exceptional artistic experience”.

“Anticipation, uncertainty, uneasiness and privilege all play their emotional part in charging a sense of personal displacement. Questions multiply in the process. Is this being done for me? Do I deserve it, or even want it? How do I need to react? And these questions linger because of the way the work is constructed, its formal qualities to speak in art critical terms, require a commitment in time and thought. Once you agree to take part, you cannot but engage and be implicated into its aesthetics.”

Esche said all four finalists had “great presence, even in their relative absence”. And in doing so he almost goaded the conclusion that these works were little more than contemporary art’s version of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

That reaction came quickly, including from one of the country’s best-known art critics, Hamish Keith, who called the awards an insult to Gordon Walters, the artist after whom they are named. “I think this Walters Prize has pushed the boundaries beyond common sense, beyond credibility, and really it has made a hoax, a joke, out of the whole affair.”


In the recent film Mr. Turner, about 19th-century British artist Joseph Turner, art critic John Ruskin com­ments: “There is no place for cynicism in the reviewing of art.” But events like the Walters Prize and Venice Biennale remain riven with scepticism and scorn. And there’s a sense that, as in The Emperor’s New Clothes, an elite is claiming to see things others can’t because they’re “hopelessly stupid”.

Christina Barton, director of Adam Art Gallery which exhibited Simon Denny last year, and one of the panel who chose the Walters Prize finalists, says these artists aren’t trying to con the public. “Artists are often trying to grapple with contemporary conditions and what it means to live in the world today. So they defamiliarise, they make things strange, and that makes us think and that’s when we gain insights.”

Beauty came into any art experience, but was completely arbitrary. “Don’t tell me a picture of a bunch of flowers painted in oil paintings is necessarily the definition of art,” Barton says, with rising irritation. “It never was.”

“Often these lines are actually drawn by people like yourself, the media, who constantly reiterate old arguments and draw those battle lines in a really unhelpful way.” – Christina Barton, director of Adam Art Gallery.

Unfortunately, debate about contemporary art is frequently oversimplified and becomes polarised, she says. “Often these lines are actually drawn by people like yourself, the media, who constantly reiterate old arguments and draw those battle lines in a really unhelpful way.”

But surely the media merely reflect public sentiment?

“That’s a question you’d have to ask yourselves.”

Barton claims a pernicious tone pervades arts reporting, citing Wellington newspaper the Dominion Post for taking a “violently anti-the-visual-arts” approach (though the example she gives is the decade-old et al debate), and suggests we are more exposed to “uninformed viewpoints” than in other countries.

But she accepts criticism of contemporary art is inevitable “and we have a responsibility to try to bridge that gulf between people who naysay what we do. I’d not want to come across as arrogant in defending a high ground – at the same time as I’d never retreat from it, either. And what we need to do is expose and educate people to the very best of what’s going on, in order to enable them to participate.”

But when the criticism is from someone like Grahame Sydney, can you dismiss it as uneducated?

“Grahame Sydney is living in a time warp, I’m afraid,” says leading art critic Wystan Curnow. “You just have to look everywhere in the world of contemporary art and you won’t find Grahame Sydney lookalikes.”

While Curnow applauds Sydney’s craftsmanship and ability to make a living from his work, he says art has moved on from realist paintings. Simon Denny, however, is at culture’s cutting edge and New Zealand art’s “bright-haired boy”.

“We have no other artist who’s as clued up with media imagery and the use of the visual in our culture.”

The inevitable rumpus around our Venice exhibits is tiresome, sighs Curnow. “I don’t really have much time for the potshots and cheap shots. I think we should think of our culture as taonga, as treasure, as articulating who we are and what we’re capable of. They’re measures of our sophistication and our progress as a culture.”

And while Curnow believes New Zealand’s visual arts have been a success story over his lifetime, we haven’t evolved or matured in appreciating it. “I enjoy going to other societies which have a more intelligent respect for their culture than we do. It’s good to go away and spend a little time, and then come back home and put up with the crap again.”


But therein lies the problem with even questioning contemporary art, says New Zealand’s poet laureate, Vincent O’Sullivan.

“It’s a very difficult thing to talk about, without sounding as if you’re on the side of the Barbarians.”

O’Sullivan, who has written widely about art, including an essay in Grahame Sydney’s most recent book, says people shouldn’t be bullied into admiring something. “I think there’s a sense of fear with a lot of people, that they’re looking at something that’s puzzling and they think, ‘Oh, this must be good because Wystan Curnow said so.’ Every individual going to a gallery must never give up their inalienable right to be bored.

Painter Grahame Sydney accuses those running New Zealand’s art galleries of living in a highbrow world divorced from the public.
Painter Grahame Sydney accuses those running New Zealand’s art galleries of living in a highbrow world divorced from the public.

“But there’s a group of people at art schools and gallery directors who think, ‘We are the people who know and there’s all that other world out there that naturally doesn’t understand us because they’re not as well informed as we are.’ It’s a sort of priestcraft with them, that they know the words to say but everyone else doesn’t. Never underestimate for a moment the part snobbery and pretentiousness play in the art world.”

O’Sullivan compares this to classical music where, “there’s a lot less bullshitty talk. And the obvious reason for that is, there has to be great technical finesse in music – you can’t bullshit about that.”

Renowned printmaker Barry Cleavin insists it’s the artist’s obligation to tell a story through their work. But increasingly, accompanying words are needed to inform audiences about what they’re looking at. “I certainly don’t want to stand in front of something and have it explained. If it doesn’t do enough of that for itself, it’s possibly missed the mark.”

And equally, discussion and explanations about art have become so rarefied, they’ve also became impenetrable. “I’m as bewildered as everybody else about it all and I’m sure even the writers are,” says Cleavin. “And I’d hope that Wystan Curnow, for instance, at four o’clock in the morning, must have some questions to ask himself about the veracity of what it is he’s on about.”

Gregory O'Brien
Gregory O’Brien

Artist and writer Gregory O’Brien admits many were mystified by the art they saw in the Walters Prize.

“A lot of that art arguably doesn’t take you with it – it seems to just sit there like a piece of evidence in a trial to do with the theory of art.”- Gregory O’Brien

“People wondered what the point was. And yeah, it was a good question to ask. A lot of that art arguably doesn’t take you with it – it seems to just sit there like a piece of evidence in a trial to do with the theory of art.”

Nor did he feel it was forging new frontiers. “When you go back to the 60s and early 70s, there was so much of that kind of stuff happening – non-object, post-object art – it’s not new. To me, some of it seems quite hackneyed.”

However, O’Brien says he’s happy for the prize to exist. In the same way, he supports sending an artist to Venice, though his concern is we nearly always choose young installation artists. “And I wonder if we’re being a little bit try-hard in terms of being self-consciously cutting edge – trying to put ourselves on the world stage as a young, sexy, creative country, in a way that I find a little bit fatuous.”

Artist Simon Denny.
Artist Simon Denny.

Simon Denny’s selection exemplified this approach, with his subjects of surveillance and spying already being well addressed throughout the world. “We’re not inventing the wheel here.”

O’Brien questions why Ralph Hotere was rejected when he was proposed for New Zealand’s first Venice exhibition, and why we’ve never sent someone like Robin White, whose work with giant tapa cloths wasn’t being done anywhere else.

“There are a few no-brainers like that. If you put them in Venice in the context of the contemporary art world, [their work] would totally foot it on every level and people would fall in love with it. But I worry about the perspective of pseudo-intellectualism, that we feel things have to look brainy to be brainy. It’s almost like we have to have a very serious expression on our face when we go to Venice.”

O’Brien agrees there’s “bullshit in the art world. There’s bullshit in all worlds. But what we don’t want in the art world is a whole lot of artists and a whole lot of curators running off into a dark room and slamming the door shut behind them, and leaving the public staring through the keyhole, wondering what goes on in there.”


Well, that’s not going to happen, says Dowse Art Museum director Courtney Johnston, not on her watch anyway.

“I don’t think any public art gallery is trying to alienate the public, because that would just be contrary to everything we’re here to do.”

She considers a gallery as a piece of music, full of different notes, and thus at any time she has a range of exhibitions. Not everything appeals to everyone – just as no book or film or song ever has. “But if we stopped showing art on the basis that someone might not like it, we won’t show anything and we won’t be doing our job, which is partly about keeping the conversation about art alive, because it’s part of keeping culture alive.”

Johnston lists artists decried during their lifetimes – from Monet to McCahon – who’ve later been deemed geniuses.

Heather Galbraith, Massey University’s College of Creative Arts associate professor and New Zealand’s commissioner to Venice this year, adds Joseph Turner to the list – someone judged too abstract by his contemporaries but now so utterly mainstream that a major film has been made about him. Hence, she says, it was impossible to predict which of our current artists would be the Turner of the next 150 years.

In 2013, Galbraith was deputy commissioner for New Zealand’s Venice entry, Front Door Out Back, by Bill Culbert, part of which was recently exhibited at Te Papa.

Some people would love it because it made them feel good, says Galbraith; others would question what it meant, “and others might go, ‘Not for me, not my cup of tea, not really interested in artwork made out of lights and pieces of plastic.’ Fine.”

And while all those opinions are valid, she pleads with people to at least give any work that seems obscure, a bit of time. “The more you go and see, and the more you realise you don’t have to like everything, the more people relax.

“People look at things like the Walters Prize and go, ‘Oh, it’s all tosh, it’s all contemporary nonsense, they’re just trying to pull the wool over my eyes.’ But I don’t know any artist who’d have that as their mission statement. They all take their work incredibly seriously and are really keen for audiences to engage with it. But they’re just using very different media from what was being used 100 years ago.”

Nearly 100 years ago, French artist Marcel Duchamp sought to exhibit an upturned urinal as an artwork and was rejected by the establishment, unleashing decades of quarrel about what constitutes art.

And while Simon Denny’s Venice work is unlikely to be as provocative and controversial (though his curator, Robert Leonard, has audaciously likened Denny to Duchamp), Galbraith acknowledges it won’t have universal appeal.

“Often the aesthetics that he’s using are perhaps vernacular or some would even say ugly because he’s using the language of our time, of our screens, which isn’t necessarily gorgeous. So it reflects back to us our world, in a sometimes very cold and unabashed way, which is very revealing.”

And to those who argue there’s no skill in contemporary art that merely dumps rubbish on the floor or puts a common object in a gallery and calls it art, Galbraith insists craft is always involved. “Even if it’s taking a stick and leaning it against a wall – there’s still decision-making and spatial judgment in terms of the material, the weight of the stick, what does it mean when you stick it against a wall, how does that relate to our vernacular experience of what a stick against a wall might be and mean and do.”

Many of course wouldn’t consider such nuances, or indulge dubious conceptualism, and would simply label it bollocks. And when this happens, those in the art world often say things like, “Well, it shows art means something to these people,” or “It’s good to have an opportunity to debate these things.”

These comments sometimes have a platitudinous ring, as if they’re rehearsed lines from people who deep down think the only opinions that count come from art professionals or aficionados.

But you sense Creative New Zealand’s chief executive, Stephen Wainwright, genuinely believes everyone has a right to comment – especially for things like the Venice Biennale where there’s public money involved.

Wainwright, who oversees the national agency developing and promoting the arts, likens it to wine tasting: everyone can have an opinion on which is the best wine – but a wine master is better placed to give reasons why, based on their experience.

That said, he accepts Grahame Sydney’s concerns about public bewilderment regarding art. “I think there’s more than a grain of truth in what Grahame says. I think sometimes more effort can be made to interpret art so the public finds it welcoming and has some doorways presented between them and the work to understand it. My personal view is that if you’re a public institution, you have some responsibilities in that regard.”

What’s most important, though, is for the public to give feedback about their art experiences, good or bad, says Wainwright.

“Inevitably some of it won’t be what we might prefer, but it’s absolutely valid for people to have their say.”


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