Visual Arts Review: Freedom Farmers
Auckland Art Gallery
To February 23, 2014
Reviewed by Cassandra Barnett
Can utopian dreaming build real bridges to better worlds – or are they so many pies in the sky? This question hovers over Auckland Art Gallery’s summer blockbuster exhibition, Freedom Farmers – the gallery’s ‘largest survey of contemporary art from this country’ in 25 years. If you approach the gallery from the back end, Albert Park, you’ll strike the jaded, pie-in-the-sky view of utopias first, courtesy of et al and Sean Curham’s grim outdoor installation many to many. Comprising a grey array of abandoned, graffiti-ed office furniture and chairs, each crudely labeled with the name of a ‘utopian’ organisation (some charities, some terrorist groups), it suggests all world-improvement schemes are equally damned by bureaucracy and doomed to failure.
Freedom Farmers as a whole strays close to sharing this non-committal, after-the-event neutrality. The curators bring together such an democratically even mixture of artists – including Wayne Barrar (ecological photography), Martin Basher (hedonistic installation), Edith Amituanai (refugee portraits), Francis Upritchard (sculpted time-travelers), Ava Seymour, Richard Maloy, Allan McDonald, Dan Arps, Louise Menzies… – that, despite strong individual visions, each threatens to cancel the others out. Their freedoms are moderated, well-contained. No strident, overweening activism here!
The most pamphleteering moment appears in the massive stacks of broadsheet-style newsprint catalogues that accompany the exhibition. The catalogue’s California-free-love cover is by far the most unrestrainedly joyful of the utopian theme. Tessa Laird’s striking installation, a day-glo, Dr-Seuss-goes-to-Mexico parlour littered with chunky clay-wrought books and candelabra, also offers an intoxicating happiness hit. But it complicates this by rendering its piled-high non-fiction classics – from Levi-Strauss’s anthropology to the I Ching – impenetrable, unreadable. Explains the accompanying wall text, ‘How do you read your way into revolution, into ecstasy?’
Which brings us to the exhibition’s subtitle: Artists Growing Ideas. Though dazed by their competing visions, when we take the time to read the wall texts and the (free and excellent) catalogue, it’s true that the richly idiosyncratic ideas each artist is cultivating slowly grow on us. But must we read, as well as exercise our senses, to taste the freedoms on offer here? And is freedom only an idea – or can we get some direct impact, some bite, some real-world problems met with practical solutions?
A few key works provide bridges down to earth from the ivory-tower and the daydreams – works by artists with dirt on their hands. Xin Cheng’s indoor garden of edible native plants and ad-hoc assemblages for shelving and sitting and growing and lighting, made from felt, hessian, bamboo, bike tyres/chains, wax and straw. Isobel Thom’s modernist architectural forms (utopian emblems par excellence) recast as decorative forms for beautifully earthy ceramic planters, plates and tea sets – and her video of Dion Workman and Asako Kitaori discussing guerilla gardening and sustainable vege-growing in a Japanese food forest. These works (along with Dorota Broda’s branding/logo deactivations, and Shannon Te Ao and Iain Frengley’s video filmed where Parihaka prisoners once labored – a passive resistance reactivation?) bring a more gritty, determined spirit of liberation to the gallery confines. Not the firebrand valour of old-school utopianism, but a simple trust that our world contains all the ingredients we need, that we actually live in a self-generating utopia of sorts. And thus we swing from the cynical graveyards of dead grand ideas we started with, to artists growing small hands-on ideas in the soil of experience: to a strangely encouraging sense of art as compost system.
Above: Tessa Laird, Poutama Tandava 2011, Ceramic, earthenware with coloured underglaze. Image: Caryline Boreham