The other Giovanni
In one of his most recent comments on this blog, Giovanni mentioned that he has written a PhD about some of the issues we've been discussing, and justifies this reference by saying that he 'bloody well deserves' a little bit of 'self-promotion'. I agree. You can read Impossible Recollections here.
Giovanni must be one of the best advocates of Derrideanism that has ever put pen to paper. This namesake of his, who is currently enjoying a posthumous retrospective at Auckland's ARTSPACE, might be one of the worst. Giovanni Intra studied at Elam Art School in the early '90s, and was an important member of the loose faction of theory-driven conceptual and installation artists who belatedly came to public consciousness in 2005 when Merylyn Tweedie, aka et al, embarrassed right-thinking Kiwis by exhibiting a toilet that brayed like a donkey at the Venice Biennale. Intra's restrospective covers the years until 1996, when he left these shores for the bright lights of Los Angeles, where he worked as a galleria and curator and continued to produce impenetrable art 'theory'. Intra's death from a drug overdose in 2002 gives the retrospective at ARTSPACE a poignant feel, but the work on display in the sombre white rooms above Karangahape Road fails to convey the energy and intelligence that the young artist obviously possessed. There are dour films, hundreds of photographs of one of the artist's hands, and notebooks filled with drawings and captions that remind me of the doodles we used to fill the insides of exercise books with at school during particularly boring Maths classes. The many drawings of syringes draw our attention because of the artist's tragic fate, not because of any aesthetic qualities. Jokey and anecdotal cartoons entertain, but there are too many second-hand slogans, Derridean non-sequitirs, and self-conscious parodies of other artists' work.
The most visually impressive part of the show is undoubtedly the collection of posters and flyers displayed under the sort of extra-thick glass that slightly old-fashioned museums use to cover their butterflies and beetles. There is something affecting about the way that this ephemera - these energetic, edgy advertisments for long-forgotten exhibitions by unknown young artists at obscure galleries - has been so carefully preserved.
The lack of visual interest in the Intra retrospective would not be a problem, if the ideas which prompted the work were compelling. They are not. Intra's vaguely Situationist belief in the ability of subcultures like the punk and drug scenes to 'subvert' the cultural 'mainstream' seems as jejune as his doodlings. It might have seemed more impressive when it was wrapped up in references to dead Frenchmen. As Giovanni Tiso has taught us over the past week on this blog, though, quoting Derrida and Baudrillard in support of your arguments is like using your mother as a character witness.
Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers' catalogue does a good job of emulating Intra's orotund prose style, and makes sure to quote Derrida in almost every second paragraph. Her claim that Intra's 'skinny drawings' are places where 'power and knowledge' are 'taken apart and left undone' makes me want to dig out my old Maths book and take another look at those doodles. Perhaps when I wrote @NARCHY - SMASH THE STATE! I really did destroy capitalism after all. Brettkelly-Chalmers' conclusion seems to accept that Intra is interesting not as an artist or an art theorist, but as a person:
In many ways, Intra's archive works to continue and amplify the enigmatic impression that surrounds his memory. He had a perceptive awareness of himself, the social position of an artist and the mythology it tapped into. The funny nicknames Intra gave himself and others were just the face of his innate ability to make and maintain connections...It is the clever and intriguing, yet somewhat distant collection of anecdotes surrounding Intra's memory that made a small cardboard box of books and catalogues posted to ARTSPACE much more than the sum of its parts.
Once all of the postmodernist waffle is stripped away, Intra appears to have been, like Philip Clairmont or Tony Fomison, a self-mythologising, self-destructive young man in love with a high Romantic image of the artist as a visionary outlaw. Unlike Clairmont or Fomison, though, Intra didn't have the art to go with the pretension.
It's hard to avoid the idea that the proscriptions of postmodernism might have had something to do with Intra's failure to realise himself as an artist. For all their pretensions, Clairmont and Fomison grounded themselves in the local and the autobiographical; Intra, despite his obvious self-obsession, did not. As the redoubtable TJ MacNamara noted in a decidedly lukewarm review, Intra aligned himself with the self-consciously cosmopolitan trend in New Zealand art, and tried to create works which could be as easily exhibited in Milan as Auckland. It is ironic that what intrigues audiences now is not Intra's pseudo-internationalism or his second-hand Derridese, but the story of his life as a young man living in the unfashionable city of Auckland in the 1990s.
If Giovanni Tiso wants to characterise the impact of postmodernism on New Zealand art and literature as progressive, then he needs to account for the failure of Giovanni Intra.