Over the last decade the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts has undergone the most radical and controversial set of changes in its one hundred and twenty year history. After being forcibly incorporated into a new-fangled ‘super-faculty’ run by Sharman Pretty, an expert on downsizing hired by the university’s right-wing vice chancellor John Hood, the school saw its traditional sub-departments of painting, sculpture, intermedia, printmedia, te toi hou and photography disestablished, as jobs and costs were cut. Pretty eventually left her post, after legal action by aggrieved staff, walkouts by students, and damning articles in the mass media, but the changes she brought to Elam have not been reversed.
The institution is now dedicated, officially at least, to a doctrine of ‘inter-disciplinarism’, which holds that students ought to be able to produce works in a range of media, from painting to sculpture to film to photography, without having to undertake the tiresome business of acquiring the technical skills normally possessed by practitioners in these fields. The budding artists will produce ideas - or, rather, ‘concepts’ – and, if necessary, other people will be available to turn their concepts into artworks. In 2005, at the height of the chaos produced by Pretty’s revolution, veteran Elam staffer Carole Shepherd called the inter-disciplinary approach to art ‘crazy’, because it assumed that ‘everybody can everything’. Speaking out at the same time, John Turner, a senior lecturer in Elam’s doomed photography sub-department, accused Pretty and her allies of creating an ‘unprecedented level of confusion, suspicion, anger, and fear’ and condemned their ‘vapid’ thinking.
Key representatives of the new Elam orthodoxy are Michael Parekowhai and p.mule, artists who are primarily concept-creators, and who have often been partially reliant on other people to turn their concepts into sculptures and installations. The approach to art which p.mule and Parekowhai represent fitted the downsizing agenda of Pretty and Hood well, because it provided an excuse for the sacking of staff members who taught obsolete skills like painting and photography. Conceptual art may have begun in the 1960s as an avowedly Marxist challenge to the absurdities of capitalism in general and the art market in particular, but four decades later it has proved, at Elam at least, quite compatible with neo-liberalism.
The neo-liberal revolution at Elam may have been successful, but it has led to some contradictory outcomes. The worst way to kill an avant-garde movement is to install it as an orthodoxy; it is no surprise, then, that a number of recent events at Elam suggest a growing reaction against the hyper-conceptual approach to art. The large crowds of students that turned out to see Wall, Ellen Portch’s recent cycle of intricate, mysterious drawings offer evidence of an enthusiasm for art that values technical skill as well as intellectual ingenuity. Although university bureaucrats claim that Elam has left behind the bad old days of sub-departments and intensive technical training, the continued enthusiasm of many students for these practices, has necessitated greater dependence on teaching by a group of 'technical' workers capable of supporting the ‘stars’.
The recent Homework exhibition at Elam’s B431 gallery showcased work by the eight permanent members of the school’s technical staff. Although these staff members have diverse specialities, and therefore work in different media, their show had a unity which can perhaps be related to the peculiar niche they occupy in the ecology of twenty-first century Elam.
Although their primary task is to share their knowledge and skills with Elam students, technical staff are also expected to maintain what the university calls ‘independent practices’ as producers. In the turbulent atmosphere of contemporary Elam, this double requirement has sometimes led to tension and confrontation. Homework was dominated, spatially at least, by a large and rather beautiful kayak which woodworker Nick Waterson exhibited under the title Up a New Zealand River, that’s the Story. Waterson’s contribution to the show was an act of defiance against Elam managers, who for some years battled to stop him using his workshop on campus to build and store kayaks, on the grounds that such activity falls outside his job description. Waterson eventually forced the bureaucrats to back down, and when he was asked to contribute to Homework he insisted on planting his largest available kayak in the middle of B431.
With its smooth timber and elegant yet efficient curves, Waterson’s creation has attracted the attention of connoisseurs of aquatechnology. Canoeist Paul McDonald, who won a swag of Olympic gold medals for New Zealand in the 1980s, could be seen admiring Waterson’s craftsmanship at the launch party for Homework.
Because of the complexly allusive way it is presented, Waterson’s kayak demanded attention as a work of art, as well as a piece of superb craftsmanship. With its dominant position in the centre of the exhibition space, the boat resembled a miniature version of Te Toki and Te Winika, the nineteenth century war canoes that have pride of place on the ground floors of the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery respectively. But if the placement of Waterson’s kayak recalled the magnificent waka on the other side of Grafton Gully and its counterpart a couple of hours' drive away on the edge of the Waikato, the sleek, varnished surfaces of his craft contrasted with the bold and fantastic carvings which cover Te Toki and Te Winika. By naming his exhibit Up a New Zealand River, that’s the Story, Waterson perhaps alluded to Jane Mander’s novel The Story of a New Zealand River, the study of colonialism and clashing cultures which inspired Jane Campion’s movie The Piano. A note under Waterson’s title informed viewers that his kayak had been fashioned from both indigenous kahikatea and exotic timber.
It was possible to view Waterson’s creation, with its self-conscious use of both autochthonous and exotic materials, its relatively modest proportions, and its modernist look, as a sort of wry, twenty-first century Pakeha response to the great waka-building tradition represented by Te Toki and Te Winika. In the era before the building of large meeting houses, waka often expressed the mana and recorded the history of the iwi and hapu which travelled in them. With its carved characters from Tainui history, Te Winika, for instance, was a mobile gallery, a continual reminder of whakapapa and tradition. With its stylish but unexpressive surfaces, its room for only one passenger, rather than a tribe, and the steep price tag it carried, Waterson’s ‘waka’ perhaps told us a good deal about the dominant culture of twenty-first century New Zealand society.
Of course, Nick Waterson’s kayak remained, despite its elaborate title and gallery setting, a functional object, as well as an artwork. Its dual nature might remind us of the split identities of famous modernist works like Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’. When Duchamp placed a snow shovel in a gallery and named it In Advance of a Broken Arm in 1915, he raised questions about the nature of art, and the distinction between an art object and an object meant for use in the ‘real’ world, which remain controversial today. It is not hard to see why Waterson might be interested in these questions. As a member of Elam's 'technical' staff he is regarded, by Elam management at least, as ontologically distinct from 'artists' like p.mule. He is supposed to assist Elam students with technical aspects of their work, like wood cutting and carving, so that they can become better artists. Where, though, is the boundary between the technical and the artistic, the world of mundane production and the hallowed world of art?
Nick Waterson was not the only contributor to Homework who seemed interested in the boundary between art and non-art. Lee Elliot’s Duck Creek Concept Plan resembled a large drawing made by a landscape architect, but the paths, water, and areas of vegetation it depicted in blue ink were unexplained by labels or annotations. Instead of anything so quotidian, Elliot placed thick red lines here and there on his plan, so that it looked like one of the mysterious and sinister maps that Alain Robbe-Grillet sometimes included in his novels. Did Elliot’s red lines indicate some obscure and perhaps dangerous presence, or the parameters of some bizarrely-shaped building or monument, or did they have an altogether simpler explanation?
Darren Glass's curious contribution to Homework also raised questions about the relationship between art objects and the phenomena of the 'ordinary' world. Glass is a photographer in love with the primitive, lenseless pinhole cameras of the nineteenth century. Rather than exhibit any of his photographs, he placed one of the elaborate pinhole cameras he designs in B431. The device's dozens of pinholes and unusual shape mean that, despite its primitiveness, it is able to record scenes simultaneously from many angles, like a film crew on a big-budget movie. By exhibiting his camera, Glass seemed to be asking us to reconsider our notions of the distinction between art and the tools which help us make art, as well as our preconceptions about what constitutes high technology.
On the wall opposite Glass's machine, near the back of B431, graphic designer Lucas Doolan had hung four untitled, computer-generated images. Flocks of numbers and tiny chalices floated out of spiralling reds and greens on surfaces that looked painted from a distance but proved on closer inspection to be impeccably smooth. Doolan’s pictures could be considered as abstract compositions, of the sort that prolonged exposure to glossy reproductions of Mark Rothko or Hans Hoffman might inspire, or as massively ambitious attempts to depict some moment of cosmic chaos. With their eruptions of colour and obscure equations, they might have been printouts of some inscrutable super-computer’s predictions or reconstructions of the end or the beginning of the universe. Ellen Portch’s two contributions to Homework were more down to earth. Her paintings of the artist Frida Kahlo and the novelist and nonsense poet Mervyn Peake were smaller and less visually abrasive than most of her earlier exhibited work. Portch has painted many portraits over the years – her 2006 exhibition at Old Government House, which depicted politicians of the late twentieth century with something less than reverence, is particularly worthy of mention – but she has generally stylised her subjects, by covering their faces in complex networks of lines that have sometimes resembled moko, and at other times resembled wounds. In Portch’s new works the writhing lines are softened by layers of pale grey paint, so that the faces of Kahlo and Peake have a certain tranquility.
There is nothing new in questioning the distinctions that Western society makes between art and other examples of human creativity. In the nineteenth century William Morris ran utopian workshop-factories where worker-artists created objects – carpets, tiles, rolls of wallpaper, pieces of furniture – which were both functional and idiosyncratically expressive. Through the second half of the twentieth century Hans-Georg Gadamer railed against the ‘arts precincts’ and ‘arts festivals’ that were increasingly popular in Western cities, arguing that both symbolised the notion that art was something which took place at a physical and intellectual distance from other, more ‘essential’ human activities, like politics and business. Homework was an exhibition which suggested that the distinctions between art and craft, and between the artist and technician, are much less secure than the likes of Sharman Pretty might suppose.