Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Occupying, not abandoning, the gallery

Over at EyeContact I've published a review of a recent exhibition at the Mangere Arts Centre by the Tuvaluan collective Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa, and an account of the ideas of that exhibition's co-curator, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai. 

In a series of papers delivered at conferences of Pacific scholars and museologists in recent years, Mahina-Tuai has argued that mainstream New Zealand art galleries, critics, and curators use a set of false distinctions - between art and crafts, between tradition and contemporaneity, and between individual and collective labour - to delegitimise the work of many Pacific Island artists. Because they are deemed to be mere craftsmen and women, who work inside static, pre-modern traditions, rather than creative artists responding to the contemporary world, Pacific Islanders who paint on tapa or carve wood or tattoo are denied grants, space in galleries, and critical attention. 

Mahina-Tuai is determined to force upon the doors of art galleries to Pacific creators like the members of Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa. But in an industry that revolves around individual 'art superstars' who sell their work for fantastically high prices to institutions and collectors, her championing of obscure Pacific Islands arts collectives that produce gifts for their communities rather than commodities for sale is not always understood, let alone appreciated.  

Mahina-Tuai’s determination to bring new communities into the austere white spaces of the contemporary art gallery was reflected in the launch party for Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa's show. To ensure that a significant section of Auckland’s Tuvaluan community was on hand to celebrate the collective's work, Mahina-Tuai and her co-curator Marama Papau hired a bus that drove to remote parts of Auckland's suburban archipelago, collected whole families, and brought them across Mangere bridge. Dancers adorned with kolose performed for these guests, who sang and beat time on the gallery’s walls and floor.

As I read Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai's polemics against the art establishment, I was reminded of a controversy started by the young Christchurch artist and political activist Jared Davidson, who in 2009 published a manifesto called Give Up Art.

Davidson's text condemns art galleries as squalid institutions where money is worshipped and creativity crushed. Instead of making commodities for the wealthy patrons of galleries, Davidson vowed to create an art of 'the barricades', by working to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a better economic and social system. For Davidson, the 'Red' Federation of Labour, whose working class members tried to seize power from New Zealand's capitalists during the Great Strike of 1913, was an exponent of the art of 'the barricades'. The manifesto's conclusion was uncompromising: 

A tree that has turned into a club cannot be expected to put forth leaves. Any artistic practice short of advocating the abolishment of capitalism and replacing it with logic, frankly, should be left to die.

Give Up Art was a deliberately provocative text, and it provoked negative responses from a number of art-lovers, including the poet and literary critic Ross Brighton, the Marxist scholar of Latin American modernism Tim Bowron, and me

I thought in 2009, and still think today, that Davidson's manifesto is a curious mixture of nihilism and utopianism. The text was nihilistic, because it asked us to abandon art altogether, when it could have differentiated between the positive and negative aspects of our art tradition and our arts institutions. 

Because of his justifiable anger at the abuse of art by wealthy, self-interested collectors like Alan Gibbs and his justifiable exasperation at the pretentiousness of certain inner-city galleries, Davidson wanted us to turn our backs on the taonga created by our greatest artists. 

Davidson seemed to lurch from nihilism into a sort of utopianism when he demanded that we begin to practice 'the art of barricades'. As Tim Bowron and Ross Brighton both pointed out, barricades are not being built in the streets of New Zealand in the early twenty-first century. No mass organisation like the Red Feds is leading the working class into battle with the bourgeoisie. Our trade union and our left-wing parties are weak and moderate. Davidson was fascinated by the radical years of the early twentieth century because they offered such a contrast to the uninspiring situation of the left and the trade union movement in the twenty-first century. 

Like Jared Davidson in 2009, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai is challenging some of the official tenets and procedures of the New Zealand art industry. But where Davidson wanted to abandon art galleries, Mahina-Tuai wants to democratise them. And where Davidson could offer no living movement as an alternative to the art establishment he despised, Mahina-Tuai can point to and champion groups like Fafine Niuato i Aotearoa and the communities they represent. For me, at least, Mahina-Tuai's campaign seems both more progressive and more realistic than Jared Davidson's enterprise. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

the eyecontact piece reads as a manifesto rather than a review - the art in the show is not reviewed at all, merely referred to as objects peripherally involved in a larger debate about what gets defined as art in the Western world. It would be interesting too to see the art reviewed as art, on its own terms.

8:33 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I can sort of see where you're coming from, anon. I do talk about some of the features and effects of the works - their remarkable colours and geometric schemes, for example, and speculate in a footnote about the sociological reasons for these features. But it'd certainly be fair to say that I barely scratch the surface of the mysterious and beautiful art that is kolose.

I wouldn't really see the piece as a manifesto, because I don't entirely agree with the notion of creating a truly popular art and burying the 'star' system. There's a part of me that sides with Marcuse and Adorno against Benjamin and Brecht! I'm really just trying to present the ideas of a somewhat neglected young arts activist to a larger audience, and start some debates.

8:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fokin legend this guy is

10:59 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

There is a danger that in this "democratization" they are absorbed into the art institutions and in the end the bullshit that I think Jarred was awake to.

I think there are many artists who have practiced crafts that are in fact beautiful art so I doubt if that is a barrier for Tongan artists.

An example of the kind of art that is pretty well celebrated and acknowledged is in the book 'Craft New Zealand' by Doreen Blumhardt and photographed by Brian Brake (his photographs are artworks showing the art/craft words).

In some cases, there is positive discrimination that assists artists and poets whoa are Maori and Polynesian in NZ so I don't accept the "complaint". John Pule and Hotere - there is now a long list of artists who were good in most cases but because of the move to PC were able to get in where many European artists might not have.

However, there is a way that Polynesian artists involve the wider group: and this has advantages and disadvantages. Many committed Polynesian (and even non-Polynesian political artists such as Jarrad) artists will probably experience a conflict between the pull of community and or tradition and their desire to be "stars".

Questions arise.

11:08 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

I don't wish to argue that artists should be forced to adopt the procedures of groups like Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa. Artists must be free to go wherever their work takes them; attempts to institutionalise and define them are by definition quixotic. Hotere was an artist who wanted to be a star, and was uncomfortable being defined as a Maori painter. No one would knock him for that.

The question, as I see it, is whether groups like Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa are commonly excluded from art institutions and from the considerations of art critics because their work is put into a box labelled craft. I think it is significant that the recent show in Mangere Arts Centre was the first time that Tuvaluan artists have ever exhibited in art gallery.

4:18 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Interesting recent piece in the Guardian by Jonathan Jones about class and art in contemporary Britain:

4:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. I came back to this and read your review. My mother (English) did crochet (and other similar) and it was beautiful work. Now I realise you were talking about Tuvalu which I dont know although I have an old book here about Funafuti...

I agree that there is very probably a European directed (mostly) dichotomy - I hadn't heard of Collingwood - but I see he is online there.

I agree with your comments. I think these divisions of the arts are arbitrary and problematic which is indeed why I am doing my EYELIGHT thing (underscored by the IP) and the idea evolved that all things interact, interconnect - not just art. So in my universe, everything is art (crochet, making concrete, film, puppetry, electronics, swimming, dancing, all kinds of music good and bad (of course we have our fads and preferences), and all kinds of crafts, styles...potentially everything and everywhere which is why I also evolved the idea of a theoretical universal project in which everyone can participate, and no one is "bad" and so on...all very theoretical): but I see the necessities for specialization (for practical reasons and partly for Wittgenstein's game playing reasons or postulations, and so on)...

It is (quite possibly) a fact that the galleries (esp. commercial) will either not be interested in kolose etc or the High Priests of Art will restrict it, if only polemically. (I cant prove this, this is more a feeling about art and the art institutions), so I support the young woman's point. We do specialise and categorise (I do) but in theory and perhaps practice we need to see the innovative creativity of what might be called "collective art". I myself am very much an individualist but I like the idea of the author "dying" a la Barthes...

A lot of interesting questions, it is hard to logically condemn Gibbs but if I just let my feelings work (a very unmanly, un-European thing? Maybe not really...) then I shudder a bit (I appreciate and am very interested in say Caro and many other successful artists, but indeed his indifference to people put in the shadow of his wall is something that also makes me uneasy).

So I hope that people see this art and craft as indeed art and that the young woman gets her message heard.

I think these are part of deep questions not only about art but the way we think about the world.

Dylan Thomas started one of his great poems with:

In my craft of sullen art...

He was one of the Europeans (Nigerians and some European critics were not so keen but Achebe was) to give a positive review to the emerging African writer Amos Tutuola (his 'Palm Wine Drinkard' (artist in my universe) (Achebe writes about him in a book of criticisms and comment, citing Thomas's
enthusiasm for Tutuola's book)

So the implication is that the art-craft divide is arbitrary and we need to think about what art is (of course it is nearly impossible to define, as you know, but there are some good "working theories")...

1:12 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Ironically I include minimalism in my pantheon (I started reading your article, and recalled reading a book about Judd). But of course there are other styles of art I like. Bourdieu may have been wrong to target one style of art, it was, like pop art, which I also like (there are very few styles that don't interest me), a part of the development of the culture etc Will read the rest of it later!

1:18 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I think I saw that Jonathan Jones criticised by some NZ artists on FB. I defended him although I think he is mostly talking bollocks to say the least as his opinion is a challenge and artists should be able to take the kind of Hughes type of attack and deal with it.

But Tracy Emin is an interesting artist, not just loved or liked by "snobs".

But was it Voltaire who said he disagreed strongly but would give his life to allow the other to express his her opinion? That's the thing. Some of our local artists seemed a bit snobby, some well known person attacked me, and belittled that I had studied art philosophy, and they immediately assumed I didn't like (a woman artist somewhere), which was a long shot as I didn't know who she was.

There is a lot of art I don't want to look at, but I accept it has a place in my universe.

1:26 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Looking at what I can see, the kolose art is quite beautiful.

1:33 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

we're both all wrong. John Ansell has just proved that Polynesian culture is nothing but barbarism and must be jettisoned if humanity is to advance:

11:40 am  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:27 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I've met people who come up with this theory. I met a local chap who was a boat builder. He claimed that the Egyptians got here first (we were on the Tamaki Estuary) and I argued the toss: to me there is no "superior" race or superior civilization, just different kinds.In fact I think it is clear that a Maori in NZ pre the European had a very advanced culture (meaning everything they had going, fishing methods, art and decoration, waka, the methods of Tikanga re the sea (they had a fish catch quota that was quite specific and in Auckland didn't fish when the fish were spawning), and much else: they had survived. I argued that the Egyptians' ships were probably inferior to Polynesian given they didn't do much (I studied ancient history at one stage) - the Phoenecians did more - but the Polynesians were able to map the Pacific almost totally well before Europeans could safely even get to Africa. He also extolled the Vikings over Maori. The Vikings and their boats were good, but they were restricted to the Northern hemisphere. But it is clearly a racist pitch, this comparative nonsense.

But then, a day or so later, I saw a protester (a youngish Maori woman) who I had seen around here heckling Len Brown and was protesting another State House eviction, and this bloke turned up, he was a good friend of her if not her boyfriend!

It is a strange world.

That Ansell should be hung with piano wire as that was hit mate, A Hitler's preferred method with those who really angered him.

Like A.H. we might then be able to watch a movie of him being slowly extirpated...He would be happier than he is now, in the long run. And we would all be better off. Alternatively if it could be managed they might be able to get him, Doutre, and Banks rolled into one of the prisons and handed over to "the boys".

8:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Ansell would have done well in the Third Reich. But he missed out on the fun...

8:34 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home