Thursday, October 23, 2014

Art and the Occupy generation

My essay about the Tongan-New Zealand performance artist 'Ite 'Uhila, who lived rough on Auckland's streets over winter, has provoked a few discussions since it was published last week at EyeContact

'Uhila's street performance, which was called Mo'ui Tukuhausia, was one of the four artworks to make the shortlist for this year's Walters' Prize, but missed out to Luke Willis Thompson's equally controversial inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam.


Thompson's work saw visitors to a gallery space being led by a security guard down a long corridor and delivered to a taxi driver, who in turn took them to the home of the artist's mother, where they were invited to look about. 

Over on facebook, one commenter used my essay to draw a contrast between 'Uhila and Thompson. According to her, Thompson's work was 'weak and washed out' compared to Mo'ui Tukuhausia, and only won the Walters Prize because of the racism of the New Zealand art world. 


Here's the response I made on facebook: 


I agree that there is a lack of knowledge about the cultural and historical contexts in which many Tongan artists work amongst Pakeha who visit galleries and museums, and I think that this lack of knowledge probably contributed to the failure of 'Ite to win the Walters. There's an irony in the way that Pakeha interested in the arts, as students or practitioners of critics, will devour difficult, often convoluted texts by European intellectuals - Derrida and Zizek and Baudrillard and so on - but won't consider the work of Pasifika intellectuals like, say, Futa Helu or Epeli Hau'ofa, or learn about the traditions within which, say, ngatu artists work, because that stuff is - to quote the sort of words I've heard used - too 'alien' or 'esoteric'! I understand these contradictory attitudes, because I used to harbour them myself. 


I'm not sure I agree with you, though, when you try to make a dichotomy between 'Uhila and Luke Willis Thompson, and suggest that Thompson was much less deserving of the Walters than 'Ite. 


It seems to me that 'Ite and Thompson's shortlisted works had several things in common. Both were attempts to steer their audiences away from the art gallery, both were questioning where the boundary between art and the rest of the world lies, and both seemed, to me at least, to be making critical statements about the way Niu Sila society operates. 


'Ite threw away the artist's normal repertoire of tricks, abandoned the gallery, became a haua, and tried to show that some of the virtues we see in artists, and in other esteemed members of society, are also present in the despised homeless on our streets, if only we would look. 


For his part, Thompson forced visitors out of the safe, antiseptic space of the gallery, led them to a cool, slightly rundown, and eerily empty home, and seemed to ask them to meditate on the relationship between the everyday world in which we live and the tidied up, beautified world of art and the art gallery. 


I think that 'Ite and Thompson are both artists who belong to a generation that is questioning, in a perhaps inchoate way, the verities of market capitalism and runaway technology, and seeking some more authentic way of being in the world. We might perhaps, call theirs the 'Occupy Generation', after the protesters who tried to bring direct human interaction to the alienated wildernesses of our central cities. I certainly see something of the idealism of the Occupy protesters in the methods of both 'Ite and Thompson. Both seem to want to break down the walls between artist and audience and art and life, and substitute human intimacy for the formal operations of galleries and the art market. 

In the discussion thread underneath my piece about 'Ite for EyeContact, I've argued that there are some risks involved in trying to get rid of the distinctions between art and life and artist and audience. As you can see, Daniel Webby disagrees with me. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

3 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

It's interesting. Is Thompson Palangi?

I think that as long as theory guides and enhances how we approach art it has a great place. To come to art armed with a mass of theory, without a way of stopping, and saying: what do I think.

One problem, simply with art competitions, is how to judge them: I judged a poetry competition once and it worked, but like Beuys, a big part of me had started thinking that EVERYONE could be an artist. The rationale I worked out for that is complex. The other part wanted to be a judge, it is pleasing, interesting, and confers a degree of power (Leicester Kyle had been the judge the previous year, for a group of poets learning the creative art).

However, it was, in the end, while as objective as I could (and I made some positive or encouraging comments on every entrant's work): I had to select one.

I have entered competitions (wanted money, not unnaturally!) but in general I am wary of them.

Here, it is perhaps a pity that both artists, couldn't be awarded a prize.

I think that both artists are questioning the gallery versus life. Life, if it is not art, or art not life, comes very close to being one or the other: or one. So art of this kind, and it is associated with difficult theory as it is essentially conceptual art, much as the art of say Dashpur and Bruce Barber's work is or Hans Haacke and others. Beuys questions Duchamp who questioned, well he questioned the nature Art, its role and much else.

It may not simply be racism. Or "active racism", more a way of thinking. And in fact if Polynesian artists were "winning" all the time Palangi or Pakeha would be asking if there isn't some racism operating.

We have to accept that everyone, to some extent is xenophobic.

I don't think there needs to be a dichotomy between those interested in say Derrida or other art theorists (there are hundreds) cant process Polynesian (or other) art also.

There is a resistance, I realise that the majority of my own books are American, English, and other writers. There is a resistance of anyone of a culture breaking to another culture. But when we study Picasso for example, we are studying African masks, when we read 'Heart of Darkness' we reading 'Things Fall Apart' by Achebe (yes, I have read it), or 'The Time of the Butcher Bird' by La Guma, 'The Beautiful Ones are Not Born' (all great books but they don't cancel out Joyce Cary's 'Mister Johnson' or Paton's 'Cry the Beloved Country', or Conrad: all these books "learn from each other") and much else. And this is the way art also grows and interacts.

10:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The other reasons that many (of a certain kind) prefer certain complex or abstruse theory) are:

1. It somehow enhances the mystery of that Art but it can

a) cause so much density it alienates

b) alienate but intensify and thus make more meaningful the art in question

2. The use
[of complex/abstract/difficult (but interesting theory)] is something people who love or are attracted to complex problems (there is a parallel to those who are attracted to mathematics or other "useless" activities, or to problem solving, say in chess at a high level) are, of course almost by definition, attracted to.

3. The Hamiltonian-Smithyman postulate. "That Smithyman had developed a unique, and deliberately complex, abstruse, and difficult for, as - being a 'proto-Post-Modernist' he saw this as a way through.

NOTE to 3. This was combated by Jack Ross and others who felt there was 'method in his madness' and indeed the original Hamiltonian theory, while still interesting, has been (not completely) overthrown by a 'wider' view of the theory of the 'purposeful difficulty and the modernist use of meaning but tempered with an overall purpose, story to tell, and so on. And the approach to Smithyman has widened and deepened by Hamilton himself.

Thompson's art, in fact, possibly had more immediacy of effect as Esche reports (somehow the whole thing reminds me of Ishiguro's 'The Unconsoled', which owes to Kafka...)

So art I think requires or calls for these many levels. I don't want to enter the debate on the art Blog although I saw some of it. People tend to wander down complex and vertiginously theory-laden pathways as through Kafka's 'Castle' (which neither I nor Ted managed to finish)...

Well, I think they should have split the prize as while Thompson's "grabs" immediately and whle they do indeed share common philosophic ideas, I am torn between being led down a hallway to another location a la Ishiguro's book, and the image of the other artist's 'Family Tree', and his falling from a high tree through the many 'branches'. Both involve the ability to theorise, to make a metaphor. Both put their 'life on the line' But 'Ite 'Uhila 's was perhaps the most dramatic.

But Scott's point here is good:

"I agree that there is a lack of knowledge about the cultural and historical contexts in which many Tongan artists work amongst Pakeha who visit galleries and museums, and I think that this lack of knowledge probably contributed to the failure of 'Ite to win the Walters. There's an irony in the way that Pakeha interested in the arts, as students or practitioners of critics, will devour difficult, often convoluted texts by European intellectuals - Derrida and Zizek and Baudrillard and so on - but won't consider the work of Pasifika intellectuals like, say, Futa Helu or Epeli Hau'ofa, or learn about the traditions within which, say, ngatu artists work, because that stuff is - to quote the sort of words I've heard used - too 'alien' or 'esoteric'! I understand these contradictory attitudes, because I used to harbour them myself."

10:01 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I might try and get my post onto the thread. It is incoplete as in fact the questions here could be the subject of several PhD's on the whatness of art, alienation, and I have to say it: "The Other"...with Futa Helu and a mass of theory thrown in!

10:04 pm  

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