Art and the Occupy generation
'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]