Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another Menzies mystery: what happened to those catalogues?

There has been no shortage of reaction to my post about A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy, the exhibition of paintings and sculptures inspired by Gavin Menzies that was held recently at the University of Auckland's Old Government House. Well over a thousand people have viewed the post, and more than thirty of them have commented on it. I've received e mails from a number of graduate students annoyed that a racist fabricator of documents has been celebrated inside their university. Skyler received a long message from a senior academic who was angry about the insult that the Menzies exhibition represented, and who was planning to lay a complaint about the matter. The New Zealand Archaeological Association linked approvingly to my post from its news page.

It seems that the only people who haven't commented on the Menzies exhibition are the artists and administrators responsible for it. After I put my post up, I e mailed Tim Biggs, the Manager of Old Government House, and suggested that he might let me leave copies of it near the exhibition, so as to balance the views of Menzies and his devotees Brill and Young. I never received a reply from Biggs, even though his job is supposed to involve dealing with enquiries about activities at Old Government House.

Neither painter Pauline Brill nor sculptor John Young has responded to the criticisms of their art on this blog, although Brill, at least, appears to have been following discussions of her work closely. According to my handy Extremetracking device, a University of Auckland computer used by a 'p.brill' visited this blog more than a dozen times on Monday the eleventh of May, and many more times in the week that followed. I suppose Brill might have been reading my posts on EP Thompson or the Land Wars.

When I visited A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy for the first time two weeks ago, I took away a copy of the catalogue which accompanied it. The document included rambling and sometimes incoherent statements from Brill and Young, as well as quotes from Graham Menzies' book 1421. The catalogue also included a list of the four members of the Gallery Governors' Committee, the body which decides which artists are allowed to mount exhibitions at Old Government House. Both Brill and Young are named as members of the Commitee. In my post on the exhibition, I quoted the statements from Brill and Young to show that they were admirers of Menzies who had little understanding of the different between pseudo-history and real scholarship. I also suggested that the presence of Brill and Young on the Gallery Governors' Committee cast doubt on the propriety of the decision to give them exhibition space at Old Government House.

I revisited A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy late last week, because I wanted to get some photos of Brill and Young's work before it disappeared from view. Although Young's sculptures and Brill's canvases remained on display, the piles of catalogues which had sat on the long table where Young's sculptures were strewn had vanished. I spoke to someone who had visited the exhibition earlier in the week; they also reported a total absence of catalogues.

It is possible, I suppose, that hordes of enthusiastic art fans might have flocked to Old Government House early last week, and carried off the hundreds of catalogues the university had produced as souvenirs of Brill and Young's exhibition. I find it more likely, though, that either Brill or Young or one of the other members of the Gallery Governors' Committee removed the catalogues after realising how unfortunate their contents were.

Whatever its cause, I can't see how the disappearance of the catalogues for A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy ameliorated the shortcomings of the exhibition. Without the advertisement for Menzies' thought which accompanied them, Young's sculptures and Brill's paintings make little or no sense: instead of being clumsy expressions of a bankrupt theory, they become merely clumsy depictions of sailing boats and assorted ephemeral objects. If the artists and administrators behind A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy have chosen to respond to criticism with a mixture of silence and self-censorship, then they have merely compounded the blunder they made in mounting the exhibition in the first place. Surely it would have been far more useful to acknowledge and engage with critics of the exhibition, by placing material which balanced Menzies' views alongside the catalogue?

A couple of anonymous commenters at this blog have disputed my claim that the work of Young and Brill lacks aesthetic as well as intellectual value. (I was intrigued when one of these commenters described Young's work as 'tasteful' - I didn't think that word was used outside of Antiques Roadshow and Home and Garden magazine.) I've reproduced a couple of photos of Young's sculptures and Brill's paintings (click to enlarge them) so that those of you who did not visit the exhibition can see them for yourselves. I apologise for the less-than-perfect quality of the photos - Skyler's camera has been behaving temperamentally for months, and I had problems adjusting its focus.


Blogger Paul said...

I like the one where the junk in a storm narrowly avoids a huge blue and white porcelain plate, but seems about to collide with another ship of western appearance; worse things happen at sea, as they say.

10:58 am  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I guess the comment about the work being "tasteful" can be translated as "bland and uninteresting"

12:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are anti-Chinese.

2:58 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The art for me is strangely "good" - in a kitchy sort of way..!
.........I wouldn't say tasteful!!.... or it has it's fascination - it seems almost as if the artists are jocularly mixing some kind of Turneresque or Constablian style of painting with what people come to think of Japanese and Chinese painting or "scenes" (the old joke - "Look out! We're in Japanese waters!" - and there's a Hokusai seascape.)....

The helmet ... (cutely?) melted almost totally into the Floor of History and distorted (partially) by Time ... also looks like a satire of the kind of helmets of ancient Briton seen at old museums or in archeology books... Taken out of context and retitled as 'Junk Fairy Truth China 'dna' Art Dreams in Kiwi History Storms' or something obscure or bizarre; it would or could, be relevant, or at least acceptable - strange that they have - or seem to be; supporting, this crazy historian - who in his turn seems also as if he is a loopy, eccentric kind of a practical joker...

I have to concede I found what I can see here of it quite funny! And the two paintings at the bottom quite good in their way...

But then I liked the film about

7:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There never was any ‘prehistoric’ era; its all recorded history, from the first day.

For the Genesis judgement, there is information spread through the entire Bible, giving fairly vivid pictures of what happened. It was alot more than a flood; it was a total remake of the crust of the Earth.

12:39 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous said...
There never was any ‘prehistoric’ era; its all recorded history, from the first day.

For the Genesis judgement, there is information spread through the entire Bible, giving fairly vivid pictures of what happened. It was a lot more than a flood; it was a total remake of the crust of the Earth."

You mean Adam kept a diary? Where is it? By the sexual logic of the Bible Adam's children, or some of them, committed incest - so perhaps your God is evil?

The world had to be remade? So it was imperfect? Does a perfect being make imperfect worlds?

6:59 pm  
Anonymous Keri Hulme said...

these truly are (some of) the art works?



Slabby 3rd form stuff?


Well, they're right up there with Menzie's research & writing.

1:32 am  
Blogger maps said...

My thoughts exactly Keri!

9:04 am  

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