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Book of the Week: Two art critics talk a) candidly and openly about modern art practice, b) complete bollocks

Christchurch art writer Andrew Paul Wood and Auckland art writer Anthony Byrt shoot the shit about Byrt’s brilliant new book on contemporary art, This Model World. Who makes good art in New Zealand? Who doesn’t? Where do they stand on the wretched Billy Apple, who once nearly killed Duncan Greive’s dog? And much, much more.

Andrew Paul Wood: I suppose one of the most interesting things for me about This Model World is that it’s part of a small body of literature that has emerged in recent years, from – forgive the convoluted phrasing – art writers writing about writing about art.

There was a skerrick about the process of what we do in Justin Paton’s How to Look at a Painting, and in the attempt to put Wystan Curnow’s tsunami of writing into perspective in The Critic’s Part: Art Writings 1971-2012 – but not much on our tiny goldfish bowl, six degrees of Kevin Bacon milieu – it’s such a fine line between engagement, being friends with artists – and I think it’s a duty to talk with them before talking about them – while still being objective about what doesn’t work.

Anthony Byrt: When I was writing the book, I wasn’t thinking about whether it was part of the literature of art writers writing about what they do.  What I was really focused on was how – and whether – I could bring together the primary modes that I write in for magazines: features, interviews, criticism and travel writing. I was frustrated by a lot of the existing publishing conventions about art. In New Zealand in particular we have monographs, academic art histories that take forever to be completed and published, and broad brush surveys.

So the book was an experiment in form as much as anything else. I wanted to see if I could bring together some of the tools I already had to find a new way of thinking through my relationship with contemporary art.

APW: Obviously it’s a genre that’s been kicking around overseas for a while – you lampshade Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World quite hard – and to that I would probably add Bob Hughes and Brian Sewell’s memoirs, stuff like that. So is the art world in Aotearoa all that different? Better? Worse? Cosier?

 AB: The decision to write in the first person was less about writers like Sarah Thornton, and far more about my literary heroes: Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, Janet Malcolm, and in fiction writers like Javier Marias, and somewhere in between, Karl Ove Knausgaard, who – like every other Dad writer I know between the ages of about 30 and 45 – I’m obsessed with. I realised that pretty much everything I read is written, to some degree, in a first person voice. And that was how I wanted to write too.

The Sarah Thornton thing has come up a couple of times.

APW: AUP emphatically suggests it as a talking point in the press kit.

AB: Ha! Well, yes, there is that. I guess it’s a connection in the sense that she also embeds herself in the art world. And yeah, my book has seven long chapters like hers. And both of us were shooting for a similar readership and readability. But there are a lot of differences too. Thornton is a self-confessed outsider, who takes a kind of anthropological view of the art world. That’s what made her book such a success – it was like an exercise in participant observation with a weird tribe. That distance was also what made her such a great art market analyst, until she got fed up with the grossness of it all.

APW: We’re a small tribe in New Zealand, we exist in an uneasy relationship with academia (they hate us), and we’re fighting to stay relevant and useful as traditional mainstream venues shed us as uneconomical, and as art becomes increasingly self-referential and hard to explain.

AB: You’re right, it’s a very small, intimate scene. And yes, I’m very close with a number of artists – as are you with some of the people you write about. So we can look at it a couple of ways and go, yeah, that’s a problem, because it affects our ability to be objective. Or we can admit that the possibility of objectivity is nonsense.

This ties to the question of whether our job is to be in some way oppositional to artists, to hold them to account. I look at it a little differently. I see criticism as an essential part of an ecology that enables artists to do what they need to do. That doesn’t mean blowing smoke up their backsides, but it does concede that we’re all part of the same scene, and that actually the collective job is to both protect and promote the right for all of us to hold the wider culture to account, and test its limits with new forms and new ideas.

Shannon Te Ao, still from two shoots that stretch far out, 2013–14. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington.

Shannon Te Ao, still from two shoots that stretch far out, 2013–14. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington.

APW: Some artists may regard us as more parasitical than symbiotic in that ecology.

AB: Maybe. Although, interestingly, the only time any sort of parasitical vibe comes up is when I give something a bad review, or write something that pisses people off. I’ve had two reasonably chunky examples of that since I’ve been back. One was when I negatively reviewed the last Prospect show in Artforum. And the other was when I questioned the choice of Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] for next year’s Venice Biennale. What was weird is that, in neither case, did anyone get in touch with me or my editors directly to say: “hey, fuck you and your review, buddy, and here’s why.” It was all done through email groups or Facebook. I’m not on Facebook, so an artist friend was sending me screen-grabs, until I told him to stop.

But when you write positively about the work, or the scene, no one ever says: ‘there’s that parasite, mouthing off and making a living off our hard work again.’

Why do you think academics hate us? Are you talking art historians specifically, or are you casting the net wider than that?

APW: Yes, I must admit I’m in two minds about Reihana’s selection. On the one hand Pursuit does exactly what it says on the tin and everyone loves it, as is their prerogative. On the other hand it’s not terribly nuanced or subtle in its politics, and I was unashamedly biased in favour of my bestie Fiona Pardington getting it anyway.

I like where Reihana is going visually away from the ironic ethno-kitsch Pierre et Gilles thing. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Susan Best talk about the art of identity politics as being a spectrum between “paranoid aesthetic” and “reparative aesthetic” – they’re both valid responses to the postcolonial and patriarchal, but there needs to be a bit of movement. Also the appropriation of Tahiti’s colonization narrative is still an appropriation, regardless of who does it.

Occasionally my inner art historian comes out.

Art historians certainly have issues with art writers – I think because they are a bit confused by what we set out to do. We’re all about the personal response to a work and we’re really not under any obligation to back it up with evidence and footnotes, even if I can’t shake the habit of explaining everything. A common complaint is that we’re making a mockery of scholarship when in fact we’re just trying to engage with readers who otherwise wouldn’t care. I’m an amateur and dilatant despite my PhD.

I expect other academics might react similarly when we touch on their disciplines, for example, using quantum mechanics as a metaphor for an artist’s process or whatever.

AB: I did a talk recently with Judy Millar, where we discussed the possibility – or impossibility – of an art history of contemporary art. Judy’s argument is that the art world is so enormous now, and so diverse, that the idea of canon formation is pretty pointless. Which isn’t to say that art history as a whole is pointless. We still desperately need well-researched monographs on people like Walters and McCahon.

But when it comes to the relationship between thematic art history – that process of coming up with a linking thesis, then using art to illustrate it – and contemporary art, I’m with Judy. Someone asked me a great question at the end of the talk. He asked that if a critic’s job isn’t to create a canon anymore, then what are we for? For me, it’s partly about being someone who can sift through the massive amount of work we’re bombarded with, and try to recognise moments of significance, and then translate that experience for a public.

Judy Millar, two installation views of ‘The Model World’, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, Titirangi, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. Photograph by Simon Devitt.

Judy Millar, two installation views of ‘The Model World’, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, Titirangi, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. Photograph by Simon Devitt.

I also think about that journalistic cliché that journalism is the first rough draft of history. To me, criticism is the same thing. The question I have now though is whether, given the pace things change, it’s possible or even necessary to write the second or third or fourth drafts.

Perhaps another way to think about it is the tense you work in when you’re trying to figure out significance. With criticism, it’s present – it’s a being with, and making a call in that moment. Inevitably, sometimes you’ll be wrong, but that’s part of the gig. Whereas art history tends to happen less in the moment, more after the fact.

APW: Art history is what happens to you when you’re dead and seems inordinately interested in who you slept with.

And the difference coming back from Berlin where you have the perfect storm of writers, artists, cheap flats, cheap studio space, galleries, museums, rich collectors… I actually started crying when I had to leave and I was only there a month – it’s heaven! I remember talking to the arts editor of [Berlin daily] Der Tagesspiegel and she was despairing that aside from a big fat section at the weekend, they only had a single arts page every weekday. I was thinking we’d be lucky to get that, or more likely half that, once a week in Nu Zild.

I know you’d just had a really scary close medical call with your newborn – must be starting school soon? – makes you re-evaluate. Still, the culture shock… Back to the womb and the pōhutukawas…

AB: We were less worried when we came back about culture shock than we were about real shock. What had happened to us in Berlin was so unexpected, and incredibly close to very real tragedy. Even though nobody died, we were left in a total state of limbo, because no doctors, here or there, could tell us what was going to happen, and we’d possibly have to wait two to four years before we really had a clear sense of where things were going. So we just had to sort of wait, and survive, and look after each other.

But as we emerged through that process, I started to reconnect with the art scene. There were artists who I’d been close with throughout – Billy Apple, Judy Millar, Fiona Amundsen, Nicola Farquhar and her partner Warren Olds.

 APW:  Judy is awesome, brilliant, engaging, partly in a higher dimension. Not sure you’ll ever entirely win me to the Apple corner.

AB: Judy is extraordinary; one of the best and most intelligent artists New Zealand has ever produced, I reckon. I’m just pleased that more people here are starting to realize it. One of the things I’m most happy with about the book is the way my long closeness with her feeds in and out of the text.

I’m curious about your thoughts on Apple. I had the same conversation with Simon Wilson when I was working on a big feature for Metro about Billy, which is really the basis for the chapter about him in the book. Simon’s brief was “make me believe this guy matters.” After that article came out, I got a great message from Duncan Greive too, who said he used to hate Billy because he’d once almost run over Duncan’s dog, but that my story had won him over. There are plenty of other people he’s pissed off over the years too. He was anathema to people like Pat Hanly and Don Binney. So what’s your Billy beef? Is it with the man, or the work, or both?

APW: Beef is probably too strong a word. I certainly appreciate him getting there first with commodity art a good generation or two before anyone else, and of course he’s ours. It’s more that now that sort of commodity fetishism looks a bit dated to me this side of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. There comes a point when it begins to look like capitalist indulgence and spectacle for its own sake and I start missing the simpler stuff, the gallery floorplan based stuff for example.

I’m also put off a bit by the relentless PR hype because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The fluff about the Factory, for example. Years ago I followed that up through a friend of mine who used to work for Warhol’s Interview magazine during the 70s and there were a lot of blank looks – which isn’t to say he wasn’t there, but so were hundreds of other people. The desire to index the local to international celebrity reeks of cultural cringe when so much is going on right here. Look away and you miss it.

AB: I’m not sure Billy has ever claimed to have been part of the Factory scene though, has he? He was far more focused on his advertising career on Madison Avenue. Which again, makes him a very complicating character for art history – that he wasn’t so much a part of the typical sixties counterculture scene, but was making good money in the corporate world. And yet he also set up what was arguably New York’s first alternative space.

His connection to Warhol was far more to do with people like Jasper Johns, Leo Castelli and Henry Geldzahler. For me, there’s no question that he made a significant contribution to the New York scene of the time. That’s why he’s being “rediscovered” internationally at the moment. I also think Tina Barton’s retrospective of his work at the Auckland Art Gallery shifted a lot of people’s perceptions about him.

But I suspect you and I could go back and forth about this forever. I agree though about his gallery interventions and floor plans. They’re great works, and probably had more impact on the trajectory of post-object art in New Zealand than the Pop stuff that preceded it.

APW: To be fair, that’s more a criticism of the Apple Industry than the grand old man himself. I do remember being at GOMA, Brisbane’s big Warhol show in 2008 and wondering why he was one of the guests of honour… But really I guess I just recoil from hype.

Getting back to Berlin, is there anything you felt you missed out on while you were away?

AB: I’d missed a lot of things – particularly the Gambia Castle scene and the emergence of that group of artists: Nick Austin, Kate Newby, Fiona Connor, Simon Denny and so on. I’m not a huge fan of all of their work. But I do think they showed a scaling up of ambition, and an increasing sense of being able to move between “here” and “there,” which suggested to me that there was more scope to do things from New Zealand than there was when I left in 2004.

Simon Denny, installation views of ‘Secret Power’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett. Photographs by Jens Ziehe.

Simon Denny, installation views of ‘Secret Power’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett. Photographs by Jens Ziehe.

A lot of dealers were starting to play their part too, going to international fairs and so on. More international curators and artists were coming through Auckland. Venice and the Walters Prize are really important too. So I thought, well, I can moan about not being in Berlin anymore, or I can just get on with things. That said, I try to get to Europe once a year, to keep my relationships going there. I work on writing projects there and in the States whenever I can, too.

There’s definitely been a shift in thinking and in the way many of us work in the past 10 or 15 years. Robert Leonard talks about “the end of New Zealand art,” and uses Julian Dashper as an anchor point for the transition to a more internationalist scene. I’m not sure I agree with the formulation, or with placing that kind of pressure on Dashper’s output. But it does really help me to think about the kinds of generational shifts that have occurred, and are occurring.

APW: Typical Robert being provocative. I don’t think Dashper’s drum kit works could have come from anywhere else but New Zealand. Had he been in New York or London he would have been an international star, but he definitely wouldn’t have made the work he did.

AB: A curator made a great point about this when I was speaking to them recently. They said that the job of Robert’s generation – which is also people like Tina Barton and Greg Burke – was to come up with an alternative canon. They were the first wave of “postmodern” writers and curators here, and they’d inherited that really pervasive regionalist narrative that came through Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith, then Michael Dunn and so on. That’s why things like HeadlandsCultural Safety and Dashper are so important for them. I’ve felt relatively unburdened by that pressure. Although I suppose inevitably my choices of artists for the book is a kind of canon-building.

 APW: Yes, quite true. They set out to burn it all down and rebuild it global. The whole narrative around the touring Hangover show in 1995 was trying to push grunge-as-internationalism, while having a real blind spot to the quintessentially postcolonial kiwi frustrations the art was manifesting that partly came from a very local experience – something “glocal”.

Returning to the topic of art writers’ paradoxical relationship with artists, is it ever appropriate to set the phasers to “scathe” do you think?

AB: I tend to reserve the scathe setting for when there’s something really at stake. For me, that’s always to do with power and politics rather than questions of taste. It’s never enough for me to just walk into a dealer gallery and go “I hate this work, I’m going to tear into it.” If I spent my time writing about all the work I think is terrible, I’d probably have a stroke or get liver cancer or something. So the only times I really hit the scathe button are where I perceive there’s been some misuse of a powerful position, or exploitation, or bad politics, or laziness, from people or institutions whose positions mean they should know better.

APW: I tend to concur – unless there’s some industrial-grade pomposity going on, you have to balance the fine art of the hatchet job with constructive insight.

Ben Lerner in his The Hatred of Poetry advances the idea that a contempt for poetry is necessary in order to read and write against its flaws – basically you have to have a degree of hatred for it to understand the gap between art and life, and the aesthetic experiences worth filtering out. Does this apply to visual arts too?

AB: As in, do I as a critic need to hate art a little bit to write about it well?

APW: Yeah. I mean, I think in a way it’s quite necessary in order to appreciate Yvonne Todd’s work, for example. The way she plays with the subtopian stuff of studio photography – the Butterick dresses and daytime soap lighting – Sarah Jane Parton fetishizing heroic failure is another, the exquisite Warhol-Zen banality in Fiona Amundsen’s photographs, and Rob Hood’s installations – nostalgia, ironic detachment and genuine sentimentality – all valid existential stuff really. It’s anti-art. They’re feeling around the parameters of this mysterious space where art humps reality’s leg and magic happens.

I’m not sure you can entirely embrace the concept without harboring a splinter of contempt in your secret self, even as we write about it with genuine warmth. Or at least, perhaps loving it so intensely we also become a bit jaded sometimes and have to find a way of using it constructively.

AB: “Exquisite Warhol-Zen banality”! What a fantastic way to describe Fiona’s work. It’s an interesting thought. I suppose I would frame it slightly differently. Over the years, I’ve learned to understand that annoyance is part of a spectrum of first reactions I can have to work, which often means it’s actually good. When I was in my early twenties, I’d sound off about things that bugged me. Like Yvonne’s work when she won the Walters Prize in 2002; I couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately, I said that to a lot of people, then had to backtrack in the Listener when I realized I was wrong.

The other more recent example of that is my relationship with Simon Denny’s work. At first, I’d found his political non-committal incredibly grating: like, here was this young hotshot doing whatever it takes to make it internationally, without taking up a position. Then I realized, again, that I was dead wrong. The chapter on him in the book traces that realization.

It’s also interesting to me that those are the two I think of most strongly as having initially bugged me, when, as far as age goes, I fall almost exactly between them. So they’re kind of like generational brackets for me – maybe I just initially recognized too much of myself, my life, my politics, in what they were doing.

What about you? Who’ve you been wrong about?

APW: I have to say your book did make me more receptive to Denny than I was before. I find it hard to move past the idea that most of his work is quite opportunistic and seems to consist of going through other people’s rubbish bins and sticking it up on the walls, so I was definitely coming from a similar initial place to you.

Take Denny’s The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom in which he physically reproduced everything on the list of what the police confiscated when they raided Dotcom’s mansion. It was all G up until the moment Dotcom shambled out of the shadows. Instead of some abstract idea, suddenly he was a real person with feelings and agendas, which made Denny’s installation look contrived and superficial. And then the “Moment of Truth” fiasco made it all look very awkward.

Simon Denny, installation views of ‘The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom’, 2013, Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, 2014. Courtesy of the artist, Adam Art Gallery and Michael Lett. Photographs by Shaun Waugh.

Simon Denny, installation views of ‘The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom’, 2013, Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, 2014. Courtesy of the artist, Adam Art Gallery and Michael Lett. Photographs by Shaun Waugh.

The Venice Biennale, Secret Power, has a lot more integrity to it. Especially once you take into account the art world and real world politics of it, but I still think Denny’s a bit of a wide boy who benefitted fantastically from his dealer Michael Lett being the USS Nimitz of PR skills.

 AB: I really do think Simon is a seriously significant artist. He’s finding new form. Whether we necessarily like what he’s finding is a different question. But there are very few artists in the world right now who can make that claim.

That leads me to a related question – about how you understand the difference between quality and taste. As in, how do you know something’s good even if you don’t like it? And how do you write about that?

APW: Practice, I guess, and the maturity to recognize taste is a subjective thing. I also tend to talk with other people about what they think while I digest, in case I’m missing something. For me art either works or it doesn’t, whether I personally like what it’s doing or not. A negative response is still a response – or at least I try to keep that front and centre. What’s the old Cesar Cruz cliché? “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”? Though I might be a bit old-fashioned in thinking that’s a criteria.

As much as this year’s Berlin Biennial, curated by “bleeding-edge” (*rolls eyes*) New York art/fashion/media collective DIS, looked like a plastic half-arsed abomination, they probably did get Simon’s vibe putting him with artists like Josh Kline, Katja Novitskova and Timur Si-Qin. That was all about the disposable culture of virtual life.

Social media has some very interesting and terrifying implications for art criticism. Younger writers in other areas seem maybe overinvested in their social media presence, being popular and liked, staying on narrative and getting clicks. Also in the case of restaurant reviews critics and publications have been sued for less-than-favourable reports.

At the same time, it opens up the dialogue and lets people feel more confident about engaging with art – though generally that seems to consist mostly of pettifogging and complaint. It’s a popular pastime in Christchurch when applied to public art. It effectively stymied a Michael Parekowhai installation in Cathedral Square – back when there was a Cathedral, and an Andrew Drummond bridge.

AB: I have such mixed feelings about social media. The only platform I’m on is Twitter, which was such a godsend when I came back to New Zealand. It was a way for me to reconnect with a community, and also find like-minded writers. This wasn’t so much about other art critics (because there aren’t many of us) as it was about people who shared my interests in intelligent, accessible, well-written journalism. People like Greg Bruce, Naomi Arnold, and Aimie Cronin, who’ve become close friends. That’s also why I wanted to write for Metro under Simon Wilson. It was really clear that he was fostering a generation – my generation – of writers.

The public art thing is a separate issue. I know a lot of artists who actually can’t stand public art themselves, because they don’t think the public should have art foisted on them. I’m less certain about this. My main concern with these debates is when they’re used as excuses for broader attacks on contemporary art and artists, and on the idea that art is a waste of public money, rather than a public good. That’s largely why I wrote a pretty impassioned defense of Mike P’s State House project for Auckland’s waterfront. I thought the conversation about it was being hijacked by certain figures who were unduly grinding their axes on it. So I decided to give an alternative view.

APW: I think public art, of all kinds, is important; temporary and permanent, figurative monument, conceptual performance, and bronze dog turd in the plaza. They’re part of the psychogeography of a place once they bed in, which probably takes on new meaning in Christchurch when so much has been scoured away in the most traumatic way.

AB: It’s interesting to me that debates about public art are also some of the few times you see curators and people like us being called on for comment by the mainstream media. And that’s often very dangerous, because reporters can look to cast you either in defence mode or pretentious mode. So it becomes a very delicate balancing act. That brings me to something you and I have never discussed. Who are the other critics you look to and admire, either here or overseas?

Shane Cotton, installation view of ‘The Haymaker Series I–V’, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett. Photograph by Alex North

Shane Cotton, installation view of ‘The Haymaker Series I–V’, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett. Photograph by Alex North

APW: That’s a tough one, and not all of them are strictly art critics. Early on I fell in love with Robert Hughes and Clive James – they sort of roll along pointing out lovely things and say it in an exquisite way and make you feel smarter for having read them. I have a fondness for Christopher Hitchens’ half-brick-in-a-sock approach, and Brian Sewell was quite marvelous at puncturing sacred cows when he wasn’t being an evil old bitch. I like Sontag, but she was often a bit cold, and I like Paglia, but she was often a bit too fiery. Adrian Searle is always good value, and I love Dorian Batycka’s writing.

I’m attracted to prose stylists who can pull in some complicated bit of theory if they need to and make it accessible.

And then there are people I absolutely can’t abide like Matthew Collings – we even had a bit of an internet spat going for a while – Jerry Saltz, who is, to use a fine old Yiddish word, a putz, and Jonathon Jones at the Guardian, who tends to make me want stick pencils in my eyes.

In New Zealand, there’s you, obviously… A lot of the younger emerging writers seem to be a bit too hung up on talking about the narrative and theory, though, and barely say boo about the art itself, at least in my opinion.

So who do you like?

AB: Totally agree about Jonathan Jones. He’s dreadful. That’s hilarious that you got into a fight with Collings – I’m pretty much with you on that one too, although I do remember seeing This is Modern Art as a student, and realizing there really were non-academic ways to talk about stuff. I think Searle and Laura Cumming can be really great.

I admire a lot of my colleagues at Artforum. Barry Schwabsky is a great example of a writer who can walk the line between academic and mainstream audiences. Dan Fox does that really well for frieze too. I’ve always been a big fan of Dave Hickey. I know, I know – tons of people hate him. But when I first read Air Guitar, it changed a lot of things for me.

The local scene is tricky though, right? There are so few people actively writing art criticism on a regular basis. But I think we’ve been occasionally lucky in the past. Tessa Laird and Justin [Paton] were very good at acting as translators for a mainstream audience. I thought Anna Miles was too. In some ways, I’m very grateful she gave it up to be an art dealer, because that left the local Artforum gig open! I’ve often looked to other critical disciplines too. I’ve always loved Nick Bollinger’s impeccable music writing, and Philip Matthews’ film reviews.

APW: John Bywater was also a marvelous art writer – I’m not sure if he still keeps his hand in with it – and Gwyn Porter really opened to my eyes to the possibilities in writing creatively about contemporary New Zealand art when she was editing LOG in Christchurch.

I have to say that I get a bit annoyed with the “Here be dragons” attitude to South Island-based artists I keep encountering in Auckland and Wellington, especially when Ilam has produced so many important artists. It’s been really great to see the shakeup in this year’s Walters Prize.

AB: Really? I just don’t buy that this is an issue. If you’re good, you’re good, and you show everywhere. And you have to show outside of Christchurch, because Auckland and Wellington have huge collector and institutional bases. There’s also a very big difference between “South Island-based” and the number of major artists in New Zealand who are from, or trained in, the south. None of the ones I know deny this, or pretend it’s not the case. Upritchard, Robinson, Cotton, Carr, Pick and so on. The list is massive. That they choose to live in the north or overseas isn’t really something native Aucklanders and Wellingtonians have anything to do with.

I also don’t think the Walters this year is a shake-up at all. I think it’s much too narrow as a snapshot of the best of contemporary New Zealand art.

Steve Carr, still from American Night, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett

Steve Carr, still from American Night, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett

APW: Nah, I don’t really agree at all – possibly because I’m biased, but also that sounds a bit like a deflection. There is quite an uphill battle to get noticed north of the strait. The taste-makers are loath to visit the hinterlands, and there are a lot of material pressures on SI artists with showing in north with shipping and travel. It’s far easier to get noticed when you’re on the ground in someone’s face.  I really believe that an art work sometimes needs to be seen in the context of its community, which is probably one of the reasons I have stayed down here. I won’t go so far as to say you can do contemporary “art history” as such, but you can see a whakapapa and tūrangawaewae going on. The distinction between being from somewhere and being based somewhere is an iffy one, simply because some people are quite diverse in the way they identify with place and community, especially if they are Māori.

I find the statement, “you have to show outside of Christchurch, because Auckland and Wellington have huge collector and institutional bases” troubling, because I’m not sure why that shouldn’t be questioned, at least as far as institutions go. If an institution – Te Papa being a glaring example, less so Auckland Art Gallery – are going to position themselves as collections of national significance, then surely they should be getting off their curatorial arses (as was more the norm maybe 30-40 years ago) and scouting around the other centres. We’re not talking a mission to Mars here (or *cough* Venice).

I think you may be underplaying the idea that this year is a radically different Walters Prize. In the space of a cycle we’ve gone from a decade of the usual suspects who show on K Road to Nathan Pohio with a work specifically about Canterbury and Ngāi Tahu. I won’t dwell, but for artists, curators, gallerists and moi in this neck of the woods, it feels like having a real stake in the process.

AB: You raise a really important point there, and one I started to grapple with as I was writing the book. It’s a kind of triangularity between three related issues: ‘globalisation,’ ‘location’ and ‘place’. A lot of people assume that because the art world is so global now, it’s led to a flattening of practice – as in, art looks the same now no matter where it’s from. But I realized writing the book that there is still a really distinctive way that the local shows up in New Zealand work, even by our most high profile artists.

Denny at Venice is a perfect example: it was a brilliant project for the way it anchored our very specific role in Five Eyes and his relationship with Nicky Hager within the broader discussion of the Snowden leaks, which every art person on the planet knows about. I think there’s a case to be made for the light in Judy’s paintings as being located here, and then there’s Shane’s use of Toi Moko, which speak to horrific local histories but also to international questions about the collection and display of human remains.

But this is also why I draw a distinctive between location and place. Location seems to carry all our regionalist baggage – the “distance looks our way” stuff, which for me, quickly tips into parochialism. And parochialism is connected to the kinds of nationalisms and patriotisms that are starting to emerge so dangerously around the world right now. That was what was so awful about the flag debate too: that it was a deeply conservative attempt to tap into worryingly patriotic sentiment, but framed somehow as a progressive act. And there was no conversation whatsoever about the role aesthetics play in the creation of national – and nationalist – symbols. So ‘place’ for me seems a more nuanced and psychological concept. There’s an inevitability about being shaped by where we are, but our ability to tap into it isn’t based on a tyrannical connection to a specific location.

APW: What was the first artist you ever wrote about for something other than a university assignment, and where?

AB: My friend Henry Symonds was in a group show in Auckland, at a gallery just off Queen Street. I was doing some Masters papers with Henry at the time. He asked me if I’d like to write about the show. I pitched it to William Dart at Art New Zealand, and that was the first piece I published in a real magazine. As soon as it came out, I knew it was a pretty awful essay, still heavily burdened with art jargon and obscure, probably irrelevant theory. So I made the decision that if I was going to write about art, then I needed to learn how to actually write.

You?

APW: It was probably less than 400 words for a free, Christchurch-based magazine called Presto, sixteen years ago when I was working at The Physics Room back in 2000. A Dorothy Helyer work. Of such humble beginnings… There has to be a start somewhere. William Dart and Art New Zealand has always been profoundly generous with new writers, then there was a stint with the Listener thanks to Phillip Matthews, The Press, bits here and there – you spend a lot of time hustling – design, architecture, now Eye Contact and Art News. Every piece of text is a learning experience, trying to stay on the ball.

Do you make art or write creatively yourself outside of essay form? I thought about going to art school after high school, but then figured the world needed more people articulating art and wouldn’t miss another mediocre artist. Writing poetry and short fiction is an important part of keeping me sane.

‘Billy Apple in his warehouse looking at a self-portrait from 1969 (photograph by Ira Mazer), Auckland, 2011. Courtesy of the Billy Apple® Archive. Photograph by Mary Morrison’

AB: I think rather than characterising what I do right now as the essay form, I’d characterize it more as longform criticism. That’s certainly what I was thinking about when I was writing the book, at least. At Metro, I’d been through a huge learning curve working with Simon Wilson, around the craft of feature writing. What I found was that the air starts to get much thinner once you tip over the 3000 word mark. It’s at that point you really do have to think more about character, story and a kind of narrative arc. That’s one of my frustrations about so much art publishing: that galleries often limit contributions to the 2-3000 word mark. I now don’t take many commissions like that – there’s just not a lot in it for me.

I was also lucky that at the Listener for several years, I did a lot of literature reviewing and interviewing novelists. I learned a huge amount from those conversations. That all happened under Philip Matthews and Guy Somerset – they were both amazingly supportive editors.

I used to write a lot of fiction, and managed to publish a couple of short stories. I got 60,000 words into a novel before I realised the historical material I was working with was more interesting than anything I was doing to it. That was also the moment when I realised I should really focus on non-fiction and journalism. So now, I guess I see myself as part of the broad church of creative nonfiction, whatever that means. It’s really just a way of saying I like to borrow from a few different genres. The next book I’m discussing with AUP will likely have a much more biographical and archival basis, but I still want to use the first person approach I have in This Model World.

 APW: If you were going to pick an artist everyone in New Zealand should be aware of, who would it be?

I’m going to pick Marie Le Lievre here in Christchurch. For me she is just the consummate painter. It’s often very physical work in the now of its making, a bit like Judy, and the physicality of paint, but her work is also just so ethereally beautiful – the interplay between the figurative and abstract, the drawn line and poured/smeared paint particularly.

AB: I don’t really know Marie’s work. But maybe that just proves your point about us Aucklanders not looking widely enough!

The obvious person for me to say is Judy, but I think she is starting to get more traction now, so I’ll pick two other people. The first is Ruth Buchanan, who has an absolutely singular vision. She has this extraordinary capacity to use language as sculptural form, which is part poetry, part installation. It’s incredibly sensual and even sexy work too – there’s an immense physicality to it. Not that many people know about her here because she lives in Berlin. But it’s a good time right now, in that she has three shows in New Zealand coming up or already on – in New Plymouth, Wellington and Auckland.

The other would be Kim Pieters – a South Islander, Andrew! I think her paintings are just fantastic, particularly for the way they move New Zealand’s history of monochromatic abstraction towards something so lyrical. She’s great.

Then I have a list of younger artists I sort of keep a constant eye on. Luke Willis Thompson, Imogen Taylor, Andrew Beck. I think Kalisolaite ‘Uhila has the potential to be beyond brilliant. There’s a guy who should go to Venice at some stage.

Becky Nunes, Shane Cotton’s Palmerston North studio, 2016.

Becky Nunes, Shane Cotton’s Palmerston North studio, 2016.

 APW: Snap! I love Ruth Buchanan’s installations – they have this poetic-romantic quality to them that I adore. Kim Pieters is a very interesting painter – her monochromatic surfaces I think find parallels in 1990s Peter Robinson, Séraphine Pick, Tony de Lautour and Shane – she was roughly contemporary and I think there may have been a bit of a feedback loop.

I recoiled a bit from Luke Willis Thompson – the grave stones from Fiji in Sucu Mate / Born Dead at Hopkinson Mossman just seemed a bit too calculated to shock for my tastes, and Imogen Taylor similarly leaves me a bit cold – “Zombie Formalism” might be a cliché, but I’m old-fashioned, and probably Hegelian enough to want something transcendent out of abstraction.

It’s also really important to be able to pop into the local art school – not always to teach – and just see what’s going on and who’s making what. Seeing it emerge as it happens. Studio visits are another part of that. For me it’s not just going around the galleries, but actively participating in a community.

AB: I agree about going into art schools regularly. It’s interesting that in Auckland, even though we’ve got five, the story is always the same: each year, all of them produce 3 or 4 interesting grads. Which poses the question of whether we’re actually doing anything to sharpen them up, or whether if you locked them in a room for four years, they’d still come out as interesting artists. I’m very interested in that question, especially as academic requirements and the PBRF encroach more and more on what art schools are expected to do. I’m very wary of the current teaching model, and I’m not sure how much longer it can really hold.

APW: It’s increasingly difficult to get serious, but non-threatening, art talk out there in the public sphere. I used to do local TV until it became, as the expression goes, “no longer commercially viable,” and for a couple of years had a community radio show, which is hopefully still archived in the aether as podcasts. Podcasts seem a viable possibility, but unless you’re getting paid, it’s a big time and energy investment. I also run talks and workshops at galleries in what used to be called “art appreciation,” but really is just creating a safe, non-judgemental place to talk about looking and feeling. It’s difficult to know what more can be done really.

AB: To me it’s about getting people to understand that at its core, contemporary art isn’t that difficult, or esoteric, or pretentious. It’s actually a very noble thing: it’s about trying to find new form and ideas, and taking risks to do that in an increasingly conservative world. Our job is to sift through, reflect back, and translate. And along the way, I guess we just hope we win enough converts to stave off our extinction.

APW: Amen! Testify!


This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art (Auckland University Press, $45) by Anthony Byrt is available at Unity Books.

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