To celebrate the 50th birthday of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, Walters Prize-winning artist Ruth Buchanan has rehung their collection, bringing previously unseen works and skeletons out of the closet. Her new exhibition The scene in which I find myself/Or, where does my body belong examines the politics of a public art collection: Who’s in it? Who’s missing? Jim and Mary Barr find out.
When it comes to museums and art museums in particular, the collection is the iceberg in the room. Most of it is under the surface, rarely revealed, and like any good iceberg, it’s slippery. Curators dip into it from time to time, conservators tend it behind the scenes and directors tiptoe around controversy if there is ever a whisper of culling items. With collections, the pressure is always on for more storage, more conservation, more crates, more security. Is it preservation or hoarding? As they go on accumulating, collections start to pose more questions than they give answers.
The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth has recently appointed their new director. This time it’s a duo (Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh) who are not from around here and find themselves with a 50th anniversary to celebrate. Fifty years of exhibitions, commissions, building and renovations, controversies and, of course, acquisitions through purchases and gifts. The gallery’s collection now has around 1000 items. So, what could be said about this 50-year accumulation? Or rather, what does the accumulation have to say for itself? There have been collection shows at the G-B/LLC before with titles like Out from the basement, Critical moments from the Govett-Brewster collections and Open storage. But a 50th anniversary, that’s something special.
Which brings us to Berlin-based, New Zealand artist Ruth Buchanan. She’s been commissioned to look at the holdings and make an exhibition. Buchanan is a thinker. More importantly, she’s a thinker who pays close attention to the politics of art museums and how they operate. She’s worked with collections before and she’s not reluctant to mess around with expectations and categories or to reveal some uncomfortable truths. She’s a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may kind of person.
The exhibition Buchanan is assembling bears the mysterious title The scene in which I find myself/Or, where does my body belong, but its methods and aims are anything but obscure. She has selected around 293 artworks by 190 artists taken from the G-B/LLC holdings. So far, so conventional. There’s a formula to this kind of in-house collection show and it’s set on putting the gallery’s best foot forward; go through the storage rooms, work out some visual connections that wrap easily around the work known to be the “best”, write captions asserting the gallery’s acumen in its choices, make sure major gifts fit into one of the themes and come up with a catchy title.
Give the job to an artist and you usually get a more personal and often aesthetically based result but one still featuring the highlights. But not with Ruth Buchanan. She’s worked with the G-B/LLC collection before and this time the gallery was prepared to put in the resources for research to give her a decent base to work from. To get her arms around this ambitious project she developed a simple system to guide her selection. Not what she most admired or thought most influential, not art corralled by themes, but a set of rules: list the acquisitions by decade, select the first work acquired by each artist in that decade, and repeat for each medium. So for example in the 2000s, Lisa Reihana is represented by two works (a video and a work on paper), and in the 80s, Allen Maddox by one painting.
Buchanan is very clear that her “rules” are intended to be more of a crutch than a straitjacket and exceptions have been made for practical reasons; for instance, if the work thrown up by the rules is too big or needs special light conditions. In short, she has set out to reveal the development of the G-B/LLC collection and confront its consistent exclusion of Māori artists, Pacific artists and women artists, in particular.
The G-B/LLC is not alone in trying to reevaluate what the collection is there to do. In New York, the mother of all contemporary museums MoMA has just rehung its famous collection, with director Glenn Lowry stating that MoMA is now committed to making the collection the “main tent” of the institution, rather than the temporary exhibition programme. This will ring a bell in New Plymouth (and elsewhere) for those who wonder why their cities apparently own these large collections but seldom have the opportunity to see them.
But Buchanan is not after simply airing the collection; her intention is to reveal more about how it got to be what it is. Who got to choose, how did they decide, who was in and who was out, and then at what point did such exclusions become systematic, and what does all this tell us now about the last 50 years of art in New Zealand. That’s right, Buchanan is in pursuit of how different holders of power take charge and how they shape our sense of identity, significance and history.
They are big questions and it’s no surprise that this is a big and dense exhibition. Buchanan has tried to physically display as much as possible on the principle that “the more we see, the more we know”. In the accompanying exhibition guide, each work has a caption outlining the artist, title, date and medium, but also added usually “invisible” collection process detail. This is where Buchanan’s critical analysis starts to bite: the date of acquisition, how it was paid for (gift, purchase), where it was bought from (dealer, studio, resale), and then the written justification at the time for its selection, its exhibition history since coming into the collection and an irresistible “Notes” section (media, controversies, oddities).
To help us navigate all this, Buchanan has added three to four of her own categories to each decade. She’s used this technique before after working alongside the German artist and committed categoriser Marianne Wex. Buchanan thinks of herself introducing categories in this way as a means of “moving around the artists” to avoid blatant number crunching. Her additional categories are titled: body work, living, women, Māori, exception, legs (all the artists in the show have legs as far as we know), politics, no longer living, In or around the Pacific Rim. There are others, also designed to illuminate Buchanan’s politics, but that gives you the general idea.
So what does this all have to say, or rather what can Buchanan show us? Checking out the listing for one of the decade galleries, the 1980s, here’s a few take-outs stimulated by Buchanan’s wily operation.
The first thing we noticed from the captions was how little of the collection is ever shown. And we mean ever. Of these 63 works acquired over the 1980s, 23% have been on public display only once and 31% have never been shown at all. Many of the latter category were works on paper, but still.
One of the works never shown to the public was Work this out jungle boy, a painting by Allen Maddox. The director at the time of acquisition apparently viewed 60 Maddox works before claiming it to be “the best work he had completed to date”. So we’re not just talking rats and mice here, it’s that iceberg thing again. A work can enter the collection and become all but invisible to the institution. The argument for its acquisition made and the battle won, the caravan moves on.
Something else the Buchanan “rules” expose is the radical shift in media from the 70s’ and 80s’ dedication to paintings, works on paper and object-based sculpture to the post-90s embrace of video, installation, photography. This trend certainly reflects global trends even though in the exhibition it has been somewhat sidelined by the exclusion of a number of contemporary installations and video works that would require entire galleries to accommodate them. Still, even their absence contributes to the current conversation in art institutions around the sustainability of acquiring such technically complicated, space-hungry works.
Ironically, another effect of Buchanan’s rules-based selection has been to open up how much the Govett-Brewster’s selections have been shaped by dealer gallery relationships, friendships, art fashions, local political imperatives, social pressure and the director’s personality and ambitions. As it goes in the world, so it goes in New Plymouth. If ever a show gives the lie to the conventional wisdom that museums are a “neutral negotiating space”, this will be that exhibition.
For the new directors, Buchanan’s exhibition is a bold move. Getting a curator in to relook at the collection, as the Auckland Art Gallery is currently doing (a freelance Australian curator at that – can you believe it?), tends to keep things safely within professional protocols. By contrast, we can expect Buchanan’s selection to challenge the way most of us think about the G-B/LLC and its claims to present “the most provocative, audacious and confident works of art from New Zealand, the Pacific and around the world”.
Collections are often regarded as the “spine” of an institution. The idea is that they hold it together with an historical and conceptual narrative. This was certainly the philosophy of MoMA until the 1990s when the spine gave way to the sponge (their metaphors, not ours) with its more positive connotations of an “endless combination of linkages and of configurations“. In her own visioning of the G-B/LLC collection, Buchanan has taken the sponge metaphor a step further with one of her own – a working stomach. An organ that stores, churns and breaks down matter and then moves on. OK, it feels like an uneasy fit with culture, but maybe that’s just because we prefer our cultures to operate in an orderly fashion, respecting boundaries and without too much mixing of matter. Buchanan’s metaphor may be disconcertingly visceral but it does advocate for a more unruly approach to thinking around collections in public institutions. Gutsy.
Ruth Buchanan’s The scene in which I find myself/Or, where does my body belong? is at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, until 22 March 2020.