Simon Denny (Photo: Jesse Hunniford/MONA)

Things I Learned at Art School: Simon Denny

Things I Learned at Art School is a new series featuring artists discussing how they do what they do and know what they know. In the second instalment, Megan Dunn talks to Berlin-based New Zealander Simon Denny about Michael Parekowhai, teaching and technology, and an idea involving the online shoe store Zappos that didn’t work out. 

What did you learn at art school?

To look and listen more closely to people and things around me. To follow friends and trust in people I found worthwhile. Related: the field is dynamic – it doesn’t work to think of it as fixed.

What was the difference between what you learned and made at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland as opposed to your training and approach later at Städelschule in Frankfurt?

At Elam I really learned about what contemporary art was – I came in imagining it was a certain kind of painting, so I was introduced to a lot about how the field functions, what a contemporary role for an artist can be, different histories, the difference between practices in New Zealand, the fact that there was a functioning international network consisting of journals, fairs, biennales, galleries etc that New Zealand artists and curators were in dialogue with. I also learned about my own history as a part of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s colonial history. I met makers and people thinking about culture who had very different reference points than me. That helped me understand that I was working with a lot of assumptions, that culture was more complex than I might have thought beforehand. I learned how to do things like write art history essays, some craft skills and I developed close relationships with artists and thinkers like Michael Parekowiai, P. Mule, Peter Shand, Daniel Malone, Fiona Pardington and many peers who were studying with me like Nick Austin, Kate Newby, Fiona Connor, Dan Arps and many others.

Frankfurt was another experience – it was the first time I moved away from Auckland, my family and friends. It was a scary shift. At that time the Städelschule was a kind of hub for a certain conversation in contemporary art – with Daniel Birnbaum as the director, who was also the curator of the Venice Biennale during my time there. The faculty included Wolfgang Tillmans, Isabelle Graw, Simon Starling, Mark Leckey, Michael Krebber, Willem de Rooij (who was my professor), Martha Rosler and many other very active and visible figures whom I’d only read about before attending the school. Many artists would visit – it was kind of more like having a studio inside a contemporary art museum (which makes sense actually, because it is connected closely to the Staedel Museum, and Portikus is an institution that is incorporated within the school). Also the students were closer to the staff than at Elam – we travelled to see their exhibitions, were invited to dinners after their openings, saw a bit more of the way that world worked socially. It was a different kind of relationship as norm between professor and student at Staedel. It was very social.

Did your work change dramatically? If so, what precipitated this change?

Yes, I think it did in some ways. I started to focus more on technology. It was 2007, and everything I was doing was through my recently acquired laptop – from keeping in touch with family (through emergent social networking sites), watching English television thorough platforms like MegaVideo, looking at art videos from history – everything happened though that laptop. Also mobile started to be a thing – the iPhone came out that year. Students in the school that I met were fascinated both by the history of how artists had dealt with the emergence of media shifts in the past – like cable TV in the 1960s and 70s – and with the overwhelming shifts that web 2.0 were bringing to our experience. That set me off on the path, in dialogue with others, of explicitly looking at tech and media through sculpture and installation.

When you say the field isn’t fixed… what do you mean?

I mean that peers change, interests change, the discourse and conversation around artwork changes, politics changes and you yourself change. One of the things that I think I learned from both art school experiences was that to expect a particular approach to making artwork and working with a group of people to function well for a longer period was not realistic. And to expect a community to stay cohesive and energetic for a longer period was also not realistic. Everything has its timeline, and to learn to enjoy that fluidity was something very valuable I learned in art school.

Close up of the Michael Parekowhai sculpture. Installation View, Mine, Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania, June 2019 – April 2020 (Photo: Jesse Hunniford/MONA)

You’re worked several times now with Michael Parekowhai, including in your current show MINE, at MONA in Hobart. What do you respond to in his work? 

Michael’s work made a big impression on me early – it was one of the practices I came to first in understanding contemporary art. He was also an early role model in terms of how an artist might live and work. I think the way that he deals with very complicated cultural territory, postcolonial discourse, and visual language is amazing. All of his work is precise, seemingly simple, concise yet complex.

What was he like as a teacher?

I came to think through making through his work in my first year at art school – he seemed to risk more than other people, get anything done to make the work better, never compromise on execution. All these things made a big impression in terms of methodology. Michael was very dedicated to me as a student – he helped me make work, drove me to fabricators off campus, let me use his personal workshop and studio, spoke to me on the phone after hours. I’m very grateful that he took the time and interest in what I was doing. Even in dealing with me at 18-19 years old, he had a lot of confidence in what I did – that was contagious. It helped me believe in myself.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

Only do things you’re really convinced are a good idea – taking into account as much context as possible.

MINE includes data collection… can you tell me more about how that works?

The museum experience at MONA is always structured around an iOS interface called the “o” which all viewers need to interact with. The whole museum is designed like that. Visitors are either given a device or download an app, and through this “o” experience they encounter all labels for works, text about the works, audio guides, cueing systems for more experience-based attractions. One can also “like” and “dislike” artworks through this interface.

Of course, it’s also collecting data about how viewers behave – how long you spend with work, your movements – it maps each viewers experience of the museum. In the context of me making a show about extraction – of data, resources and the hierarchies and histories of extraction, I wanted to make that process that is central to the museum experience a part of that story. So there is an augmented reality layer as a part of my exhibition which really focuses around what your role as a viewer is, who’s being extracted from and what is happening through this device. First, you look at a bird in a cage patented by Amazon (perhaps the biggest user of data for business globally), you then experience yourself as being emotionally mapped by rare earth elements, and then your engagement data taken on the “o” is revealed to you explicitly.

Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage (US 9,280,157 B2: “System for transporting personnel within an active workspace”, 2016) 2019, 120 x 100 x 270 cm Powder-coated metal, MDF, plastic, digital print on cardboard, iOS Augmented Reality interface. Photo: MONA/Jesse Hunniford.

What was the first artwork you made that you were proud of?

I don’t remember… How I feel about what I’ve done is another aspect of art-making that is dynamic for me.

What’s a standout exhibition you’ve seen in the past twelve months?

I’ve seen so many fantastic exhibitions in the last year – difficult to meaningfully single one out. I just last week saw an Emil Nolde exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof where I live in Berlin which was remarkable. It examines his role as an anti-Semite, his attitudes towards the Nazi party (he was a supporter of Hitler), the Nazi party’s deliberation around whether or not to endorse Expressionism as an aesthetic or to denounce it (which was apparently a very close call, but they ultimately went on to denounce Expressionism as degenerate and Nolde with it), and his post-war reinvention as an emblematic Nazi artist victim. This re-examination felt careful, meaningful and relevant at a time when the relationship between aesthetics and politics is subject to debate.

Tell me about a time an idea didn’t work out.

I made a couple of sculptures modelling the headquarters of an Amazon-owned online shoe store company called Zappos as a part of my exhibition at the Serpentine in 2015. They saw images of the work online and invited me to come and do an exhibition in the building I’d made sculptures of – their headquarters in Las Vegas. I went for an incredible site visit where I met the CEO’s pet Llamas in the luxury caravan park he lived in with his executive team and many other crazy things. I explored their building which was literally the former city hall, now mostly stripped and decorated in a kind of maximalist start-up style, with slogans everywhere and products piled up thick on desks.

Their meeting room was still at that stage decorated as the original City Hall courtroom with a wooden relief map of Las Vegas, and a city logo clock among other gems. They were stripping that too (like they had the rest of the building), and I asked them to save a number of the pieces from that interior for me to arrange as relics to the changeover in governance from a state power to an Amazon-owned experiment in flat hierarchy and venture-invested start-up-as-city-planning-department (the CEO also bought up half of the surrounding downtown area and was involved in rebranding it as a start-up hub). It was very close to happening, they sent images of the relics, we agreed on a space and then it fell through – suddenly contact dropped.

What is the worst criticism you’ve faced in your art career so far?

That my work simply amplifies the problems it tries to unpack. It’s something I’m always thinking about when I’m making, so in the end, I’m grateful to those who articulated that criticism. I think it’s made me more aware of what’s at stake when I make projects.

Installation View, Mine, Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania, June 2019 – April 2020 (Photo: Jesse Hunniford/MONA)

Describe your average working week.

My weeks vary a bit. I have a few kinds of “average working weeks”. When installing work or speaking it involves odd hours, travel and meeting people. During the teaching semesters (I’m a professor at the HFBK in Hamburg), some days are spent with students there. The rest of the time, I’m with my assistants in a small studio in Berlin from 10-6 reading, writing emails, looking, getting samples made, meeting with people and thinking.

I had no idea you were teaching. Can you tell me what you enjoy about teaching, what the students ask most frequently and what some of the challenges are?

Teaching is something I’ve been involved with in some form for a while, but it’s less than a year ago that I actually accepted a proper professorship at a real art school. For context, I’ve only done two semesters there – so this kind of position and the challenges involved are still revealing themselves to me. I’m also extremely lucky and grateful at the kind of position I have and the school that I work with. There’s an emphasis on things that really matter, and a minimisation of things that make teaching less enjoyable. It’s well compensated, realistic, relatively stable, recognises that artists who are really engaged in the field are valuable as teachers, but that this also means a balance on expectations around contact time and research and exhibition time need to be built in.

I enjoy learning with students, navigating the world in conversation with other artists as they frame what they are doing, why and how. I find it similar to working with other artists in other ways I’ve done before – with this mentoring programme, Berlin Program for Artists, that I’ve worked on for the last few years with Willem de Rooij, Angela Bulloch and many others in Berlin. It also reminds me of times I’ve worked on artist run project spaces both in Auckland and in Berlin.

I think the challenges are sensing what might be relevant to bring to the table for the students – what input will be of value and what’s the best way to structure that input. There’s a lot of factors that affect that.

Favourite podcast, web series, TV? 

Again plural, always incomplete and changing but – podcasts: Edge Effects, Politics Theory Other, The Dig. TV: Random Acts of Flyness, Succession, Chernobyl

What role does art play in society today?

Lots of different roles in lots of different places – it’s broad and decentralised. Social consensus about what art is and what it does varies. Which is, for me, positive in that one can’t really pin it down to one role in one context.

Last but not least, what next?

Join us and contribute
to our journalism!
Find Out More

I’m working on exhibitions in Rome, Basel, San Francisco and New York which are coming up in the next year and a new semester starting October with my class in Hamburg.

Mine is showing at the Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania, until 13 April 2020.

For more listings of current art exhibitions across Aotearoa go to ArtNow.NZ



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.