From a Ronnie Van Hout take on The Breakfast Club to James Oram carving a rendition of his own face out of soap, Christchurch Art Gallery’s show of new video art in response to Covid-19 isolation is worth championing, writes Mark Amery.
Commissioning artists in uncertain times makes sense. For, uncertainty for artists is typical habitat. When new thinking is needed, welcome an artist into your workplace!
Theirs is a livelihood based on endless hours making connections between things no one else has yet made, unsure if anyone will appreciate it (or, to quote a 1976 Colin McCahon painting, “AM I Scared Boy (EH)”).
Like those dark times of struggle in lockdown which prove ultimately rewarding, artists swim daily through the murk, exploring the spaces in between, questioning contexts and the currency of accepted tropes. Hopefully, they come out the other side having bridged a few things.
Which is one big reason why an award for Public Gallery Best Coping with Covid-19 should go to Christchurch Art Gallery. For online video art project Spheres, curators Nathan Pohio and Melanie Oliver commissioned five artists to create new video works in their bubbles about social distance and their personal environment, and paid screening rights to artists for a further seven works to put online.
Forget so-called 360-degree virtual walkthroughs of exhibitions using cursor arrows and trackpads, looking one digital step removed at digital reproductions of artwork; they deaden art’s visceral charge. Spheres is work made for the fabric of your computer screen.
Such award news will come as no surprise to those who follow the comms work of our public art institutions. Christchurch Art Gallery has the finest art publishing arm in the country, and its website is a cut well above the pack, with its user-friendly version of the gallery’s magazine Bulletin providing a dynamic reading experience.
Commissioning should be a vital part of any public gallery’s work, particularly these days when so many of our finest artists focus principally on projects aimed at public conversation, rather than objects for the art market. And the artists that a gallery picks to commission and show – their concerns, the selection’s diversity, and its mix of local and global reach – is naturally a test of a gallery’s understanding of both artists and its public.
In all this, Spheres passes with flying colours. It might help that Pohio (Ngai Tahu), Christchurch born and raised, is a leading moving image artist who has travelled widely with his own work, while Oliver recently co-curated a substantial, radical Māori moving image exhibition. I’ve never really come to grips with the suitability of the gallery space for watching video art. To me if it’s not suited to a seated alcove or cinema, it’s best on a personal device. Spheres (like the web platform for New Zealand artist film agency Circuit) demonstrates the suitability, when well presented, of much of this work for your personal screen.
Don’t you forget about me. The Simple Minds chorus could have been a lockdown cry as we attempted to fill our social voids online. The song from the iconic John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club introduces Ronnie van Hout’s solo homemade take on the film, Ghosting (The Breakfast Club), in which a group of students are stuck at school at their desks for nine hours on a Saturday on detention. In the original, each has been asked to write an essay about “who they think they are”. They are swimming through the teenage murk and, naturally, over the course of the movie we see stereotypes challenged, perceptions changed.
Van Hout has made a career out of making sardonic self-portraiture using doppelgangers dwelling on anxieties about identity, often drawing from the well of his own suburban Christchurch childhood. This then is a movie made for him. Indeed, at first I assumed this was one of the works commissioned by the gallery from an artist in lockdown. It turns out Ronnie the artist is forever in lockdown – it was first shown in the exhibition Ghosting at Ivan Anthony Gallery in Auckland, which opened in March and closed prematurely.
In van Hout’s work the characters remain at their desks, with a back screen colour and simple costume changes used to denote changes in character (naturally above the waist). It’s a Zoom! Ghosting is that modern digital act of cutting all communication with someone. And this could be the sort of work you’d be driven to make in the absence of invitations to group chats.
Van Hout pares the script down to 12 minutes of bickering challenges issued from one personality type to another, chopping quickly between them. There are only light changes in tone to his stand-up persona. There are no wigs. Instead it’s like one lengthy heated internal monologue. A classic schizophrenia skit, one person role-playing with themselves. It’s not unlike one you might hear from someone with mental issues, or simply a partner sleep-talking beside you. Then again, I’ve seen many Facebook comments threads as ridiculous as this, with their usual cast of baiting cranky characters. ‘Ghosting (The Breakfast Club)’ reminds me that social media is where our teenage frontal lobe development lives on. It provides a wry take on the self-commentary bubble lockdown threw us into. The sense – to quote Billy Idol – of “dancing with myself”.
Among the lockdown profusion of online photo challenges and social media video diary entries a rather lovely diaristic love letter was made by two new lovers together in lockdown in Auckland. Poet Courtney Sina Meredith and visual artist Janet Lilo’s I love being in a crisis with you is a loose, languid sketchbook-style conversation between images and words. Blocks of words shuttle onto the screen interspersed by what resemble gifs, animated collaged compressions of buildings and staircases, folding in on themselves like MC Escher drawings, or Covid cages.
Poetry, spoken and written, here feel vital in nailing the profundity found among the daily domestic mundanity. “On Saturday we stopped counting the dead,” runs one line. “My lover painted the front room lilac”. We are, writes Sina Meredith, “lost little children outrunning the monster”. And again: “The internet told me to go for a run”.
The work sprawls in the way diaries do. I found it hard to see the connections between images and text, or an overall shape; a beginning and end. Yet shapelessness felt part of the point, day-in day-out. The concrete nature of the images gave symmetry and architecture to the words echoing domestic experience. Here two artists explore new shapes in a way the time-based media allows them to do richly.
Stick on Simulacrum by James Oram while you’re handwashing, or doing the dishes. It’s a great example of how video art can work strongly with time and narrative in a way so different to popular film and television. The camera comes in close from above on a rectangular bar of soap on a stainless steel reflective bench. A format like a Mark Rothko painting. As we begin, the artist’s face is reflected before blue surgical gloves and scalpel come into frame to precisely carve a copy of a face over one quiet, patient 22 minute single take. This meditative work resonated with the delicate cotton-woolled mental state I’ve felt myself in with closer proximity to others in lockdown.
Slow acts of making, using the domestic things around us, have never made more sense. With attention to the screen, and the antiseptic nature of computer viewing and wearing gloves at the supermarket, ‘Simulacrum’ heightens the importance of the tactile. It made me more aware of my own skin, and my own bad body hygiene habits.
Canberra-based New Zealand artist Sione Monu found himself back with whanau in Māngere during lockdown. ‘Māngere Bridge’ softly, wittily expresses the search for space and a little glam and glitter in confinement. With the aid of a fuzzy cellphone and new wave buzz-cut editing, Monu films raw and up-close small moments of cosmopolitan thrill among the drollery. A wonky digitally corrupted ‘Lili Marlene’ features in the headphones in a trip on public transport, interrupted by gifs like a cartoon Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, representing internal “life during wartime”.
Monu is also a maker, here seen making and wearing brightly beaded and lei woven masks. Evocatively, he wears one of a raincloud, brightening up a windy grey day up the maunga. ‘Mangere Bridge’ relishes the sweet, simple joys of making in lockdown: learning with a friend online how to successfully double a carrot cake recipe; the almost sexual tension of unwrapping and getting to touch and sniff an Apple Pencil with the words ‘Hairy Bussy’ stenciled on it, before drawing red love hearts on a hot iPad pinup.
The fourth commission is a rapid fire minute-and-a-half of letting off of steam from the reservoir of lockdown emotion through the simple action of turning on taps. In ‘Reservoir Romanticism’ the sublimity of the grand waterfall is wittily evoked through small punkish acts of rebellion. Every few seconds the artist’s hand comes into frame to open up a valve full, and let water gush satisfyingly loud and free. Aurally there’s a satisfying constant flash-cut change in tone and timbre as water hits different surfaces in different ways. Is there any more immediate mundane way to revolt and vent in isolation than this? The work also made me think about the giant reservoir of water below our feet, and how we treat it. Naturally, the last shot is of a tap being turned off.
Finally, the fifth commission, ‘Tunnel Beach’, is from Bridget Reweti, shot on her lockdown walks to this nearby popular Ōtepoti location. It’s a short, surreal slide show of slowed moving images of sea and headlands recoloured from black and white, recalling the 19th century colonial photographic technique.
Reweti co-opts this technique to create a new kind of magic, a delirious, hallucinogenic psychic daze where light overexposes details and creates an aura around things. I felt warmed, but uncertain, questioning of reality. This is an effect greatly amplified by the soundtrack, a bright churning oversaturated industrial guitar loop from musical outfit Flogging A Dead One Horse Town. While both band and Reweti ((Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) originally hail from Tauranga, sound and image are both readily identifiable with Dunedin’s long-running experimental music and art scene. ‘Tunnel Beach’ is reminiscent of the videos of Dunedin artist Kim Pieters, which pair an instrumental sound image to a single moving visual image – a kind of shimmering sound painting, expressing in abstraction an experience, rather than telling a story.
Naturally, I interpret ‘Tunnel Beach’ as an expression of heightened and disturbed awareness during lockdown. Yet it’s one visitors to Tunnel Beach probably often experience. You enter the beach descending steps down through an actual tunnel (roughly hewn through the rock at the commission of a local politician back in the 1870s), with enough light at both ends to go through without a torch. In other words, it is like being in a kind of camera, the landscape a haloed window. Reweti’s use of recolouring directs us to the colonial reconstruction of the landscape through art and engineering; the unreliability of any universal truth or reality to be drawn from the camera’s window.
Spheres: An Online Video Project is showing now on Christchurch Art Gallery’s website.