Public Nap Series 2015 – Art Review

By Matty Smith

PARK(ing) Day bills itself as an “annual open-source global event”, and aims “to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated” by allowing groups to transform metered parking spaces for one day. This was the context for Emotion Time’s Public Nap Series 2015, which took a park on Cuba Street, and invited people to take a nap in public, amidst city offices, and heavy pedestrian traffic. Personally, having worked four years in a CBD office, and having felt exhausted a lot of that time, I could not help reading it as a fun and friendly challenge to the typical New Zealand construction of “the workday” and “work ethic”. People very seldom work in the conditions that are best for them, or healthiest, but only those that return the best profit within (sometimes without of) legal boundaries. I’ve always been rather jealous of countries where a nap during the course of the work day is the norm, and I have fond memories of Tongan shopkeepers dozing casually in the midday sun.

The aesthetic of the work was dryly humorous, with the artists wearing lab coats in a form of quasi-scientific slapstick. Everything from the linen they used to their shoes was white, evoking cheesy imagery of sleeping on a cloud. The aesthetic of the work was careful, and made the bed look inviting and… …clean. Which, in a context where you’re asking lots of members of the public to climb into the same bed, seems a very important reading to give off. At one point late in the show, members of a collective from a nearby PARK(ing) Space staged a strange intervention, juxtaposing the white aesthetic against a bright, messy bed in which a Maori woman held up a tino rangatiratanga flag. The gesture was clearly meant as a humorous poke, not a scathing critique, but it fell a bit flat in that – aside from the fact that all members of Emotion Time happen to present as white – there had been no suggestion of a racialised reading in their work. Despite lab coats and white sheets, there wasn’t even an unintentional hint of KKK garments or any form of white supremacy or privilege. In fact, the gesture itself read as somewhat racist, casting Maoridom as bright and bold, and whiteness as sterile. Evenso it was an interesting intervention – interesting to see an artwork forced into a new (if tenuous) reading by another collective – and talking later with Emotion Time members I had the sense they were philosophical and good-humoured about it.

Photo: Louise Rutledge

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Window Studio – Art Review

By Matty Smith

When artist Anne LaFond founded Window Studio, in Brooklyn New York, she commented that she was worried “whether I would feel comfortable painting essentially in a fishbowl, with the people passing in the street able to look in and see what I was working on.” Nor was she certain people would be interested, and yet as she chronicles on her window-studio.com blog, members of the public took a definite interest in her project, and commissioned portraits from her. Since its beginnings in 2012, the project appears to have gathered more funding and support, with community art programmes running regularly now. Public art is not a new phenomenon by any means, but it is interesting considering how rarely we see artists in more traditional media working in the public, exposing their process to a wider audience, and inviting them to take part.

Ever since I encountered this project in 2013 it has made an impact on me. It seems natural and right to me for art to be so unpretentious, communal, and candid – I always find it is working people outside the Fine Art establishment who have the most perceptive and least ideologically-warped observations about art. Often I feel that post-war criticisms of “mass culture” and “authoritarian personalities” have made artists reluctant to reach out to the working class in anything except an imperious and accusatory mode. LaFond’s project treats the people in its immediate community (I am not certain that Window Studio is in the same area as LaFond herself lives) as important, worth chronicling, and worth reaching out to.

I suppose, in a sense, this marks for me an interest in “outsider art”, and yet LaFond clearly is not an outsider. She trained at the New York Academy of Art, and paints expressively and well. She has given Window Studio’s conceptual framework a great deal of thought, and is critically engaged with problems in Fine Art academia. I begin to wonder about that term – “outsider” – applied even to the untrained who participate in LaFond’s project, and frame it so much. Perhaps I would prefer a term that suggests bringing people in, rather than excluding them – something like “gateway art”. Ultimately that’s what I love about the project, is that it opens art up, and speaks plain and clear, to working class people who may seldom have opportunities for a creative voice, or access to the cloistered, insular galleries of the Fine Art industry.

Mezzanine – The Engine Room

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By Matty Smith

Paul Cullen’s Mezzanine follows a now unfortunately long tradition in Fine Arts academia – it attacks a clumsy, theoretically impoverished strawman of “reason” and “Enlightenment” – symbolised here by rulers and counterweights – and sets up instead a proto-fascistic philosopher and their individualistic mysticism as some sort of savior from the tyranny of expertise and the threat of universal knowledge. Well, usually the philosopher is proto-fascistic – the likes of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, all the irrationalists who were so influential on Nazi ideology and pseudoscience – but in this case the prefix is unnecessary. Cullen’s white knight is Martin Heidegger, a Nazi Party member right up until 1945 when the party was forcibly dissolved. However distasteful, none of this necessarily invalidates what Cullen has to say, but Heidegger’s particular phenomenology is ever-present in Cullen’s work, concerned as it is with absence and the supposed madness of measurement. This is the philosophy of Hitlerian Germany’s petty bourgeoisie who saw in National Socialism the prospect of a folksy unified Volk (culture/ethnicity) living immediately and pleasurably (experiencing what Heidegger called Dasein) without the distractions of modernity and its messy pluralism. However, in Cullen’s work these themes come to the viewer so divorced from their historical context and immediate influences that they appear mundane and friendly, bringing to mind journalist Hannah Arendt’s phrase, coined during her coverage of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial, “the banality of evil”. (Ironically, Arendt was instrumental in helping Heidegger preserve his career despite his never recanting his support for National Socialism).

Actually, “mundane and friendly” would be a good description for the materials involved in Cullen’s process: Formica tables, kitchen chairs, linoleum flooring – the exhibition gives off the flavour of a gingham tablecloth, somehow subverted. The objects are disrupted by missing parts – where you expect a chair leg instead there is a cord held taut by a concrete form that sits, itself, within a hole cut out of the Engine Room gallery’s floor. I have to ask myself what it would be like coming to this exhibition “blind”, without knowledge of Heidegger. I imagine it would be much less upsetting – its most charitable reading is as a criticism of bad scientific method – of politicised pseudoscience that is content to copy scientific-looking gestures (eg. measurement) and not to do the more difficult methodological work it takes to minimise prejudices and the theory-ladenness of a scientist’s observations. In such a reading the tension between the working class materials and “the scientific” is important and progressive. Even walking in blind though, I’m not certain it wouldn’t be upsetting, due to the apparent hostility towards rationalism on display.

Image sourced from: http://www.paulcullen.info/