Book review: From Arps to rediscovering the Renaissance

By Peter Simpson & Peter Wells

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Christchurch-born artist Dan Arps presents a decade's worth of work in Affirmation Dungeon. Photo / Natalie Slade
Christchurch-born artist Dan Arps presents a decade's worth of work in Affirmation Dungeon. Photo / Natalie Slade

Artist gives a metaphorical trip around the day in 80 worlds.

Affirmation Dungeon,
by Dan Arps (Clouds/Michael Lett $69.95)
Reviewed by Peter Simpson

Christchurch-born artist Dan Arps won the country's top art award, the Walters Prize, in 2010 for an installation called Explaining Things, first shown at the artist-run space Gambia Castle and later transferred, once shortlisted, to Auckland Art Gallery.

When judge Vincent Todoli, formerly of the Tate Modern, explained his choice of winner, he celebrated "the transformative power of this artist's vision", adding: "Dan's alchemical display involves all our senses".

Reversing Jules Verne's story Around the World in 80 Days, we could say that his installation takes us on a metaphorical trip around the day in 80 worlds.

The book takes its title from a 2007 installation at Gambia Castle and incorporates photographic images from a string of installations shown in Wellington, Melbourne, Christchurch, New York, Valencia, Adelaide, but mostly Auckland, over the past decade or so.

Actually, "assemblage" seems a better word than "installation" for the random-seeming collocation of cast-offs, found objects, deliberately bad paintings and sculpture, defaced posters and old newspapers which Arps favours.

In the book, all these previous assemblages are jumbled together in one vast midden according to "the logic of dungeon mapper or game builder" (in the words of the promotional hand-out).

To borrow again from the handout: "This is an artist known for making spaces - dystopic, uncomfortable, decrepit, paranoid, aspirational - that are in their own reality."

The only surprising thing about this list is that "abject" is omitted, though it does figure in Jonathan Bywater's thorough essay, Work-Life Balance, which strives effectively to make sense of the artist's conceptual grunge. If Arps is to your taste, the book is a must.

Renaissance People - Lives that Shaped the Modern Age,
by Robert C. Davis & Beth Lindsmith (Thames & Hudson, $65)
Reviewed by Peter Wells

This tome is splendidly illustrated in the Thames & Hudson tradition, giving breezy, almost colloquial information on a kind of hit parade of the Renaissance.

This includes Dick Tarlton, a comedian who may have been "poor Yorick", but also heavyweights like Leonard da Vinci ("This Man Will Never Do Anything", as the helpful subheadings titillate).

It is an ideal book to browse through. One could almost call it a cheat-book in that a good 45 minutes would equip you to sound astonishingly knowledgeable at your next cocktail party.

Espousing any kind of knowledge (outside of sport) is considered bad taste in New Zealand. If one were talking of the Maori Renaissance, one could expect semi-attention (and there is something parallel to the rediscovery of seemingly lost knowledge and its sudden invigoration of the present).

But to be knowledgeable about the European Renaissance comes dangerously close to being politically incorrect.

This handsome work is by way of a corrective. It places the Renaissance as a kind of beautiful pause of breath after wars and plague. For a moment, the esoteric knowledge of ancient Greece, lost for millennia, entered the body politic. (It was helped by the Muslim sacking of Constantinople and the flight to the West of people carrying esoteric knowledge.)

The magnificent humanist quest had begun - the thing which celebrates our being human and dissident (rather than obedient and animal). The first dome after the ancients was created and a kind of information age bulged forwards, care of Gutenburg. Perhaps it would have been useful to place Indian and Chinese (and probably even Maori) culture in a correlative position.

Implicitly, the European Renaissance is taken as one of the peaks of humanity's struggle to be intelligent. News flash. It probably was.

Whether this is now such old news that you can barely stifle a yawn is over to you. I felt the defiantly unacademic presentation of the authors, both from the off-Broadway spot of Ohio State University, helped make this book something worth cribbing off.

In these sad days when Greece is in flames and some once-proud European nation states face going down the gurgler, this is a timely reminder of the wealth - in terms of ideas and knowledge - we risk leaving behind.

- NZ Herald

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