T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: The space between us

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The Walters Prize finalists are intellectually clever, but fail to elicit a visceral response

'Floor Resistance' 2011 by Alicia Frankovich. Photo / Sarah Ivey
'Floor Resistance' 2011 by Alicia Frankovich. Photo / Sarah Ivey

According to Shakespeare "all the world's a stage", and part of the art world agrees. Many artists today move out of their studio into a variety of exhibition spaces to show performance art and installations. Tate Modern in London recently opened new spaces in its basement for such work.

Performance and installation art are two of the many sub-cultures of contemporary art. The work is mostly done by artists with an MFA from an art school where they have adopted the dictum: "If you have a new concept you will find the technique to express it." The nature of the techniques means the work is often unsaleable and the artists rely on awards and grants for recognition.

The Walters Prize seems to have developed a history of being given to artists considered to be at the cutting edge of such work. The exhibition by the four finalists in this year's prize all need considerable space at the Auckland Art Gallery where they have reconstructed performances and installations first exhibited in galleries overseas.

The work of Alicia Frankovich requires an audience. The first piece we encounter is a video of a performance where a man vigorously moves through an audience jumping in a rhythmic and totally unpredictable way. Depiction of movement has always been admired in art and last century it was incorporated in the work itself in the form of kinetic sculpture. The incessant dancing of the man in the video makes him a human version of kinetic sculpture.

The visual documentation of an ephemeral art is often not very stimulating but the odd rhythms of this moving sculpture are intriguingly inventive and almost comic - although the dour faces of the audience suggest they are taking it very seriously.

Frankovich's major work in the show was originally presented at Hebbel am Ufer, a theatre complex in Berlin devoted to modern bands and performance art. Floor Resistance rejects the pomposity of the concertgoers of the past by taking an 18th century portrait of George I and turning his face to the wall.

The performance itself takes place on a stage with music stands hanging from the roof. A string quartet plays lying down. After the performance, "Bison" are introduced where people, audience or actors, butt against each other like male bison struggling for supremacy.

The whole effect is to subvert any usual expectation of art - to be disruptive and disturb all our usual expectations. This has limitations. It is a case of "You had to be there" to get the full impact. The empty stage on show looks forlorn rather than disruptive.

In the next room is an installation rather than a performance. The work by Simon Denny is dominated by a huge image of rippled sand dunes but the basis is a series of TV screens. These are not real but frames with two printed screens. On the unmoving screens are the steps of a simple course in logic. The syllogisms presented are the classic logic of Ancient Greece. Each proposition is presented as words and as symbols with typically absurd examples that obliquely demonstrate the inadequacy of words when exactness is required.

The artist, who did an academic course in logic, was evidently struck by ancient philosophy describing the way we think might be taught through a modern medium. Documents on the wall refer to academic rules and the paradox of "Universal Remote".

The huge picture of sand dunes gives a link to something that is always there but perpetually changes. The whole installation demands a great deal from its viewers in the way of concentration and knowledge.

Sriwhana Spong has work in two places in the gallery, with a piece on the Sculpture Terrace that is not part of her entry for the Walters but is equally spare and minimalist.

Her installation for the prize contains hoops of iron suspended in the middle of the room. The hoops are wrapped in cloth and cast elliptical shadows on the floor. Through the loops can be seen a spectacular drape cut into by a semi-circle that recalls the hoops. Its stunning colour was achieved by dyeing with Fanta.

The artist has always featured dance in her work and in a second room plays a black and white film of a dance in a recreation of a costume once designed by Matisse. Both the choreography and the costume are lost but the memory of them is given tangible form here.

The costume worn by the dancer takes many shapes, from hints of a Japanese robe that confers immense dignity, to floor movement that makes the headdress resemble the face of an animal. The transformation of the human face by costume and makeup is also signalled in some small photographs in the first room.

The whole conveys a glimpse into the preoccupations of the artist's private world.

The last finalist relates to the galleries and their connections with the world at large. Kate Newby first showed it in Bremen, Germany. The viewer first passes over a special carpet with a slogan on it, then encounters a rocky shore created on the floor of the gallery. Usually, one would expect a framed painting of a shoreline but here it is a blue, uneven floor with rock pools and debris. You escape from this dismal prospect into a corridor with walls and drapes in bright yellow, then turn left and emerge on to a gallery terrace that leads nowhere. It offers a variety of gallery experiences.

Like the other three works it is intellectually clever but lacks the sort of visceral emotion that might grip the spectator. Nevertheless, collectively the exhibition reflects an aspect of art that has been in continuous development since the 1960s.


At the galleries

What: Walters Prize Finalists: Simon Denny, Alicia Frankovich, Kate Newby, Sriwhana Spong
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery Toi, Kitchener St, to November 11
TJ says: Four young New Zealand performance and installation artists recreate earlier work shown in galleries overseas. They challenge convention and provide what will surely be controversial examples of styles far different from what is generally expected from an art award.

- NZ Herald

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