T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J.McNamara: Controversial curiosities

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There is a great emphasis on symbolism, which appears in diverse forms at two galleries

William Pope.L's hard-hitting work at Te Tuhi Gallery.
William Pope.L's hard-hitting work at Te Tuhi Gallery.

Te Tuhi Gallery has been very busy lately. Not only has it shifted the seven-tonne sculpture by Derrick Cherrie from the front of the gallery in Pakuranga to a site in the Viaduct, but it is also staging a major multimedia event by American visual artist William Pope.L.

Pope.L is famous for his work in painting, sculpture and especially for his performance work. Most famously he crawled around the gutters of Tomkins Square Park in New York in a suit pushing a sunflower in a pot ahead of him.

As an African-American he was symbolically showing sympathy for the homeless. The suit indicated a position separate from the people living in the streets and the flower gave a note of hope.

The installation piece he has created for Te Tuhi has a similar symbolic structure with associated levels of significance. He wrote the piece after being sent material on New Zealand society. He also designed the set and screen, which combines with the performance to make the total work of art.

The script, once it had been performed by three actors on stage, is repeatedly shown as a dark video.

The largest room in the gallery is turned into a theatre with a bank of seats facing a stage. It is very dark and visitors should take the torch on offer at the desk. The stage is dimly perceived, with a tank-like structure, rubbish, a chute and a heap of sugar. The tank is the source of the sugar, which will later be seen as excessive sweetness and also of a monotonous production-line work sequence.

The spoken and acted part of the work is backstage where it is screened under the looming presence of the big tank. The area suggests rough living. On one level the script is Freudian, a basic Oedipal conflict played out by mother, son and father. The son has returned home as a young man and is tormenting the mother for her rejection of him by holding her captive, even to the extent of denying her visits to the lavatory. Her screams under his torment are terrifying. Later, when confronted by his father, he makes sexual advances to his mother to antagonise him.

The father wears a billycock hat that makes him look like something out of Waiting for Godot. He is bare to the waist and has the letters "NZ" painted on his torso. He continually drinks from cans of beer though he protests that he does not drink as much as he used to. The dialogue is ambiguous about rejection and deception.

The labelling of the father pushes the references beyond family conflict into an area of race relations and it is possible to see the mother as symbolising Maori and the father as Pakeha. The treatment of the father is a banal archetype.

The project has moments of power distorted by obvious stereotypes required by the symbolic function of the characters.

Artspace's exhibition, curated by Alex Davidson, is called Hermes' Lack of Words where a variety of mediums are used. Surprisingly, painting emerges as the most telling. The show includes the usual videos. If you climb the perilous iron stairs to the mezzanine you can see two works about children in Spain by Diego Marcon that are not really insightful enough to make the effort worthwhile. Also on a small screen is Jack Straw's Castle, a 17-minute piece by Rosalind Nashashibi. The title is the name of a famous pub near Hampstead Heath and the heath itself is the subject of the film. The effect is idyllically pastoral with figures moving among trees - an alert rabbit, birds and a glimpse of fleeing deer quoted from a painting by Piero di Cosimo. The work is surely fashionable irony. Its peace and calm is at odds with the heath's reputation as a place for cruising gays and for the savage assaults they sometimes suffer.

Another video, by Manon de Boer, explores vocalisation and comment on voice. It is notable for showing the workings of the throat of a musician who plays long, sustained notes on a flute.

Intriguing variations in tone are the mark of the admirable black and white prints of pin-hole camera photographs by Eleanor Cooper alongside her display of possum skins on an old square of found carpet.

Much of this is more curiosity than art but paintings by Milli Jannides show energy and strong emotional response expressed in colour, which lifts the whole show. The paintings range from the small lyrical work No Watching to the drama of The God-game where steps to heaven encounter a mass of light.


At the galleries

What: William Pope.L: New Installation and Performance
Where and when: Te Tuhi Gallery, 13 Reeves Rd, Pakuranga, to Oct 30
TJ says: Controversial painter, sculptor, writer and performance artist from Chicago has set up a theatre where the real action is on screen backstage amid the rubbish.

What: Hermes' Lack of Words: Six Artists
Where and when: Artspace, 300 Karangahape Rd, to Aug 17
TJ says: An exhibition full of curious things: found objects, videos, passport photos, pin-hole camera images and, surprisingly, some very effective expressionist painting.

- NZ Herald

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