Art of shock draws a crowd

By Josie McNaught

Since cavemen drew fearsome mammoths on the walls, sensationalism has been the most reliable way of piquing public interest in art. But nude self-portraits by the Prime Minister's daughter have provoked the question: when did the shock tactics become more important than the art? Josie McNaught reports.

Hundreds of visitors have flocked into Auckland's Gow Langsford Gallery to see the giant portraits of Mongrel Mob members. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Hundreds of visitors have flocked into Auckland's Gow Langsford Gallery to see the giant portraits of Mongrel Mob members. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Lorne St doesn't really come alive until after midday. There are some coffee joints and a nail bar or two, and an art gallery.

So at 11am the woman walking in front of me - clad in quality cashmere, clutching a supple leather bag and on heels that have probably spent more time sinking into expensive carpet than tottering along Auckland's scrabby streets - stands out.

She is on a mission, pausing only when the large glass frontage of Gow Langsford Gallery looms up on her left. Inside, Jono Rotman's controversial, giant-sized images of Mongrel Mob members await.

Chorus has helpfully placed some slippery yellow plastic tiles on the footpath out front. As madam's elegant heels slip, I reach out to steady her. I needn't have bothered.

Her eyes are already fixated on the tattooed titivations inside the gallery and with a flick of her Clergerie heels she is out of danger and in the door.

Auckland's most talked about exhibition of late has brought in another visitor.

Last week there was milder furore over the self-portraits that Stephanie Key, the Prime Minister's daughter, posted on her Facebook page.

One particular work - comprising elaborate selfies, her kit off and a bright-pink faux Native American headdress on - had fingers flying over keyboards as social media

Stephanie Key posted nude self-portraits on Facebook.
Stephanie Key posted nude self-portraits on Facebook.

responded to the Herald on Sunday's story.

If nothing else, sensationalism mixed with a heavy dose of voyeurism (and a dash of outrage) appears to be alive and well when it comes to the public's interest in art.

There is nothing new in using shock and sensationalism to pique public interest. But in this age of fast-twitch media and social-network virality, it seems to all happen a lot faster.

Stephanie Key doesn't respond to interview requests, but gallery owner Gary Langsford is happy to talk about his show - and the role of shock tactics in selling art.

The 26-year art business veteran is delighted to hear my story about the well-heeled visitor. When it comes to talking numbers of visitors, he perks up even more.

On the sales front, he's more circumspect: "We have had considerable interest from a number of private collectors, local and international." So my well-heeled lady wasn't moved to get out her chequebook. Te Papa hasn't been in touch, I suspect.

If our national gallery waded in and bought one of these images it would kickstart a whole new round of chest- beating. Perhaps.

New Zealanders' threshold for shock when it comes to art has moved on since the heady days of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition of nudes in 1994, and the Virgin in a Condom exhibit that was part of Te Papa's opening shows in 1998.

One of the most successful exhibitions in terms of foot traffic remains Te Maori from 1984 with more than 200,000 hits (although that includes international visitors, too, from its successful American tour and tours in New Zealand). The Lord of the Rings paraphernalia exhibitions were a close second for Te Papa.

At a guesstimate, Langsford says they've had "hundreds of people through the door and many have never been to the gallery, and that's fantastic".

He has talked to many of the visitors and hopes they will come back for other shows - and get out their chequebooks.

He says he is not putting on shows like this primarily to make money, but the obvious connect between sensational art and the mighty dollar is hovering over all this. "Sure, it's created more dialogue than any exhibition we've ever had." He adds sardonically: "I wish the media would cover all my shows in the same way."

Langsford compares his exhibition to Auckland's successful Picasso show in 1990. But the images of heavily tattooed Maori men sporting gang insignia and thick leather jackets are a long away from the rarefied world of European art.

When I suggest that, like many people who have had contact with the Mob, I'm repelled rather than engaged by the images, he says it's simply the context in which I see the exhibition. "Everyone's response is different depending on their experience."

Kerikeri artist Lester Hall is no stranger to controversy. His subversive depictions of Maori, Pakeha and the Queen have earned him a few brickbats over the years. Yet even he is concerned about the Mongrel Mob exhibition.

"These images are huge celebrations of members of our society who are, in many instances, against everything we as a society believe in," says Hall.

"At this point, the purveying of the image becomes pornographic, obscene, sensational, titillating, without merit for anything but personal aggrandising and pecuniary gain on the part of the seller and the purchaser."

That may seem a bit rich, coming from a man who sells nude images of the Queen.

Back at the gallery, people are milling around and quietly taking in the images. When asked for a reaction, they are forthcoming - provided they aren't identified. None want to earn the wrath of the Mob.

Worse still, none want to risk the derision of the sophistical arts community. "I saw this in the paper and thought I'd have a look," says one woman in her 60s, who calls herself a regular Auckland Art Gallery visitor.

"Nicer than I thought and bigger than I thought."

One woman with small children is worried they will be scared. But her pretty daughter dances around the space, seemingly unaware of the sinister-looking men watching over her. Mum shrugs her shoulders and heads off.

Speaking from experience, the Wizard of Oz is a far scarier prospect for a 3-year-old.

These rather innocuous reactions are a million miles away from some of the correspondence that has landed in Langsford's inbox since the show opened three weeks ago.

Much of it is uninformed, knee-jerk stuff around what is art and what isn't, he says. Some of it is down-right offensive. Does he want to share the best ones? No way.

But he is prepared to acknowledge plenty of visitors have come through the door because they disagree with the show. And the result? According to Langsford: "They had their minds changed by the sheer power of the photos."

Critic Paul Judge is on the same wavelength. "We are witness to a culture reeling from colonisation and it is universally accepted that we recognise the nobility, dignity and endurance of the subjects ... By way of contrast, this is precisely why Rotman's portraits of the Mongrel Mob are attracting such vehement response."

The Sensible Sentencing Trust has described the Mob exhibition as "disgraceful", saying it glorifies gang culture and is completely offensive to the Mobs' victims.

And it has angered the family of a man allegedly shot down by one Mob member in the exhibition, Shane Harrison. Harrison allegedly shot dead 25-year-old Sio Matalasi during a gang-related confrontation last year.

Matalasi's father has called for the photo to be withdrawn, accusing the gallery of immortalising Harrison.

By contrast, much of the vehement response to the work of Paris-based Stephanie Key is because of her famous father.

Perhaps that's why, after a flurry of disparaging comment, the art crowd has now gone quiet on her undergraduate attempts.

Fellow students John Mutambu and Emma Jameson (studying art history honours at the University of Auckland) write about art for student magazine Craccum.

"I think [her images] were built up to be more than what they are," Mutambu says.

"In an international art context they are not that risque. The images are interesting and intriguing and there's nothing distasteful about them. But being the PM's daughter is a double-edged sword and the critics will be a bit harsher." Which sounds like code for, "stay where you are Stephanie, well away from New Zealand's provincial attitude to art".

On the Mongrel Mob exhibition, Mutambu and Jameson acknowledge the frisson that ran through the gallery on opening night, and note the gallery space was transformed into a "cabinet of curiosities" for the evening as gallery regulars rubbed shoulders with the Mongrel Mob, providing scintillating topics of conversation for future dinner parties.

Mutambu was intrigued by a woman who uploaded to Instagram a photo of her daughter in front of one of images.

"It seemed to take cultural tourism to a new level."

Hall would argue that taking the photos themselves to a high-art level is just wrong.

"To say the photos are 'high art' and therefore in some greater esoteric, intellectual interest of society is, to be blunt, bullsh*t."

Spiros Poros' photographs feature naked male Cuban dancers.
Spiros Poros' photographs feature naked male Cuban dancers.

With one week to go until the show ends, Langsford's role as the public face of the exhibition is coming to an end. He is swapping sensationalism for celebrity in his next show, replacing these images with photos of naked male Cuban dancers at his Kitchener St gallery.

The portraits are taken by Spiros Poros, a self-styled photographer to the stars and husband of New Zealand international model Kylie Bax.

"My work is not homoerotic, I don't set out to shock," Poros says.

"I just want people to appreciate and enjoy the physicality of the work. My photos celebrate the human body as a thing of beauty and the naked body is the most natural thing in the world."

Shocking? You (and the hundreds of visitors expected through the doors) be the judge.

Read more: Hamish Keith: If it engages us, then it has done its work

- Herald on Sunday

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