T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

First, the fish was killed

By T.J. McNamara

Thought-provoking interactive work challenges our expectations

How Long Have I Been Here by Sally Morgan, part of Unstuck In Time.
How Long Have I Been Here by Sally Morgan, part of Unstuck In Time.

The exhibition Unstuck in Time at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga began with interactive performance art in the courtyard on the afternoon of the opening. Sally J. Morgan, from Wellington, delivered How Long Have I Been Here? which involved a precarious platform high on the wall of the courtyard above a large water tank.

She climbed a long ladder on to the platform, rolled up her sleeves and cut her arm with the hook of a bright red fishing line. She wiped her arm, baited the hook with blood and meat and lowered it into the tank. On her second try she hooked a large wriggling fish, lowered it into a fish box on the ground and came down the ladder.

On the floor of the courtyard a site was already prepared with gut boxes, knives and a small gas ring. The fish was killed and Morgan slowly gutted it, filleted it and cooked the fillets. She ate some and offered the rest to the audience. What was left after the performance was the bright red fishing line from the platform to the tank.

The artist was trembling, obviously deeply emotionally involved. Some of those watching just went on drinking their beer.

Others were shaken at the killing of the fish. The performance was recorded on video and photographs. It will be repeated twice in the next two months and the public can email for an appointment to fish in the same tank.

Where is the art in this? Well, it is in a gallery. It is symbolic of how something must be killed to provide food. And it takes on the nature of everyday life turned into ritual by the blood offering. Performance art such as this is completely unexceptional. It is exactly in line with three of the four finalists in this year's Walters Prize who have left visitors to Auckland Art Gallery with empty rooms and only the possibility of reading documentation of making a splash, catching a taxi or pretending to be a vagrant in the name of art. It is similar to the work of the famous Marina Abramovich, "the grandmother of performance", at Tate Modern in London, who whispers to visitors simple suggestions about obtaining stillness in life.

The rest of the show at Te Tuhi could equally be described as challenging conventional perceptions. A room is given over to the work of Tehching Hsieh, a Taiwanese resident in New York. He made only six major works but each one took a year to perform. Here we have examples of the documentation of the work he did in 1981 and 1982 when he lived for a year in Manhattan without ever going inside a building. He mapped his movements each day, including the place where he went to the toilet, and there were photos and a video.

Mean Time is an old-fashioned Dutch railway clock high on a wall. It has been re-programmed so the speed of the hands is contingent on global internet activity. The work is by Toril Johannessen.

In keeping with the theme of time is a handsome video called Medium Earth by the Otolith Group. It concerns itself with the speed of time. Scavenging ants are all in a terrible hurry. Anonymous vehicle traffic speeds along a main road through a gorge. The strata of the San Andreas Fault, which was exposed when the gorge was cut, are recorded. The patterns of the layers of rock distorted in geological time are fascinating. Then come solid rocks, transient clouds, a portentous dialogue and the ants again.

The repetitive nature of industrial activity in Bradford, England, is shown in a 1974 black and white documentary by New Zealander Darcy Lange. This was pioneering stuff, showing how ordinary people spent their working time.

The foyer of the gallery has a typical work by Phil Dadson. A kayak filled with water has flowers floating in it. The flowers suggest transience, while three screens show travel over water and the rocking of a kayak with the blade of a paddle appearing to lead the way while crossing the Waitemata. The whole is surrounded by a ritual circle.

The only work that comes near convention is a relief sculpture by Martin Awa Clarke Langdon called My Grandad Mostly Played the Black Keys made of black ponga logs and white picket fence posts.

- NZ Herald

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