Why contemporary art matters in a model world

Anthony Byrt has long been exploring contemporary art.
Anthony Byrt has long been exploring contemporary art.

Does contemporary art matter - and is there a better time to ask than now? The winner of the Walters Prize was announced last night, Auckland ArtWeek begins this month and so far this year, we've seen record prices paid for New Zealand art at auction.

In his newly released book This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art, award-winning art critic and journalist Anthony Byrt journeys through the New Zealand scene to investigate what it's all about and why it matters. While Byrt looks at the work by some of our highest-profile artists - Yvonne Todd, Shane Cotton, Billy Apple, Peter Robinson, Judy Millar and Simon Denny among them - This Model World is also deeply personal.

What is about contemporary art - art in general - that makes you want to spend "hundreds of hours in galleries, artists' studios and on the road" writing about it?
I wonder about that myself sometimes. I could come up with a high-minded answer but the closest thing to the truth is that it helps keep me sane.

Being with art and with the people who make it is tremendously grounding for me. I'm someone who gets very frustrated, and even afraid, when I see forces in the culture that I perceive to be shutting down freedom and creativity. Being with contemporary art reminds me there are people who are always trying to slip those nets; who take risks to find new forms and ideas. That's something I wanted to do with the book, too.

Why is it important and what does art say that words can never express about life or the whole political/social/economic melee we find ourselves in?
My personal view is that we're living through a worryingly reactionary time, which we can see globally with Trump, Brexit, Syria and the rest. But I think it's here, too, in everything from the mass surveillance debate to Auckland's property crisis. In that setting, a creative act that tries to create arguments, find new forms or propose new ways of thinking is always a political act, even if it isn't directly referencing "politics". And I think many of our best artists understand that. On the face of things, it may seem weird to some people to have artists as different as Shane Cotton and Simon Denny in the same book. But actually what links them, and the other artists, is this sense of scrutiny; of taking a critical view on the world around them and trying to reflect that in their work.

What's the greatest myth perpetuated about contemporary art?
Two interconnected myths: that it's difficult and that it's somehow detached from what we may call "everyday" life. Neither is true and that's what I wanted to show in the book. Like anything smart, contemporary art just requires an investment of time. And openness too: a willingness to be swayed, affected, jolted, convinced and occasionally offended. If you can do that, then it starts to reveal itself as not so esoteric or removed after all.

What's the role of an art critic?
I don't think there's a singular way to answer that because art criticism varies so much as a discipline and depends where it appears. One of the things I enjoy most is reviewing for Artforum International, where I get to write alongside some brilliantly hardcore academics and critics - people like Hal Foster, Donald Kuspit, Barry Schwabsky. We're writing for an inside crowd there; an incredibly knowledgeable art audience.

Otherwise, my job is to be a translator: to give non-art worlders a reason to be interested in contemporary art. That's about being entertaining as well as critical; you have to give people a reason to read what you've written. I don't think there's anything entirely new in that approach in the local context - people like Justin Paton and Tessa Laird were very good at it, too.

You start your book with the (traumatic) story of your son James' birth and the book is dedicated to him; why start with that particular story - indeed why include it at all?
Right from the start, I'd wanted to bring together the different modes of writing I'm engaged in - feature writing, interviews, criticism, travel writing - and see what happens when they all co-exist on the same page. The glue for that was my own story. I just didn't see any other way to model that sense of being with art and artists than by being there on the page myself. So I decided to be completely honest about why I was back in New Zealand, and the events that have shaped my relationship with the world around me. James' birth was a huge part of that. It's also mirrored by the death of my grandmother later in the book. They're kind of like traumatic parentheses for how I view and experience the world. James right now is the exact age I was when my grandmother died. I wanted to honour all of that, as well as making myself vulnerable - which I hope mirrors the risks the artists themselves take. It was amazing how everything else fell into place once I put James' story in there - the flow, the structure, the voice, everything.

What was the motivation behind the book?
To get people to see and experience what the act of being with contemporary art can feel like. There are plenty of moments where I acknowledge my own confusions or annoyances alongside the genuinely powerful encounters. My hope is that by modelling this, new audiences may feel more comfortable approaching contemporary art, too. I also wanted to honour what I found when I returned home. I really do think we have some great artists and a pretty healthy scene for such a small country.

Do we in NZ give our artists the recognition they deserve?
I wanted to show that this isn't just a bunch of ego-driven people chasing international accolades. It's actually a bloody hard slog for most of them. There are much easier ways to make a living. It often isn't that glamorous or financially rewarding. Most find whatever support they can via funding agencies or residencies and what money they do make is usually recycled back into making more work. They don't do it because they want to be superstars, but because they want to participate in meaningful conversations, wherever they can find them.

What: This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art
by Anthony Byrt
(Auckland University Press, $45)

- NZ Herald

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