Alex Monteith knows the best kind of speed camera

By Adam Gifford

Alex Monteith says whether taking Land Rovers on the road or working with the Air Force, she has tried to distil the geographical experience for the gallery environment. Photo / David White
Alex Monteith says whether taking Land Rovers on the road or working with the Air Force, she has tried to distil the geographical experience for the gallery environment. Photo / David White

Alex Monteith likes her art loud. Loud enough to give viewers a sense of what it's like to be on a motorcycle swapping lanes through Auckland rush hour traffic, or surfing a break off Taranaki, or thundering over alpine terrain in an Iroquois helicopter.

"For me the most significant moment in the art is to do with accessing what is happening in those high-speed cultures and having a conversation, so if it's speed culture I am looking at, some element of speed needs to be carried through in the artwork," says Monteith.

Passing Manoeuvre with Two Motorcycles and 584 Vehicles for Two-Channel Video is Monteith's Walters Prize entry at the Auckland Art Gallery, and in conception and execution it stands in contrast to the un-composition of Daniel Arps' bricolage, Saskia Leek's artful paint-by-numbers and Fiona Connor's critique of gallery space.

For her survey show in New Plymouth, she has filled the Govett-Brewster Gallery with works, including Composition with RNZAF 3 Squadron Exercise Blackbird for three-channel video installation, filmed the day before the Walters Prize exhibition opened.

She describes her methods as "post-studio", involving performance, video, experimental film, photography, and just being.

"One of the tenets of post-object art is that somehow it does relate to the everyday," Monteith says. "I am thinking about what the role of art is in these spaces with what is happening out there in the culture and I've gone beyond wanting to have conversations about what is going on in the gallery because I'm impacted by those broader subjects in a much more intense way ... I want the viewer to have access to some of those ideas."

By culture she means the cultures of the groups she chooses to work with - surfers, motorcyclists, the military, protesters, often adrenaline junkies and always passionate about what they are doing.

Monteith goes in not necessarily knowing the outcome. She looks for actions which define the culture, or show how people engage in quite dangerous physical ways with larger environments.

"I would love to bring some of those activities closer to the gallery so viewers could experience them first hand, but it would mean sacrificing some of the unique experiences in the geography, so I try to find potent ways to document the practices of people who work in those spaces.

"With the Iroquois, I worked with Oliver Bint from 3 Squadron who was really open to exploring the possibilities we could come up with from Exercise Blackbird."

The Air Force uses the exercise at Dip Flat at the southern end of the Nelson Lakes to train its pilots for alpine rescues and help them build up flying time in those conditions.

She says filming at high altitude in drizzle, snow and below-zero temperatures was some of the hardest work she has done. "A lot of what we did was working out how to create powerful documentation of what they do in that environment," she says.

She won't say whether she was on one of the two motorcycles speeding through lines of crawling traffic from Greville Rd to the city offramp for the Walters Prize exhibition - road rules may have been broken, but it's understandable to a motorcyclist.

"You're half the size, there's a different striation in that use of urban space, and with motorbikers there's often something quite playful, but it does have that added dimension of risk, which is why it is quite interesting as a social practice."

Early in the decade Monteith returned to her birthplace in Northern Ireland and made an experimental documentary about the Troubles, called Chapter and Verse, which screened at film festivals in 2005.

In between interviewing the likes of Ian Paisley, she donned a wetsuit and took to the surf. "The project was stressful and I needed that emotional space," she says. "Ireland has really good surf, but it's very cold. You have to be committed to get out there through the winter."

Her commitment made her the Irish women's surf champion and eighth in the European rankings.

Going back and exploring the country she lived in until she was 10 gave her a way to explore this country.

"When I came back after ... working through documentary issues and issues of site and place, I started to look much more at the New Zealand context because I felt I hadn't really connected with an audience or community here.

"I started to look a lot more closely at New Zealand's political and cultural history and be much more interested in the representation issues affecting it and what potential art had in those spaces."

That led her to protest, from which emerged two of the works in the Govett-Brewster. The first from 2008 is 1020 meters in 26 minutes Waitangi Day Auckland Harbour Bridge Protest, documenting vehicles crossing the bridge at walking pace to protest Transit New Zealand's refusal to fly the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

"My onboard cameras had just arrived, and I was participating in the protest, so I trialled them. That turned into an artwork."

The cameras and the flags were out again the next year for a performance, Parihaka to Cape Egmont Rd to Parihaka with two Tino Rangatiratanga Flags and two Land Rovers.

On that same trip Monteith did the Red Sessions performance, where surfers arriving at Taranaki surf breaks were asked to wear a red rash vest while in the water, with the results filmed for a multi-channel video panoramic installation.

"What unites political protest and the works that engage with territory and also the high speed ones is the passion involved in people's engagement with the physical environment or with these territories," she says.

"They are really involved with the geography and with their particular experience of these places, whether it is day after day practising on the racetrack or constantly surfing the same breaks just to get better and understand [how] the water moves."

She says one of her last conversations with her host at Parihaka, Te Miringa Hohaia, who died last month, was about his expectation that anyone who had a platform for a wider audience through surfing should use it to remind people of their responsibilities towards coastal ecology.

"What surfers notice is how fragile and how rare it is that certain combinations of geography and weather come together to produce the wave and it's unnerving when human activities start to interfere with those forms," she says.

Exhibition
What: Alex Monteith: Accelerated Geographies
Where and when: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, opens today, to December 5

- NZ Herald

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