Sir Bob Jones
Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: Beware gullibility in the art world


Galleries, local bodies and central government agencies are buying into this blarney with the public purse.

A decade back, a chap leased a Manhattan apartment. Outside were two levels of scaffolding which he assumed would be temporary but instead, over the next six years the scaffolding steadily rose, reaching 10 storeys.

Eventually he complained, saying it was like living in a cage. That, it transpired was its point, being the brainchild of a poseur so-called installation "artist". He called this The Bars, claiming it symbolised how we are all imprisoned by life. A protest to the building owner elicited the response that it was done to jazz up the joint. "Well, here's some performance art for you", the tenant responded, handing him a lease cancellation notice.

We're all familiar with this nonsense and can laugh at the gullibility of those who succumb to it. There's the clown who travels the world and at each stop calls for volunteers to be photographed en masse, naked in a public place. Out they trot; the hopeful fat girl losers, the bearded bachelor school teachers and the furtively agog perverts, and duly jump through the ringmaster's hoops before sheepishly dissipating.

Another charlatan travels about wrapping natural or man-made structures in plastic to the acclaim of the local art set, or some of them anyway. This is a modern phenomenon but New Zealand certainly hasn't been immune.

In the 1970s, I was a regular attendee at the gallery of our then leading contemporary art dealer, Peter McLeavy, in Wellington. In those days it was difficult to buy sculptures, dealers being reluctant as here and in Australia they were hard to sell. So when an invitation came for a sculpture exhibition I shot along early.

On arrival Peter handed me a glass of red while I looked about for the sculptures. "It's that," Peter said, adding, "A very fine work" and he pointed to the corner. There sat a shallow tin tray containing a layer of sand. On it was a tattered old canvas deck chair. At that moment through the door, roaring drunk, stumbled poet Sam Hunt.

"I need a bloody drink," he bellowed, and weaving across the floor, crashed down into the deck chair, duly smashing it into pieces beneath him. I promptly offered to buy it, as is or restored, with the proviso Peter exhibit it for a year in his home. "The artist has chosen not to sell it," he advised the following day.

A few years ago, looking down from my 21st floor Auckland office, I noticed a nearby office building we own had a large podium level extension. On learning the adjacent tenant was Creative New Zealand, I instructed the staff to build a wooden deck and railings, assuming the agency would have lots of functions and thus utilise it. So we did and so they did.

Well, a year ago, I noticed to my horror a battered corrugated shed on the deck. The staff groaned but assured me it would be gone soon. This should interest readers given as taxpayers they paid for it, for what it was, was an installation art exhibit for which a party had been staged to "appreciate" it.

Even if I say so, I wrote a bloody funny piece in my 2004 novel Degrees For Everyone, about an installation art contest. If you haven't a copy permanently beside your bed, as I gather John Minto has, then get it out of the library. There are a thousand stories about ludicrous so-called installation art and we've all laughed at buyers' gullibility for Tracy Emin's unmade bed, stuffed sharks, piles of bricks and other purported art. For that matter, the New Zealand official exhibit a few years ago at a European sculpture contest of a musical corrugated-iron farm toilet shed was certainly cause for national embarrassment.

One can giggle at the twisted iron behind large law firms' reception desks, supplied by wide boy so-called art consultants, but ultimately it's their money to waste.

Which is where the laughter stops and that's when public galleries, local bodies and central government agencies buy into this blarney with the public purse, an all too common occurrence. Much the same can be said about paintings, no stranger to this carry-on.

One of our better post-war artists, Michael Illingworth, who died about 25 years ago, used to carry on about fraudulent art; mind you, like many artists he complained about a wide range of things. I have some of his paintings, including what is supposedly his finest work but the one I most enjoy is a small work titled The Art Opening. It's vintage Illingworth in its simplicity and shows two pretenders, wine glasses in hand, against the background of one of the exhibits, a canvas with one half painted white and the other black. Tellingly, there's a red sale sticker in the corner.

- NZ Herald

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