The $50,000 Walters Prize winner is announced next Saturday. All four finalists talk a good game but can you see it in the work?

If you were to make a spot assessment of contemporary New Zealand art based on the shortlist for the $50,000 Walters Prize (as judge Mami Kataoka is doing right now), you would assume it is done by Elam-trained 30-somethings who make installation or performance art outside the country.

So what is the job of being an artist in 2012, according to the jury of curators who picked the final four? It seems to involve lots of travel and lots of talking. All the finalists talk a good game, even if it may seem hard to see in their work.

Involvement with an alternate artist-run space counts, as does getting representation in galleries that cool curators frequent. Germany or Berlin helps. It's a place curators want to go, and cheap rent means there are thousands of young and not-so-young artists from around the world living there.

While the jurists say the four bodies of work "were each seen to occupy unique and adventurous territory in New Zealand art", they are in fact deeply conservative - this is the new academy.


Simon Denny improved his chances by doing his masters degree in Frankfurt after completing his BFA in Auckland. "I met a curator who recommended the school to me, and I was interested in some of the teachers," he says. "There was a lot of going to exhibitions in different countries. It's cheaper and easier to travel once you are there."

At Elam he showed at Gambia Castle and he is involved in similar artist-run spaces in Europe. "It's a good way to learn off other artists. You invite them to do something and see how they work."

The broad themes of his work are technology, especially television, and how culture is produced. "I am constantly trying to gather information around this loose topic of how communications change, how people use technology. I then get offered opportunities to make exhibitions."

Denny's entry in the Walters was made during a residency at Artspace in Sydney, and consists of life-size photographic images, ink-jet printed on to canvas, of every video screen in the gallery. The content on the screens is from an introductory logic course he did at the University of Sydney during his time there. "I wanted to reflect knowledge production in Sydney."

He says by collecting together all the technology at Sydney Artspace he was able to create a sort of history of video art and video installation, because work will look different based on what they are displayed on.

"The way I approach making exhibitions is I pick a subject I think the audience will think interesting, and I try to make an engaging thing."

Denny says events like the Walters Prize create attention that leads to more opportunities. He recently won the 30,000 Swiss franc ($39,000) Baloise Prize at this year's Art Basel in Switzerland, for a piece looking at the demise of TVNZ7 , including a documentary, produced in the TVNZ7 style, about the redesign of the New Zealand passport.

"I try to make my exhibitions make sense as a whole, but there are also parts you can take away. Other times I have sold the whole thing. I can't project what my income will be. Every sale is kind of a miracle. When you focus on an art fair, you may make a reasonable sum, but over the next months or year you may not make anything."


Kate Newby is another veteran of Gambia Castle. She joined the artist-run space while at Elam when she realised self-initiated projects would be a way to reduce her reliance on curators and institutions.

"I think it's important to define your own idea of success and follow that, instead of following a prescribed path. Other people become interested in you because you are not relying on other structures to make work," she says.

"I travel for inspiration and ideas, it's field research. I work across landscape, architecture, interior design."

Newby's installations have poetic-sounding titles and usually consist of some handmade intervention into a landscape or place - in the case of the piece Please crawl out your window, which won her the Walters slot, she poured concrete on the floor of the Gesellschaft fur aktuelle Kunst GAK in Bremen, Germany, painted it blue and set stones and other small elements in it.

Auckland Art Gallery says Newby's work "invites you to look again and discover the poetic beauty that lurks within our everyday surroundings".

Newby has just completed a Creative New Zealand-funded residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York. Among the works she made were concrete and rock seats at Fort Greene in Brooklyn. She will go back to demolish or "de-install" them later in the year.

"To do that I researched the park. I spent time looking where people went, and chose an underdeveloped spot that was actually a major thoroughfare, with the park offering a shortcut to a nearby hospital and high school. It's interesting to see how people use spaces and respond."

She is now doing a residency on Fogo Island, a remote spot so far out on the east of Newfoundland it has its own time zone. She's looking forward to seeing the sea ice over.

"Walking on this island, you have to watch for caribou and coyotes. The caribou are leaving now, so the coyotes are getting hungry," she says.

Newby, who funded her activities in New Zealand by working in bars, says residencies are not a way to survive as an artist, but she seems shy about talking about the money side. "I do make work people can buy, and people can commission things."

Sriwhana Spong is also still reliant on outside work to make a living, although commissions are starting to come in. She credits her former flatmate Newby and another young high-flyer, Daniel Malone, for keeping her making work after Elam.

"My work has shifted over the past 10 years. Early on it was about cultural identity, it was about growing up estranged from a particular culture and exploring what that meant, how much could I own or take from something I was genetically part of but not raised in.

"It has shifted to be less about a particular genealogy and more about the present moment, being a body in the present moment and the potential that can have."

She credits the shift to working with dancers who are trained to consider the body in movement and performance. Spong danced until she was 15, when her adolescent body was no longer able to move the way it needed to. "It's what I wanted to do. Art filled that gap."

Spong says her working method is a mix of conceptual thought processes and intuition.

"Leading up to works, there is a lot of reading and thinking that happens and I will have a soft idea for a work, an intuitive thought, and as I read and spend time thinking, I work through it until everything clicks into place. Once the work is in motion, through dialogue with other people involved in the making it will shift and change. I see art-making as working out the language you want to speak, and I feel at 32 I am still learning."

Alicia Frankovich studied across the road from Elam at Auckland University of Technology about the same time as the others, and she now lives in Berlin.

Like Spong she uses other people in her performances. In the case of Floor Resistance, first performed last year in Berlin, it involves having classical musicians lying on their backs on the floor playing Bartok pizzicatos, among other indignities. "It's not about how well they play music," she says. It's about art history, museum structures and conventions, the role of the audience, movement and the body. The former gymnast also makes conceptual and kinetic sculptures, "which sustain the idea of the body where the body is removed".

While Frankovich performs many pieces herself, she says she's not trying to relive 1970s performance, such as the confrontational psychodramas of Marina Abramovich whose retrospective has revived interest in the practice. "I'm not interested in freaking people out."

Her performances are instead theatrical encounters, tightly scripted. "I target people for what I want at the time, so I go to the person in that discipline and put them in an art context. They get paid to do a job. We spend a lot of time rehearsing, discussing the context, but they are actors."