Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 8 - Totem and Taboo
Log 8 - Totem and Taboo

Auckland Roundup
Phil Chard and Nicholas Spratt


We're all suffering the ravages of winter but the Queen City keeps on rocking. Fiat Lux has gone into hibernation and Dial Gallery has closed up shop but the action just doesn't seem to stop: the war for kebab shop supremacy continues, IMAX has arrived, Toi Toi Toi has come and gone, French comedian Derrida played the town hall and even Andy's due in town soon.

Fiat Lux is out to lunch. After a two year run as Sky City's Thursday Night Cabaret, the gallery that wanted to rock `n' roll all night and open every other day has ended its residency on Hobson Street. Nestled between the City Mission and the Central Police Station, the Vanguard of the Avant-Garde could be found supping bourbon in the best lounge never to have featured in NZ Home & Garden, casually leaning against a deep blue wall or passed out, head down in a puddle of some art star's vomit in the back yard. After providing us with a constant stream of uncompromising art with attitude, and newsletters that were bad like Michael Jackson, Daniel Malone bombed the gallery and took Fiat Lux back to the curry house where it all began. The Lux is apparently returning soon, having found a new home under the bright lights of Karangahape Road, amongst its cafes, kebab shops and bad house discos.

Fellow members of the K.bab Road Art Club, Artspace, have been stepping up the pace recently. Despite a series of un-notable exhibitions, and a bad fascination with Chinese performance, Auckland has been treated to two movies, DJ Spooky, John Armleder, Sylvie Fleury, and a chicken in a cage. While we emerging artists are so often overshadowed by the jet-setting antics of the Toi Toi Toi generations (still battling to break free of our diapers while they get Continental), Artspace has continued its generous support of New Zealand's youth with another `stepping stone' show for recent art school graduates. Last years version, Come lacked any real cohesion (apart from it being a big bunch of girls) but this time round Only the Lonely hung together well, an edge of cynicism and armchair conceptualism flowing through the show, mixed with plenty of cos-it-looks-good aesthetics. These shows always seem to have a bad sense of deja vu about them though: shamelessly rehashing graduate shows or works which had turned up in other parts of town in the months leading up to the exhibitions. Looking at Andrew McLeod's work in a drunken stupor I became completely disorientated; for a while there I thought I was at an opening four weeks earlier across the road at Ivan Anthony, until I realised that it would be impossible for me to be drunk since Artspace so seldom supply free wine and I couldn't afford to buy any drinks from the record store next door. I had really liked McLeod's work when I first saw it -- a slapstick play with the guerrilla tactics of various avant-gardes -- but the joke wore thin when shown again so soon.

The punch line was also visibly missing from Hadleigh Averill's comedic tank performance, Averill unable to re-enact his grad show antics because he is currently having his own personal Toi Toi Toi at the moment. Instead a friend was asked to take the plunge into Averill's glass water tank, mystically lit and full of bad womb references. The Assignment Shockumentary team seemed to like it though, almost as much as they liked Dylan Rainforth's chicken. Part of the reason this show work better than its predecessor was that there seemed to be more artistic licence given to the artists or maybe it was just that Rainforth really made the most of a not-so-bad situation - squiggle-top Pollock painting onto cardboard, pouring cement onto the floor and pitting a caged chicken against a videotape of birds of prey with a prog rock soundtrack. Having previously discovered the poetry inherent in pies and shower curtains, old socks, grass and billiard tables, young Rainforth took the logical step and moved on from experiments with snails to poultry exploitation.

Whilst some have been liberating chickens from their battery farm oppression, others have been taking sandwich boards on a voyage of discovery. Since stealing the pint-sized Artspace board to take on a whirlwind tour of the country for the Oblique show in Otira, and nabbing the ASA and Vavasour Godkin signs for rm3's Stuff show, Dane Mitchell has inspired a series of copy-cat crimes as petty and baseless as Nicholas Spratt's recent art practice. Some ruthless individual has pilfered the rm3 sandwich board and rumour has it that Barry Bates is holding the James Wallace sign to ransom until he is awarded the Visa Golden Wallace prize.

Only the Lonely provided a homecoming for the Artspace sandwich board and Mitchell presented the aftermath of the kidnapping incident with a record that he and co-conspirator Tim "Glasses" Checkley had produced - recorded telephone conversations with Artspace director Robert Leonard arranging the safe return of the pilfered article at a neutral location, and the stunning K Road Clubland remix of these conversations pitting Leonard's castrati "I just want it back" against Inner City's Good Life. Now is definitely the time to buy for anyone thinking of investing in an Artspace sandwich board: according to Artspace staff the replacement cost of the cheaply manufactured board was between $200 -- $300 after its appearance as part of Oblique. Estimates of its current worth are varied, but the price is set to skyrocket and the Paris Collection is said to be interested in getting hold of a copy. And Mitchell's career continues its meteoric rise thanks to the Artspace stepping stone - showing at rm3 with an exhibition made up of his correspondence with Jenny Gibbs, in which Mitchell asks for money to cover the gallery's exorbitant exhibition costs as he is "attempting to burst into the gallery scene" with his first solo show. Two letters garnished the space's off-white walls along with a cheque for $200.

Helping fuel Mitchell's dreams of art stardom, Artspace provided a taste of Matthew Barney's megalomania. In suitable fashion Cremaster 5 was a blockbuster sell-out. I missed out on tickets to the fifth instalment of Barney's testicular opera, but I've read the book and seen the reviews so wasn't too surprised to find out that it was an over-indulgent and spectacular bit of artistic excess. Money can't buy you happiness, but if you've got enough it's only natural that you'd want to design some fancy frocks and get operatic as you jetset around Europe. It seemed as though the artistic abandon was infectious: Artspace finally shelled out on some free wine. Yet while a cinema full of high minded Aucklanders were supping on their wine and sitting pretty watching Matthew Barney roam Europe singing an ode to the inner workings of his genitals, an old man was sitting in the squalor of his council flat getting pissed on cheap cider and scratching his balls.

After enjoying Ray's a Laugh and seeing his work in the ill-fated Pictura Brittanica, it was intriguing to hear that Richard Billingham's Fishtank was coming to town. Having risen to notoriety amongst the Britpop phenomenon by putting the poverty back into arte povera, taking photographs of his dysfunctional family living it up in the doldrums of the British Midlands, I had often wondered how Billingham's career would develop. Could he possibly continue to make mileage out of family or would he change tack completely? It looked as though Billingham's work was doomed to become yet another boring Nan Goldin slideshow when it was announced that Billingham was going to produce a film of his family. The film was, however, a very cleverly and carefully edited work -- thanks to a little help from Artangel -- distilled from over 50 hours worth of handycam docudrama and confined entirely to the Billingham family apartment. The part of the film that seemed most crucial to its success and stopped it from becoming more of the same in a different medium, was that it provided some history and depth to the characters we had become so familiar with, leading their violent and beautiful, disgusting and touching lives. This was particularly striking when the video camera hovered over the Billingham family photograph album - photographs that they had taken of each other and themselves before Richard took over. In particular, Liz Billingham's black and white photo booth mementoes were spookily Arbus-like.

Part of my fascination with Fishtank was the way it reminded me of a soap opera or a tragic sit com that I'd never had time to follow properly: a fragmented and edgy Coronation Street before the producers could afford to shoot outdoors with just a touch of Family Ties and the bleaker parts of Roseanne. And this is part of my major criticism of the film showing, a problem that won't be easily resolved. Going to the St. James or the City Gallery Auditorium suits a film like Cremaster 5, but this was a film commissioned by Artangel to be televised, and this made-for-TV notion is an intrinsic part of Fishtank. The film need not be a modern-day freak show - Billingham's tattooed lady and animal boy - cheap food for thought for a privileged and learned audience looking at how the lower classes live. That was the problem with his photographs but this is a film which works when seen whilst flicking through the channels on the TV in the lounge, providing chance encounters for anyone with a remote control and a short attention span: watching TV from the couch you can share the Billingham's living room for a few minutes as Liz stares intently at a nature documentary, watching fish swimming around a reef a thousand miles away. Unfortunately, as the "But Is it Art?" Assignment documentary so clearly illustrated, New Zealand television isn't quite ready for that.

The avant-garde have inspired some changes around town recently however. Since the Teststrip window space/bike shed and Fiat Lux are no longer providing pedestrians and passing motorists with conceptual eye-candy, we had been forced to rely upon archaic public sculptures and the odd arduous expedition to an exhibition if we wanted to see some art, unless we count the many tedious and badly printed socially motivated art posters which seem to keep getting pasted up. As part of its pre-APEC tidy up, the Auckland City Council has teamed up with several of the city's galleries to fill the window spaces of a vacant block on Customs Street with art. Fishtank may not be everybody's cup of tea but now everybody can have a slice of Killeen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It's a pity rm3 couldn't have thought about doing something with their window space rather than boarding it up and forcing people to walk all the way up the stairs. In a city of constant change rm3 can always be counted upon to provide the same old same old: thanks to yet another administerial cock-up the gallery has provided us with seven straight weeks of photographic work. The residency of the Auckland Camera Club started with We Really Care, a group show organized by Victoria Munro and crammed into the pint sized gallery: wall-to-wall photographics of all shapes and sizes, featuring the Good the Bad and the Ugly. After an opening that was so full of people and photographs that it became impossible to see any art; the weeklong show felt like it was over almost as soon it had begun. The work slowly found its way back to its owners and the show was swiftly followed by a funeral. Josephine Reddy's Forget-Me-Not was a memorial wall full of found photographs and seed packets -- a moving collection of misplaced nostalgia and beautiful but rapidly spreading weeds. Geoff Heath finished the run of photographics with Spare Room, a series of portraits of family and friends, simply shot within their home. Immaculately printed and disarmingly clear, the photographs held a certain suburban neurosis: past the participants whose portrait was being taken the eye was drawn to objects and details which held the same haunting quality as his show with Yvonne Todd earlier in the year at Fiat Lux.

Nestled between Heath and Reddy, Peter Madden was found playing knife games. It seemed to be no coincidence that Madden `s Plane of 1000 Cuts opened on the same night as IMAX arrived in town. Whilst Auckland has been waiting for the arrival of the much heralded seven storey film experience, Dr. Pete has spent the last three or four months getting busy with his scalpel, carving up his magazine collection. IMAX has been compared to early pursuits of diorama and panoramic painting (Jennifer Higgie, "Untamed Nature", frieze, Issue 42, 1998) in its attempts to recreate nature's wonders for an audience enamoured with the spectacle; and in the Plane of 1000 Cuts Madden slices up a National Geographic history, turning its humanitarianism and anthropological efforts inside out by creating a panoramic landscape of tiny detached faces, roaming animals and flocks of birds populated and bordered by cut up text. Madden is now rumoured to be in possession of Jack the Ripper's old scalpel and with his sights set on the rest of photography's sordid history has started work on the Plane of 10,000 Cuts.

The worst of winter seems to have passed, time to start thinking about what to wear to the Warhol show's dance party.

Phil Chard and Nicholas Spratt
Spring 1999



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room