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

Christchurch Roundup
Gwynneth Porter


Armageddon it. Really getting it...

So, how did it come about that I was singing this hair-metal refrain to myself in the McDougall Art Annex some Thursdays ago? Well, I will tell you. That reel started playing in my head just after another had got going, remembering, as I was, apparently for no apparent reason, what a friend had relayed over the telephone when I was back in Dunedin a few weeks ago.

She said, with no intro, just a breathless hello, and slightly hysterical guess what?, that Satan will make his presence known on the 18th of August in Pakistan. Absolutely insane, but kind of compelling. Her and the idea both. I mean wouldn't it be great for once to be involved in some real action. I mean to hell with Watts riot-grade live history. This is Satan we are talking about here. The big guy. Real. Stinky. Red and sticky. All-powerful. Wow. Yep. Armageddon. Finally. The fire storm to end all firestorms.

Although I must say the Pakistan bit baffled me momentarily. I thought you'd only ever find the devil in paradise. I mean (as Henry Miller pointed out from his Pacific Palisades casa) where else would he be? But lest I forget I remembered before it was too late that Henry Miller can be really full of it sometimes. Anyone knows that if you seek Him with all your heart, you can find Him anywhere. And it's easier when you are thirsty somewhere dirty. Like Pakistan. Although seeing as I have never been there, I don't know dick about it.

Why now? I found myself wondering. (Even wondering has been worrying me lately. Plato claimed that all philosophy begins with wonder and we all know where our best thinking gets us. Reaching for the panadol.) Are things adequately chaotic for The Evil One to want to visit? Or not evil enough to please The Prince of Darkness?

I guess it is natural enough for this Satan-prediction to come into my head, given that it was nearly August, and one is wont to wonder what effect real live history might have on art. Would people give up in favour of life and living, or would they try harder? Pay more or less attention to the reels playing in our own heads? Make more or less passive aggressively incomprehensible displays? Which brings me back to the McDougall Annex and the show that I was standing in the middle of, away with the fairies: Peter Robinson's Point of Infinite Density.

Why was I not paying attention? Well, I didn't get it. And evidently preferred to talk to my friends, or to myself, if they were busy talking to each other, or to themselves. We all found it pretty incomprehensible.

I briefly ventured to myself that the pot paraphernalia blown out of proportion and fashioned shabbily out of tinfoil amongst the beginner-on-PageMaker-with-no-design-skills-or-aptitude style text/image bits (e.g. photos of artist's own big mouth, scanned NO IDEAS ANYMORE in artist's signature style) might have been clues that in fact this installation might be about, or evidence of, excessive pot smoking or something. Or at the very least, the human hamster-wheel habit of stuffing the gaping spiritual black whole within with anything comforting or arousing from the outside that they can lay their hands on.

Upon a second visit, I realised why I had not been paying attention. I was afraid of this place, this show. It reeked of pain. It was draining my feeble life force. If the whole world looked like this, I would have to kill myself. No doubt about it. I felt very uncomfortable, confronted as I was by some more agony laid out in this space which I always wished had remained the university library it once was.

Strangely enough, my father when he saw the invitation for this show wondered whether Point of Infinite Density, aping as it does black hole language, might not be a system to suck in the all latent arts funding around it. Weird. I mean my father is a scientist and had never heard of Peter Robinson.

Gorilla Peter Robinson
Point of Infinite Density
Robert McDougall Art Annex, 1997

It wasn't until I left, and was having a half-full/half-empty back-and-forward with someone, that I realised that was the flavour of this show. Perhaps it was about the ness of the half-empty, half-baked, half-life, half-assed etc. Or about having spent too much time with halitosisy German art-butlers. (Maybe a certain Wellington dealer was onto something when he apparently said it all just goes to show that a brown trout can't survive in the Rhine.) But I guess what is going on for me is that I am quite tired of chaos-theory/nihilistic art offerings. They all seem so New Right to me. In this NF vein, I was not that surprised to find a placard amongst the rest of the crap there that read NO HAIR THEORY. Go skinheads. Right on.

Whatever. Much preferred Daniel Malone's resolute demonstration of the ness of half-full (as oppose to the half-empty) with the ghosts of actual skinheads at the Physics Room that I had opened the night before. Showing there in a how-do-you-like-them-apples codependent show (which was also at the High Street Project) with former real-life partner A. D. Schierning, their Uber Alles went alongside Maryrose Crook's Semel Insanivimus Omnes(we have all been mad once) painting show.

Schierning's component, Coca Cola Uber Alles, was composed of drawings on the walls based on characters from the cartoon Sailor Moon. Well at least the heads and limbs were drawn off children's outfits stuck on the wall. Lots of leg. Magic powers. Bookmark proportions. Except for one particular figure that apparently apes Schierning's own proportions, and is more down-to-earth. A really grating video loop is also there amongst Malone/Schierning detritus that plays the main bit of the cartoon's theme over and over with a coke bottle and three or so she-figures that go from outlandishly silly manga proportions to real-girl-ish. I had a feeling she wouldn't be doing this if she were actually fat. Or old. But that's OK. Enthusiasm is very refreshing and most welcome here in Swamp City at this time of year.

California Uber Alles was Malone's offering, and was a characteristically sprawling yet elegant affair supposedly about the way people pick up symbols and use them for their own various ends. In this case, it is the swastika, a motif so pregnant with promise, which was being explored at high speed. What is obvious is that, as with most human endeavour, there is very little rhyme or reason to it. Take skinheads for example. They think, I guess, the swastika is the international symbol for hate because they seem to hate everything (except each other, anarchy and looting, German militia, violence and getting really bent out of shape) including themselves. I mean, how can one get conceptually rigorous about something that wasn't thought out along those lines in the first place?

There are many elements there to put in your pipe and smoke. Charlie Chaplin's The last dictator was playing, and Malone dressed up like him on opening night, his costume topped off by an armband sporting a double cross, which was then echoed in the gone-over smiley face of an Italian Nirvana flag. Not far away was Malone's approximation of Kurt Cobain's suicide note on Korean Mr. K brand notepaper. It read "Dear Mrs. K, I mean C, Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes. (& I can take it or leave it if I please) Love Mr. K." Next to it a turntable with a 3ml syringe for a needle tries to play a record with its centre bit blacked out to bear a swastika. The record was actually "Turn back the clock" by Johnny Hates Jazz. I looked.

There were a lot of other things going on too, e.g. above the turntable, a Native American dream catcher fashioned from feathers and a Korean plastic bag and some sort of lampshade frame; a beautiful Japanese shingle garden with large-sale swastika gouged into it encircled an island sporting Schierning's video made into a confusing eastern swastika shrine... The way the objets took over reminded me of a people-pleasing version of F.T.W. i.e., if we stick together we can take what we want. And take over. Tyranny destroyed!!! or something like that.

I went to the opening. There were a lot of people there. Mostly with the Crook party it seemed. But unfortunately, I had been reading a Dennis Cooper book, Guide, that day, and as someone who knows she has no real mental defences against literature, I should have known better than to read another septic little book from LA by Dennis Cooper, an alcohol and drug ravaged art fag, and then to go into a room full of them. All I could think of was one character in the book saying to the Cooper-character "I can't do acid anymore. It makes me think art is pathetic, and I can't think art is pathetic, even if it is." I left thinking that although I had looked at a lot of interestingly interrelated things, I was going out knowing no more than I did when I went in.

I went back the next day to look at Uber Alles in the cold hard light of day. Relating my last night's exit thought to Malone, he said he hoped people would know less. He then drew my attention to a piece in the show that involved the poster to the movie The Man Who Knew Too Little featuring a glibly gesticulating Bill Murray. Within his pistol-aping pointing hand was added a swastika made up from red marker, with one small nail every centimetre, and sewing cotton wound between each of the points like I seem to remember doing in some craft class in primary school. The poster read "The international intelligence community is about to get a lot less intelligent." Malone said people had been asking him if it was a Peter Robinson reference. Now, that's not very nice, is it?

I was grateful that I had the good luck to be amongst something that I was interested in so as to avoid that so-disinterested-in-the-art feeling that leads to imagining what the space would be like to live in. Or find myself wanting to add things. Or catch myself checking out my hair in glazing-reflections. The last time that these things happened were, respectively, when I went to the Thoroughfare project; to Lisa Crowley's show The end at the Physics Room; and to the Brooke-Gifford to see Ralph Hotere's and Mary McFarlane's collaborative exercise Binisafua:

Firstly, the only memorable parts of Thoroughfare, an Oblique project (the boffins that brought you that project in Otira last summer), was the recently vacated bank premises in Sydenham that was the venue, and a performance work by Adam Willetts that involved him playing with a remote control hovercraft on a sheet of slippery plastic. He just stood there and did it self-consciously. It was pretty great. And made me think of Goethe who apparently said that we are happy when for everything inside us, there is an equivalent something outside us. Hovercraft eh? Curious....

Secondly, the rather bald horse face photo-portraits and digital drops of slices of pix of an OK wood in Crowley's The End looked to me like posters from some Christian bookstore sans mottoes. Without epithets like Let not your heart be troubled, or God is Good/Love/light/Truth, a vacuum is created that wants opposing replacements. One viewer looked at one of the horse photos and suggested "You are getting sleepier and sleepier...". I imagined a streaker just out of shot from the woody scene. Maybe it was about how people have such trouble seeing the wood for the trees. Or how, in the face of harsh, clinical reality, humans lurch into some or other fantasy world. And vice versa. (Apparently, as a result of stress, humans, prone to extreme behaviour as we are, leap for these aforementioned poles.)

Thirdly, the Hotere-McFarlane show, presenting corroded, figured mirrors with metal decoration on top, was best summed up by a friend whose only comment was "A bitch to shave in". Damn straight. The Jason Greig works in the other chamber, fabulous framed monoprints making up Demons are forever, were far better for checking hair in. Give this man a national profile and lots of money! His work has never let me down, and this show, well, colour me impressed. So dark, so disaffected, so misanthropic, so trapped. It's a nightmare! I can still see clearly in my head his image of a vampire praying. Let go and let Satan. And pray for knowledge of the Brutal Truth and strength to carry it out.

As an installation, the gallery took on the air of an office that had been occupied by some sort of shamus (with a business card that said in hard type "Cain do") who had recently vacated the premises, intending returning later to uplift his collection. It seemed as though when these works are taken down, there would be picture-sized cleaner rectangles on the wall where the works were, as though clipped carefully over the years from limited edition Creeps by Night-type volumes.

Next after Grieg at the Brooke-Gifford was Bill Hammond's Melting Moments. Here, the zoomorphic theme of his recent work continues, but with seahorse, actual people and bar-code digressions. Upon receiving the invitation, I was initially a bit disappointed with the title, until I imagined an abandoned plate of mostly-gone melting moments with a fly rock-jumping crumbs and sugary filling. I was delighted to discover that the two big works in the show were called Melting moments and the rest, Fly. Once again, fantasy rules victorious over harsh, clinical reality.

Finally, over to Jonathan Smart's, and back a ways, was Saskia Leek's latest offering to Christchurch. Here were half a dozen painting-drawings on rectangles of butterfly-wingish customised plywood. This format whispered to me of a tale involving a young artist who was so loved by this famous guitarist that he gave unto her six beautiful guitars to turn over and cut out rectangular grounds from, and then paint until her inner child was satiated for just a few sweet hours. Beautiful. I needed to see that. My inner child has been watching too much TV fearfully in the corner for way too long. Which is all OK and healthy enough I guess, all things considered. Ain't life grand.

Gwynneth Porter
Spring 1999



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room