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I think Terry Urbahn is pretending to be a hippy. Which is strange because he is definitely from the punk side of the tracks and all of his past work is informed by this. His best known work, The Karaokes, 1998, starred the artist performing a cover version of ‘Peaches’ by English punk band The Stranglers. His work personifies punk’s DIY amateurism, a position that provides an antidote to hippy utopianism.
Spellbound, Urbahn’s recent show at Enjoy Gallery, an artist run space in Wellington, flows on from this. The title couples art and performance with ritualistic spell casting, presenting both as strategies to deal with failure and fascination. But there is a paradox prowling around this exhibition as it slips from one allegiance to the other, in danger of tipping the whole show off its axis. On the one hand there is Urbahn, the traveller from down under who, no matter how well-worn the path, how many times the story has been told and retold (in a uniquely down under repetition compulsion), is still knocked sideways by the uncanny displacement of seeing in the flesh often sited but never seen places. That person is awestruck, impressed, humbled. On the other, there is the canny artist, one who makes things in response to life’s bringings, with tongue in cheek, hand over the mike, stumbling over his failures with flair. These two characters battle it out, and their struggle is played out in the tenuously matched mind-map of installations that make up Spellbound.
The first thing that strikes you upon entering Urbahn’s makeshift world is the noise—heavy metal chords clashing with sonorous spell incantations emerging from adjacent monitors. The hub of the show is a tenuous web of connections emerging from the video mosh pit of plastic bottles tossed by the bifurcating Tiber river where the parted waters meet in the slipstream of the Tiber Island. Moving maniacally to a riff provided by Metal band Motorhead, the band’s occult leanings link the head-banging bottles to the conversation going on between the paintings in the adjacent wall-mounted video. The tumbling mirrors the jumbled gathering of parts of which this show is constructed.
Urbahn animated paintings which he had videoed in the Louvre with spells fished from the internet—the contemporary artist’s recycling bin—providing both a cheap source of dialogue and, in the spells, an example of things that people resort to in order to cover up failure. The distorted computer generated voice recites love potions for the impotent, money-making for the broke, spells ‘to make you less noticeable’ which ‘may not work’. The effect seesaws between an irreverent teenage giggle and a disconcerting alienation at the disembodied voice of technology reciting new age wish lists. The feel is that of a teenage séance conducted in a deserted house, part fascination, part skepticism.
As the camera pans across a painting showing the cavities of Christ’s body being probed by a doubting Thomas, those cavities are echoed in the cardboard and plaster castle which dominates the centre of the gallery, its interior lit by pulsing Christmas lights like a department store fairy grotto. Looking like a teenage ritualistic object, the sculpture has Urbahn’s familiar ‘punk’ DIY aesthetic, hastily but artfully constructed. Are we invited to doubt the authenticity of Urbahn’s experience, his reproduction of it, or his sarcastic/mocking position? For instance, he creates a mockery of the celebration of consumerism on which tourism rests, the proof of conquest: ‘I was there’, ‘I owned that site/sight’. His sources are purloined, ready made, or cheap. He is interested in the detritus, the out-of-frame, or hastily framed, for instance a Polaroid of the artist as Mona Lisa peeks out between the two video monitors—a Duchampian cover version which took precisely 6 minutes 6 seconds according to the wall-drawn time-scale punctuating the show.
When Urbahn does wade into the mainstream, he flounders. His attempt to faithfully draw famous sites from memory is an un-intended example of failure in process. Urbahn had to resort to family snapshots in which the buildings took second place to render his awkwardly earnest pencil drawings.
The paradox running through the show occurs as the awestruck response becomes a failed cover version. Spellbound teased the viewer with the possibility of a transformative experience, and gave us a makeshift facsimile of the artist’s trip. Rather than presenting a tourist’s trophy room (I was there, I shot that site/sight) Urbahn stages an amateurish cover version of Europe. It was endearingly and unexpectedly authentic.