et al.

that's obvious! that's right! that's true!
Christchurch Art Gallery, Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch
23 July - 22 November 2009

Knowledge is formed from evidence. In their recent installation at the Christchurch Art Gallery the artists’ collective et al. have set the stage for information to be gathered, knowledge to be reviewed, statistics to be collated and opinion to be formed. The potential for real change is suggested. Yet the room is haunted by a deathly absence, and a sense that although a site has been prepared, the speakers installed, the speeches written, and the voting booths unfolded, it is all too late. One disaster always follows another; now is the time for charity.

As the exhibition was opening in Christchurch the Pope posted a public letter. Charity is often born of such co-incidence. The encyclical letter ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (‘of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Men and Women Religious, the Lay Faithful, and All People of Good Will on Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth’) documents Benedict’s worry that charity has been emptied of meaning. He suggests that it is time for social justice to enter the bounds of the market economy. This is a response to the global crisis of capitalism, and a challenge to those who seek to prop up capitalism by making it sustainable. et al. also remind us that in times of neo-liberal control charity comes to the fore, driven by a mantra to always think of those less fortunate than ourselves. There: witness the statistics. Strangely though, it is the poor who often give the most.

The space of the exhibition is that of a political rally; an environment all too often blurred between the communal forces of religion and the passion of the individual. This rally is no different. At once everything is presented as self evident, while nevertheless the ‘truth’ remains obscure. The installation is held together by glue made of human labour. Layers upon layers of tape stretch across texts that seem to have only recently slipped off the spirit duplicator (the Banda machine once common in schools and churches). Hands have made this work. They have stuck, they have screwed, they have bolted, and time has been invested. The space is filled with grubby sweat marks and the sticky residue of gaffer tape. Rusting pillars mark out spatial dimensions, scraps of wire hang from the exposed ceiling. This is not the immaterial labour that currently concerns the digital middle classes. The installation space is full of entreaties. Grim statistics abound; framed and bolted to billboards, they layer, overwhelm. Above us, urgent readings from loud speakers are unintelligible above the clash and clatter within the (voting) booth where I find myself. Someone is giving a lesson in architecture. Spaces are demarcated and a silhouetted pointer shows us the way through the labyrinth. The voice from above reminds us we can break on through to the other side; that simply by ‘voting only once’ we can extract ourselves from this picture. In 1973 John Cage wrote, ‘Our political structures no longer fit the circumstances of our lives’. In that’s obvious! that’s right! that’s true et al. offer the possibility that in some not too distant future the numbers might add up, and sense will be made from accumulated data.

I furtively collect copies of a newspaper piled in the space, hiding them in my bag in the same way that some New Zealand households held onto Mao’s Little Red Book in the 1970s. Later, when I open the newspaper I find a spread of cartoon-like drawings including truisms: ‘Reason is the greatest enemy that faith faces’, ‘Believe in faith not reason, no pain’, ‘No one can be sure “it” will go on the same way’. It dawns on me that these are perhaps the texts that I could not decipher through the sonic booming of the loudspeakers. Truisms are never altogether altruistic, but generic, clichéd, promises of hope.

et al. present an image of hope tainted by bureaucracy. Little incubator/tithing boxes become model holding cells or family rooms, motifs for transformation and possibility. These are pre-trial locations where even amongst the powerless there remains a glimmer of hope. We can imagine photographs taken from these places, now grey and dusty, abandoned in haste, where someone is pointing with a pencil, or a stick, something is hooded. There is an inevitable transformation. Faith suggests possibilities beyond the cardboard wall, yet we continue to study the location with no knowledge of its true make up. Above us, parts of the ceiling have been lifted, rendering the entire space a construction. Threads begin to connect the gallery with the models; each becomes a temporary platform.

In order to get a better view I climb the viewing platform. Is this degree zero? The exhibition begins to occupy a kind of forever future past. Do et al. suggest we compensate for our private anxieties by attending to the corporate architects of disaster? In occupying multiple dimensions the installation documents the cycles of historical amnesia; we are reminded that these days charity, no matter how deconstructed, is a political product along with everything else.