festival spoils

bill viola: the messenger; seung yul oh: bogle bogle; anthony mccall: drawing with light
The NewDowse, Lower Hutt; Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University, Wellington
20 February - 4 July 2010 & 13 February - 30 May 2010; 24 February - 25 April 2010

The enduring complaint that mixed-discipline festivals are notoriously light on visual art still stands for the commissioned offerings of the 2010 New Zealand International Festival of Arts. Luckily the museums and galleries of Wellington have pulled out all stops to bring audiences a feast of exhibitions. At the NewDowse in Lower Hutt, re-energised under new director Cam McCracken, are a suite of exhibitions, the big cheese being Bill Viola’s The Messenger (1996) a single-channel video work originally commissioned for Durham Cathedral in the United Kingdom. Bringing this work to New Zealand audiences for the first time is a coup. The piece is installed beautifully within a hangar of a gallery, a space often occupied by collection hangs or temporary shows which struggle to address the giddying height of the room. 

Having lived in London through the nineties, I have seen my fair share of works by Viola in a range of settings, and have become de-sensitised to the theatrical way they tackle the ‘big themes’; birth, life, death, etcetera. Operatic in scale, The Messenger’s looped sequence shows a pasty naked male rising to the surface of a body of water, taking a breath, opening his eyes, blinking and staring urgently straight at the viewer, before sinking back into the depths. 

While most of the people around me were transfixed, a number stopped at the door and would not come any further; whether the scale of the projection was too daunting, or it was too dark, I am not sure. One parent with a gaggle of wee ones came upon the space just as the flaccid penis of the figure loomed large, and they high-tailed it out quick smart—which was a shame, as children who did see the whole piece were bursting with salient observations about what this man might be feeling, and why on earth he was in the water. Seeing this work again did not make me feel any more inclined towards Viola’s works but it was certainly drawing in the crowds on a hot summer day in the Hutt. 

I spent more time in Bogle, Bogle by Auckland-based artist Seung Yul Oh. For this work, three chambers off a central space were inhabited by clusters of shapes and creatures. All had a similar slick matt or ultra shiny finish, an industrial looking paint job over fibreglass. Most of the objects sat or lay on the floor; egg shaped ovals in a multitude of pastel shades just shy of a metre high were joined by giant match sticks with deep red bulbous heads. Three of these stood to attention, one leaning against the wall and another prone on the floor. Tiny stylised mice (with a nod to Katharina Fritsch’s behemoth rodents) in three shades—white, light grey and dark grey—populated this landscape, one perched atop a high painted wooden plinth, others standing staring up at the eggs or investigating the match sticks. 

One room housed a series of illusions and spatial trickery. 2-D metal standing forms painted in bright orange or blue tones mimicked 3-D perspective. Their support stands, painted a matronly, utilitarian grey did not subscribe to the same visual trickery. The only work given an isolated space was a white fibreglass ghost of a table. The gag here was that there was no substrate, the cloth was the form. There is a posh Danish coffee table in clear acrylic which tries a similar trick, and window displays from high-end design stores kept creeping into my head.

There was nothing minimal about this show, the colour-play and the range of different shapes was riotous, with some odd components to throw you off kilter—there was literally an elephant in the room, a buff-coloured stylised creature, different again in scale to the mice or the matchsticks. The kid-in-a-sweet-shop aesthetic was jovial and ribald, but was earthed a little too harshly by the gallery’s dark charcoal carpet, a bit of a killer, particularly for floor-based sculpture.

For New Zealand art audiences, the similarity to the automotive lacquer finish of Michael Parekowhai’s sculptures is hard to side-step. Yul Oh’s work has in the past been more varied in its materiality, with more biomorphic and gloopy forms and more anarchic uses of colour. I left excited by what I saw, but also slightly nostalgic for the physicality and slapstick of works from several years ago. 

‘Anthony McCall: Drawing with Light’ was a powerhouse of a show, a thoughtful selection of works brought together by Christina Barton at the Adam Art Gallery. Having seen reproductions of the vast ‘solid light’ works within the Hangar Bicocca, Milan and documentation of his recent solo show at the Serpentine Gallery, London, I was expecting a singular knock-out work, instead the fare was richer and more variegated. 

The upper gallery featured three early film works, transferred to DVD. Earthwork (1972) and Landscape for White Squares (1972) shared one screen, with Landscape for Fire (1972) projected at the end of the long gallery. These works were a revelation, along with the wall of preparatory drawings and time sequences around the corner in the foyer. Earthwork was a beautifully absurd action: a male figure digging a square hole in a field beside a giant neat stack of hay bales. The square sod is cut cleanly and rested to one side while the subtracted earth is placed within a square cardboard box, the type you would find on the shelves of an archive. This deposit is taped up, bound with string and re-buried in the square hole. It is covered with soil, finally the brown-booted man presses the square patch of grass back into place, rendering the whole activity invisible. 

In Landscape for White Squares, a formation of six performers each hold aloft a square of fabric, the hems of which skirt the rough terrain of ploughed soil they are traversing. The misty scene appears both mathematically configured and casually ritualistic, a curious mix, one that is utterly charming and engaging. Landscape for Fire is a more complex time and motion exercise, a seven and a half minute work where white-clad figures orchestrate a gridded sequence of fire lighting, with the order of lighting and the burn time of the small circular vessels charting the physical space of the field. Viewers are spread around the perimeter of the field. 

In a public talk McCall spoke about the ‘problem of expectation’ in relation to audiences of the early fire performances—he had thought of the spectator as witness to the sculptural process, rather than an audience to be entertained. As the fire works became more elaborate, this became more of an issue. The separation of the action and the viewers and the way that photographic or film documentation became the work both irked him. He wanted to find a way that the ‘film is active at the moment of projection’ and for the audience to be in the work. 

This thinking led to the first Line Describing a Cone film (1973) where, over thirty minutes, a projected slim white line turned into a circle, creating a cone of light registered in the dust of the projection space. In the final six minutes the light cone could envelop the spectators. This led to more complex set-ups such as Long Film for Four Projectors of the same year, which had sixteen possible permutations and a cycle length of five and a half hours. 

McCall recalled that avant-garde cinema did not have a place in the art world of the time. These works were performed in dusty downtown Manhattan lofts, full of airborne particles and people smoking. The works did not translate with ease, either contextually, or practically, to the more clinical surroundings of a museum or gallery. The clean air did not register the light rays, rendering the sculptural, spatial qualities of the projected works invisible. McCall decided to stop making art, and for twenty-odd years worked as a book designer. During the latter part of this period new fog machines were developed for the film industry and dance clubs that, along with possibilities afforded by computer animation and video projectors, enabled McCall not only to make art again, but to realise projects of dramatically increased complexity and scale.

This show included three ‘solid light’ works. You and I, Horizontal (2005) comprises an animated abstract drawing using light projected through haze—a circle flipping on a horizontal axis, met by a sweeping left-to-right wave and line combination. The two elements in flux register as a white line on the wall opposite the projector, and the beams of light form a gradually morphing form in the haze. The initial view for spectators as they enter the room is the exterior of the cone of light being emitted from a brilliant point at the end of the room. Next comes the decision of whether or not to enter the light cone, to move inside the space where you become oblivious to what is occurring beyond the border of light. Turning to follow the rays of light, you notice the linear drawing on the wall opposite the projector, a slow 2-D dance of geometry. 

In the lower gallery two works sat side by side—a set of five working maquettes of Breath, Meeting You HalfwayBetween You and I, and Coupling from the Hangar Bicocca. These works gave you a sense of the slow transitions of the ten metre tall vertical light shafts in Milan. In the far space a second large-scale solid light work, Doubling Back (2003) placed the viewer back inside the work. While the works from 2003 onward are a clear continuation of McCall’s formal investigations of the 1970s, their more allegorical titles allude to how abstract forms speak of the dynamics of human relationships. This meaty, resonant exhibition was a revelation, and Wellington audiences were fortunate to be able to immerse themselves in it.