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I like to think of Alex Monteith as a stunt artist. Not the conventional film industry kind, and not the Mike Parr body politic kind either, but nonetheless, an artist who demonstrates a pointed assessment of risk, and a desire to play with the conventional rules of physics. Monteith’s works take performance into an expanded field of activity.
She describes her on-site performance at a Taranaki surf beach as ‘a large-scale performance intervention’. Breathlessly announcing the work to me on the phone before the event, Monteith is full of enthusiasm; the art jargon and surf jargon collide. The location is a beach west of New Plymouth. It is a dramatic black sand beach, peppered by the ‘sugar loaf’ islands, which create an enduring surf break.
Monteith interrupted the normal course of a six day surfing festival by customising the Expression Session, what you might think of as the freestyle surfing contest. Her midday intervention was leveraged off the presence of the world’s best professional female surfers who were in the region for The Subaru Pro. The festival was the third in a series of six international contests that comprise the Association of Professional Surfers Dream Tour circuit. Her work, entitled Chartwell Red Session Expression Session 2011, was an integral part of the Festival during which a series of titles were contested, including the New Zealand Women’s Open and Junior National titles.
Monteith’s point was to challenge the parameters for performance art—making her work a competitive contest outside of sanctioned institutionalised art spaces. Enthusiasts viewed the work from the beach or the carparks, but the documentation brings another dimension to her interventions. The video footage and stills that Monteith assiduously marshals, and the custom made rash vests are the remnants of the event. In some ways the resulting photographs share an affinity with Fiona Clark’s early photographs of body builders and body sculptors. Clark acknowledges her role of documentarian to that subculture community, just as Monteith acknowledges her own role in the surf competition; as surfer, artist and organiser, promoter, documentarian.
Monteith is articulate, energetic, talented, and obsessed with gear and with detail. Her persona is part of the project. She even attempted to win the sole ‘wild-card’ entry to the Expression Session by competing in an earlier contest. Her artwork ‘lives’ in the competitive international subculture of surf. The work, of necessity, aligns with the codes of a surfing contest. Her aim is neither to interrupt or critique but to ‘work with the local [community] and amplify what’s relevant to the participants’, both from an artistic and a cultural perspective.
‘If I am not a participant in the action things can unravel, I don’t know what meaning is activated.’ So Monteith engages with cultural groups to which she is ideologically aligned. She insists, however, that the work goes ‘beyond the individual’, to the cultural, to the very ‘infrastructure of the activity’. For her, the sponsors, the sites, the surfers are implicated in the event, just as she is also complicit in it.
Normally, competitors wear colour-coded rash vests to convey their seed as they enter a particular heat: red, yellow, white, green or blue. Monteith uses this cultural vernacular but adopts uniform red vests, ‘not trying to make them look like the first seed, but selecting a high contrast colour that will give good visibility in a range of conditions’. The uniformity ‘amplifies the expression session itself’. Commentators and judges know the competitor’s surfing styles so well that the indistinguishable vests posed few problems; they watch the action on enlarged video TVs, looking down on the contest arena.
Monteith made thirty vests, with two vests being autographed with the full set of competitor’s signatures. The vests underscore that moment in time, bearing the place of the event, but also giving the then world ranking of the top sixteen women surfers.
Despite making the contest robust, the rule-less edge of the surf counterculture bit back. Or, in Monteith’s language the contest was ‘subject to radical transformation’. Her work tested both the structure of competition and the structure of art, and it was unexpectedly interrupted. This was an ‘historic moment in New Zealand surfing, with the top women in the world competing, and the men burgled the situation’, when the Australian surf coach entered the arena to compete.
Monteith’s ‘radicalism’ is couched in relationship to the institutional and cultural groups with which she intersects. Beyond her formal device of inserting a uniform colour field into the contest, it’s all about the contest, and the community. She moves to redefine performance space and action with gestures that are minimal, but which have wide-reaching implications. The reflexive logic of post minimal art practice meets an equal and opposite force with Monteith’s socially-engaged performance spirit.
Alex Monteith, Courtney Conlogue, 2011.
Rash Vest, 2011.
Fans w sigs, 2011. From 'Chartwell Red Session Expression Session', 2011. Performance, surfing contest, limited edition custom rash vests, WCT Pro Surfers. Courtesy the artist.