Walters Prize finalists take us to the dark side.
The Walters Prize finalists take us on a trip to see who we might find, and what we might touch, on the dark side.
Every two years, the Walters Prize asks New Zealanders to take a leap into the contemporary art unknown. The safety harness comes in the form of four jurors, who select the finalists under near-academic conditions of confidentiality and rigour, as a way to build an often-sceptical public’s trust that what they’re being offered really is the best.
And yet a defining pattern across the past few Walters Prize exhibitions is how quickly they end up looking like tightly curated shows rather than competitions: the internationalist hipsterism of 2012, for example, won by Kate Newby, or the narrative-focused, moving-image oriented reflections on colonialism, Māori identity and place in 2016, won by Shannon Te Ao. This isn’t a problem, necessarily. But it does show that more and more, the Walters is becoming a mechanism to test how contemporary New Zealand art tackles the defining questions of the time in which it’s made.
This year is no different. In the first post-Trump, #metoo iteration, the shortlisted works explore gender identity, feminism, and how people of colour are represented and perceived. If that all sounds a bit worthy, the cultural-political medicine is made a whole lot more palatable by two compelling, disorienting forces: hallucination and sex. All four finalists use these in various ways to help us experience the limits of ourselves — the edges of our bodies, in relation to objects, and each other.
The exhibition struggles with its lift-off moment: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s Whol Why Wurld, 2017. A ramp leads up to a 10-sided, knowingly-occult platform surrounded by several screens, each of which plays a different digital animation extrapolated from Johnson’s distinctive, stonerish drawings. In one, an ouroboros twists in an infinity form, the snake’s body partly made up of bald, androgynous figures with open mouths that move from side to side like clowns from a sci-fi Easter show. In another, similarly hairless humanoids pace endlessly around a central ball, while heads, trapped in boxes in the screen’s upper corners, occasionally scream soundlessly.
There are starscapes and masks with coiling goat horns and a creepy soundtrack, and it’s all psychedelic and dystopian, sure. But it’s also too easily coped with, and too easily escaped. Johnson’s drawings, at their best, have a destabilising quality that proposes genuinely alternative realities. She and Ward have also recently presented a massive, virtual-reality project, Terminus, at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, which apparently moved some of its first participants to tears. That level of emotional transportation is missing here.
The surprise in the shortlisted pack is Pati Solomona Tyrell; not because the work he’s selected for doesn’t deserve to be here, but because he hasn’t yet had time for the exhibiting legwork of his more experienced fellow nominees. Fāgogo, 2016, was, essentially, Tyrell’s graduating art school work, restaged as a solo exhibition at AUT’s St Paul Street Gallery in 2017.
Like Johnson and Ward’s work, it plays with trippy sci-fi tropes: amorphous figures in states of becoming; blurred edges and moody lighting and editing tricks that shift those figures between the monstrous, the sexy, and the multiple. But there’s also a very real, very important subject at the heart of his film: a re-im- agining of precolonial Pacific fables in which gender-fluid demigods, and their sexual and physical power, were essential to creation stories — before they were beaten out of the culture by missionaries. At times, the structure feels too cleanly episodic, and the soundtrack has some clunky moments. But it’s a raw indicator of Tyrell’s ambition and intelligence, and an example of how he’s tapped into vital stories and sources of energy overlooked by older Pacific artists.
Jacqueline Fraser is the only artist making a repeat
The cultural-political medicine is made a whole lot more palatable by two compelling, disorientating forces: hallucination and sex.
appearance; she was shortlisted for the 2004 Walters Prize. She was also, along with Peter Robinson, New Zealand’s first representative at the Venice Biennale, in 2001. I think she’s been making some of her best, and weirdest, work for the past few years, with her combining of fashion, film, black culture and collage. In The Making of In the Heat of the Night, 2018, several new collages show her fixation with the sexier sides of the fashion and hip-hop industries; thicc, near-naked bodies chopped up with high-fashion photo-shoots, sequined fabric and strips of evening gowns. The 1967 Sidney Poitier film from which the installation takes its name plays on an endless loop, the sound of its dialogue occasionally overtaken by a Fraser-selected rap soundtrack. The room, with a reflective black ceiling and draped in long strips of black and green tinsel, is part nightclub, part sex club: a tacky, proto-Warholian space for acting out, watching, and being watched — dripping with pop culture’s ready commercialisation of black sexuality, in a world where black rights feel further away than they have since the Civil Rights era during which Poitier’s film was made.
Voyeurism is key to Ruth Buchanan’s work, too: her sublime restaging of her 2016 Wellington exhibition Bad Visual Systems. On the face of things, it’s about exhibition design and gallery structures. But that doesn’t do it justice at all. Buchanan infects the gallery with her presence and takes complete control: through curtains and hanging mesh barriers, through exposed wall structures painted fleshy pink, and through strange furniture and elongated yellow vitrines of her own design.
Along the full length of the installation’s back wall is a massive mirror, reflecting her whole project back on itself, with us inside it. She has also placed the rest of the Walters Prize under surveillance, a CCTV screen showing views of the other nominees’ works. Then there is arguably the most important part of all — her voice, pumping through speakers into the space, part essayistic, part concrete poetry (this is also written down as an “Exhibition Guide”), always speaking over itself. Buchanan is impossible to get away from yet always invisible — a constant presence prodding and pushing and enveloping and instructing, until you’re not quite sure where you’re standing or what you’re supposed to be doing any more.
Buchanan’s work is deeply erotic in the expanded sense: it’s about encounters between bodies and objects, forming new connections in public space. But the same aspiration can be seen, actually, in all the works in the prize. Collectively, it feels like a newly intimate kind of surrealism. We live in strange times. But rather than trying to reground us in the real, all four artists invite us on a trip into the dark to see who we might find, and what we might touch, once we’re there.
ABOVE— An installation view (left) and a still image from Pati Solomona Tyrell’s Fāgogo.