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.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — AN­THONY BYRT

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.

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