Mary-Jane Duffy on Grant Stevens at City Gallery Wellington

I hereby resign as general manager of the universe

GeneralManager_StevensThe City Gal­lery is at last liv­ing up to its prom­ise. Former dir­ect­or Paula Sav­age had a big vis­ion for the gal­lery and was instru­ment­al in bring­ing in inter­na­tion­al exhib­i­tions and artists through­out the 1990s. This included mem­or­able work by Tony Oursler, Tony Cragg, Rose­marie Trock­el, Keith Har­ing, Robert Map­pleth­orpe, Frida Kahlo, Nam June Paik, Susan Nor­rie, Wim Del­voye, Geof­frey Shaw, AES+F — to name a few. On her watch, the pro­gramme was largely pop­u­list, but occa­sion­ally chal­len­ging and dif­fi­cult (inter­est­ing) work slipped into the building.

In the last few years of Savage’s dir­ect­or­ship, the pro­gramme was, sadly, pretty dull — a sense of the con­tem­por­ary all but absent. The same old names of New Zea­l­and artists seemed to appear and reappear. It was dif­fi­cult to feel excited about it — although this was not to be admit­ted when talk­ing to crit­ic­al Aucklanders.

Then came Eliza­beth Cald­well, the new dir­ect­or. For about 18 months the gal­lery seemed to tread water as pro­gramme com­mit­ments played out. But at the start of 2014, cur­at­or Robert Leonard arrived.

Leonard has worked in all the major pub­lic gal­ler­ies in New Zea­l­and, and since leav­ing in 2005 has been dir­ect­or at the Insti­tute of Mod­ern Art (IMA) in Bris­bane. Describ­ing him­self as a ‘promis­cu­ous col­lab­or­at­or’, his influ­ence is already vis­ible — first with the Simon Starling exhib­i­tion, then the Vivi­ane Sas­sen and Chris Mark­er exhib­i­tions, and now with the Grant Stevens exhib­i­tion, all events that have come from, or been toured in col­lab­or­a­tion with, the IMA. And why not? In these fin­an­cially cramped times it makes sense for an insti­tu­tion like City Gal­lery to work with an Aus­trali­an coun­ter­part. And finally, it gives us some con­tem­por­ary art to spin our brains.

I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of Grant Stevens, but I was excited by What We Had Was Real. The exhib­i­tion (on until 7 Septem­ber) includes three large digit­al works, a film and two pho­to­graph­ic works. It’s all worth look­ing at but Super­massive (2013) was my favourite.

Con­stel­la­tions of white text float and recon­fig­ure across four large black screens. Word themes morph from dis­asters to Indi­an food, to sins, drugs, the ele­ments, names of celebrit­ies, movie genres, etc. A drone of some­thing thrums away in the back­ground. Con­stel­la­tions move towards the view­er and retreat again, with new ones tak­ing their place.

It reminds me of the paint­ings of John Hur­rell in the 1980s. They’re stat­ic, of course, but there is the same sense of the vast extern­al world. What Stevens adds to this with digit­al tech­no­logy is the idea that the uni­verse con­verges with our own vast intern­al world. We have gen­er­ated this massive mind map/cloudscape/night sky of words, Stevens seems to say. It’s what the Inter­net might look like from space: all of our thoughts and know­ledge, banal or oth­er­wise, organ­ised by Google into search cat­egor­ies and set free.

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Septem­ber Art

A work by South Afric­an artist Wil­li­am Kentridge opens at City Gal­lery Wel­ling­ton on 6 Septem­ber. The Refus­al of Time is a 30-minute, five-chan­nel video install­a­tion shown on five large screens that appears to be powered by a pump­ing, breath­ing, accor­di­on-like sculp­ture known as ‘The Ele­phant’. It was cre­ated in 2012 for Doc­u­menta 13, the more inter­est­ing equi­val­ent of the Venice Bien­nale. Don’t miss this oppor­tun­ity to see a major work by this import­ant artist.[/info]

About Mary-Jane Duffy

Mary-jane is a Paekakariki-based poet and essay­ist, and Fish­Head’s art colum­nist. She teaches poetry and aca­dem­ic writ­ing on the Whiyireia Cre­at­ive Writ­ing pro­gramme, tor­tur­ing stu­dents with half-rythmes and pan­toums, zom­bie haiku, and line breaks, ref­er­en­cing and struc­ture. Duffy has a back­ground in museum and gal­lery work, mak­ing a lucky escape from the base­ment of the City Gal­lery Wel­ling­ton in 2002 and open­ing the Mary New­town Gal­lery with Paula New­town in 2004. Art (across all the dis­cip­lines) feels like the closest thing she has to reli­gious exper­i­ences — see­ing, read­ing or hear­ing things that make her brain fizz.

About Mary-Jane Duffy

Mary-jane is a Paekakariki-based poet and essayist, and FishHead's art columnist. She teaches poetry and academic writing on the Whiyireia Creative Writing programme, torturing students with half-rythmes and pantoums, zombie haiku, and line breaks, referencing and structure. Duffy has a background in museum and gallery work, making a lucky escape from the basement of the City Gallery Wellington in 2002 and opening the Mary Newtown Gallery with Paula Newtown in 2004. Art (across all the disciplines) feels like the closest thing she has to religious experiences - seeing, reading or hearing things that make her brain fizz.

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