“No ideas but in things,” wrote American poet William Carlos Williams in 1946. As I talked to Vivien Atkinson, Petra Stueben and Kelly McDonald about their ornament/artefact exhibition at Toi Pōneke, the quote swam in my head. Williams was referring to poetry, but these artists consider our relationship with things — what we emotionally invest in objects and why, what our desire for objects means, and where it leads us. These questions are the subtext to the exhibition, not obvious to the viewer.
At one end of the room are Stueben’s photographs — reprints of images her grandmother made in Germany in the late 1930s. During the Second World War Hitler guaranteed Germans that any possessions destroyed or broken during the conflict would be replaced. Stueben’s grandmother photographed the family’s valuables in their studio with this ‘insurance’ in mind. Stueben re-presents the images in a pile free for anyone to take away. She flips her grandmother’s obsession with possessions or, as she says, resets the objects to unload them of any mystery.
Atkinson occupies the centre of the gallery in a daily performance cleaning a collection of silver-plated objects she has amassed. She engages visitors in conversation about silver-plated objects and invites them to bring in any that need conservation or polishing.
Her interest in silver-plating dates back to her own collection inherited from her mother, and a 40-gallon drum of silver-plated objects she saw at the Porirua metal recycling depot. For her, silver-plating is a metaphor for middle-class aspirations — the silver-plate covers a base metal of nickel, brass or steel. The tea rituals of the upper classes could be replicated with these lookalike teapots and milk jugs. They were an aspirational purchase. Atkinson wants to know about contemporary relationships to silver-plating now that status and rituals have been transferred to other objects.
McDonald brings greywacke and found wood into the digital context. Using an app that converts text to binary code, her work presents a quote from St Augustine, “desire hath no rest” in zeroes and ones. The zeroes are represented by stones and the ones are pieces of wood laid out on the gallery wall. The weightless digital world is given heft by the materiality of natural things.
“No ideas but in things”. These things in the gallery are mysterious in terms of ideas, but what seems to underpin them is an investigation of value. Stueben has to give away photographs to disempower their story, but in a twist she hopes visitors will rephotograph them in new situations and email these images to her. Atkinson finds a potent metaphor in the silver-plated objects of her background and honours their symbolic value by offering conservation treatments and conversation. And McDonald presents the binary code as the boiled-down yes/no choice of acquisition.[info]
It’s a boy’s month around the dealer galleries. Collages by Peter Madden (until 18 April) and paintings by Andrew McLeod (opening 23 April) show at Robert Heald Gallery. Wallace finalist André Hemer is on at Bartley and Company. At The Young in Mt Victoria is spray-can man Ed Bats with work by Don Driver (until 11 April), then painter Jake Walker opens on 13 April. Euan Macleod paintings and Peter Hannken photographs also open at Bowen Galleries on 13 April.