Monday 12 July 2010

They're looking at our art, over there

This weekend I went along to the panel discussion on the current state and future of art history in New Zealand, held at the Adam Art Gallery.

Director and facilitator Tina Barton made some brave attempts to start some conversations about how curators and academics are writing the history of New Zealand today, but struggled with an overly large and occasionally reticent group of speakers. Some of the central questions for me about the writing of art history in this country revolve around who the history is being written for, what the writers hope to achieve, and how it is getting to the audience. Why, for example, has the Awa Press put out anthologies of sport and science writing, but not art writing? Why is Brown and Keith's history still being treated as some kind of obstacle to be overcome, or bogeyman to be railed against? Are our public institutions focused on single-artist publications and collection histories because they sell better, or because CNZ is more likely to fund a publication linked to the work of a living artist than a bunch of dead ones?

One interesting point made by Elizabeth Caldwell, director of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, was that when putting together publications on New Zealand artists, they are increasingly looking to get non-New Zealand writers to contribute essays, as a way of helping the artist in question to forge links (and presumably exhibition and market opportunities) in other countries. There seems to me to have been a subtle shift in ambition (and probably policy) over the past two decades away from attempts to take our art history overseas (Headlands, Toi Toi Toi, Cultural Safety) and towards exporting our artists (the Venice Biennale, residencies, CNZ support for appearances at art fairs).

I was reminded of this point just now when I was going through my feedreader and found this piece by Greg Allen on Len Lye. It begins:

I came across a mention of Len Lye's spectacular-looking kinetic sculpture a couple of weeks ago, while reading 1965 coverage of the Buffalo Festival of the Arts. Sandwiched in between a photo of Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer in a nude dancing embrace and a headless mannequin dangling on the set of a Eugene Ionesco play was an installation shot of Lye's Zebra at the Albright-Knox: "It consists of a nine-foot rope of fiber glass which, when set in swirling motion by a motor, bends into constantly changing shapes."

Allen didn't come across Lye's work through the concerted effort of an institution or individual art historian to promote Lye's work or place him within a local and international context. He happened upon it when doing his own art history; working through the primary material in order to answer the question he was interested in, and then publishing his findings. This reminded me that even if there is no shared objective in our art history, there's still the need to just get stuff out there.

UPDATE: more from Allen on Lye, including correcting one of the well-known windwand photos


Anonymous said...

You raise some really interesting questions. Do you know if the panel discussion recorded at all?

I often wonder about "just getting stuff out there" (not that I am an art historian) and if just putting random information out into the ether adds very much to the debate and who does it actually reach?

Courtney Johnston said...

Hey there

I believe an audio recording was made and will be available on the Adam site soon.

I'm in two minds about the 'getting it out there' argument. On the one hand, if we wait for concerted approach, or focus on contributing to the debate, we'll never publish anything. [If there was one thing this panel discussion showed, it's that there isn't actually a debate - or at least not one that's well articulated]. So - we need to keep creating primary material (reviews, recordings, documentation).

OTOH, I'm quite worried about facts in our art history. When primary material doesn't exist, or is sloppily or misleadingly interpreted, and that interpretation then becomes the basis of ongoing work - well, we're a wee bit fucked, to be honest. I read a fascinating book recently about the Dutch tulip crisis - a revisionist argument that posited that most discussion of the event has been based on one person's translation of a very small number of propagandist pamphlets published some time after the slump in the tulip market, and showed that the actual events differed hugely from the common understanding of the era. That's what I'm worried about for our own art history; take the "Walters was criminally overlooked" argument as an instance of this.