Monday 24 September 2012


On Saturday, I drifted around the galleries on the way to Te Papa to see Michael Parekowhai's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.*  Doing the rounds, for the first time in a while I was really taken by a show at Enjoy. Too often, I find the shows opaque - a failing on my part, I think, for not keeping up hard enough. But Daniel Betham's What Would I Do Without You? really got under my skin.

I can't find many traces of Betham online - he is a very recent grad from Massey, and his work, according to Enjoy's website, 'explores notions of spiritual enlightenment and the absurd methodologies used in the attempt to attain it.'

What Would I Do Without You? consists of three video works, a photograph with a bucket of tennis balls beneath it, and a central installation of a tumble of white plastic deck chairs - ubiquichairs, you could call them. These chairs crop up in the video works too - in one, they are hauled out of a swimming pool; in another, they are hooked by their feet onto a cyclone wire fence, then persistently shaken and shrugged off by unseen forces. The third video work is a black screen, occasionally punctuated by a white chair flying into and falling from sight, accompanied by heavy breathing and hefty grunts.

Daniel Betham, a video work, What Would I Do Without You?

Daniel Betham, the installation work, What Would I Do Without You?

Daniel Betham, the photograph, What Would I Do Without You?
Again according to the exhibition handout, Betham  uses video to
explore contemporary notions of spirituality and nihilism in a poetic and absurd fashion. 
The films rehearse contemporary rituals or ad hoc games performed in sporting arenas. These games are original attempts at spontaneous questing – for the moment of fulfillment – in a post-nihilist or neo-transcendental manner. 
By performing the games in sporting arenas, Betham draws our attention to the absurd nature of game playing and highlights its useless, yet also necessary, role as a platform for nourishing our sense of self-fulfillment: we create our own parameters, rules and games and gain a sense of achievement from their completion. 
Betham addresses the parallels between the rhetoric in advertising for sporting brands such as Nike’s Just Do It campaign, and that of spiritual and motivational media, such as the Oprah-endorsed The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. 
Both mediums make use of transcendental philosophies in their promotional campaigns. Using routines of relentless self-induced optimism, they suggest infinite possibilities for intangible rewards. The shoes and the book that you buy are the peripheral products; you are really purchasing the belief that there is a better you out there, one that is yet to be attained.

I always find it interesting to test my understanding on an artist I know nothing about. My reading of the works was that they documented challenges and tests with self-constructed, internally logical rules and instructions that had to be followed; the videos of the chairs being shaken from the fence and the chair being flung into the air were easy to read in this way. The tennis balls and green-clothed chair I assumed were the documentary remains of a similar undertaking, just as the Nude Descending a Staircase-like installation was a further reworking of the materials used in the making of the video pieces.

What really struck me though was the polish and consistency of the works and their presentation. The video works - the pool work in particular (I can't find individual titles for the works, so this is as good as it's going to get, I'm afraid) - are really quite beautiful, and arresting; you want to follow them. The photograph and the bucket of balls are more puzzling (OH while standing on the landing: Dad, why tennis balls? Because it's art.), bu the installation gives the show a strong core and something for all the other pieces to gather around.

It feels condescending to say 'I was impressed', but I was. It reminded me of seeing Daniel du Bern's 2006 exhibition at the Hirschfeld Gallery - that same sense of a new artist who had really thought through their work (du Bern was more idiosyncratic and personalised - Betham feels more refined). The exhibition finishes on Saturday 29 September, leaving you plenty of time (well, if you're a Wellingtonian) to get down there.

*After a couple of dodgy experiences, on Saturday the Parekowhai was back to its miraculous best. The friend I took - someone who admits he finds going to art galleries somewhat intimidating - was as moved as I. There is a paper I want to present, somewhere, sometime, about the changes this work underwent during its month at Te Papa.

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