Wednesday 30 June 2010


Laura Miller's review of Suzanne Collin's Hunger Games trilogy in a recent New Yorker has got me thinking.

Miller writes:

Collins’s trilogy is only the most visible example of a recent boom in dystopian fiction for young people. Many of these books come in series, spinning out extended narratives in intricately imagined worlds. In Scott Westerfeld’s popular “Uglies” series, for example, all sixteen-year-olds undergo surgery to conform to a universal standard of prettiness determined by evolutionary biology; in James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner,” teen-age boys awaken, all memories of their previous lives wiped clean, in a walled compound surrounded by a monster-filled labyrinth. The books tend to end in cliff-hangers that provoke their readers to post half-mocking protestations of agony (“SUZANNE, ARE YOU PURPOSELY TOURTURING YOUR FANS!?!?!?”) on Internet discussion boards.

I read the first in Westerfeld's Uglies series, and wasn't that taken - I much preferred his more recent Leviathan, written for slightly younger readers. But while I'd disagree that the dystopian theme is a recent phenomenon (and Miller herself points to a number of earlier books that show that this is a consistently popular genre - and leaves out terrific examples like Melvyn Burgess's Bloodtide) I can't help but admit I've been sucked in.

I have about 12 YA titles on order at the moment - half through the Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, and half through Amazon.

Among my Amazon orders are the impulse buy of the Hunger Games trilogy. This breaks my own rule of only buying books I've read and loved. But I've heard so much the trilogy that I couldn't resist it (Miller's review isn't altogetherly positive, but at the same time I'm not sure I agree with her take on some contemporary YA fiction). In the same way, with the friendly nudge of a voucher, I bought the first two books of Mandy Hager's Blood of the Lamb trilogy on the recommendation of a trusted reader.

Part of the reason for buying the two series is to compare them to two others - Maurice Gee's Salt/Gool/Limping Man, and Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy (yes, it appears I am getting a wee bit serious about this YA caper). All four series have similarities of adventure, danger, social collapse, and the struggle of young people, who are affected by the society that they live in, but are largely unable to affect society back. Not to mention the spun-out narrative that has to hit two crescendos before resolution in the third volume. (Mind you, Gee's 'Salt' stand alone nicely.)

For a totally different take on dystopian future society however, there's New Zealand author Bernard Beckett's Genesis. It's a coolly told, taut little story, that bucks many of the trends described above. Here's what I wrote after finishing it a few weeks ago:

Years ago I did a research contract which included digging out a Cold War-era government report detailing plans to stockpile iodine tablets in the events of a nuclear disaster. The theory was that New Zealand was sufficiently distant from international events that our major concern would be nuclear fall-out, and taking iodine tablets would protect the population (yes, I had flashbacks during the Tamiflu debacle too).

Distance has been a defining part of the Pakeha conception of Aotearoa New Zealand. Bernard Beckett takes this is the leaping off point for a story that could have easily been written as a thriller, but is instead told in a measured, dispassionate tone that is nonetheless gripping.

The first decades of the 21st century have not gone well. Plague sweeps the world. A wealthy business-man - who styles himself Plato - removes himself to the islands of Aotearoa, building an enormous sea fence around what becomes known as the Republic, freezing out the rest of the planet from the 2030s.

The action (if that's the right word for Genesis) takes place an undefined number of years later. Anaximander is a citizen of the Republic. In her late teens, Anaximander has been rigorously preparing for the entrance examination for The Academy - a 5-hour interrogation by three examiners on her chosen topic.

Anaximander's topic is Adam Forde, a young man who died in the early decades of the new Republic, and has become something of a folk hero. Adam is a member of the Philosopher class, the top level of the Republic's society, who effectively govern the state. Adam's rebellious nature sees him demoted to Soldier class, and he is sent to man one of the towers overlooking the Sea Fence, with orders to destroy on sight any vessels or people he sees approaching the Republic's sea borders, to keep the threat of plague at bay. Until one day a small boat carrying a teenage girl floats over the horizon ...

The rest of Adam's story could easily be told as a typical futuristic dystopian thriller, centred on the struggle of one clear-sighted individual against the State to which almost all have blindly or gratefully subsumed themselves. However, Anaximander's tells her story as a scholar, albeit a scholar with strong views and personal attachment to her theory and her subject. As she is grilled by the examiners on points about the Republic's history and social structure, and her explanations for Adam's behaviour, the tension is relocated to Anaximander's attempts to second-guess the increasingly bewildering actions of her examiners.

Genesis might be a slim book, but its ideas are weighty. Like Jostein Gaardner's Sophie's World it introduces philosophical questions about how society should be ordered, and in particular, what makes us human, through the form of a central character who is constantly prodded to answer and explain situations. Modelled - unsurprisingly - on the Socratic method of reaching understanding through slow questioning and answering, Beckett achieves an effect which is almost like watching a play compared to sitting through a blockbuster. I have no idea whether teens would enjoy this, and I don't think it's a book I *love* as such. But it deserves a lot of respect.

Monday 28 June 2010

Web muster

The not-really-about-art edition:

Ira Glass on being wrong

Donald McNeil on Luke Jerram's virus sculptures (okay - pretty arty)

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Paper FTW

I'm quite fascinated by the physical-digital-physical loop. But, what do I mean by this?

Well, as an example: when I was at the National Library, I helped run the @nlnz Twitter account. Twice a day, @nlnz posts a link to an item from the Library's collections, with a pithy little comment.

One of our followers was Unlimited Magazine. They linked the tweets so much, they got in touch to ask if they could borrow this idea for their magazine. So in each issue there's now a full page reproduction of a collection item, with a little story written by an Unlimited staffer, that draws out the link between this historical image and the the current business news Unlimited covers. From memory, one of the first was this gorgeous bit of advertising, with a short article about contemporary exporting.

So, a physical poster is produced. Years later, it's digitised and placed online. And then it's spread through an online channel, and comes to the attention of a publisher, and turned back into a physical item. It's not by any means unusual, but that doesn't mean it's not interesting. A friend of mine tells a physical-digital-physical story about his mother, Byzantine mosaics, Flickr and quilt patterns.

Anyway. My interest in this means I was delighted by Rattle's use of Newspaper Club to produce a report on their My Life As An Object project (you should click all those links).

In one of my previous jobs, I helped prepare exhibition reports - doorstops worth of photocopies that were dutifully distributed, and god knows, possibly even read.

I love that Rattle's taken such a beautiful and appropriate approach to a project report. And I bet it had a much higher readership than your usual end-of-project documentation. Clever, clever stuff.

New Zealand apples, the Empire's star turn. [1930s?]. Reference Number: Eph-E-FRUIT-1930s-01. Alexander Turnbull Library. From the Manuscripts + Pictorial website.

Monday 21 June 2010

I just want to be left alone

In a speech given recently for a dinner for the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, Stephen Fry talked about those feelings of embarrassment and intimidation that can creep up on you when visiting exhibitions:

Are we supposed to know facts about the artists and their works? Are we supposed to talk? Shall we be entirely silent and slowly stand and stare at works without comment and without revealing what we feel or shall we occasionally dare to say that we like this expression, or that shape, or those colours? Do we whisper to our companions, or do we imitate that awful show-off over there who is talking so knowledgeably and loudly about morbidezza, sfumato and golden sections? And isn’t it actually snobbish of us to disapprove of him, he is obviously enjoying himself and what is wrong with him imparting his enthusiasm and knowledge to his companion? Why should we assume he is showing off, doesn’t that assumption reveal nothing but our own self-conscious insecurity? Oh dear. It’s all so complicated. Aren’t we just striking a pose too, the pose of one who refuses to listen to any nonsense about art history, or pay any attention to the tradition or biographical background of the works before us. In fact we are going to ignore the so-called masterpiece in front of us and stylishly prefer the lesser known work next to it, just to show how original we are and how unswayed by reputations.

Further in, Fry wonders whether technology will save the bemused visitor:

Maybe the technology will save us. With earphones on and lost in an audio commentary we are perhaps more likely to close out the outside world and be left alone with the art work, which is what we want. And you don’t even need the audio commentary, with only the earphones you can zone out of the embarrassing present and into the artwork.

Sometimes, when my feedreader is filled with posts about participatory museum experiences, I worry that museums are going to become the new shop, filled with people (or technology) butting in to your quiet browse to ask 'Can I help you engage more with that?'. Will I have to start wearing faux-earbuds, the international signal for leave-me-the-hell-alone?

I had an interesting exchange last week over twitter with a friend who said that as an introvert, what he wanted was people-free hours at museums - a chance for him to visit without having to interact with anyone at all. (I resisted the opportunity to suggest a few places where such visits are the standard setting).

I'm all for museums and galleries becoming more welcoming, less aloof, more accommodating. But at the same time, I want to hold on to some time standing in quiet galleries, letting the artist and the curator do the work for me, and doing my own task of just looking and thinking.

Friday 18 June 2010

While you're at it

I recently re-read Peter Doherty's A Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize. While I still find the book over-long and over-written (although there is some terrific stuff in there about the business of being a research scientist) the thing that really struck me was how good the list of recommended reading is.

When I get to the end of a book that has piqued my interest, by an author who I've come to trust, I want them to tell me what they found helpful and interesting when they were doing their research. Not just a bibliography, but recommendations of where I should go next.

Reading Doherty's book put me on to James Gleick's bio of Feynman, James Watson's simultaneously wonderful and infuriating The Double Helix and a terrific book about the 1918-19 flu epidemic by John M Barry that I plan to re-read as soon as I get some breathing space. It also reminded me that Brenda Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin is still languishing on my to-read list.

Fifty pages into Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A short book about Darwin, Lincoln and modern life I flipped to the bibliography. And was delighted.

In one of the Darwin chapters of the book, Gopnik writes about the pressures Darwin was under as he finally sat down to write* On the Origin of Species

All the pleasures and pressures of the past decade acted on him: the pleasure of explanation in simple terms, the pressure of not being understood; the pleasure of having accumulated abundant examples, the pressure of succumbing to overabundant illustration; the pleasure of having a clear argument to make, the pressure of having to make it clear; the pleasure of pushing at last to make a summary of an argument, the crucial pressure of having Alfred Wallace, polite and deferential but, after all, also in possession of the same theory, waiting.

Of course, this is the same situation that faced Gopnik (and any other writer who's got to that stage where they sit down, photocopies and books amassed around them, and try to face down the blank screen). His 'bibliographic note' summarises this beautifully: 'The Darwin literature is merely immeasurable; the Lincoln literature is infinite. When you are already up to your armpits in it, you realise you have hardly dipped a toe.'

Gopnik provides two pages each of recommended reading on Darwin and Lincoln - not a list of books, but a brief summary of his research journey, of what he read, and what he learnt, and what he believes we will find useful and engaging. It's not just a bibliography, it's a deeply personalised recommendation, and I love it.

*From another great book about Darwin that I read earlier this year - Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, a fictionalised biography by Deborah Heiligman for teenage readers, which focuses on the Darwin's marriage and the pressures Charles felt about the conflict between his development of a theory of natural selection and Emma's Christian faith - I learnt that Darwin wrote in a big chair in his study, on a board placed across the chair's arms, a picture I find entrancing.

Wednesday 16 June 2010


It feels like a lot longer ago than August 2008 that I was mulling over Shane Cotton's work and getting excited about what was coming next. So it's pretty exciting to see what he's currently showing in London at Rossi & Rossi

It's hard to judge 1.5m x 1m paintings on a computer screen. But the works in 'To and Fro' seem to introduce a new jolt of electricity to the expansive dark canvases of 2007-09 with their fizzy red overwriting, while also to look back to the 1990s with the reintroduction of the manaia figure.

So roll on the next lot of New Zealand shows, starting with Michael Lett at the end of this month.

Shane Cotton, Hole in the Rock, 2010. Acrylic on canvas. 150 x 100 cm. Image from the Rossi & Rossi website.

Monday 14 June 2010

Web muster

I'm always a bit sceptical about reports that scientists have used artworks as evidence (18th century sunsets prove global warming! women in 16th-century Milan had hideously elongated fingers!) so while I'm sure that Meteorologists track down Monet as he painted London bridges in smog is backed by best practice analysis, I do wonder if it's a bit much to rely on a painter being that faithful to reality.

A considered review of Zaha Hadid's building for the Maxxi gallery in Rome, where Rowan Moore notes how easy it is to be seduced by an unfinished space:

Impatient writers, with an immature desire to be the first to cover this or that new monument, like to rush in. It suits architects, too, if critics jump in before their creations are disturbed by the mess of use and occupation. If there are still dustsheets in the corners and men fixing up the last details, it only adds to the aura of promise.

... It looked magnificent and an elegant party was held for dignitaries, beauties and hacks, which showed off its swooping stairs and ramps to perfection. But this museum of art as yet contained no art, and the question remained: would its powerful architecture overwhelm the contents it is supposed to serve?

ArtInfo has sucked the highlights out of the Leo Castelli bio, so you don't have to.

And behind the scenes of the Gap founders' collection, 160 works from which will go on display at SFMOMA hopefully just in time for me to see them at the end of this month. The full collection is scheduled to be handed over to the museum in 2016.

(Spoiler: good for video/installation, smaller 2-D works may struggle)

Friday 11 June 2010


At last year's National Digital Forum in Wellington I met Liam Wyatt, Vice President of Wikimedia Australia and a passionate advocate for better engagement between Wikipedia and cultural organisations.

Let's put all the arguments about the 'quality' of Wikipedia aside, because they bore me. Wikipedia is not just one of the world's most popular research and vague-question-answering tools - it's a vital way, if you're a collecting or 'memory' institution, to share your collections and knowledge, and to attract visitors back to your own websites.

Liam popped up on my radar yesterday with this article in the New York Times, which describes his role as the British Museum's first Wikipedian in residence. Liam is (without pay) spending 5 weeks at the museum, building the relationship between it and Wikipedia. Here's a snippet from the article that gives one reason why this may be of value:

“I looked at how many Rosetta Stone page views there were at Wikipedia,” said Matthew Cock, who is in charge of the museum’s Web site and is supervising the collaboration with Wikipedia. “That is perhaps our iconic object, and five times as many people go to the Wikipedia article as to ours.”

Liam's just started blogging about his residency. As you'll see from that first post, full of bullet points and graphs, it's not something he's taking at all lightly. And fair enough. There are some (kept quite quiet) horror stories out there about engagements between Wikipedians and museum staffers, and Liam's doing his best to make something 'mutually beneficial, sustainable and replicable'.

In another recent example of embedding, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG is blogging from the Canadian Centre for Architecture for two months as part of their Visiting Scholars programme.

I visited the CCA, in Montreal, a few years ago. It was beautiful - the building, the shows, the snow, the light - and the archives were extraordinary. As Manaugh writes:

I will be writing about many of the items in their ambitious collection—films, models, photographs, manuscripts, architectural tools, and more—and publishing the results both here and on the CCA website.

There is a truly mind-boggling amount of material to explore up there, from the archives of Gordon Matta-Clark and Cedric Price to a collection of antique drawing instruments and souvenir models, John Hejduk's Bovisa sketches, photographic plates from English India, Canadian fire insurance maps, speculative proposals for river lighthouses, massive archives of stage set designs and dramatic scenography, and a beautiful manuscript copy of the Plan of St. Petersburg, among far, far more than I could possibly mention in one post. Konstantin Melnikov. Aldo Rossi. Three airports by Frank Lloyd Wright. Travel sketches by Louis Kahn.

Manaugh is framing this project up as a trial of the notion of Bloggers in Residence:

... there are architectural and design archives all over the world, full of astonishing things, but these same collections are often unexplored in their entirety, even by members of the institutions that have collected them. Even more commonly, many of these global collections are open only to scholars who stop by once every five or six years—if that often—to write niche monographs or academic publications about specific aspects of an archive's contents.

But what if you could install an architecture blogger—or a film blogger, a food blogger, an archaeology blogger, a fiction blogger—in an overlooked archive somewhere, anywhere in the world, and thus help to reveal those items to the general public?
I think it's a great idea. Professional and academic researchers use collections all the time for their projects, but I'd argue that whatever their output is, it's more likely to be written for their own objectives/purposes than to engage an audience. Whereas a blogger who sees their role as sharing stuff and getting people excited about it falls more into the traditional areas of outreach - a floor talk that you don't have to stand up through, that's accessible around the world at any time. And (you knew they'd be a segue somewhere, right?) done with sufficient authority, material for lots and lots of lovely Wikipedia links.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Stop thief! Art, theft, mystery.

Since the May theft of 5 works from the Musée d’Art Moderne, coverage of art thefts either seems to have picked, or just become highlighted in my browsing consciousness.

Last week's New York Times magazine ran this fabulous story about art-theft blogger Turbo Paul. Virginia Heffernan writes:

The minute I saw the Paris heist in the news, I knew Turbo Paul would be psyched: traffic to Art Hostage would spike, his brain would rev high and he would get to peddle innuendo and what he presents as underworld intelligence. When news of big heists break, “I am at my toxic best,” he told me. A self-described former dealer in stolen antiques, he says he now actively works “to recover the art.”

This lifted-eyebrow, if-you-know-what-I’m-saying voice makes his blogs irresistible, as does the fact that Turbo Paul knows everything about cops and robbers — or seems to.

Then the other day in the NYT books section, this review of Robert K. Wittman's memoir 'Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures'. Wittman was the founder of the F.B.I's Art Crime Team, and let's face it, the idea of chasing art-stealing villains around the world and diving into the murky depths of the art black market just cries out for a movie treatment. Of course, that's already happened (twice).

Then last night I wandered past a Whitcoulls and saw piles of Noah Charney's 'The Art Thief' on the sale table. That brought to mind Iain Pears' Jonathan Argyll series, and Michael Frayn's 'Headlong'.

Finally, this story of the restoration of a Tintoretto in a stately home in England appeared on the Guardian's site. Scholars are having trouble identifying the subject matter of the painting (Apollo or Hymen marrying someone to someone else?) and the Guardian's interactive turns the work into an iconographical whodunnit. Shades of Dan Brown abound ('Cracking the Tintoretto code').

Trend? Co-incidence? Hyper-awareness? Or at least, some good reading material.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Web muster

Four links, on the subject of money (some more, some less)

Jeffrey Deitch talks about his plans to embed MOCA back into the LA art community, and new business models, like reinventing the museum shop in partnership with luxury brands

Christopher Knight talks about how MOCA could slash the $10 admission fee, in hopes of driving up visitor numbers (who could presumably go spend that $10 on a luxury MOCA postcard). Interesting numbers on visitation & revenue gained from admissions.

David Roth talks about running bingo games to raise funds for the Louisville Orchestra. Because sometimes you need a reality check.

Grayson Perry talks about - well, mostly himself, but I do like his writing. And there's a sentence in there somewhere about young artists and hard times.

Monday 7 June 2010

Sales pitches you don't often hear in dealer galleries

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Buy any two items from the same artist and receive a 15% discount

Sign up for our loyalty card

This Thursday only, all McCahons half-price

All prints reduced to clear

Red dot specials

10 to 50% off all male artists

Free delivery on purchases over $5,000

Friday 4 June 2010

Face value

I'm in a somewhat privileged position. I'm not reliant on exhibition branding to get me into a show (in New Zealand at least). Most of the time, when I see that such-and-such an artist has a show coming up, I either already know their work well, know their work a little, or know the place that they're showing well enough to make a stab at what kind of show it will be.

As a result, I pay little attention to exhibition branding, and it only really sticks out to me if it's particularly attractive, or seems at odds with the show (the title & font used in City Gallery's current 'Ready to Roll', for example, has a kind of Gen X nostalgia that doesn't seem to sit so well with the artists in the show).

I was mulling this over this morning in relation to book covers. The above rule tends to apply to authors whose work I already know. I'll pretty much ignore the cover design (unless it's gorgeous/ugly, and yes, occasionally I'll splurge in the hardback just because I like its looks) because I already have a feel for the content.

But like so many readers, when it comes to unfamiliar authors, the cover and blurb are crucial factors (along with a quick Google for Guardian or LRB reviews). Which is scary if the 0.8 second rule really does apply. Sometimes even a book with a really good reputation will pass me by, because I'm so put off by the cover and blurb.

Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now is a case in point. Here's the blurb from the inside cover flap:

It would be much easier to tell this story if it were all about a chaste and perfect love at an Extreme Time in History. But let's face it ...

Daisy is sent to England from New York to live with her cousin's for a perfect summer.

There are four of them: Osbert, Isaac, Edmond and Piper. Three boys and a girl. And two dogs and a goat.

Daisy has never met anyone like them before. Especially Edmond.

This summer will change her life. It will change the world too.

I've been picking this book up and putting it back down for about 6 months now. Everything about it screamed teenage girl coming of age bittersweet love affair small-but-titillating amount of impropriety country idyll weird relations. It felt like the kind of book Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm still takes the piss out of (with some late-20th-century concerns thrown in).

And it's not. I finished the book on Friday night, then picked it up and read it straight through again. Daisy's voice - like that of Todd in Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go - cuts you to the quick. The irregular writing - muddled tenses, emphatic capitalisations, sprawling sentence structure - makes you aware of the way you're reading, as well as the driving narrative.

Re-reading the book, I was struck by how much Rosoff leaves out. Only weeks after Daisy's arrival England is occupied by an unnamed invader, and social structures rapidly collapse - the family is split up, and the story rapidly moves from one of typical teenage introspection and rather atypical first love, into a desperate fight for survival. But the conflict is described only from Daisy's perspective - and she's not all that interested in the details. Somehow this makes the story more compelling, not less - rather than being an all-knowing narrator, she's a normal person, not altogetherly sure about the whos and the whats and the therefores.

I sometimes think a key to being a great painter is knowing when to walk away from the canvas. How I Live Now made me think of this. Like Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me there's no backfill, no extraneous detail. Just extraordinary writing and a haunting story.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Good times

Because I'm leaving my job, I'm dealing with clearing out years of emails. Trawling through them, my feelings range between bemused, amused, enraged (still), uninterested and, every so often, deeply moved.

One of the last instances was an email exchange with Julian Dashper over this reading list he made for Auckland City Libraries. It remains the only time I have started an email to an artist with the phrase OMG!

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Not with a bang

I've been mulling what I want to say about my visit to the Govett-Brewster's 40th anniversary shows for over a week now.

Luckily, David Cross has said some of it for me, in his review of John Reynolds' Nomadology: Loitering with Intent. Reynolds clearly has an important relationship with the Govett, but this show simply felt too big, too repetitive, too much like other work I've seen elsewhere.

The 40th anniversary show contained two other large-scale works from the collection. Pae White's Songbirds is lovely, but also oft-used: it feels like safe, easy curatorial choice. And Don Driver's Elephants for Sale is an odd fish; the installation (which hasn't been exhibited since its first showing in 1986) is a bit trippy and bubbly for my liking - I want my Driver either rigorous and elegant, or grunty and threatening.

On reflection, the word I come up with is 'toothless'. I don't mean it unkindly, really - I guess, with all the history the gallery has to choose from and play with, I feel somewhat let down. The Govett- physically and spiritually located on the edge - seems to have gone down the middle of the road for its big birthday show.