What The Art
As a form of expression and communication, art has been around for almost as long as humanity. The brain is hard-wired to appreciate the aesthetic, and the deeper readings of conceptual art can prove incredibly rewarding for those that way inclined. But interesting though it is, the complexity of art can be hard to grasp. Trends are seldom easy to define until refracted through the lens of history, collecting is difficult without capital, and local opportunities to indulge never seem to be fully utilised. With OUSA Art Week here, Critic’s resident art nerd Zane Pocock delves deep into the state of art, avoiding the Pandora’s box of a question “What is art?” like the plague.
The Dunedin EffectExpanded this year to include a year-round rotation of installations entitled Art On Campus, the ambition of OUSA Art Week is to garner a bit of interest in art, and for good reason. One of the most depressing things for many in the art scene is the lack of enthusiasm among young people. The number of students I recognise in my art history lectures from exhibition openings around town is remarkably low. Yet there is so much going on in Dunedin!
Dunedin is home to the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, which offers a different New Zealand artist a 12-month salary and studio in Dunedin every year. Notable artists to receive the Fellowship in the past include Ralph Hotere, Jeffrey Harris, and Kushana Bush, all of whom are well worth looking up for those not in the know. Preference is given to emerging artists under the age of 40, and selection is carried out by a panel including nationwide curators, directors, university lecturers, and a representative from OUSA. There is an annual allowance called the Hocken Endowment Fund, which is spent on acquiring work by contemporary artists to add to the 17,000-strong collection. Natalie Poland, Curator of Pictorial Collections at the Hocken Library, tells me, “as part of redressing gaps in the collection, we have been actively acquiring work by contemporary artists including past and current Frances Hodgkins Fellows, and practitioners of Maori and Pacifica descent.” Alongside the country’s oldest public art gallery and art school, Dunedin certainly has the artistic infrastructure to foster public interest.
Another great artistic element to look for in Dunedin is the project space. Jamie Hanton, Director of Dunedin’s Blue Oyster Art Project Space, says that project spaces are small galleries that exist primarily for artists whose practices “are not oriented towards having a commercial output.” It’s a choice artists make, and they have to find funding from other sources. While project spaces are fascinating for the viewer, one of their primary functions is a developmental space for artists. “We’re not a public art gallery in the traditional sense. I think that project spaces are places for experimentation for artists. We have the responsibilities of a public art gallery but we have more freedom. We should be as accessible as possible, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to dumb down work.” These project spaces are vital to art evolution, which is anything but linear. Often an artist will be picked up from Blue Oyster by other galleries and institutions for a re-exhibition or inclusion in a publication, but it also allows commercial artists to develop their more experimental practices. “Project spaces exist because we accept that art is not just for personal collecting. We should be provocateurs,” Jamie says. “But then again, public art galleries should be provocateurs too. It should be an industry-wide responsibility; to make people fucking think, rather than just to show them what they think they want to see. I’m as aesthetic a person as anyone else, but...” If you’re taken by the concept, you can do your bit by volunteering at spaces such as Blue Oyster, helping install and de-install exhibitions, and working closely with artists and directors in an intimate, enriching environment.
Collect Them AllArguably, collecting is one of the most confusing and secretive aspects of art. For the most part, collectors like to keep their gems to themselves, and advice is often hard to come by. Yet this apparent secrecy can often be for good reason: taste in collection is exceptionally diverse and personal. Natalie, for example, likes to collect contemporary photography “when funds allow”, and Jamie is a big fan of supporting up-and-comers who are still at art school, as well as recent graduates.
To make some sense of it all I had a chat to Jim Barr. Jim and his wife Mary are possibly New Zealand’s best-known collectors and patrons of art in New Zealand. It’s well worth checking out their renowned blog, http://www.overthenet.blogspot.co.nz. “In general terms, we’ve bought quite a few works from a small number of people rather than across the board,” Jim says. “And then one day you’ve got more work than you can actually fit in the space you’re living in, and it becomes a different sort of thing.” A big bonus of the Barr’s collecting has been getting to know the artists. By approaching dealers to put them in contact with the artists they’re buying, Jim and Mary have fostered ongoing relationships with the likes of Michael Parekowhai and the late Phil Clairmont, who have always been very accommodating and generous with their time in showing them around their studios. “And a lot of them have become very good friends over the years,” Jim says. “The artists are much more interesting than the rest of the art world, I think.”
Although the Barrs have a large collection, they’ve never spent that much money on art, tending to buy works before the artists become too expensive, then moving on to the next generation. “If you look at the stuff we’ve purchased, it’s usually been made by people between 25 and 35.” Naturally, they’ve also had specific dealer galleries they were interested in over the years, because “there’s a whole lot of different art worlds that show different sorts of art, and we’re interested in a very particular sort. So usually there are only a couple of dealers showing the sort of art that we’re interested in.” Any recommendations? “We just fell into it, really, and I think that’s probably the easiest way to do it. I mean, you obviously need to see a lot of things or you won’t have anything to choose from.” Giving half the profits to the artist on the odd occasion that they do sell a piece, the Barrs also believe in the age-old idea that you should buy art because you love it and want to live with it, not for profit.
The best-known dealer in Dunedin is Brett McDowell, who “discovered” artists like as Kushana Bush and up-and-coming ceramist Suji Park. His exhibitions are always worth checking out, and there is usually an opening every three or so weeks. It also pays to get on the mailing list for the Dunedin Art School, whose openings are just as frequent and often as amazing.
The Future Is Trending, Y’KnowTrends in contemporary art are hard to define. Gone are the days of Cubism and Pop Art: in the post-modern world it can seem like we’re left with an intricate, beautiful mess, but not necessarily. Natalie believes there has been a resurgence in performance art over the past five years or so, and Jamie says that “architecture is pretty hot at the moment. Anything to do with urban planning, environmental concerns and things like that are quite salient at the moment, especially in New Zealand because of the Christchurch earthquake, and globally because of urban planning concerns and growth concerns.” Jim agrees. “I think a lot of artists, although they’re all flying around the world using up air miles and what have you, are starting to see that even art can start offering some solutions to sustainability issues.”
Both Jamie and Jim talk about the possible rise of video gaming as an artistic medium, with Jamie planning some sort of video game exhibition in the future. Jim, for one, finds Minecraft amazing: “We were staying with some young kids who have been playing Minecraft recently, and I’ll tell you what: that’s their world! They’re completely immersed in it, and they’re so skilled.” But he wonders what will happen to the physical “object” nature of art. “Are we coming to a world where people are pretty integrated into their laptops and their visual world? You sort of feel that the object will always be with us, but it’s not guaranteed. I think that’s definitely something that younger artists are looking at.” Jim also identifies a “definite reintroduction of craft”, while in the past “if you did ceramics you were just tossed out of the art world, basically.”
All three say that works incorporating video and digital animation are more commonplace now than they were in the 1970s, when video art emerged. Jim finds it amazing that video took so long to be incorporated into art institutions – “for private collectors, it still hasn’t really happened yet.” Jim and Mary were possibly some of the earliest collectors to embrace the medium, even though it seems so obvious: “You have a screen where you can show absolutely incredible imagery or some amazing art work. Why would you not have it at home? It’s easier to collect than a bloody bronze sculpture, that’s for sure!”