Light Switch and Conduit:  The Jim Barr & Mary Barr Collection

Light Switch and Conduit: The Jim Barr & Mary Barr Collection

Dunedin Public Art Gallery | Closes 14 August

Some art exhibitions simply make sense. The flow from one artwork to another is smooth, logical, creating a gradual sense of understanding and enlightenment in the viewer. They make you go “Oh cool, yeah, nice, wow, I get that.” 

Light Switch and Conduit is not one of those exhibitions. It makes you go “Who the flipper would smash half a concrete stairwell down in the middle of the gallery and expect me to call it art?” Rather than cohesive, logical and enlightening, the DPAG’s latest show can be described as a similar experience to walking through an antique store while looking through a kaleidoscope. 

The exhibition explores the collection of Wellington-based art collectors Jim Barr and Mary Barr. An interesting combination of New Zealand contemporary art and domesticity is celebrated with TV screens, vintage chairs and the type of wall hangings you might expect to find at your nan’s old place. Shelves decked out with assortments of objects, framed paintings, metal trees growing from the floor, and acrylic typography all reference the way in which the homes of private art collectors are often used as homes for their art works as well.

The aforementioned staircase piece (Stairs in Series, Fiona Connor, 2008) was an absolute standout, unavoidable in its scale and intriguing in its decontextualisation in the pristine gallery space. Connor’s work is known for its interweaving of reality and perception, disturbing straightforward understandings of art and space through her sculpture and architecture. The materials used in the creation of this work in particular are unexpected ones; timber, metal and plastic fittings, polystyrene and paint rather than the apparent tonnes of displaced concrete.

The contrast between Stairs in Series and the work displayed behind it, 3 in 1 by Campbell Patterson (1983) is dramatic. One of the promotional images for the exhibition, this film piece features a dude with three popsicles in his mouth chilling on the floor. To be honest dripping Frujus never held much interest for me, so I promptly moved onto my personal highlight of the show – Patterson’s 2006-2015 series Lifting my mother for as long as I can. The subject matter for this work is pretty self-explanatory. Every year for about a decade Patterson lifted his mother and held her for as long as he could, in front of the same floral curtains. Through this series we become aware of subtle shifts in their appearance, their expressions and age. The simplicity of the films bring to mind home videos made as kids on old tape recorders back when the technology was new. But more than that, Patterson references the very nature of family in this work; what it is to hold and be held, the weight of those we love, and our determination to support those close to us. 

The thing with the exhibition, ultimately, is that despite its seeming incoherencies and antique-store jumble, there are connections to made, and there is a gradual sense of enlightenment to be found. It is largely up to us, the viewers, to form these connections – but when is this not the case when it comes to art interpretation? Go along, check it out, get amongst. A unique and curious experience to get you asking questions. 

This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2016.
Posted 1:32pm Sunday 8th May 2016 by Monique Hodgkinson.