The 60s Revisited
By Mark Amery
The late 1960s saw a wave of art begin that explored the gallery experience in different ways, or broke out of the gallery entirely. It was art that moved away from being purely object based - experiential, temporary, conceptual, political and environmental.
A reaction to its times, it’s no accident that this art is being revisited now as we grabble again globally with even more urgency with similar issues.
Back then, after a few years of experiment our galleries largely went back to showing paintings and sculpture again. While some artists adapted to changing times, many faded from view. Second time around, this work feels like it provides sign posts for a culture showing an interest in moving away from its modernist love affair with the object, towards better valuing experiences and environments.
In 2010 the Adam Art Gallery presented an impressive exhibition of restaged work by British artist Anthony McCall. McCall has gone from years in the wilderness to being commissioned 500,000 pounds for next year’s Olympics to create a giant vertical column of steam (higher than the Blackpool Tower, the British press report). Pity with the Rugby World Cup no New Zealand artist has been treated with such vision.
McCall contemporary Jim Allen has enjoyed a remarkable late career renaissance here in New Zealand. New and restaged works have been presented regularly over the last few years.
Allen together with Len Lye and Brazilian Helio Oiticica is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Adam. Exploring the points where these artists intersected in the late 1960s, Points of Contact is toured by Govett Brewster Gallery, and like McCall’s show is beautifully presented.
As a teacher at Elam art school in the 60s and 70s Allen had an indelible impact on a generation of artists, yet his own work has until recently been less seen. Points of Contact reconstructs work first presented in Auckland in 1969.
That exhibition was entitled Small Worlds and that’s exactly what these works are. Materials hang or are suspended in lit environments to create cubed orbs, like giant eyeballs. An enormous pocket of air in plastic sits on a flax fibre mat. The mat also accommodates a similarly sized forest of nylon hanging from a square roof that holds fluorescent lighting. From another nearby hangs nylon, perspex strips, wooden balls and fragments of florid poetry.
There’s a rewarding exploration of space here, very much in the sculptural tradition of weighing and shaping form, material and space. I like how they play with the basic materials of our built environment. Yet I was disappointed by how these works have been represented as objects rather than environments to interact with. The 1969 exhibition was an immersive environment you had to move through. Here there is no encouragement to step into them. This frustrated me given Allen’s maintenance that art should, like our appreciation of the world, be active not passive and that “art is only incidentally and not essentially aesthetic”.
Far more immersive is an Allen work downstairs in darkened space where an almost infinite plane of tiny floating spheres is created by the suspending of hundreds of fish sinkers from nylon fishing line, glistening under light and altered by the insertion of a plastic sheet into the work. This was paired nicely with Len Lye’s ‘Grass’, a see saw of waving steel rods on a wooden plank.
Also recommended is video of the recently restaged three-part performance work Contact (neatly, the old black and white film of this also plays). Working with dancers Allen explores social interaction, our tribal codes and cocooning from each other, and the gleeful release and orders when we start to mix together. Watching the documentation of the works concurrently helps you appreciate Allen’s themes, yet nothing can replace the actual bodily experience of a live performance.
Len Lye’s work is always a spellbinding pleasure, and this show is also in effect a mini Lye survey, the first in Wellington since 2002. Significantly, shown for the first time in Wellington is ‘Fire Bush’. Under hot orange light a motor whips up a bunch of stainless steel rods into a whirling dervish like fervour, dancing like a bushel of sparks. This leads nicely into the dance of colour in Helio Oiticica’s work, which is strangely dead in this environment by comparison.
I expected far more from the Oiticica section, given he is being presented in New Zealand for the first time. The exhibition largely focuses on what he described as ‘habitable paintings’ colourful capes designed to be worn while moving to the samba. One small sculpture is upstairs but lacks context, and the connections displayed to Allen feel slight. A wider appreciation of Oiticica’s work would have helped.
The points of contact between these artists feel relatively slender from what we are shown here. It would be interesting to see how these artists’ ideas are being carried on by a new generation, rather than simply containing them in an art historical box.
As I watch film of Oitcica’s work in the streets of Brazil I’m conscious of being deep inside the closure of the academic gallery - as far from the street as possible. This is not the gallery’s fault. It raises a challenge for the work of Allen and Oiticica to be brought to the attention of a wider public as Lye’s has. In the meantime a trek up the hill to the Adam is greatly encouraged.
- Points of Contact: Jim Allen, Len Lye and Helio Oiticica, until 22 May 2011, Adam Art Gallery