Street Smarts

All the Cunning Stunts. Photography by Neil Price.
All the Cunning Stunts. Photography by Neil Price.
All the Cunning Stunts. Photography by Neil Price.
All the Cunning Stunts. Photography by Neil Price.
Mark Amery writes about the growth of the Wellington council-run Lightbox Project in Courtenay Pl


Mark Amery writes about the growth of the Lightbox Project in Courtenay Place, and current artwork ‘All the Cunning Stunts’.

"In a place of passage, the tall, paired boxes gently calibrate your journey, offering views slightly askew to the street. It gives artists lots to work with."

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As a member of the Wellington City Council’s Public Art Panel, there’s been great pleasure in seeing the growth since its inception in 2008 of the council-run Lightbox Project in Courtenay Place. A similar more modest project launched last year in Auckland – testament to the original’s success.

Featuring two to three new works every year, the conversations these illuminated doors have between themselves and with their location have continued to develop.

Much of their success lies with the council’s urban design team. In an area alive around the clock the double-sided boxes are smartly placed, with the contrast of cruising vehicle traffic on one side and mingling passersby on the other. In a place of passage, the tall, paired boxes gently calibrate your journey, offering views slightly askew to the street. It gives artists lots to work with.  

The last project Cathryn Munro’s ‘Cloudfold’ saw net curtains waft over cloud filled blue skies. It encouraged you to pause, breathe and look up to the expanse above. Their rhythmic abstract play slowed down time against the barrage of quick-fire slogans and signage around them.

Current project ‘All the Cunning Stunts’ by Rachel O’Neill, Marnie Slater, Liz Allan and Claire Noonan does the opposite. It embraces the bright, buzzy vernacular of the street. An active complication by the artists in collaboration of social communication methods, through a digital collage of signage, text and image, it has the overlaid pop mash-up of exclaimed social conversation. The work amplifies talk that hardly ever gets heard with sharp wit and street smarts.

Affirming the creativity of typical individual urban expression, the work explores the complexity of viewing, and being viewed as a gay person in a heterosexual street culture. As an image of one of the artists looking out, as if in a bird watching Maimai suggests, from their island vantage point the artists turn the binoculars back out on the swamp around them.

Timed to coincide with the Gay Games (good to see the city giving generous space to its cultural programme) curator Mary Jane Duffy has worked with the four lesbian artists to create a work about contemporary homosexuality - with a playfulness and ribald humour epitomised by the exhibition title. A great companion to the exhibition is the blog, which documents some of their working process.

And a process it feels like. The work is exhilarating in the visual exchange of ideas between artists, with strong lively threads running through it, rather than there being satisfaction in any visual cohesion.

There’s something refreshingly honest about this. It also feels appropriate to its site, playing to the brief, exuberant just-caught open exchanges between new friends outside a bar.

The first panel is largely given over to a letter to the Topp Twins, explaining the exhibition and asking them to come and busk (“I’ve just realised I don’t know where to post so will have to reply on the yodelling grapevine.”). Like an eye chart the font size reduces as the letter progresses, echoing the diminishing volume of a network reliant on word of mouth. There’s a self-conscious awareness of the importance of these lightboxes as a communication device in the little acknowledgement of homosexuality in the mainstream. 

Into this first panel is inserted a reproduction of the classic 16th century painting ‘Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters’, featuring two topless women, one pinching the others’ nipple. Behind it has been inserted a heavily pixellated rainbow flag. It reappears again later in the series, put into place by a pair of hands. There is throughout the work a visible sense of taking matters into your own hands, inserting a voice into public space, with a call for other suggestions from the public.

The complexity of being open about homosexuality in this setting appear aligned to various forms of coming out. In the final panel the phrases ‘I subject’ and ‘we object’ are graffiti scrawled across a fragmented image of one of the artists. ‘We object’ can be a protest but together with ‘I subject’ perhaps acknowledges the complexities of being branded ‘Lesbian artist’ and risking stereotyping.

For not only is the collaboration involved here unusual for an art project, as is the general good humour, but art that openly addresses homosexual representation is rare. Yet it rises above the simplistic didacticism of much sexually politicised work.

The chatter is held together by a geometric design decorated by various advertising visual devices like banners, ribbons, insignia and starbursts. The work is also grounded well by the artists employing visual communication tools all computer users are employing - basic painting programmes, pixellated imagery and cut and paste.

Its worth noting also that the experimentation, openness and wit here were qualities often present in the work presented by curator Mary Jane Duffy and co-owner Paula Newton at Mary Newton Gallery in Vivian Street over seven years. Closing its doors in December last year, the high standard of exhibition by artists, many of whom would be lucky to see exhibition here elsewhere, will see this gallery very much missed.

  • All the Cunning Stunts, Rachel O’Neill, Marnie Slater, Liz Allan and Claire Noonan Courtenay Place, until 31 March

Written by

Mark Amery

17 Feb 2011

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media. He is co-curator of public art programme Letting Space.

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