New noises from the Academy
By Mark Amery
There are strange new noises coming from the Academy of Fine Arts on Queens Wharf. Not only is there the banshee like howl of a dynamic Raewyn Turner light, sound and smell work in a dark backroom, shattering the sedate pedestrian air of the galleries, but there are a number of programming moves that suggest something of a shake-up at the Academy is underway.
The name of the institution itself suggests a bastion of conservatism. Against which Turner’s work audibly clashes. The Academy of Fine Arts was established in 1892 as a free gallery to promote and encourage the fine arts, run by artists for artists. It remains so to this day. It has a formidable history, yet it’s been a long time since it has really achieved its goal of assisting the highest quality art.
Like many membership-based organisations it has struggled to remain current - to balance its benevolent goals of providing opportunity for every artist to sell work and to look after its membership, with providing a platform for the history and current state of the visual arts.
New Zealand is not alone. Of the Royal Academy in London, which has fared better in galvanising public interest with vital exhibitions (such as the current Modern British Sculpture) Guardian writer Jonathon Jones wrote of their 2010 annual summer exhibition: “Superannuated sculptors, paltry painters and a ragtag of would-be titans have their day, for months…. Critics try to find the good in it, and retch and redden in the courtyard, disgusted by this rite of mediocrity.”
Our Academy’s current membership summer exhibition fares not much better, though the egos are probably more modest. The walls are festooned by competently created work that riff off better stuff you’ve seen somewhere else, sometime ago. There is good work here, but there’s a lot of trawling through the remarkably average to get to it. The exhibition’s title Then, Now, When almost seems to hint that there’s meant to be a question mark at the end of those three words. To ask when things are going to change.
Art society exhibitions open to the many to sell work are important. And as a self funded society the Academy can do what it likes in service of its membership. Yet there remain untapped opportunities for an institution with such a rich history and powerful base to better meet the needs of public crying out for surveys of our art and art history, and of a broader range of emerging artists looking for professional inspiration. Entry may be free, but I don’t attend a professional sports game to watch the finest athletes wade through the also-rans.
The academy has, I understand from the new director Justin Morgan, an annual visitor base of between 25 to 30,000. This is tiny for its location. To give comparison, it’s not far above that of the small public Gallery in Waikanae the Mahara.
Justin Morgan was appointed six months ago, and together with new exhibitions co-ordinator Johnny Titheridge, a recent Massey graduate, is providing a younger face. Morgan comes from running artist space JJ Morgan and Co in Miramar, which had a brief burst of fresh and interesting exhibitions and residencies in the first part of 2010.
Their most audacious move thus far was to welcome the dealer galleries into the space in February. Vista, dubbed Wellington’s first art fair, saw work from a half dozen of the capital’s dealers exhibited, and Morgan says visitor numbers increased. Given the Academy has been where those who aren’t represented get to sell their work however one can only imagine this was internally controversial. Yet it nods to the potential of the gallery to be a shared space where the best work gets shown to the public.
Raewyn Turner’s ReSense, a collaboration with Diana Burgoyne, is one of the most interesting works currently on show in town. It’s an assault on all of the senses. The effect is, as the artists’ intended totally synesthetic, which is to say it creates impressions through stimulating the senses. After the noise, resembling a choir of feedback, what you first notice entering the dark room is a forest of small glasses perched like bird feeders at head height on metal poles. Each contains a small woofer speaker in its bottom upon which small coloured balls jiggle like pebbles on a streambed. These are encapsulated perfumes emitting odour into the room, sickly sweet when your nose enters the glass.
The forest sits between two screens with subtle flashing colour shifts on graph paper-like mesh projecting across your body. The effect is disorientating and all encompassing, as if entering an abstract painting in which life forms have been reduced to their base coordinates and rhythms. It’s not a pleasant experience, with your senses drowned rather than heightened, nor does it move me or tell me anything. Yet as an experimental work bringing to life things we don’t usually comprehend it’s captivating.
I’m not sure the Academy can continue long term to accommodate such polar positions without more cohesive change. The time is ripe for such an overhaul.
- Then/Now/When, Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington, until 20 March