Instructions from the Past

Mark Amery considers an exhibition of the performance scores of Bruce Barber in the context of how we document our memories.


Mark Amery considers an exhibition of the performance scores of Bruce Barber in the context of how we document our memories.

* * *

Just beyond my memory people move jerkily in black and white, or languidly in a haze of bleached colour. Voices are distorted. The world is cocooned in warm fuzz.

For images beyond our recollection we are reliant on one kind of technology or another passing them down – voice, text, pictures or moving image. A vital part of memory is how it is documented.

Memory surely, then, must look different for every generation. There are no DVD glitches with mine, just plenty of scratches. I was born in 1969 so the early 1970s have the rhythm and colour of the cine film my grandfather gave my father, also the click clack of the slide carousel, the yellow of old pages of typewritten text, and the flare of the Polaroid and early mass produced colour photographic film.

Around 1990, I was a student of art history at the University of Auckland. It was here with the encouragement of then lecturer Tony Green I got interested in art beyond the object, working across media, out in public space and beyond the picture plane and plinth. In terms of local roots, fired by my love of Len Lye and experimental music (including then From Scratch) I was led to the work of the early 1970s in Auckland (and at that stage one of those pioneers From Scratch’s Phil Dadson was still teaching at Auckland’s Elam). The so-called post-object art.

My recollection is that the majority of the documentation of this work was held in a series of cardboard boxes in a crawlspace above the Elam library main desk (but then memory can play tricks). Time spent leafing through the documentation of performances – instructions, scripts, written accounts and photographs – left me enthralled. Here was a Fluxus-fired art irreligiously crossing boundaries, freely experimenting in a way the musicians, dancers and actors I admired could appreciate.

But part of the rapture was the sense of being close to the work by actually touching these documents once so personal to the artist. Of imagining what these performances described or notated might have looked like. 

Twenty-five years later and this work has been increasingly coming out of the cardboard box - the subject of study, exhibition and publication. It’s the mainline historical interest (or should be) of a new generation of artists and writers for whom painting and sculpture have arguably never been at the centre of their cultural worlds.

Last month, the seminal influence of Bill Allen was recognised with an Arts Foundation Icon Award. Allen transformed the sculpture department of Elam in the 1960s. Critic of the time Wystan Curnow says “Jim Allen is, we should now be saying, our first contemporary artist”. A swooping sweep of a statement,  but you get his point. Last year interviews by Green and Dadson with Allen were published by Clouds under the title The Skin of Years. Allen though has disrupted his own fade into documentation, re-realising sculptures and performances since 2000, both personally and through others. He has given his work a second life.

From Allen to Darcy Lange and onto Billy Apple Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery under Tina Barton has been a leading exhibitor of this rising period of art history. Now curator Stephen Cleland has joined the team, fresh from working on last year’s Walters Prize exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery, notable for its clutch of projects operating outside the gallery space. These in their own way recalled a rash of performance works that occurred at the gallery back in the mid 1970s, bringing together some of the experimentation at Elam.

One of those artists was the subject of a survey curated by Cleland at Te Tuhi Auckland and Artspace Sydney in 2008 – Bruce Barber. Back in the day Barber’s work at the AAG, marked by its physical endurance, included spending three days in stocks and another, moving fish between buckets, wet-suited and blindfolded. I recall the latter, ‘Bucket Action’, from the pages of Curnow and Allen’s publication on post object art New Art from 1976, the only bound record of this period I found as a student. Then there were the instructions and photographs of Barber’s Mount Eden Crater Performance on the shortest day of 1973. An experiment in drawing through performance in space, accentuating different senses. The blindfolded were led around the rim whilst others spiraled in and out of the crater reading texts through megaphones, with drummers at the crater's base. There really isn't a way to fully document that experience.

As part of the current clutch of exhibitions at the Adam, Cleland has curated Bruce Barber: Performance Scores. Cleland has made his own restriction on our senses to inform our images of the work. He has removed photographs of realised performances from the presentation. He presents a room of the instructions and ideas for the early works Barber produced or in fact never realised in the 1970s – their written and visual scores.

So those yellowing pages are now out of boxes and in vitrines. In fact much of it wasn’t in the boxes I rifled through at Elam – rather Stella Brennan writes here of the power of going through Barber’s boxes at Auckland Art Gallery after they were gifted by the artist just half a dozen years ago.

Cleland is asserting these works relevance, and in recognising that, unlike Allen, Barber has resisted re staging them. Yet I’m not sure denying us the photographic documentation does the work any great service (and he undoes the whole action by presenting three video works of Barber’s elsewhere).

This said, Cleland’s action does emphasise that this was an artist working through ideas on paper as much as physical actualisation - the process of exploring possibilities a kind of drawing as valid as that of a 2D artist. The works here are chosen to show the significant range of working on paper. There are those that existed only as fanciful written ideas (New Zealand lighthouses synchronised to play Moon River through flashes of morse code). Another put into process as a proposition through correspondence but never realised, nor probably ever intended to be (a stitching from bank to bank of the Waikato river with steel cable, which is the subject hilariously of replies from the various local authorities and government departments needed for consent – a process with plenty of layers of poignancy). And then there is a beautiful set of diagrams in which Barber plays visually with the geometric possibilities of how audience might relate to a performance space (which performing arts fans will find rewarding). The work is scattered in its focus, much as student work often is, but the ideas lead off in inspirational directions.

The video works in contrast do seem more caught in their time. With the recording of a performance at Whatipu (similar to the better-known work at Mt Eden crater) I am more caught up with the ad hoc student tomfoolery of the whole enterprise than the artist’s intent (“I think it’s very technological…I’m feeling very self conscious at the moment” run some of the spoken thoughts repeated across space with megaphones by the participants). Caught like ghosts in the machine, everything is stilted and in a blur. This Saturday the 31st at 11am an interesting counterpoint is being given Barber in Canada joining Cleland in the gallery via Skype, with all its digital blemishes. 

Also highly recommended at the Adam upstairs is Fragments of a World, curated by Sandy Callister, bringing together the early work from the 1970s and 1980s of a talented group of women artists who have too often been on the periphery, and worked dynamically, experimentally with different media. The flickering black and white and faded colour film of Popular Productions and Joanna Margaret Paul are there, the painterly blossom polaroids of Janet Bayly. Memory and image of oneself are entwined in the dark and blurred spaces, and glinted surfaces of film.

Written by

Mark Amery

28 Oct 2015

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

Ron Te Kawa and Janet Bayly at Mahara Gallery Waikanae
Mark Amery rounds up the supreme challengers and creators in Aotearoa
Phoebe Morris's illustration for google
Mark Amery questions whether times have changed (or not) in Lowdown #49
Howard Jacobson with his Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2013. Image credit: Alamy Stock Photo, ID:D8EAY1
Here's Mark Amery with a real grunty prize for Lowdown #43.
New Akl Art Gallery director Kirsten Paisley
Mark Amery serves up this week’s menu of breaking stories across Aotearoa’s arts media