Much less mirror than he was used to
It’s how you frame it. In my last column I suggested that the artist-run space began in New Zealand in 1992 with Teststrip Gallery. My boxing quickly got checked by respondents representing generations before mine, noting artist-run spaces in the 70s and 80s. I made an edit. In fact, I could have looked at least as far back as The Group, ex-art students in Christchurch who set up an alternative exhibition platform in 1927.
In our conversations we’re often limited by our frames of reference. And in our viewing of art by the exhibition frameworks we put around the work. Yet, many of us grew up with an art history in which artists fractured fundamental expectations of what art looks like or can be. Cracking open our view of the world – breaking assumptions - remains vital artistic work.
This is one reason I’d like to recommend a trip to Victoria University’s ever impressive Adam Art Gallery for Bad Visual Systems (on until 22 December). Ruth Buchanan and collaborators lightly shake up the gallery experience. Through installation, painting, sculpture, audio, video, our performance and even building alteration they intelligently, playfully scramble and reposition things.
Its starts when you arrive. Peeling back an enormous purple PVC curtain separating entrance from gallery, I find the gallery attendant front and centre lounging on a bed-like bench before their work screen, reading a book. Buchanan reorientates our experience - helps us in these ways consider how structure determines form.
Feminist connotations might gently follow the attendant’s behaviour, or the casting of a purple haze over the entranceway and down the stairway. Or put more simply: a group of women artists have responded strongly to the building.
Disrupted also are notions of the solo show – with Bad Visual Systems Buchanan uses the opportunity to also present and frame two Germany-based artists who have inspired her – recent work by fellow current Berliner Judith Hopf and the 1970s work of Marianne Wex.
All three artists are concerned with addressing assumptions about what is considered normal behaviour. Using big full-length mirrors Buchanan asks us to look at ourselves within her installation - you consider in her irregular rearrangement and decoration of space what the value system is that we base ‘good’ and ‘bad’ on.
Like some cryptic audio guide, sensors activate a read text throughout the show in ‘big brother’ speed camera-like boxes on the wall. Fractured language poetry in their banal delivery, they encourage us to reconsider even sentence structure. Phrases in this text have the power to become personal guides to the entire show. For me: “There was much less mirror than he was used to”.
The Adam does a great job of cracking open our view of the world through recent art history. In recent years, from Hito Steyerl to Martha Rosler it has ensured a number of key women artists are put in the local frame.
Wex it turns out lived in Wellington between 1983 and 1986. This was at the time of the Women’s Gallery - a space “by and for women” I was pulled up for leaving out of my last column.
Key to understanding how fundamental the shifts in reference being considered are here is re-presentation of Wex’s major 1970s photographic and research project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures. It has been given a new display system, bisecting gallery spaces by Buchanan and architect collaborator Andreas Müller.
With camera and collage Wex considered the differences in public body language between men and women, also their history in figurative sculpture and their current representation in advertising.
How small and narrow women make themselves, she observes in an article in New Zealand feminist magazine Broadsheet. She notes that in sculpture from the ancients when women had positions of power they were often represented broader of shoulder. In the 70s while men are shown in advertisements to firmly grasp a cigarette packet in their fists, a woman balances them slenderly from her finger tips. In other photographs Wex gets men posing with women's body language, and young women posing with men’s, to telling effect. A seminal feminist progression of figurative art.
Buchanan could have chosen to exhibit Wex’s original plastic-sheathed photographs on the walls. Instead the displays divide the thin long galleries in half affecting our own reading of ourselves in relationship to the work.
There’s a tension between the industrialised nature of the Adam architecture and Buchanan’s interventions. They play both to the hard material and shape of the space and softer curves and colours of that usually consigned to the domestic. Like a conversation between codes, a new kind of music in colour and line is formed between building and installation.
An enormous piece of fabric (four strips) featuring a repeating wavy line design falls to the bottom floor into folds through the cavity between gallery spaces, interrupting the gallery’s straight lines like an enormous wave. It is hung carefully out from the wall, on steel brackets on suspended wire to enable its own shadow imprint on the building’s wall. It is called ‘A wavy line is drawn across the middle of the plans’.
Buchanan has collaborated on a series of wall paintings and hand latch-hooked rugs of abstract designs that resist easy definition. I find these hard to read, yet the more I consider this show the more I like that their language in league with the rest of the installation is in a language I yet don’t understand.
The third artist Judith Hopf lightens that mystery. There are a series of snakes – concrete casts of what look like the buildings railings or fittings allowed to bend into new contortions, with paper forked tongues added to their ends. Like the paintings and rugs they are the building’s hard plans bent wild, softened or made slightly dangerous. I still yet don’t quite know what to make of them, but they have resonance in the concrete and paper environment of the university.
A highlight of the exhibition is the screening with Buchanan installation of Hopf’s 2013 film Lily’s Laptop. Teenage Lily is left in charge of the apartment while the rest of the family go out. Not given password access to a Macbook she instead floods the apartment and the building with water. A contemporary take on the suffragette inspired 1911 film Le Bateau de Léontine, a young woman takes control by playing with her physical environs when the digital one is denied to her.
Ruth Buchanan’s art can feel as clinical and cold as a public hospital ward. Yet she’s moving round the furniture of the institutional infrastructure itself. Once grasped, you can start to enjoy the subtle yet large gestures she makes. Those things that are as expressive as intellectual: the exquisite green fringed pink mesh curtain on level 2 playing off the nonslip patterning of the steel ramp, the placing of Judith Hopf’s 13 second comic film The Evil Faerie in the lift. All is playful, disrupting the rules the established systems maintained.
Initially the disruption of familiar meaning is a struggle. But give in to the experimentation. Explore. Ignore the impulse to feel you need to be loaded with historical or theoretical knowledge. I brought along a 14-year-old who had no trouble delighting in the way Buchanan constantly fractured and broke up the sentences of visual and verbal languages. It suits this hard big space.
I left excited by the new shapes and shadows throw. As a kind of politicised abstraction Bad Visual Systems clicked big time.