Visiting the Crown Jewels

Secret Power by Simon Denny. Photo / Kate Whitley (c) Te Papa
Secret Power by Simon Denny. Photo / Kate Whitley (c) Te Papa
Secret Power by Simon Denny. Photo / Kate Whitley (c) Te Papa
Secret Power by Simon Denny. Photo / Kate Whitley (c) Te Papa
Secret Power by Simon Denny. Photo / Kate Whitley (c) Te Papa
Secret Power detail Eagle. Photo / Kate Whitley (c) Te Papa
Secret Power by Simon Denny. Photo / Kate Whitley (c) Te Papa
Mark Amery writes on the museum arrival of Simon Denny’s 'Secret Power'.

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It’s like visiting the crown jewels, without the long queues: in the door, up the escalator, into a lift, round to a staircase, across a bridge, and through into the national art collection. Not exactly espionage, but you’ve got to work for it.

What if these once closely guarded state secrets, since revealed in the international media were - like Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War – centre-stage in our national museum? This celebrated contemporary art purchased for a princely sum, some of the first things that, glittering caught the eye. 

For on display are visualisations of the scale of one of our current 'wars' - its major weapon, surveillance. This is the generous portion of Simon Denny’s Secret Power purchased by Te Papa on our behalf from his exhibition for the New Zealand pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. An ambitious, condensed bringing together of the some of the visual material from documents leaked from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) by Edward Snowden, first published by the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers in 2013.

 One delicious tension of the work’s display at Te Papa is that a national museum is not a newspaper. It is owned by the state - one in this case arguably complicit in the Snowden leaks through being part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network. We are more comfortable discussing a war 100 years ago than that being waged today. Secret Power, remember, was a work over which leading art patron Jenny Gibbs shifted her support based on the appointment as a specialist advisor Nicky Hager. It’s from a Hager book on New Zealand’s intelligence work that the exhibition takes its title. 

That the work is not more forward at Te Papa then should be no surprise. But, once again an artwork begs the question as to why our art is not more integrated into the lower floors of the museum. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Secret Power’s exhibition here will cause the debate and discussion Te Papa has suggested it will.  

New Zealand’s purchase of Secret Power and its appearance in our national museum is the latest in a set of audacious contextual moves by Denny exploring how art can touch on geopolitical tensions – the spaces politics move across. Context very much counts. 

Riffing off The Terminator, television Las Vegas magicians Penn and Teller, cartoon icons, cheap gaming models and a layering of representations of digital visual presentation strategies - all wrapped in a floor to ceiling reproduction of grand historical Venice painting - Denny couldn’t have created a more souped up display to appeal to the game-playing throngs entering Te Papa. It’s a Big Mac of a play with visual communication, playing off the cheesiness of the visual design of the NSA’s work. 

Never has an artist created a static display that speaks so excitedly to the Te Papa style of designed visual and text information overload. Three large lit cabinets – mimicking both the museum vitrine and computer server cabinet (complete tackily with hardware and cables) - provide meditation on the way a museum, just like a security agency, encapsulates and then displays information. Contemporary wunderkamma (cabinets of curiosities) they are crowded with labeling and information systems, all competing for your attention. It’s an uneasy, overpowering experience.

Perhaps it was different for the original Venice presentation across two sites, but here isolated from other components, it is hard to get a clear fix on its main thrust. Denny so overeggs it - tries geekily to do so much. He is so excitably ‘gaming up’ the ways objects might stand in for information in these cabinets that the work feels unfocussed and scattergun. One minute we’re trying to decipher a Snowden slide (reproduced in laser-etched glass), the next we’re studying a historical magic trick of a painted up warship. 

In all this is a clever exploration of how artists, designers and magicians alike can be agents of war, but it’s so trapped in the work’s competing layering it feels messy. I’m not changed, inspired or moved by it, I’m simply left feeling outplayed and somewhat bewildered. 

The discussion around vital issues of privacy and sovereignty about the Snowden leaks ends up feeling muted. It shouldn’t. The crown jewels analogy is a useful one because Denny talks smartly of the Snowden slides as icons: “the most culturally important material of our age”. Going to visit these then is akin to that tradition of visiting the icon to engage with a mystery. Yet Denny’s other game playing gets in the way.

Perhaps it would be different if the discussion around these leaks was as electric as it was two years ago - when Hager’s book came out and Kim Dotcom paraded Snowden and Julian Assange before us in his  ‘Moment of Truth’ event. Even at Venice a year ago there must have been the sense of something hot off the press. Particularly when then Denny revealed his ace conceptual card – that he’d commissioned fresh design work from David Darchicourt, the NSA’s graphic designer, with Darchicourt unaware that the work was for Secret Power. These illustrative works of a tuatara character to represent NZ history and a map of New Zealand from information in the Snowden files, disappointingly, didn’t form part of the New Zealand purchase. 

Secret Power should leave us worried that we have already so quickly let go great issues about our privacy and freedoms online. Yet I don’t feel it. Denny’s refusal to take a critical position and instead leave that to others bothers me. It ultimately leaves his work lacking a cut and thrust. He lays everything out for us, overlapping, to wander through. 

The strength of Secret Power at Te Papa is its exploration of the cheap and crass ways we visually present information to the many, rather than the actual effects it has. Clever and significant, sure, but ultimately it's not an approach I find all that engaging.

Written by

Mark Amery

11 Oct 2016

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

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