F4: In the Interval by Susan Jowsey, Marcus Williams, Jesse Williams & Mercy Williams (Rim Books, 2014), 96 pp., $25; An Urban Quest for Chlorophyll by Jennifer Gilliam & Dieneke Jansen (Rim Books, 2013), 80 pp., $30
Seldom have I received a parcel with more disparate contents than that containing the two books I am reviewing here. They have one common thing: their imprint from Haru Sameshina’s Rim Press, and I suppose I could go on about this delightful do-it-yourself publishing venture, and Haru’s assured way of putting books together and making them meaningful without getting too stuck in a house style.
Both works smell of art; and a kind of defence/deference mechanism clicks in with this cynical reader, a linguistic and cultural retro-referencing which allows me to scuttle back into my comfort zone and peep out – stick out my feelers to see whether the beast bites. F4: In the Interval affirms the values of Haru’s Rim Press, assuring a consistent typographical approach, careful paper choices, and pictures imbued either with deep sadness or with a kind of weird bathos.
Then, I immediately summon up the personal reference that ‘F4’ has for me. It denotes a French state-subsidised apartment designed for a 4-person family unit: 2 bedrooms, separate kitchen and living room, minimum surface of 90 square metres. It fits, with Marcus Williams, Susan Jowsey and the two kids, now earnest adolescents, thrown together in a number of spaces and configurations – essentially acting or inter-acting out rôles.
The idea that the act of play and the act of art reflect one another is a romantic notion. As a formal description or critical comment, however, the idea risks infinite regress or tautology i.e. the act of play is a mimetic activity, as is that of making art, where the relationship between the two activities is also one of mimesis and, furthermore, mimesis itself is essentially tautological in nature (the representation resembles the thing presented …), so where does one begin?
Thus writes a slightly bushed Matthew Wood, one of the ordained priests of the Wallace Collection at the Pah Homestead, in a commendably readable essay, which manages to roll out the usual zombie pack (Uncle Walter, Lacan, Badiou, Tolstoy even) and still make sense. Moreover, he deftly sidesteps any judgement on, or even real evaluation of, the work!
But he does not add to his mix the inevitable reflexive mimesis of photography. Whether we are looking at photographs, mixed-media installations, videos or drawings, by the time they confront us here, they are – photographs. Reproductions of photos on a screen or in a publication is the case with possibly 99 per cent of art we see in our everyday lives.
So, yes, where does one begin? The idea of set-up family photos, of attempts at discourse and narrative by a mise-en-scène and by collage and other alterations of photo images, is about as old as photography itself, with some delightful and occasionally scary Victorian tableaux-vivants and collages that come to mind – as well as more recent amusements such as the Danish Jan family’s improvisations.1
But amusing F4 is not, or not intentionally anyway … We have to come to grips here with the medium of photography, with the richly ambiguous relationship pictures in general and photos in particular have with ontological reality. We are invited into a world that’s possibly a little creakingly surreal, as these images in their nature are a telling of superimposition, fragmentation and rupture. Take the (untitled) opening picture: a kind of René Magritte-Pieta remix. Against a studio’s black background, a young girl in white sits on a chair with a dead lamb on her knees. Her head is neatly bandaged with only her rouged mouth emerging, red as the single colour which transcends a very narrow palette of greys, whites and unsaturated flesh tones. Her legs do not make it as far as the ground. Turn a few pages, there is Marcus W. on his back in bed, his eyes closed, vomiting (snotting?) some kind of pinkish ectoplasm, still in the same restrained colour palate. My slightly impatient and definitely irreverent personal title for this is: ‘Ice Cream Dreams’.
Next, open to the lovely picture of Mercy (the daughter) with a cute brown baby doll attached to her back in a rug. The art historical reference to the classic Lindauer-Foy Anna Rupene photo/painting is obvious, and there is also a second semantic layer where the precarious/precocious innocence of Lewis Carroll’s little girls becomes possible referent. Are we then engaging with a postcard vision of the postcolonial dream, as in the two photos – directly referencing the photography of the Burton Brothers – of our happy family with whitened faces on the verandah of a Victorian house?
A similar composition has an abandoned shopfront as a setting, an out-of-focus daughter in the foreground, with presumably a fag in her mouth, and Poppa sitting on the shop verandah in a white singlet with a cylindrical sheet of paper on his head like a demented cook. Why isn’t he using a decent amount of depth of field (I know he is a perfectly competent photography technician), and why oh why the ridiculous hat? Cigaretteman?
The pinnacle of ridiculous comes with the image where Marcus is gazing sorrowfully into the middle distance with a baby-pink soft toy balanced on his head, the string suggestively hanging down like in certain womanly accessories, forming an unintentional punctum, as Barthes would have said.
So, the pinnacle of the ridiculous … Is F4 anticipating a few rough critical words about its strategies? There is a potential ‘misunderstood artist’s martyrdom’ represented, I suppose. And then I laugh and turn the page; to each his or her own prison – or Purgatory …
Apparently the book is the presentation or recording of several different art projects from 2007 to 2012, in far-flung places such as Lithuania, Chicago, Hungary, New York and – Hamilton. Maybe one of the problems I have in getting a clear reading is that the mix of the projects seems to be rather arbitrary: intriguing drawings on time-sheets confront crystal-clear studio photo details, or blurry extracts from videos. Occasionally Haru comes up with visual links, such as in a drawing and a photo-montage where an ear is a major feature. But in this latter image we again come upon a limitation of the photograph. I assume in the original work Jowsey’s ferocious, and in its way fascinating, attack on a suit gave us images where the physicality of the textile was a presence in itself. In a photo-book we are not only reduced to a photographic rendering, but we are also left unsure whether in the original multi-media Kaunas installation the actual texture, the feel of the cloth, was a factor.
If in my travels, in Baku, Aleppo, Penang or Taumaranui, I come across an F4 installation, I’ll go and look out of curiosity, I suppose. But the book does not really convince.
So let us browse on Chlorophyll – a refreshing compilation of garden and nature projects applied to the urban centres of a number of places. I am reminded of the New Zealand short-story writer A.P. Gaskell, my highschool English teacher in Hamilton half a century ago, intoning about that fine city’s ‘Garden Place, sprouting row upon row of parking metres’. Our public spaces, worldwide, seem to suffer sea changes, design-wise, about every decade or so. Recent projects in New York and some French cities have seen the ‘renaturation’ of seafronts and old elevated railway tracks. We could remark in passing that New Zealand cities and towns aren’t up there with Detroit or Birmingham or Shanghai as major urbanscapes, but that might be a pointless quibble. Indeed, one of the works in this book brings photos of suburban flowers into a rather bleak shopping mall as a slide-show.
The characteristic that I appreciate in the projects presented here is essentially their modesty; most are at the level of ‘bricolage’, using variations of Kiwi number-eight-wire technology; all are temporary and not designed to leave any trace, which in a country like most others, overloaded with bulky, corroding and usually godawful public art, is a relief of some sort. Mark Amery’s introductory text points out that all of the artworks are created by women, but he does not come to any strong conclusions about this, except to refer to their concern for a ‘concern for urban communities and the contemporary ecology of cities’. He also postulates that women might be better at working collaboratively.
They are: Tanya Eccleston, Sue Gallagher, Jenny Gilliam, Dieneke Jansen, Kate Linzey, Monique Redmond, Laura Strongman and Amanda Yates. (There is an Andrew Douglas there as well, perhaps as the token bloke.) All the projects are the work of enthusiastic groups with different competencies, rather than the expression of some tortured soul’s Weltschmerz with a watering can. Even better, some artworks can be eaten, as in Amanda Yates’ wonderful ‘Pop up Garden’ in possibly New Zealand’s finest urban plaza, the Civic Square in Wellington!
Mark Amery starts his intro with a quote from Martha Rosler, who challenges some of the accepted greening assumptions from a pretty rigorous Marxist point of view. There was a time when we artists felt that any art gesture would somehow contribute to a revolution that would lead to a green Socialist utopia. Things have proved to be a tad more complicated, and the reactionary capitalist bastards who own stuff have become artists’ biggest clients. Some of us, maybe 1 per cent, have become rich superstars; the rest of us do a bit of teaching and pay the mortgage or develop skills at making perfect cappuccinos. But, to quote further from Rosler’s essay for which Amery gave us the reference: ‘In recent years many artists have begun to work in non-art contexts, pushing the limits of their creative practice to help solve social problems.’ What Rosler argues is that it is precisely this stream that is ready to be exploited by urban authorities – which are usually in bed with the big money – allowing for cosmetic beautification projects while ensuring that the urban substance conforms to the needs of capitalist endeavour.
Of the projects shown, Christchurch is possibly the most interesting case to challenge this situation, and I was almost moved to tears visiting that city a couple of years ago to see the many modest little garden projects sprouting up all over their earthquake-ravaged wasteland; and doubtless we all have been following the clumsy and often completely cynical diktats which sometimes seem to present the only thing the urban and above all the national authorities are throwing at the place. Lara Strongman speaks of:
transitional rituals … new public works of art produced by communities coming to terms with sudden trauma and its aftermath … Flowers and plants are being used in the new ritual of mourning the community has developed, as tributes to the people the city lost that day and to the city we all lost. But they are also being used to build a new city as people come together to make new places, civilising one urban wasteland at a time.
I can think of no better conclusion. One thing is certain, of the two books this modest little volume will be on my bedside table for a while yet.
1. Janfamily: Plans for other days, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2005. Thank you Alida Harris for this reference.
MAX OETTLI is a photographer, writer, archivist and researcher who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. He grew up in New Zealand and returns regularly.