Andrew Paul Wood
Lalique Vases, edited by Damian Skinner (David Bateman Auckland, 2011) 176 pp., $69.99;
Affirmation Dungeon, by Dan Arps (Clouds/Michael Lett, Auckland 2011) 318 pp, $69.95.
Lalique Vases, edited by freelance art historian Damian Skinner, is about a New Zealand-based private collection of glassware by the celebrated Art Nouveau and Art Deco glass designer René Lalique (1860–1945). Lalique began his experiments with glass and mass-production techniques like press moulding in the early years of the twentieth century. He is famous for the vast range of decorative glassware he produced, frequently using natural motifs of animals and flowers to create lighting fixtures, tableware, figurines, illuminated hood ornaments, architectural glass, and scent bottles.
I am not convinced the book can justify its existence. The collection in question is at the better end of average – it’s representational of the vases, but none of the 130 plus pieces are particularly exceptional; not that the average punter would know that from the rather sparse captions accompanying the very pretty pictures. It’s not as though anyone could question your taste for collecting Lalique, just as with many designer labels, Italian sports cars, and wines, making it a somewhat easy and safe option for investment. There are thousands of similar collections, private and public, around the world, why is this one especially worthy? The answer being that it isn’t.
Well then you might wonder, is the collector particularly fascinating? Are there some wonderfully dashing and insightful stories about how and why the collection was accumulated? Again, no. Skinner interviews the collector, Dr. Jack C. Richards, but frustratingly, there isn’t much about Dr Richards himself; he’s a veiled figure. All I could really glean from the book is that he is an ‘expatriate New Zealander’, but as he apparently has a residence in Gisborne (and many others scattered around the world) I am still confused. The book also tells me Richards has been collecting Lalique since the 1970s, and that this collecting isn’t really a consuming interest for the good Doctor, but rather it seems to be something he does on his business trips. I Googled, and came up with this from a Cambridge University web page: Dr. Jack C. Richards, a well-known applied linguist, teacher educator and textbook author, whose classroom texts and professional books are used by teachers and students all around the world.
Apparently, Richards is big in the ‘Learning English as a Second Language’ industry, hence he has the disposable income to accumulate a collection like this. David Bateman Ltd (and Creative New Zealand too, as they’ve put money into this project) ended up publishing what essentially amounts to a vanity publication — is this lifestyle porn to boost the collection’s value? It’s basically a very expensive, effectively redundant catalogue.
Skinner is one of New Zealand’s best art historical writers, and his editing of this volume suggests to me that he was uncomfortable with it. One can just about smell a whiff of panic in Skinner’s essay in which he attempts to place Lalique in a New Zealand context, and pretty much ends up admitting that there isn’t one. He has overcompensated by retreating into the academic, providing extraneous padding like Canadian academic Carolyn Hatch’s essay on Lalique himself, or UK dealers Jan and Simon Afford’s essay on dealing in Lalique. The reality is that if I wanted general information on Lalique, this is not the book I would consult; I would go to Nicholas Dawes’ 1986 Lalique Glass, Patricia Bayer and Mark Waller’s 1988 The Art of Rene Lalique or William Warmus’ 2002 The Essential Rene Lalique, or even the website of the Musée Lalique in Wingen-sur-Moder, Alsace, France.
Such information as is presented here should relate to the vases, picture by picture catalogue-style, not sit floating in discrete essays to mystify the reader. There are stories behind each of the designs and many of the exotic-sounding names, but this isn’t really discussed – which is a shame because it would have at least gone some way to justifying the book. The claim in the publicity literature that ‘Richards’ Lalique collection becomes the spur to explore an untold story about domestic taste and international decorative arts in New Zealand’ is entirely bogus and somewhat schizophrenic given that the collection was put together from purchases made overseas – something that could now be accomplished over the internet from the comfort of home. One is reminded of the story that the exclusively North-East Scottish provincial newspaper The Press & Journal parochially reported the Titanic disaster as ‘Aberdeen Man Lost at Sea’ and one is left with the feeling that Skinner, an author of many significant and well written books, is very much trying to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear, but hey, it’s a cute-looking sow’s ear. Award-winning photographer Haru Samishima’s photographs are as exquisite as the vases themselves.
To move completely from concrete decorative objects to the total rejection of the significance of the object in Dan Arps’ artist-book Affirmation Dungeon. Christchurch-born Arps came to wider public attention in 2010 when he won the New Zealand’s most lucrative national art award. Arps is a crafter of subtle, uncomfortable, ambiguous, and often quite poetic installations that generate their own contained reality. The uninitiated might think they were looking at a teenage boy’s bedroom floor – which is not far from the truth as Arps is ultimately a creator of scruffy contained sanctuaries and abject personalised environments. He draws on a host of traditions; Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Fluxus, Pop, Mike Kelley, Allan Kaprow, literature, history, altered found materials, critical theory, and a host of relational, notional, and situational aesthetics to comment on art, the existential condition, and society.
This is a robust, well-produced publication by Arps’ dealer Michael Lett through New Zealand publisher Clouds, supported by Creative New Zealand and by Saatchi & Saatchi through their association with The Walters Prize, organised by the Auckland Art Gallery. Seeing the breadth of the work, going back to 1997, together in one format throws Arps’ talent and eye into sharp relief, and for the first time gives a clear picture of his methodology, something echoed in the ordering of the book itself: ‘objets trouvés’ sourced from the internet and earlier publications, and slippages, glitches, contingencies and breakdowns in semiotics, language, time, and space. His is an art that resists containments, definitions, measurement or hierarchy – although something of the narcissism of the artist’s adopted manqué persona is suggested by the book being launched in New York before it was at home.
The overarching theme of the book, and much of Arps work, is to ruthlessly parody the Oprah-esque cod philosophies of self-affirmation and ‘aspirational’ (that word you keep using, Prime Minister Key, I do not think it means what you think it means) neoliberal consumerism. Arps deliberately dons the mantle of role-playing Dungeon Master, plotting his scenarios and settings (and indeed there is a little Piranesi, and probably Kafka too, in him). The book takes us through the oeuvre as though we were in a computer game, heavily spiced with an atmosphere of disposable hipsterness (where being seen to be cool is slightly more important than being seen to be good), but that is entirely deliberate, ironic and self-consciousness. One recalls the house style of Gambia Castle, the now defunct Auckland gallery and where Arps showed in 2007 the work that gives the book its title – essentially it was the art world equivalent of a feeder gang for the non-object cool kids from art school and fellow travellers — though of course Arps really is both cool and good. It’s easy to forgive his deliberate attempts to obfuscate and frustrate as artistic distancing strategies.
The texts come from diverse writers according to the press material: Arps himself, Jon Bywater, Matthew Hyland and Narelle Pathways. Frustratingly there are no writer biographies and only Bywater’s and Pathways’ contributions are actually identified by name. Bywayer’s essay ‘Work-Life Balance: Recent Exhibitions by Dan Arps’, was recycled from the 2009 issue of the elite peer-reviewed The Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture published by the Auckland Art Gallery E.H. McCormick Research Library. Bywater, a well respected academic and cultural theorist, has been Programme Leader of Critical Studies at Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland since 2005. It’s a good, informative text. The fact that Bywater was one of the Walters selection jurists just serves to underline to an extent the clannishness of the New Zealand art world.
I really have no idea who Pathways is, except her essay says she works in a sex shop, and Google reveals that she had a theory blog that was born and died in 2008. Her sparse Facebook page states that she likes the Young and the Restless. Her essay – a rambling series of personal observations on work and unemployment – is nice enough, but would be more illuminating if it related to Arps work directly rather than standing alone. Arps’ work is complex and needs all the unpackaging it can get. There are necessary accommodations and compromises that need to be made between the needs of art pour art and a publication. Actually, one wonders if Pathways is real, or a cipher for Arps, who has form for writing under noms de plume, and solipsism is a keynote of Arps’ work. He makes Plato’s caves.
The cutesy, deliberately illusory, half-baked aesthetic of the book, while fitting the overall bricolage aesthetic of the artist’s process, does get a bit annoying if you are trying to read ‘the book’ as a coherent text, but as an object in its own right, it’s gorgeous and absolutely essential to any personal art library.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is an art critic and writer who lives in Christchurch.