Art is useless

Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald, Heart of Glass, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington, 15 March—7 April 2018

The episode is now a legendary one in the recent history of art in Aotearoa. On 14 July 2004, two weeks after collective et al. were announced as New Zealand’s representatives at the 51st Venice Biennale to be held the following year, journalist and commentator Paul Holmes launched a scathing attack on the country’s ‘art elites’ during his nightly current affairs program. Referring to et al.’s previous work Rapture (2004), an indignant Holmes complained: ‘We taxpayers are to pay around half a million dollars to send to a very elegant international art exhibition an unseen work by an artist whose latest work is a dunny that brays like a donkey.’ [1] He went on to read aloud defences of et al.’s practice. As he read, Holmes performed an affected snootiness, raising the pitch of his voice, flicking his wrists slightly. Breaking character, Holmes ended by giving his audience permission to vomit at the heady, verbose obscurantism of contemporary art writing.

Holmes’ address was to a frugal, practical, common-sense-loving everyman, for whom art is, at its least offensive, a beautiful distraction, and at its worst, a cruel joke played by those fluent in the language of deceit. His performance was one of the most iconic moments from the media furore surrounding et al.’s work which in no small part contributed to the decision by Creative New Zealand, Aotearoa’s public arts funding body, not to support an ‘official’ New Zealand representative at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.

An acrimonious relationship between contemporary art and the mainstream press is certainly not unique to Aotearoa. But our relatively small population, the intimacy of our cultural landscape, and the dominance of centre-right commentators, who assume the voice of ‘common sense’, means that when art needs defending, it’s difficult to find anyone capable of being taken seriously.

For artists Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald, being taken seriously doesn’t seem to be a priority. The et al. episode is a single node in a complex network of references—from art history, popular culture, architectural and political theory—the pair conjured for their exhibition Heart of Glass, which recently closed at Enjoy Public Art Gallery in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. The exhibition itself comprised a fairly simple gesture: Dampney and Macdonald smashed one of the gallery’s windows overlooking a carpark. The gesture was a provocation; a chance, the artists claim, to encourage a discussion about ‘what art means’ and what art can be. [2]

Throughout the duration of the exhibition, the artists solicited interviews and reviews from newspapers, magazines, and radio stations not normally sympathetic to covering art. In this pursuit they were remarkably successful. Among the coverage was a half-page article in The Dominion Post, something even Wellington’s most well-resourced public galleries would struggle to achieve. Ostensibly, the Dominion Post article reserves judgement. Much of the content is ripped directly from Enjoy’s press release—though at times, language is simplified. And in being simplified, the artists find themselves, and the claims their work is permitted to make, humbled. The artists, according to the article, aim to ‘tap into an ongoing conversation about contemporary art in New Zealand media’, elsewhere, they are ‘reflecting’, ‘starting a conversation’. As actions go, these are timid. For David Levine and Alix Rule, such simplification might reveal the limits of what art can do, and the meanings it is allowed to produce. In their widely discussed 2012 essay ‘International Art English’, they write: ‘Without its special language, would art need to submit to the scrutiny of broader audiences and local ones? Would it hold up?’ [3] The tentative actions that found their way into The Dominion Post might be an attempt to convince an otherwise unsympathetic public by not promising too much. The grandiosity of the claims art gets to make depends upon a particular public’s willingness to indulge said art and the artists who make it. On Enjoy’s website, an outlet pitched to those already invested in art and its lexicon, the artists are granted space to ‘play’, to pursue ‘risks and possibilities’. [4]

Even with their apparently modest intentions, not everyone, it seems, was willing to indulge Dampney and Macdonald. Two days after The Dominion Post article was published, the newspaper printed a letter from a disgruntled reader. The reader, Jo Mells of Johnsonville, took issue with the emptiness of the artists’ gesture, with the absence of a material result of the artists’ labour. For Mells, the broken window (or rather, the fee the artists were paid for breaking the window) provides a cynical illustration of capitalism's colonisation of cognitive, affective, and relational realms. Or, as Mells puts it, ‘it seems consumerism is indeed achieving its ultimate abstraction: the production and purchase of nothing.’ [5] Mells’ analysis is unexpected, but perhaps not inaccurate. Dampney and Macdonald’s gesture is indeed both ephemeral and useless. Even the network of references within which the artists insinuate their action seems reluctant to be put to any ends, other than drawing attention to the artists’ affinity for relics of popular culture, or the actions of artists who precede them. The show’s title was drawn from Blondie’s 1979 song, as well as Werner Herzog’s 1976 film, both titled Heart of Glass. The pair also recorded a cover of Blondie’s song—adjacent to, but not necessarily a part of, the exhibition. [6]

The smashed window draws immediate parallels with Daniel Malone’s work Bricks break dialectics (2009), for which Malone threw a brick through one of the front windows of the Adam Art Gallery to mark the opening of the exhibition The Future is Unwritten. [7] The shards of broken glass spent several weeks on the floor of the gallery before being swept up and re-cast into an object which mimicked the form of the ceramic brick. Malone’s action was itself both a revisitation of a proposal the Adam would not allow him to realise in 2004, as well as a nod to Billy Apple’s project Window Cleaning (1971/2009), which had occurred in the gallery prior to The Future is Unwritten. Complicating things even further, when the brick entered Victoria University’s art collection, Malone insisted it be attributed to Billy Apple. [8]

Dampney and Macdonald, as well as Malone, assume the role of the trickster, the jokester, the gleeful provocateur, for whom art is a punchline. But if Malone’s gesture was motivated by a playful antagonism towards the institution, its conventions and taxonomies, its habit of capturing and taming practices which were once hostile towards those very institutions, Dampney and Macdonald seem motivated by love. For them, art, popular culture, and their histories constitute a stage upon which attachments are held without embarrassment. It doesn’t seem quite right to call it nostalgia, if nostalgia is, as Svetlana Boyn describes it, ‘a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an “enchanted world” with clear borders and values.’ [9] Dampney and Macdonald’s ethics and strategy might better be described as collage—the taking up of existing products, images, songs, concepts, and their rearrangement, mapping new, sometimes unlikely, proximities between things.

Quotation and pastiche are here deployed not necessarily to lodge a critique of the value judgements implicit in cultural tastes and the residues of aesthetic hierarchies which still cling to those products of culture, but perhaps to argue in defence of attachment itself. Any claim to social transformation that art might make, even if such a claim presupposes the total destruction of art and its infrastructure as we know it, requires an investment in art; an unshakable belief, at times in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that art does something.

The joy of Heart of Glass lies in Dampney and Macdonald’s willing performance of ‘the artist’ as the artist has been imagined by Paul Holmes and others like him. They embrace deviancy and suspicion—as if the most effective strategy to combat art’s naysayers is to prove them right. In the show’s press release, and the articles which have reworded that press release, the artists sneak in jokes: ‘“Heart of Glass” ushered in a new era of popularity for Blondie, much as we hope this broken window will usher in a draft.’ In one of the press photos Enjoy produced alongside the exhibition, the pair, smiling, stare just past the camera’s lens: Macdonald, holding the hammer which delivered the blow, stands on the first step of a ladder, Dampney stands to his side. They look pleased with themselves.

[1] Roger Horrocks, ‘A Short History of the “The New Zealand Intellectual’’’, in Re-inventing New Zealand: Essays on the arts and the media, Pokeno: Atuanui Press, 2016.

[2] Louis Davis, ‘Pair hope to shatter modern art myths’, The Dominion Post, 29 March 2018, p. A11.

[3] Alix Rule and David Levine, ‘International Art English’, Triple Canopy, 2012, https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/international_art_english; accessed 16 April 2018.

[4] Heart of Glass, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, March 2017, http://enjoy.org.nz/heart-of-glass; accessed 22 April 2018.

[5] Jo Mells, ‘Our hollow consumer culture’, The Dominion Post, 31 March 2018, p. C4.

[6] Heart of Glass (video), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx1PYsk8udA; accessed 22 April 2018.

[7] ‘Daniel Malone’, Adam Art Gallery, http://www.adamartgallery.org.nz/thefuture/malone/; accessed 16 April 2018.

[8] Malone changed his name by deed-poll in 1996 to Billy Apple, a gesture undertaken as part of the show Sharp and Shiny at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

[9] Svetlana Boym, ‘Nostalgia and its Discontents’, The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2007, p. 12.

Air Max 1 Ultra Essential

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Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald, Heart of Glass, 2018. Image courtesy of Enjoy Public Art Gallery and Xander Dixon.

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Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald, Heart of Glass, 2018. Image courtesy of Enjoy Public Art Gallery and Xander Dixon.

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Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald. Image courtesy of Enjoy Public Art Gallery and Xander Dixon.

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Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald, video still from the single Heart of Glass, released February 11, 2018. Image courtesy of the artists. Creative Commons license: ATTRIBUTION

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Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald, video still from the single Heart of Glass, released February 11, 2018. Image courtesy of the artists. Creative Commons license: ATTRIBUTION

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Isabella Dampney and Theo Macdonald, video still from the single Heart of Glass, released February 11, 2018. Image courtesy of the artists. Creative Commons license: ATTRIBUTION

Simon Gennard is a writer and curator based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa.