stealing the senses

Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand
12 March - 6 June 2011

The austerity of Dane Mitchell’s residency exhibition in the two entrance galleries to the Govett-Brewster is a perfect foil for the exuberance of the exhibition ‘Stealing the Senses’. Context is everything. The alignment of Mitchell’s project with the group show upstairs is a smart piece of programming. The two exhibitions ‘talk’ to each other. Mitchell’s Radiant Matter Part 1 uses the language of minimalism and the aesthetics of transparency. It tunes up the sensory receptors, challenging us to focus on phenomenology and practical experience.

An alternative approach to the gallery is through the café, and there, as if to reinforce this message of everyday phenomenal experience, curator and Director Rhana Devenport commissioned Sara Hughes to make a site specific project for the exhibition. This work, The Golden Grain (2011), maps the café space as a ‘social art installation’ invoking the language of relational aesthetics, which creates a pathway for interpreting the exhibition.

Hughes’s abstract colour fields cover the floor of the café—and the table tops. The plates used for serving are a pie graph showing historical levels of wheat production in Taranaki. The names of the global wheat buyers are messaged on the building above the café’s garden area, the windows and doors are slicked with colourful vinyl bar graphs and the café menu doubles as the catalogue for the project. The menu is a key or index to the statistical analysis that Hughes channels into her abstract paintings. Even the sun umbrellas for the outdoor tables are pie graphs.

Hughes’s work makes abstract painting a coded analytical practice, connecting with social, political and economic contexts. Her work is underpinned by statistics, the visual poetry and patterns of raw data. The immersive environment that Hughes creates finds a nice parallel with the vast inflatable sculpture, The Cell (2010), by Brook Andrew.

An extension of Andrew’s wall pattern installations, here the artist asks users to don a painted costume to enter the ‘bouncy castle’ and experience the hypnotic visual effects inside. Drawing from Wiradjuri-op designs, the patterned interior and costumes create a transformative experience. As Andrew says, ‘it’s like you become an inmate, a cellular astronaut or an asylum seeker’.

Equally transformative are the works by a three-way collective in the adjacent gallery. Karl Fritsch, Francis Upritchard and Martino Gamper occupy the whole space with the marvelous Gesamtkunsthandwerk (2011). With items sourced from local op shops, and reborn into fantastic and often elaborate new states, the objects in the room glow with a quality of frenetic achievement. The sophisticated inlaid formica furniture is decidedly fabulous, as is a seat tenderly constructed from inlaid timbers of varying colour and texture. The value placed on the handmade is everywhere evident, including in the manifesto printed on coloured paper available alongside the work. It includes a series of statements, such as ‘Making and materials always come first, and risk taking is commonplace’. One example of risk taking that the jeweller (Fritsch), sculptor (Upritchard) and furniture designer (Gamper) cite is, ‘We wanted to push ourselves out of our normal zones so we made pottery together’. They also involved collaborators from the local community. ‘Collaboration helps to drop distinctions and to push ourselves to learn from and inspire each other’. In the handout they name and credit their collaborators: a weaver, two woodturners, a potter, a bronze caster, a glass blower, suggesting also that they wished ‘To forget or unlearn convention’.

Another collaborative work is Passage (the Eighth Fleet) (2011) by Filipino couple Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan. Made from cardboard transport boxes and packing tape, the vast ship was constructed with the help of local students. The massive upturned boat, hoisted to the ceiling, is reminiscent of the work the Aquilizans made for the 6th Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, which also had the same elements of community involvement. The project continues in the gallery space, with more cardboard vessels being added and crowding the floor during the length of the exhibition. The work references memory, experience and stories of maritime migrations.

There are fourteen artists in the exhibition, discounting the numerous collaborators, and two works from the Gallery’s collection. Anton Parson’s Jamb (1997) straddles a doorway with a bright orange industrial PVC curtain, and Callum Morton’s Billyput (2003) is an intriguing menagerie of a sound installation under the Gallery’s central staircase, marked by a miniature doorway. It is an interesting move to put collection items on show with loan works as a way of providing a new context for them.

These established artists show alongside emerging artists: John Ward Knox will be familiar to Auckland audiences from his outings in group exhibitions at Artspace since 2004, and Tiffany Singh was seen in the Artspace New Artists exhibition in 2010.

Singh’s work, like Brook Andrew’s, Jon McCormack’s and the Aquilizan’s, invites audience participation to create change, bridging East and West. In Einstein was a Buddhist (2011) disposable paper plates on the floor of the gallery are filled with aromatic food ingredients and arranged by glorious colour. Audiences are invited, via signage, to make an offering in their own way, by following a trail of rice to a series of suspended rice steamers. The sensory overload of Singh’s work is set adjacent to the minimalist language of Parson’s glowing industrial fly-screen door jamb and the delicate and improbable copper wire suspended in the Gallery’s hallways by Ward Knox.

There are several video works in the exhibition. Three more hours (2011) by Chinese artist Jennifer Wen Ma records a performance held at dusk above the Gallery to invoke the traditional Māori trickster god Maui’s struggle to slow down the westerly setting sun in order to gain more hours in the day. Australian Jon McCormack installed his ongoing interactive ecosystem Eden (2000–2009) in the gallery, and fellow Melbourne artists Sonia Leber and David Chesworth’s dual video projection, Almost Always Everywhere Apparent (II) (2007–2011), colonises the seldom used emergency exit staircase. Pinaree Sanpitak of Thailand staged a version of her Breast Stupa Cookery, a work she has performed around the world. Here the performance and subsequent video documentary made in collaboration with tangata whenua, te hapū o Rongo, Parihaka and Tim Gruchy looks at the many aspects of cooking culture.

A crowd pleasing exhibition, it has all the qualities of a summer blockbuster, but it occurs later in the season. Involving the community in the production process is an astute way to encourage audiences, and the immersive, often colourful sensory environment in the gallery fuels the crowds. ‘Stealing the Senses’ deftly presents a balance of materials and approaches, both artistic and philosophical, and expertly managed light and sound between the open plan gallery spaces. The ambition and scale of the exhibition and each of the artists’ projects is both satisfying and rewarding, and the desire to engage with spirituality, metaphysics, and audiences outside of the gallery spaces activates this exhibition across a different space/time continuum, to describe ‘places and spaces of otherness’. It is no small achievement.