the walters prize

Auckland Art Gallery
24 July - 31 October 2010

Praised as an ‘epiphany of the humble and the rejected’, Dan Arps’s installation Explaining Things won the prestigious 2010 Walters Prize. 2010’s judge, former director of the Tate Modern, Vicente Todoli, chose Arps from an excitingly youthful line up of nominees that included Alex Monteith, Saskia Leek and Fiona Connor. From scummy plastic furniture to YouTube clips, Arps’s noteworthy installation of degenerate found objects presented a complex framework of different cultural motivations, aspirations and failures.

Explaining Things relied on the peculiar appeal of the abject readymade. Arps collects the kinds of disaffected images and objects that sit at the margins of popular culture. Often reworked with rudimentary sculptural materials, he carefully arranged his found objects on makeshift plinths and pieces of furniture. In one corner of the room a glowing orb illuminated a cheap owl statue which was covered in paint splodges and half wrapped in newspaper. On a nearby wall dog-eared posters of tropical island destinations were smattered with globs of blue-tack and smeared with paint. Another wall piece included small photos of people having sex with someone dressed in an ET costume.

Explaining Things presented a conglomeration of the divergent values that produce these objects and images. Glorified holiday destinations, pornographic fetishes and hackneyed art exhibition conventions, each present alternate ways of organising the world. The resulting installation offered a quasi-map that charts the different trajectories of this pop-cultural detritus.

Aside from Arps’s installation the other standout collection of works in this Walters Prize was Saskia Leek’s Yellow is the Putty of the World. Leek’s series of beautifully hung paintings offered a reprieve from some of the more boisterous works on show and many were disappointed that she did not take out the top prize.

I am tempted to describe Leek’s subtle small-scale still life and landscape scenes as dreamlike or imaginary. Their chalky pastel hues give way to geometric shapes and abstract spaces that have an otherworldly quality. But, in truth, these works do not depict imaginary scenes so much as they make manifest the form and character of painting itself.

Bunches of grapes are rendered in various shades of blue, purple and orange. Their rounded jellybean shapes flatten into multi-coloured patterns that slip between representation and abstract motif. Leek’s works are derivative of faded prints and pictures commonly found in second-hand shops. Although her bowls full of fruit, and tranquil landscapes are gleaned from this generic imagery, Leek’s works are things that only painting could produce.

On a very different note, Alex Monteith’s Passing Manoeuvre with two motorcycles and 584 vehicles for two-channel video delivered moments of spatial and temporal confusion. Her film captures the illegal manoeuvres of two motorbike riders who trail each other through exhaust-laden Auckland traffic. Two cameras were mounted on the riders’ motorbikes so that they faced each other and recorded opposing perspectives of the journey.

The resulting footage recalls structuralist film experiments that engaged similarly with cinema’s potential to disrupt subjectivities founded on a stable sense of time and space. Monteith’s dual projection presents simultaneous views of both the future and the past of the bikers’ journey. The viewer must scramble to locate a cohesive perspective from which to observe these helmeted protagonists weaving through traffic.

The nomination of Fiona Connor for her site-specific work Something Transparent (please go round the back) presented a tricky problem for the young artist and revealed one of the pitfalls of the Walters Prize.

In the original manifestation of her work, Connor replicated the street-front façade of Michael Lett’s Karangahape Road (K’Rd) gallery. A series of duplicate façades were placed one after the other along the length of his rectangular space. This spectacular work had a hall-of-mirrors effect where passers-by, although barred from entering the gallery, could peer through a succession of fake street-frontages constructed from wood and glass. Connor’s site-specific work suggested a subversion of the gallery’s commercial imperatives by physically preventing visitors from entering the space.

In keeping with the Walters Prize requirement to exhibit works at the Auckland Art Gallery, Connor chose to overcome the contingent nature of her piece by taking a conceptual route. Creating another manifestation of the work’s central idea, Connor replicated the large ceiling struts of the New Gallery, once again drawing attention to the physical conditions of site. Where most institutional spaces would seek to minimise the visual impact of architectural features, lighting systems and accumulations of dust, Connor’s work amplified their presence.

The New Gallery version of Something Transparent (please go round the back) was nowhere near as visually intriguing or spectacular as the K’Rd one. However, it still managed to deliver an oblique critique that questioned the institutional practice of commodifying artworks that are nonetheless entirely contingent on specific places and communities.

As a celebration of its architectural features, Connor’s work was a fitting farewell to the Auckland Art Gallery’s tenure at the old telephone exchange building on Khartoum Place. The Walters Prize was the last exhibition at the New Gallery, which moves to the newly refurbished Main Gallery in 2011. All eyes will be trained on this new space and how it accommodates the requirements of critically innovative works such as those appearing in the 2010 Walters Prize show.