Nostalgia for the future

Curator: Stella Brennan
Artspace, Auckland

I liked this show immensely; it had the simple luminosity of an intelligent exercise in curatorial method. It was, in fact, a limbering-up exercise for curator Stella Brennan, as it represented her final submission toward an MFA at the Elam School of Fine Arts. Like all the most interesting curatorial endeavours, Brennan's show was a testing out of the mutual effects that theories and objects have on one another. In this case Brennan talked-up theories of temporal redemption and utopian secrets in relation to works of art poised ambiguously between the recent past and the remembered future. The simplicity of this exhibition, however, was only superficial. Given the aura of weightless innocence sustaining Brennan's curatorial endeavour, the precision of the show's self-consciousness seemed paradoxically precocious. Despite the illusion of benign transparency, Nostalgia for the future left me puzzled and melancholy. Though buoyant with reflections on the utopian nuances of art and design, and elegant in its styling and subtle informality of installation, this project was sad, sad, sad.

Though not sure exactly what this exhibition meant, I knew that I was somewhere in the vicinity of what Waiter Benjamin called Jetztzeit, or 'now time', that point where the present can barely contain a forgotten past. Where material returning from the past is magnetically attracted to material slipping away from the present. Brennan's constellation of installations, photographs and modern design artefacts triggered an uncanny sense of history moving beneath the present, about to break the surface. But what would this history have been? What truth of repressed history would break forth, as Benjamin promised, from such slivers of messianic time? Equally important, how did this conjunction of artworks trigger the sensation of past, present and future, folding in on each other in a way which was both seductive and disconcerting? What made the lines between now and then waver so alarmingly?

The pieces co-opted for Brennan's experiment in historical self-reflexivity were artworks by Julian Dashper, Mikala Dwyer, Guy Ngan, Fiona Amundsen, Jim Speers and Stella Brennan herself. Also, though not part of the exhibition proper, Ann Shelton 's photographs of reconstructed 1970s brown and orange domestic decor, which dominated the imagery of the exhibition catalogue, were crucial for bestowing on the project a warm candy sweetness with just a whiff of cultural necrophilia. Dwyer's Iffytown, assembled from colourful plastic tubes, pipes, containers and a 1970s lampshade gave a Duchampian twist to the sacral isation of twentieth century plumbing and waste disposal systems.

Like Dwyer's work, Speers's three-part lightbox work, Honeywell, was a floor-based installation. Speers's red boxes broke up their white brand name, 'Honeywell', in the way that a magician saws through and separates out the parts of his beautiful assistant. Speers's work became an emblem of time and image frozen in disarray. Amundsen's C-type prints depicted virtually deserted motorways cutting through inner city spaces where, thirty or so years ago, there existed small working class communities, shops for local residents, and recreational spaces with stands of native bush. Photographed in those blue, early hours before the city traffic rolls, the tarmac shone with blind purpose, arterial vectors waiting to take citizens nowhere quickly.

Floral Poles was the title of Dashper's 'painting' made from found commercial furnishing fabric with a 1960s- 1970s design stretched unaltered on a boxy canvas stretcher. Pollock's all-overness with accents (think Blue Poles) is reapplied as a cut in the uniformly accented patterning of industrially produced wallpaper and textiles for the masses. Taking up one long wall was the 1973 cast aluminium Newton Post Office Mural by ex-architect and designer, Guy Ngan. Ngan 's work, with its modern streamlining of the telecommunications network of coils, ripples and tendrils was originally installed in the Artspace building when this was first opened as the Newton Post Office on Karangahape Road in 1973.

Last, and certainly not least, was Zen by Brennan. Zen comprised a swirling luminous plasma projection on a glass door accompanied by a barely perceptible 15500 hertz tone. The artist/curator also had her first name, 'Stella', painted on the wall in a black 1970s typeface. I read the two parts of Brennan's own contribution to the exhibition as representing two poles of a signifying machinery which drove the closed circuitry of meanings in the project. The moving iridescence shining through the door operated as a non-representable field of desire, of the imaginary and its ahistorical blind rhythms, while the graphic clarity of the curator's name stood for the temporal definition of the word, of the subjectivity-effect popping into focus, of the brief legibility of history as text.

Brennan has mapped out a temporal and geographical territory; it's about thirty years wide and stretches three of four miles across the central city areas of Grafton, Newton, Karangahape Road and Herne Bay. If all the imagery and objects did not actually come from this idealized precinct, then they might well have done. Each work chosen for the exhibition, even before being installed in the endless reflections of Brennan's historical mirrorings, was already awkwardly frozen in an aestheticisation of temporal ambivalence. The passage from now to then, from modish to barely recovered chic seems frictionless, endless in its traffic from a melancholic present to an imagined future passed. This is the enfeebling but equally alluring desire to live in a future anterior, in nostalgia for the future, for a significance granted by what will have been preserved by history. And all these energies, enervating and exhilarating, move around within parameters so clearly mapped out by Brennan's designated cultural precinct. Perhaps not quite what Benjamin meant by the Messianism of 'now time', but then times have changed.