The Un-Sited: from the Wellington City Council City Arts Collection

City Gallery Wellington, 29 January-25 April 2011

Essay by Aaron Lister, Curator New Zealand Art


Civic art collections are often laden with overt signs of place, proudly showcasing local scenes, natural glories or prominent personalities. Yet a commitment to collecting contemporary art necessarily turns attention elsewhere, towards practices that skirt around or behind such expectations. It’s their place in the Wellington City Council City Arts collection that ushers these disparate works together into this space for this exhibition. But it is their collective fight against or interrogation of the concept of site so integral to such collections that provides the real emphasis for their being here, right now.

Kate J Woods' Non-site (2009) clears the ground that allows these works to operate together, despite being the most closely bound to the landscape genre and figuration. Woods salvages discarded landscape photographs and paintings from second hand stores, which are re-photographed with the addition of collaged crystalline structures, collapsing disparate sites and moments into one another.

Wood’s real site of engagement is land art of the 1970s, especially the ongoing life granted to its site-bound and time-based works through photographic documentation. Woods’ photographs revel in this act of de-contextualisation. She incongruously plants Robert Smithson earthworks and Brancusi columns into New Zealand lakes, while applying the life-extending qualities of the non-site to these withering local scenes which are transformed into something mysteriously other and alien. This trading on un-specificity, on the possibilities that come with un-siting objects and histories, takes Wood’s work away from the real into the fantastical, linking the art historical non-site with the collapsed/alternate worlds of science fiction.

The wispy crystalline entity that acts as a portal between spaces in Non-site is mirrored in the empty void in Sandra Schmidt’s Membrane Dissected (2008) and the hovering forms that threaten to float out of the frame in Ruth Thomas-Edmond’s drawings. Both artists work intensely on a small scale to build up accumulations of shape and colour that are non-representational yet offer distant echoes of landscape forms. Schmidt evokes a pre-world or pre-site rising from the elements in the process of becoming something, somewhere, or even someone. Thomas-Edmond’s frantic drawing marks are suggestive of human endeavour. Their urgent directional movement across and claiming of empty tracts of white space evoke traversal or mapping. In both cases this sense of worlds caught in the process of their own construction is conveyed through obsessive and labour-intensive acts of making: Thomas-Edmond’s patterned and repeated drawing marks, Schmidt’s fusing of hundreds of plastic hama beads which transforms the children’s craft material from a learning tool into an aid to foster unknowing.

Molly Samsell’s Interface (2008) performs a related act of material deception. This 8.4 meter photograph of a section of Samsell’s studio wall sets up a continually oscillating and at times perplexing relationship between subject (a wall), image (a photograph of a wall) and object (a photograph hanging on a wall). Site is another shifting factor in this nexus. The photographic print reveals traces of its making in a specific site: its scale is determined by the physical dimensions of the studio, its tonal variations by the light falling from the windows adjacent to the wall. The making of the work was a carefully controlled and measured negotiation of these physical properties. When encountered beyond this site, these elements are experienced in a complex abstract sense that tests the veracity of visual perception and knowledge.

Samsell’s doubling of walls also plays off the modernist myth of both studio and gallery as non-sites of sorts, somehow existing apart from the everyday world. Where Samsell works to un-site photography, a medium once deemed too closely bound to everyday experiences to really matter, Simon Morris and Victor Berezovsky pick at the supposed autonomy of abstract painting, privileged within modernism for sharing the studio's rejection of the everyday. Both painters seek to extend the possibilities of contemporary abstraction through generating rather than closing off connections with the world outside their studio walls. The studio and the artwork are reclaimed as a site of activity, an interface between art and the everyday world.

Morris' process-orientated paintings insist on their connection to the daily routine of artist working in the studio. Blue Line 54 minutes (2008) and Blue Line 56 minutes (2008) chart the time spent on their making. The blue line snaking its way across these two coarse linen canvases is the product of situated labour and skill, determined by a specific set of decisions and actions carried out by a physical body in real space and real time, not some autonomous aesthetic realm. Berezovsky demands that his paintings physically register the history of their own making. The artist's intuitive response to and ultimate transformation of materials through a slow and labour-intensive accrual of actions are all laid bare, serving to locate apparently abstract work within everyday activities of making and being. The ‘ruptureR 17; of this painting extends beyond the various formal processes that work over, across and dig beneath its surface to encompass a state in-between the abstract and the figurative, the studio and the physical world, the sited and the un-sited.

Bronwyn Holloway-Smith's Armada (2006) uproots the familiar concept of the artist immersed in the full majesty of nature so revered in site-based practices like landscape painting. Holloway-Smith recognised a non-site of sorts when icebergs broke from Antarctic ice shelves and drifted towards New Zealand in 2006. This bringing together of alien and familiar landscapes and crossing of geographic and temporal boundaries made little sense in traditional landscape terms, yet paralleled the mash and flow of imagery and experiences in the digital realm around which Holloway-Smith increasingly orientates her practice.

Where countless artists have travelled to Antarctica seeking some kind of sublime wonder, Holloway-Smith stayed indoors and turned to the virtual world. The icebergs were recreated in her living room by draping furniture with sheets, based on internet-sourced imagery. These furtive forms were then rendered on multiple canvases in Holloway-Smith's distinctive cross hatched drawing style which in mimicking pixilated digital effects offers a perverse new kind of 'life drawing'. In its conception, form and presentation Armada channels the changing ways we experience and move through the world via a digital interface that necessarily transforms traditional understandings of cultural practices like art and landscape.

If the condition of being un-sited does provide a space to gather these artists and works together, it is necessarily a fragmentary and ungrounded one where lines of convergence are splintered by points of difference. Yet this realm of the interface, of figments, rupture and dissection does not operate apart from the everyday – its coveted state of un-sitedness speaks to the experiences of contemporary art and the contemporary city as strongly as any of the landscapes or portraits more regularly sighted within civic collections.

 

 


  

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