Title: Somebody Say Something

Author: Gregory O'Brien

In: Sport 23: Spring 1999

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1999

Part of: Sport

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Sport 23: Spring 1999

The Spirit of the Age

The Spirit of the Age

If many contemporary artists like to think of Marcel Duchamp as the towering spirit of the age, I would argue it is in fact the spirit of Salvador Dali presiding over much contemporary art practice: witness the Dali-esque attraction to right-wing politics, banality and boyish/adolescent humour that now almost defines a movement in contemporary New Zealand art. One of my favourite stories about Salvador Dali concerns his falling out with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the 1960s. In a proposed film-script, Dali outlined a scene in which a number of swans, with gelignite page 26
Black and white image of a poster

after after McCahon

attached to their backs, were to be released onto the flat surface of a lake. The camera would follow them slowly around the mirrored waters as, one by one, they were blown to pieces.

Such a mixture of bad boy-ism and showmanship certainly has its proponents here just as anywhere else in the world. A good deal of contemporary New Zealand art looks like a case of the rebellious grandsons and daughters of McCahon getting their own back on his solemn, deliberated art. Or are these artists simply drawing logical conclusions from the cultural climate in which they live? Such a state of affairs Ernest Hemingway had figured in his 1960 Collected Poems:

The Age Demanded
The age demanded that we sing
And cut away our tongue.

The age demanded that we flow
And hammered in the bung.

The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.

And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.

page 27

Black and white photograph

Or, as that great punster Rrose Selavy would have said, ‘Oh! Douche it again!’ If, on the one hand, many contemporary artists dabble with ‘transgressive’ ideas/materials à la Salvador Dali, there is also a passivity to much contemporary practice which comes uncomfortably close to the complacency that George Orwell warned against: ‘Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism—robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it.’

While Peter Robinson's word-and number-based paintings have assimilated generous chunks of McCahon, the works’ real affinity is with the 1960s word-productions of Allan Kaprow—a concrete poetry full of neutralised or ironised imperatives and large themes rendered playfully inert. Perhaps, if the art of Kaprow and Robinson is true to page 28 the fragmented reality of its time (and is, in the latter case, a by-product of the ‘post-humanist’ era), then McCahon is the anachron-ism?10 More and more, then, McCahon reconfigures as a lone prophet, although in a different wilderness now.

Black and white image of an artwork

In contrast to McCahon's impassioned ‘way of talking’, we find ourselves presented with a piece like Julian Dashper's What I am reading at the moment (1993)—an installation comprising a well-worn chair and a glass case full of back-issues of—you guessed it—ARTFORUM magazine. Admittedly, Dashper's meditation coheres neatly with the narrative of reading and writing which runs through New Zealand painting since World War Two; only now the artist's role has become that of a passenger, a wry consumer or commentator who has chanced little, rather than a citizen who, in Samuel Beckett's phrase, ‘stakes his entire being’.