Waving as Hailing

Whanganui028Eileen Myles: “I once met the artist Jim Dine and he told me something very useful, which I’ve thought about though mostly ignored. Only go to places where you’re invited. He meant countries.”

Who are we talking to? In art writing, who is making the call, and who is expected or invited to respond? It’s paradoxical that artists must create work while anticipating an audience, but at the same time without pandering to them. The public, as a rule, do not like public art.

New Zealand still retains much of the feeling of an outpost, a colony-minded backwater, shored up in the deep south of the globe. Because of the presentness of the ocean we are hemmed in by non-access, or released to what we cannot possess. Our geographical isolation corresponds to a feeling of being left-behind. We are always waiting for news that comes too late, wearing fashions six months behind everyone else. Surely by now, in the age of global intellectual capital, we should have outgrown our sense of peripherality, shrugged off the lingering traces of our ‘duty’ to transplanted or inherited Eurocentric culture. Or maybe not. Frequently, we still require an external arbiter of taste: artists are received at home only after they have achieved a modicum of success internationally (see: Frances Hodgkins, Katherine Mansfield, Simon Denny, Francis Upritchard, Billy Apple, Len Lye, Alexis Hunter, John Panting, Bill Culbert, and so on). This reflects, perhaps, the historic delay in communications that was previously unavoidable due to geographic constraints, but it’s more likely that it stems from a deep need for reassurance.

We should, perhaps, be concentrating on what is close to home. The problem about maintaining relations in such a small pool enforces multiple material disadvantages, including one particularly gnarly issue: avoiding saying what we’re all thinking. Those we critique are, by and large, peers or colleagues. “If you mention them, it makes no sense to criticise them, because it’s obvious that whatever you say is an advertisement for them. You mention people that you like, and you don’t mention the people you don’t like.” So says Boris Groys.

Artists outside of the institution are frequently faced with having no ‘real’ critique of their work, because of local critics’ reluctance to put forward negative judgments. This is mirrored in the structure of the social networks we all use daily: the choice of whether to ‘like’ or to remain silent. The pressure of putting forth a negative criticism—which requires writing with intense persuasion—is often not worth the effort. I’d hazard a guess that many writers don’t feel qualified.

Perhaps this also stems from the reluctance to give voice to these problems lest they be taken up by mainstream media, which by and large does not have the tools—nor the willingness—to engage on art’s own terms. Their modes of engagement are simple: a) how much (taxpayer money) did it cost? and b) why isn’t it a painting, like proper art? Commodifying artwork is one way of readying it for export—as an exemplar of our 100% Pure New Zealand. Criticising work means acknowledging that sometimes, we need improvement, and not having to put on a brave face, or trying to prove that yes, we can make work too!

Perhaps our own ecosystem is the best place for close working: working with what is to hand, and hailing each other. Call and response is the intrinsic structure of the gift cycle. Gift-giving is agonistic and constraining. Criticism itself functions as one part of a call-and-response system. We give in order to enter into contract, and therefore reciprocal exchange—whether in service of ourselves, or of ideas. Who to and who from? Hopefully, each other. This kind of energy transfer is more of a generalised reciprocity—we all comment on each other’s work, whether formally or informally.

The fact is that art doesn’t always address us. Artwork overseas generally has only incidental relevance, while work made within our own ecosystem is made both by us and for us. It speaks to a lack of permission and an anxiety about who is being ‘hailed’ by work—the fear of waving back at somebody who was, as it turns out, waving at the person behind you. Our audience, first and foremost, is each other, and we should be waving at ourselves.


[1] Myles, Eileen (2009). The Importance of Being Iceland. MIT Press.
[2] Paper Monument (2009). I like your work: art and etiquette. Paper Monument.
[3] Samuels, Lisa (2010). Membranism, wet gaps, archipelago poetics in Reading Room 4: Liquid State, Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki.
[4] Groys, Boris (2009). http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/who_do_you_think_youre_talking_to/