[N.B. I’ve vowed to myself that I will never again write about a white New Zealander artist for free, so this is not a review of the Billy Apple retrospective at Auckland Art Gallery. That, and I don’t have the time, or even the interest, to do the job properly. But today, while passing through the exhibition on my way to see the Lisa Reihana work upstairs from it, I had some thoughts I wanted to get down. And since, as far I can tell, there is virtually no standard for cultural criticism in this country, I feel OK about putting this out there.]
This year, with the weird phenomenon of a multi-gallery suite of Apple exhibitions Auckland-wide, I was prompted to learn, to my surprise, that the artist is apparently considered to be very important, even canonical, locally. I never got the memo until now. Yet, at the same time, this doesn’t surprise me at all because life in New Zealand has always been, at least for me, an exercise in moving between disparate life-worlds that have virtually no contact with each other. There are multiple New Zealands, not one, yet the extent to which a person has to deal with this multiplicity is itself one of the variables at play in this society…
There’s only one work in the show I really like. It’s from 1963. The works from this era are the best in my opinion. Judging from this retrospective, it seems like the longer Barry Bates pursued the Billy Apple persona the more tired and boring his work became. Over two-thirds of the show is completely inane. A lot of it seems gimmicky and tacky. That wine bottle? Billy! What are you up to? The whole thing reminds me of those rich white ladies you see in Ponsonby who clearly spend money on their clothes but sadly lack taste in what they decide to put on. [Dame] Trellise Cooper anyone?
Name-dropping, personal branding, exposing the commodification of the artwork within the work itself … OK … so what? This is old hat today. Rihanna is on the radio singing “turn up to Rihanna” in a song called “Bitch Better Have My Money.” I may dream of seeing the Rihannas of the art world locally but this show, in this analogy, was more akin to watching Madonna fall over at the Brit Awards this year. Like, ever heard of sitting down? 'Cause you look like you could use a seat.
The artist has to live like everybody else … but the sociologists have already told us how, after the onset of globalization since around 1970, we are all increasingly becoming companies-of-one. Just getting by is becoming a fine art in itself. Globally, the right even to basic life supports (such as water) is being eroded, not forwarded as observers at the mid-twentieth century might have hoped when the modern concept of “human rights” was developed in the wake of WWII’s devastation.
Thinking I just don’t “get it” (and I’m fine with owning the fact that obviously I don’t) I watched the curator, Christina Barton’s video on YouTube about the show, but it didn’t tell me anything. She speaks about everything that is obvious about the exhibition in a tone of voice that says that she finds this stuff interesting. I didn’t.
Today Nandi Loaf is someone working with the same themes as Apple and, in my opinion, doing a good job of it in our contemporary context [see: http://iwishiwasnandiloaf.to.be/printshop ]. If Apple was a forerunner of Loaf, I can get that … but we have Loaf now, so what’s our use for Apple? Was this exhibition intended to appeal to anyone my age (31) or younger? If the initial cutting-edginess of these works has been lost over time, the curation should have somehow mitigated or communicated this.
Exemplary of the show’s “behind the times” feel is the room called ‘Good Works’ which has charity art bearing slogans like “Art for AIDS” and “Art for Women’s Refuge.” These look nice but there is a really unsophisticated lack of appreciation of the way in which earnestness is intrinsically comedic today. Sarah Silverman’s rape jokes are ten years old already. These read like memes with their punchlines missing.
Ironically, perhaps, an artist who was ahead of New Zealand tastes some decades ago now represents to me the mundanity of older Kiwis. In turn, the disconnect I feel with this exhibition seems emblematic of the one I feel with this country. So much of the culture here seems to be aimed at a target audience that’s substantially older (let alone whiter) than myself. (Listened to National Radio after midday lately?) This country offers so little to smart young/-ish people. My generation are barely treated like adults, barely treated like we count, even as we enter our thirties, which is not so young - is it? Where is the Coco Solid retrospective? Make Savage our Poet Laureate. Give me money. Can I live?
© Daniel Michael Satele 2015
Within 24 hours of the above post I received this email from the curator.
I sent this reply:
I received the following in return:
P.P.S.: Observed on the internet:
I also don't want to forget that one read wrote to me saying, "Thanks for being brave and articulate on behalf of those of us who agree."