Auckland Art Gallery’s Space to Dream and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery’s Emanations – art review

By Edward Hanfling In Arts

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Ernesto Neto’s Just like drops in time, nothing.

Ernesto Neto’s Just like drops in time, nothing.

The first survey of South American art to be shown in New Zealand is a grand, slick, something-for-every­one sampler: eight countries, 42 artists and collectives, from the 1960s to the present.

It begins matter of factly, almost pedantically, with Joaquín Torres García’s drawing of an inverted American continent – the south on top – and Alfredo Jaar’s neon message, drummed into people passing through New York’s Time Square in 1987 (and the Auckland Art ­Gallery in 2016), that “America” is more than the United States.

Then, halfway through, the exhibition cuts loose, overwhelming the senses. All the senses. Days after encountering Ernesto Neto’s installation Just like drops in time, nothing (2002), it still felt like my nostrils were stuffed with turmeric.

Poetry and performance, dream and carnival are recurring themes that, despite protestations to the contrary in the exhibition catalogue, suggest a distinctive South American aesthetic. The art is never purely aesthetic, though. Much of it was originally overtly political, such as texts and actions by Paulo Bruscky in Brazil and the Chilean movement CADA (Collective Art Action) taking aim at repressive military regimes.

Marcos López’s Terraza. São Paulo, Brasil.

Marcos López’s Terraza. São Paulo, Brasil.

It is inevitable that photographic and filmic displays of such works in an art gallery do not come across as powerfully as the events themselves in their time and place. “You really had to be there,” the artist could say – but I’m glad I wasn’t.

However, the exhibition and catalogue texts, as well as avoiding any definition of South America as a unified whole, also downplay national identities and provide only snippets of information about the specific political contexts to which the artists directly responded. Curators Beatriz Bustos Oyanedel, from Chile, and Auckland Art Gallery’s Zara Stanhope, describe “a hybrid, mestizo [mixed-blood] territory that, despite its established borders and strong cultural ties, remains in a continuous state of change and movement, a flux of contexts and uncontained situations”.

There is something to be said for a non-nationalistic approach. But though such words as “mobility”, “multi-vocality” and “cross-fertilization” keep simplistic generalisations at bay, they risk seeming vacuous, or even, with repetition, an oppressive ideology.

Similarly, artworks created with the intention of liberating the audience – by physically involving them in an environment (the big installations of Neto, Máximo Corvalán and Maria Nepomuceno) or giving them capes and costumes to wear (Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica) – could equally be construed as controlling the viewer’s experience: art that happens to viewers rather than giving them “space to dream”.

Liliana Porter’s The Task.

Liliana Porter’s The Task.

The works that appealed to me most encouraged quiet observation: Juan Manuel Echavarría’s lyrical photographs of Colombian schoolrooms, dilapidated and disused as a result of military barbarism; Cinthia Marcelle’s 16 choreographed, colour-coded musicians, filmed from above marching back and forth at a crossroads in a barren landscape, the pace so unhurried that for a while the only noticeable movement is the top of a small silvery tree gently quivering in the breeze; and, best of all, Kevin Mancera’s drawings – scrupulous, affectionate observations of people going about their lives in 15 different places across South America all called La Felicidad (Happiness).

Cameraless photography – huh? Yes, it is a thing. One method involves placing an object on a piece of paper treated with light-sensitive chemicals, exposing it to light, and removing the object to reveal a photographic negative, a “photogram”. But the more than 200 photo­graphic images from New Zealand and overseas, assembled by Geoffrey Batchen in the Govett-Brewster Gallery/Len Lye Centre, were created in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways.

Spanish conceptual artist Joan Fontcuberta placed sheets of 8-inch x 10-inch film on the windscreen of his car and with a beam of light captured a “constellation” of dust and debris, smashed insects and bird poo. Los Angeles-based Walead Beshty exposed a folded sheet of treated paper to different angles and intensities of light and flattened it out into a subtly toned and tinted pattern. In 1981, New Zealander Paul Hartigan took to the photo­copier in his Colourwords; in 2014, German photographer Thomas Ruff perversely used computer technology to digitally contrive something that resembles a photogram. San Franciscan artists Robert Buelteman electrocuted plants, giving them an unnatural and lurid glow. Australian Lucinda Eva-May had sex with her partner – the imprint of their bodies titled Unity in Light #9 (2012) includes some suspicious yellow splodges.

Robert Buelteman’s Eucalyptus polyanthemos.

Robert Buelteman’s Eucalyptus polyanthemos.

Much of the exhibition comes across as a series of experiments and curiosities. Indeed, the early history of cameraless photography, diligently – if a little ploddingly – compiled in Batchen’s accompanying book, belonged to science rather than art. Pre-eminent among its devotees was the Victorian-era English astronomer John Herschel. You can study some intriguing 19th-century photographs by asking one of the gallery guides to temporarily lift the cloth covering a glass case.

With their generally white image against a black background, cameraless photographs tend to have a ghostly aura. A self-portrait by Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy (who taught at the modernist German Bauhaus design school and coined the term “photogram”) is especially spooky because the head is grotesquely distorted and flattened – resembling a crescent moon with a big nose and empty round eye – and yet is a patently real trace of the man himself in 1926.

There are, in contrast, numerous examples that could be abstract paintings, including a couple of Mark Rothko lookalikes and more irreverent imitations by Swiss American Christian Marclay (using cassette tapes and the blue-dye-based cyanotype process introduced by Sir John Herschel in 1842) of Jackson Pollock-style abstract expressionism and grid-bound minimalism.

Len Lye’s Georgia O’Keeffe.

Len Lye’s Georgia O’Keeffe.

Other seemingly abstract images play games with viewers who try to decipher what the photographs actually show, which can become a little trying. One begins to wonder too whether these enigmatic blobs really do refer to “the politics of water distribution”, or those squiggly blips to “the chaos and chance that lurk just beneath the surface of technology’s apparent rationality”.

But blobs and blips can be visually captivating, especially when the photographic process adds a level of nuance and glossy appeal. In New Zealand-born Len Lye’s Doodle (1967), lines create movement and space, blazing with light then fading into shadow.

Emanations extends from the Govett-Brewster into the new adjoining Len Lye Centre, incorporating Lye’s complete series of cameraless portraits in which famous cultural figures Le Corbusier and Georgia O’Keeffe and a plumber called Albert Bishop come together as black heads in silhouette.

Like Auckland’s South American survey, this is a big show, too much to grasp in one visit. A space to dream is all very well, but what you need most is the time to look.

Space to Dream: Recent Art from South America, Auckland Art Gallery, until September 18, $15; exhibition catalogue $65

Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, until August 14; book $89

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