This Model World by Anthony Byrt – book review

By Edward Hanfling In Arts

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Judy Millar’s Henderson studio, by Becky Nunes. Photo/Becky Nunes

Judy Millar’s Henderson studio, by Becky Nunes. Photo/Becky Nunes

Seven years ago, AUP published Francis Pound’s book The Invention of New Zealand: Art & National Identity, 1930-1970, an exhaustive and exhausting analysis of artistic and literary efforts to establish a distinctively New Zealand culture. That book concluded with the emergence, in the 1970s, of a more international outlook.

Now, Anthony Byrt has given AUP a worthy sequel. This Model World argues there is no longer any sense of distance between these little islands and the greater art world, and that New Zealand artists grapple with global social and political issues.

Byrt has an international reputation, writing for such journals as Artforum and Frieze, travelling widely and living for a time in the cool capital of contemporary art, Berlin, before somewhat reluctantly returning to Auckland in 2011. What prompted this return is described in the book’s prologue, and I got a bit spooked at first thinking that I might be reading some sort of indulgent autobiography in disguise. But there is a point, or several, to the personal touch.

Billy Apple with Neon Floor #1, New York, 1969. Photo/Billy Apple Archive

Billy Apple with Neon Floor #1, New York, 1969. Photo/Billy Apple Archive

It suggests that this is one individual’s perspective, albeit an individual right in the thick of contemporary art, mixing with artists and other commentators (more on this later).

Also, the confessional style is on-trend, meeting a demand for immediate, authentic experiences, not just academic analysis. Byrt acknowledges the precedent of Martin Edmond’s 2011 book Dark Night, in which the author follows the disoriented footsteps of Colin McCahon (again published by AUP).

Most interesting of all is that the breathtaking ease with which Byrt draws connections between people and places and ties together seemingly disparate threads calls to mind the concept of whakapapa. Paradoxically, given its argument, the book seem genuinely meant and distinctively from here.

As a critic, Byrt both enlightens and provokes. What more could you ask? He is happy, not embarrassed, to change his mind, revealing to us what time reveals to him. And he is not afraid to tell an artist what they should be doing, tuning in to their sensibility, knowing what they do well when they are on song. Peter Robinson, for example, “is a sculptor who should take control, should dictate terms to us forcefully”.

The excellence and boldness of Byrt’s criticism when he gets down to the nitty-gritty with artworks and artists make it all the more surprising that he plays it so safe in his larger judgments, such as the selection of artists for the book. Robinson, Shane Cotton, Judy Millar, Fiona Pardington and Yvonne Todd all have well-established reputations, while the Billy Apple gravy-train had been chugging along for decades before Byrt hopped aboard.

Moon Sap, by Yvonne Todd. Photo/Yvonne Todd

Moon Sap, by Yvonne Todd. Photo/Yvonne Todd

Even the younger artists, Luke Willis Thompson, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, Simon Denny and Shannon Te Ao, have starred in recent editions of the Walters Prize and various biennales and triennials here and overseas. Byrt insists that “the biennale circuit … is one of the most important forces for dialogue in the international art world”. Really, it is just a show, the “spectacle” of art shoring up its market in the face of competing cultural industries.

Take a risk, man! The best critics get in first, spotting something good, somewhere unexpected, and honestly declaring their enthusiasm when they have nothing but their own judgment for support – or maintaining that something does not cut the mustard though they face being ostracised, ridiculed or charged with anti-intellectualism for saying so. Although Byrt describes intimate moments of family life with charm and candour, he is not prepared to make himself vulnerable by distancing himself from the judgments of others and disclosing a truly personal experience of art.

An inclination to cosy up to the comforting embrace of the art world is signalled early in the book, where Byrt extols the virtues of “intense intellectual relationships, shared enthusiasms and understandings”. “Networking,” he writes, “is not just about hobnobbing with the right people … It is also about finding, and creating, communities of activity, innovation and support.”

The artists, too, in This Model World are supposedly sophisticated agents operating within a global network, protagonists at “the edge of contemporary art”. But when Byrt tries to demonstrate this point and cuts from New Zealand to something he has encountered overseas, he generally lands on historical rather than contemporary figures, invariably in Europe or the United States – Mark Rothko, Don Judd, Joseph Beuys and so on. This does little to persuade us that New Zealand artists of today are radically different from their predecessors in Pound’s The Invention of New Zealand (McCahon giving “thanks to Mondrian”, or Ralph Hotere pinching Ad Reinhardt’s black abstractions).

LS3816_b&c_This-Model-WorldNone of this detracts from the tremendous insights Byrt gives us in the book’s longer chapters (the shorter ones are a bit fluffy; flavourless palate cleansers).

The Judy Millar one is superb, evidently based on long and frequent conversations that have delved ever deeper, until Millar’s repeated, but imprecise, use of the word “imagination” is beautifully resolved between artist and author. “We seem to be getting closer to the core of Millar’s outlook,” Byrt is able to declare, “a deep, heartfelt political philosophy, best described as resistant optimism … the desire to have our inner experience leave its tangible mark on the world”.

Whether This Model World is Byrt’s “inner experience” or not, it is certainly an impressively articulate “mark on the world”.

THIS MODEL WORLD, by Anthony Byrt (AUP, $45)

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