Everyday is Halloween in Tinseltown

In the preliminary discussions I had with the artist about writing a catalogue account or documentation of her first US dealer show and then of her NZ dealer show, O’Neill’s Spring 2001 season if you will, her not untypical suggestion was that I write 2001 words. I said I will try.

The story begins with the artist and her writer companion engaging in the supernatural act of flying East into the past. In the aeroplane I wondered, as she peered into her newly acquired video camera, how does one write about showing art in Los Angeles? After my first visit there in 1998, I was not so much complaining as puzzling to New Zealand artist Yuk King Tan about why it was so hard to know what to make of the place. Her reply was that she said such difficulty is not surprising because the whole place does not really exist.

As we flew out Ani realised she had put all of her wool in the cargo. With only two weeks until the opening at the Lord Mori Gallery, time was of the essence and she wanted to make a work that was of the same manufacture duration as the excursion. My nose in a book, I suggested she unravel something, perhaps the 100% New Zealand wool in-flight economy (Pacific Class) Air NZ blanket. I had thought she’d probably go “aaahhhcckkkhhh” dismissively as of course it was not hers, but under the circumstances (a twelve-hour flight ahead of her, with nimble fingers twitching and crochet hooks in her handbag) she turned to me conspiratorially, eyebrow raised… She unpicked through the night and into the dawn, making a ball of the pieces of wool, knotted, as they were not continuous, but broke at the weft. The fine indigo wool was then crocheted into a chain and a ball began to form.

Upon landing, O’Neill excitedly tried hard to get good video still shots of the tail of an Air Hawaii, Hibiscus Air Plane. The jet engines blow puddles and wind demons. Everything in the baggage claim of the airport’s was amusingly labelled LAX 02 which was good for the people of the South Pacific’s working holiday vibe. After being retrieved by our hosts for the day, we were kindly taken to a limpid pool in a viney courtyard by the Hammer Museum where consciousness returned. (“What a perfect escape a return to the womb was. Better by far than Religion of Art or the South Sea Islands.” 1 )

Nature, in LA, we noted, is about an inch deep and supported by irrigation supported by water apparently stolen from other states, other countries maybe. In a similar way, there, luxury rests on poverty; the whole system seems a tenuous jungle democracy. The smog hangs, a pall, as though something is on fire, however they don’t say smoggy, they say misty in LA. It makes for odd coloured pre-apocolyptic atmospheres like those achieved in the studio with gels. (‘‘According to noir novels and films since 1930, LA is supposed to die by fire, earthquake, suffocation, amnesia, in the dark, in a movie theatre, or in some way seen from a distance, perhaps through the window of a car…” 2  I wasn’t that surprised come September 11.)

Presently we were taken to McArthur Park where we were to stay in a borrowed house in a downtown crack-ish neighbourhood characterised by street after street of deco era Spanish-style bungalows and apartment buildings straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. “Someone left my cake out in the rain”, sung Ani who related how McArthur Park was a favourite Donna Summer song she had once prepared for a “stars in their eyes” party. Alvarado Street was the closest main drag and (joy!) the home of the Pioneer Chicken Stand in Linda Ronstandt’s ‘Carmelita’. The whole place is plastered with cultural sites.

Gertrude Stein said of LA that crime is comforting, and indeed we felt right at home. The art historian within was alert too. There were Broodthaers eagles everywhere and a coyote seen in the car headlights in Crestline became a character in a Beuys I love America and America loves me rerun. Cross street signs were misread to be things like Conceptual Heights. Orientalism was rife – Egyptian deco especially for that Babylon effect – and houses generally were in a weirdly vast array of period styles as if always playing fancy dress.

The Elysian names of streets and precincts suggesting LA was trying to make one feel like one is at the right party or at least in heaven. Daniel Mancini, a New Zealander now living in LA, having long since disappeared into his own music video, explained to me that LA is just a big publicity machine. But just as one is supposed to see arcady, one is predestined to see noir, utopia’s shadow. A diet of Chandler, Ellis, West, Didion, Hammett, Bukowski, Bugliosi, Cooper and the like left me thinking of Chinatown and a watch crushed beneath a tyre outside a house during a stakeout, and a lot of other things I would probably not talk about with my mother. Chinatown, too, was where Ani’s show was to be held.

There we laughed as fortune cookie told us “You are good with finances”. Not even. Many discarded slips lay on the floor. You could pick up a fortune in here, the gallery ambassador quipped. Later, one of the three gallerists involved in the Lord Mori Gallery where Ani was showing showed me a book entitled The History of Forgetting: LA and the Erasure of Memory. The thesis of this publication posits LA as intrinsically unmemorable by virtue of some sort of consumer erasure. A prevailing social imaginary. I stopped trying to make sense of it and decided to suspend dispproval in preparation for Disneyland.

Later, I read on (“The minute you crossed into California you went crazy… I could remember everything about California, but I couldn’t feel it. I tried to get my mind to remember something that it could feel, too, but it was no use. It was all gone. All of it. The pink stucco houses and the palm trees and the stores built like cats and dogs and frogs and ice cream freezers and the neon lights and everything… 3 ) and thought it uncanny that Ani had selected ‘perfect peach’ to be the colour of the house she had agreed to design a colour scheme for our gracious host.

I found being on a continent most unheimlich and also thought Polynesia to be an odd word suddenly – forgetting lots of things at once? Freeways also might be an amnesia culprit too I thought. No one walks in LA – it is considered not done, only bums walk apparently – so no detail, the stuff of memory, is absorbed. You get the basic stuff (like Venice actually has canals, “Is that the Chateau Marmont? Oh no it’s the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center”, “Hey; that’s Paul Hogan”, “I think I saw Ben Mendelsohn”, “Duck! It’s Shihad” (now Pacifier as Shihad sounded too like Jihad), or see a tiny island that has a causeway road to it), but the rest, pooof!

All the time through our frenetic rental car mainstream hip hop shenanigans, the work percolated. Indeed, from the minute O’Neill began preparing to travel, the work had begun – with wool in one hand and, once the plane left the ground, a video camera (a digital memory facility) in the other. Action has always been integral to the delivery of O’Neill’s work. (Video footage shot has since been turned into work – “The Future is Coming On”, a three-minute record of her Disneyland Space Mountain rides; and “Loose Change”, an hour real-time documentation of the carpark at McDonalds in Great North Road opposite Mai FM at midnight on a summer Saturday night made to replace footage taped over by mistake of O’Neill in transit back from Magic Mountain on September 10. This work bears the ghost of the artist happily dancing à la J.Lo in her seat to The Beat – LA’s home of hip hop and R&B.)

O’Neill had plans to do something quite different from the crocheted discs she has been producing for the last while, thinking of using long long lengths of crocheted chain stitch to retrace doodles done on paper. That way if anyone was to asked “So you call this art?” she could say “No, I call it doodles” she joked. Then she thought of drawing cabbage trees (proper name Cordyline) with the chainstitched lengths on pin-gridded walls: ‘‘A cryptic game of join-the-dots”. She had a fair bit of green chain made already. Unpicking of the blanket was still going on, but things seemed to be going somewhere else.

At one point, she thought of installing the work during the opening armed with many push-pins and there had been talk of a more extensive costumed performance. A reluctance to sit too comfortably into the dealer environment being at least a part of the motivation for this – a faith/ease/challenge salve against the apparent dryness of the terrain. I could see out of the corner of mine eye a future-Rarotongan/Irish hula spider woman crocheting magically in the comer of the basement gallery on a stool with a sidetable for her easy cheese (‘‘whey hey!’} The Hopi think the spiderwoman sung the world into existence word byword (stitch by stitch). Closer to the opening, however, deciding that the performance was a personal affair (it was most important to recount the story first to herself she said)…

O’Neill was exhibiting her characteristic cosy confidence in the process of making-it-up-as-you­go-along-and-doing-it-at-the-last-minute when days before the opening, she pulled out all her multicoloured wool collected seriously from a variety of sources in New Zealand, both new and second-hand. She made lengths of several strands of wool at a time, different colours and textures representing places visited and things done during the time in California. These were then roughly knotted together with tassles and flourishes. The whole lot was crocheted into one continuous chain, with the blanket wool as a constant thread which was then wound into a ball that grew to more than basketball-size. She started referring to it as a “story string” and was quick to point out that the work was “a story, not a narrative”.

On the day of the opening, O’Neill installed two works. The balls of green and multicoloured crocheted wool were unrolled and pinned up amid singing jokes like “I am your creep-a-zoid/come on and wind me up”; “rewind my selector!”, and “come break my chains/help me out/living in the city ain’t so bad” etc. I was mindful of the Ariadne and the Minotaur story too but thought no one really needed any unnecessary analogies at this time.

The “story string’’ work was named Doodles. It started with the indigo wool from the Air New Zealand blanket, which was pinned into a quasi­-traditional representation of her whakapapa, or family tree, “as the past is always needed to inform the future” said O’Neill. As context for this part of the work, O’Neill conveyed a story about how when missionaries came to Rarotonga, they told the people that their ancestor worship was a sin and that they must stop including tīpuna in the architecture. Sure, they said, but, on the quiet, there was a rebellious circuit-like geometric system developed to abstractly convey this information in a series of criss-crossed lines and in graphic silhouette. The threads going from side to side can too be seen as representing polarities from negative to positive and the eternal human trial­ and-error balancing and rebalancing we experience on the earthly plane. For O’Neill this part of her work was symbolic of pou (posts), grounded in the Pacific, but here condensed and suspended in foreign space, assisting in the reconnection and transference of wairua (spirit) to an unsuspecting audience.

The work then launched into an insect flight-like arrangement that pictured, in its draped lines, bunched colours and tufts, the diary of her stay; each event documented by colour, length and placement. There were, for example, loops representing travel to San Francisco (her father’s birthplace), and more loop-de-loops as O’Neill turned to Disneyland for inspiration. This part of the installation was discussed by the artist in terms of how its resistance to geometry expresses something of how difficult it is to draw a line (as in rigid yesses and nos) in a city that is so hard to approve of, accept, enjoy, like, ignore, excuse. “It’s kind of about changing your mind all the time and that’s OK. It’s about knowing and not knowing’’ quoth O’Neill, aka Ms Libra, which seemed to her very apt given September n was three days after the opening.

Doodles was in direct contrast to the geometric work on the facing wall Untitled, after the Buddy System made from a green chain she had made while walking from home to work and back in hometown Auckland in the weeks before travelling. {Doing this in the street was a performance of sorts too, she said. Auckland is another place where you are considered weird and pitied if you don’t drive a car.) At the opening, someone said the green work looked like a crazy electro subway map. To me it looked like water has leaked in and a vine started growing like they do on the freeway walls (add a drop of water in this desert and presto! sea-monkeys style there are vines). To O’Neill, it was a vine devoid of the possibly brilliant flowers that could have graced the work had it been physically connected to her original vine as seen earlier that year in Bright Paradise, the 1st Auckland triennial. The LA work was designed “to infuse the viewer’s eye with its basic structure and create a subconscious desire to add to the work”, said O’Neill.

During the opening NZ hip hop niced up Chinatown and O’Neill safety-pinned small lengths of strands of sky blue, white and sliver wool to folks, momentos of the long white cloud that prompted one visitor to ask “are you adopting us?” Kind of – this artist firmly believes that the Pacific can heal the world (our ocean wasn’t named that for nothing, surely). Overall the effect of the show was a success for O’Neill – just the right amount of grandma exotica and I-get-it-no-I-don’t silent musing. There was strange feedback from those attending, e.g. that the work was “like hair transplants”, and “it’s like something is happening, but not quite”, and a diatribe about vegetable growth and rampant female sexuality.

As we left Los Angeles, which was no mean feat after the ‘terrorism’ (I was forced to put on an American accent to get past voice-prompted airline automated telephone exchanges), the airport told me on the loud speakers that “You are not required to give money to solicitors. This airport does not sponsor their activities”. Crap I thought. There is a full inch of attorneys in the LA yellow pages. (Ibis reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend about an Americas Cup tourist’s proposition that Auckland was uncannily like LA 20 years ago – the real estate-obsessed, no-public-transport drive-everywhere culture etc. My friend recommended that I read Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the future in Los Angeles” as it supported this theory in his opinion. Except that I thought he said “city of courts”.)

Back in Auckland, at the Sue Crockford Gallery, O’Neill re-installed an augmented version of a work she had made in 2000 for the Biennlae of Noumea comprising 200 rainbow coloured crocheted disks stretched onto steel rings that flower across and around the wall. Called Rainbow Country after the Bob Marley song (he is a Pacific Icon after all), the work touched on issues of equality, sovereignty and brother/sisterhood. An incredibly vibrant work, its concentrated intensity was balanced in the space by leaving the other walls free for the work to potentially dance and move. “One’s mind was given freedom to imagine alternatives, to push around possibilities and enjoy the idea that there is no fixed state”, said O’Neill. Although about a quarter of this work was finished in New Caladonia by O’Neill and those in the vicinity who had a bit of time on their hands, much of it was made in front of the telly. In the face of the idea that one’s eyes go square watching TV, O’Neill said “Well it’s good I’m doing round things”.

In this slick downtown gallery that looks over the port’, O’Neill affects a “Polynisation of the space” (to use the Jim Vivieaere term), in her long-standing project to ‘‘break down stereotypes about what Pacific art should look like”. During the opening, the gallerist and another of her artists remarked how often the container ships in port strangely match the art in the gallery. Following the marine theme, the other work, a small series of paired discs placed on white tissue on the floor, resembled, to me, schematic kina. These new works were called Welcome Rest, fitting in snugly with the title of the exhibition, Comfort Zone.

O’Neill had returned home to the enviable/unenviable task of re/constructing another exhibition so soon after her trip to Los Angeles. These small works, for her, signalled a return to humble beginnings and simple pleasures, such as the mostly quiet life of a rockpool, and a connection to humanity through preloved and recycled yarn. Very sadly her grandfather passed away the day after the show opened, which further strengthened her resolve to being as subtle a spirit as possible in order to share life without stress. To welcome rest indeed.

Of her previous circle works she said she arranged them “so there was a strong horizon-line. I sought to create the sense of ‘place’ and ‘space’. As a universal symbol that may be seen as the sun or sky, to a coin in a hand, the circle is to me a ‘point’ from which connections may be born from or be connected to, something that may be seen by one person as a ‘whole’ and another, a ‘hole’. According to an eminent psychotherapist, ‘‘All work on the soul takes the form of circle, a rotatio.” 4 

Further on the subject of circles, to me, the circles imply Auckland’s volcanic geology. O’Neill, on the other hand, has referred to some of her rounds as irises, which is interesting given that Iris was a minor Greek god responsible for rainbows. Aniwaniwa is also te reo Māori for rainbow. In O’Neill’s work, the rainbow is a recurring sign standing for unity and protection. And she has been known to quote the Native American saying to the effect that “if there were no tears we would have no rainbows of the soul”.

It is fitting that there were no circles for America, especially at this time, given their insane militarism. My shower curtain is a pretty perfect expression of and America-centric POV. Made in China for the American market, there is no Moscow even marked on the map, and the USA is described in a lot more detail, and set in a different typeface from the rest of the world. It says to me that it prefers to think of itself as the centre of the world. So no circles for America. “Hopefully there will someday be flowers”, said O’Neill. Back in Aotearoa, each circle could be seen (instead of “spotlights on terrorism’’) as the happy torchlight spots of an enlightened fellowship. And as an assertion of island life with all its particular qualities and delicacies.

  1. Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust [1939], Penguin, London, 1975, p138.
  2. Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: LA and the Erasure of Memory, Verso, London and New York, 1997, p73.
  3. Eric Knight, You play the black and the red comes up, quoted in Klein, p8o.
  4. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, HarperCollins, New York, 1992, p57.