Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies: seen in store windows and on the streets: and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents… All will become materials for this new concrete art.
(Allan Kaprow, 1972)
Judy Darragh and I are part of an artist-run collective called Cuckoo, a fiveperson group that organises exhibitions in other people’s galleries. The other members are Jon Bywater, Daniel Malone and Ani O’Neill.
Regular visits to her place for meetings mean that I have seen sculptures start to proliferate from Darragh’s studio, seemingly growing as if pent-up from the 2D plane she had been working in for several years hence.
It was almost as if the second her boy had started school, bam! – objects began jostling for space. Nature-plus, colour-drenched, proud gaffes, countersculpture, throbbing, encrusted, delirious…
JD / I have gone all 3D, which is great, as the past six years have seen a lack of that. I was thinking today, what I am being drawn to? It is the new emporiums, the cargo cult from Asia. Where once there was a second-hand shop, there is now a two-dollar shop-the 2-minute high from the $2.00 spend.
These recent works include a planter filled with foam, wine bottles inserted, and the surface covered with yellowed beads. It is titled No man’s land. The planter is like a trough full of pee-coloured swill. Swilling wine and a sea of piss. The foam also looks like gold-the golden shower, the gold rush. Which takes us back to pioneer days when the male was a main force on the landscape. The second work of this suite is a coffee table on its vertical with a foamy form cascading from the surface and covered in white milky beads… Very much a 3D version of the spoofie posters painted with correction fluid.
GP / This is a very interesting time to be making sculpture, given the art community’s discourse on this subject. It seems less a matter of defining art in terms of its traditional media than addressing questions about what the role of objects in art actually is.
JD / Certainly is. Objects aren’t just that; crafted, fabricated or found objects. The object is the focus of the idea. The work becomes something that stands for the process of making, and the collective observation and consideration of making.
GP / What is making about? Is it about the development of subjectivity together? The slowing of capitalist time with craft?
JD / Yes, craft is like the spanner in the works, the metaphorical spanner in the works, because it demands a length or span of making time, whereas the machine was always about speed. It is a time-motion thing.
GP / Craft has a central role in your practice. Freud once said that at the end of the day, the only thing that saves us is love and work. ‘Work sets you free’.
JD / Heart and Hand. Duchamp talks about the origins of the word ‘art’ which comes from the Sanskrit for ‘making’. Artists describe their art making as work‘making a work’. My mate Kaprow writes on this, too. Listen to this: ‘The arts are among the last high vestiges of the handicraft and cottage industries. It is curious to note how deeply tied they are to the idea of labour. Artists work at their paintings and poems: out of this sweat come works of art. Art, like work, is quaint.’
GP / And love is back in theory-it is official. Antonio Negri wrote last year in Time for Revolution that love is biopolitical ‘living labour’. What do you think?
JD / I like the sense that we are workers. Not in an agitprop way, but as a body which is communal and supportive. I think we are overloaded with slick images created by technology and the mechanical. So objects with the touch of the hand are more resonant-they contain a sense of the immediacy of work having been done. Putting the manual into labour, an aura is created around the object. Mass production shattered this aura of uniqueness, hence the modern sense of loss. And Craft is Love.
GP / What is it about cheap materials that gets you every time?
JD / I have always sought materials which have either had a previous life or exist at the bottom of the food chain. The used objects carry a past anonymous life. They’ve been discarded, and I resurrect them and display them in the church of ‘Art’. Cheap and nasty materials have the qualities of mass production-usually plastic, non-archival and speaking of the masses who have no option but to utilise these objects in their lives as decoration-or functionally.
GP / I see decoration and ornament as further key aspects of your work. Ornament has had a bad name since the dawn of Modernism, characterised, as it was as being extraneous, evil, feminine, non-intellectual, a waste of time, an interference … Adolph Loos, for example, said in his essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ that: ‘the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects’.
JD / Art Crimes… Yes, ornament is a key element. And I don’t see it as counter productive. Ornament is repetition of a motif or form, a simple technique used sometimes in abstraction-except there, the image is confined to one output, like a one-off unique work, a discrete painting or something. With technology, we are seeing mass repetition and no hands. I am being anti-technology by reproducing by hand. This is a DIY activity. Anti-technology and anti specialisation – that’s Kaprow again. I can’t help but touch and intervene.
Ornamentation has long been defined as female and therefore low in the art craft hierarchy. It has been a subtle way to dismiss women’s art. The ornamental has had bad press since the Victorians made decoration more important than the function of the object. Ornament is the subversive act of putting back in what was cleared out by modernism. Of feminising modernism.
GP / Putting flesh back on its bones, maybe. There is an argument that modernism was/is the manifestation of a cultural anorexia (and a sort of misogyny with it whereby the only good woman is an emaciated one). Wallpaper magazine is a good example of this.
JD / Where everything is white, the decor slick and shiny, and where all the women are skinny… According to the modernists, ornamentation endangered form. Beaded curtains are probably the crime of the century. I guess by utilising this trope I was looking at our current values concerning the objects we surround ourselves with in these very post-Bauhaus times.
GP / Does your work parody commodities? The dealer gallery and its art?
JD / The parody of the gallery/shop has been a concern since I started making work. The gallery is a retail outlet for art. I’m interested for example in the word ‘dealer’, and the show-card fluoro of shop windows and retail display which uses ‘grab-me’ colours. When I started out, I sold almost-artworks in shops-places like the Cook Street Markets, the Blue Room, and Real Time. I keep my prices low to clear stock. I subvert the market by under-pricing, or undercutting-always a bargain. But the market likes high prices so I end up with plenty of stock on my hands. The gallery is not a clearance house!
GP / How does this tie in with your famous use of fluorescent colours?
JD / They allude to the colour of the masses, the shopping sale or special, the show-card attention grabber. We see these colours rarely in nature – they are sometimes under the sea, or in lichen, or in toxic forms or blooms. My Universal Beauty and Truth show in 2003 was an attempt to collect a variety of materials and to display them in a hot situation; to infect the space, to heat up the space with colour for that radiated feel. Inherent in this work is the idea of radiation. The hierarchy of colour is such a big deal in art discussion in terms of art theory and painting, I was trying to blow it open. I also feel I may be updating the Pacific Light debate New Zealand has/had in the 70s going on from the historical idea that New Zealand art was characterised by light-blasted landscape paintings.
GP / What about the aristocracy of modernist art? ‘Significant form’?
JD / With She’s a Mod! Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, in 1995, I was like ‘look how easy it is’-use paper plates, saucepan lids, et cetera. It was piss-taking the hallowed process of reduction to a modernist plain/plane. Universal Beauty and Truth had similar concerns. Speedway, a work from that show, used slot-car tracks, hair-ties and masking tape to mimic modernist bands of colour. Mimicking is part of this way of working.
GP / Part of the contemporary discourse is a radical interest in the role of objects-objects as just one part of a situation established by artists when they present a work in space. How would you describe the relationship between your work and, say, an art structure like modernist painting?
JD / It is important in the art market to maintain the hierarchy of painting-which is where there is the most financial gain for the dealer and artist. For me that financial pursuit is not terribly relevant. Throughout my art-making career I have taught in order to maintain that independence.
GP / Are you not also parodying painting as opposed to the real-space activity of sculpture? It seems more political.
JD / I am parodying paint. I am a 3D worker-keeping it real. Sculpture creates a real time reality, the possibility of movement and change. There are more problems when dealing with space. There is the ‘other side’ to consider. Painting relies on the support of the wall, the veneer of that plane.
The Universal Beauty and Truth show was an attempt to present work as a whole in the dealer context: to present a ‘blur’, to infect the dealer gallery expectation, to confuse the punter who expects a pause from one single work to another.
GP / Why do you want a blur for the viewer?
JD / The work is a moment of recognising something. I love the ideas of Allan Kaprow. He talks of that blurring of art and life, a state where everything is a moment of art. Good art is that moment, a kind of slippage or re-examining. I guess, in this moment, the punter brings to the work what they see, allowing an exchange or dialogue not driven by me.
Louise Bourgeois discusses content and the human body, and how its functions and processes relate to the treatment of materials: ‘pouring, flowing, dripping, oozing out, setting, hardening, coagulating, thawing, expanding, contracting the voluntary aspects such as slipping away, advancing, collection, letting go.’
At the moment I am working with ideas of slippage, a kind of frozen moment. I have been using expandable foam and strips of beaded curtain to suggest a surreal, drippy thing. Weeping Wall is a series of foam blobs covered in coloured beads to suggest a melting moment. It is also like a bunch of weeping, toxic sores. The idea was to suggest a wall of leaks; I am interested in using the wall as an organic structure. Recently I have been enjoying drilling holes into the wall and inserting darts. The gallery wall is always a smooth, pampered surface which must not distract from the work it supports. I like the surreal qualities of the wall which is pierced or where there is slippage… I want to make the wall peel or bleed.
GP / In his book, Relational Aesthetics, the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud said that, today ‘modernity extends into the practices of cultural do-it-yourself and recycling, into the invention of the everyday and the development of time lived…’ Which is a good point because modernism isn’t over, we just use the forms differently today.
JD / That’s right. I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the found object. These objects have had another life, and there can be a continuation when they are drawn into work. I also like the idea of using things that are already about – there is plenty around already. I also like the idea that these pre-loved objects are worn by their past owners; it’s like the object already has a personality. This challenges the mystique of the original art object. And modern consumerism.
GP / Siegfried Kracauer drew a distinction between the ornament coming from the mass, which ‘hovers in mid-air’, and the ornament that comes from people, the volk. Arising from the community, these things have a sense of organic life, and a magic force. What do you think of that?
JD / Mmmm. So the volk are an organic community which produces the magic force? It’s kind of nice… I work in this organic magic community and a lot of materials come from this base-the curtains, posters, wine bottles etc. This is a body of work which is endless. I am more interested in a completed body of work when I am eighty, the end of an organic life.
Volk versus mass as the difference between heart and mind? Between them and us? This echoes contemporary creative initiatives that have predetermined outcomes-funding bodies, the public institutions which support arts practice… They are doomed to fail without the support of the community – the relationship needs to be grounded in genuine working relationships and understandings. There needs to be more cross-over between maker and boss – the whole factory floor thing. Except here it’s maker-administrator.
GP / What have you read that has been instrumental in changing the way think about your practice? I give thanks … well of course to Allan Kaprow, Blurring of Art and Life. When I read that, everything became a work every action, every experience. I love his quote on utilising specific substances. He wrote it in 1958, but you can apply all of it to any contemporary practice. He talks of the normalisation of the artist, too: ‘They do not live differently from anyone else.’ His writings were affirming for me.
GP / But he never talks about women artists.
JD / No. I was just re-reading a Louise Bourgeois interview which I like. The interviewer asks her, ‘How do you feel about the position of women in the art world today?’ and she responds: ‘A woman has no place as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated.’
GP / Quite.
JD / And Celeste Olalquiaga’s The Artificial Kingdom: On the Kitsch Experience is a revision of kitsch, post-Clement Greenberg. She talks of how nostalgia, memory and loss recreate experiences of kitsch – or maybe that should be the other way around.
GP / I remember you saying once, you and Lisa Reihana, that no one ever calls men’s art here kitsch.
JD / They certainly don’t. Take Michael Parekowhai for example. There are definitely kitsch aspects to his work that are not discussed… I think what I liked about Olalquiaga’s thesis was that she takes kitsch seriously rather than using the term in a belittling way that denotes female quaintness.
GP / We seem to quote at each other a fair bit don’t we?
JD / Another enjoyable development is the contemporary understanding that you’re able to quote from others without it meaning that, as a woman, one is not an original thinker. Or it is more than that; it’s about debunking the idea of original thought at all. All knowledge is community knowledge after all. It is plain backward.
GP / And you are not good at being plain at all are you?
JD / No! It’s probably very backward.
Bourgeois, Louise, Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923-1997, Marie-Laure and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, eds., Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.
Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 1998.
Cabanne, Pierre, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1987.
Greenberg, Clement. ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Kaprow, Allan. ‘Education of the Un-artist, Part 2’ (1972) in Jeff Kelley, ed., Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993.
Kracauer, Siegfreid, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, Thomas Y. Levin, ed., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Loos, Adolph ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908) in Ulrich Conrads, ed., Programs and Manifestos of Twentieth Century Architecture, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970.
Negri, Antonio, Time For Revolution (trans. Matteo Mandarini), New York, NY: Continuum, 2003.
Olalquiaga, Celeste. The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of The Kitsch Experience, New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1998.