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Dunedin Beautification Project

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Dunedin Beautification Project

Matt Gillies at Public Art - Dunedin
2 Aug 2006 - 2 Mar 2007

by alibi
Article of the Month March 2007

I was sitting in a suburban bus shelter some weeks ago, doing what you do while waiting for a bus, sitting and waiting. The mutual sitting and waiting provided the opportunity for a conversation with a stranger. He (whose name I never learned) was a visitor from Wellington and unsure of his immediate future, would he stay or would he go? He had been roaming while thinking, without specific business to occupy his day; not quite your stock standard pleasure seeking tourist, but seeking diversion of an inexpensive kind. This state of mind sets up an unusual way to see a city, an attentive semi direction-less wandering possibly not unlike the derive. The kind of mindset that allows you to notice small plaques attached to things, and to read them.

He had happened on and read two plaques the previous day, the first was attached to the side of the Hocken Library, celebrating a significant donation, all well and good, How Nice. However nearby was another cast plaque set into the pavement. This one stated obliquely “Without competition there can be no success.” That second message had bothered him enough to begin discussing it with a stranger at a bus stop. What was the civic undercurrent behind this message? What governmental values were being expressed in this manner? Was this normal behaviour for the Dunedin City Council? This seemed to me to be a reasonable set of questions, given that he couldn't have known he had stumbled across a part of a public project by a local artist. What these questions immediately raise is the way that transgressive works are read when they are not safely bracketed in the gallery and coded as Art. By using the physical languages of the city in a literal way the artist's act was understood to be governmental.

This particular work “Dunedin Beautification Project” by Matt Gillies intentionally leveraged the quiet power dynamics of how Common Good is administered. Without fanfare he had gradually replaced a number of existing functional aluminium plates (part of the cities water and gas infrastructure, designed to allow maintenance access) with image and message bearing alternatives. In order to do this he 'liberated' a single plate at a time, melted it down, recast it to his own satisfaction and replaced it where he got it from. In plain sight, the workmanlike anonymity of the project was important to its success, nobody questions a man in overalls working in broad daylight. There was a significant time lag before the plates began to attract attention, eventually bemused and variously upset letters trickled in to the newspaper about the somewhat pointedly non-celebratory content of the plaques. In due course bureaucratic machinery edited the unauthorised texts off the streets again. There came a time when the artist faced a choice about whether to own the work and accept both the civic approbation and the artistic acknowledgment. The council had by then collected all the plates, if he wanted them for 'artistic purposes' he had to front up and face the music, which eventually he did; the opportunity to show the work in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery ultimately proving too much bait for a young artist.

Much of the tension in this work arose from a transposition of the way that we have become used to reading public works both generic built environment as well as something called ' Public Art'; if it is made of permanent material (ie, costs money) it is always obedient to the dominant schema of civic pride. Transgressive public works are supposed to be recognisable by the way they are made, and who they are made by, such as furtive back alley dwellers with spray cans. Transgressive works usually agree that the margins are their natural home. The more recognisable but equally fast and furtive billboard alteration works (that we see few of anyway because Dunedin has few billboards) arguably restrict their contestation to pre-designated image space and in this way remain somewhat identifiable as Art, a self marginalising starting point.

However despite the moments of interesting leverage acquired by being wilful and disobediant with the dominant languages of the city; the force of that binary remains in place, as of course it must. The work has been removed from the active sphere of Public contestation, recoded and denatured as Art objects. I am dubious about the value of re-exhibiting the plates as art when their life as art objects was so related to the context of their installation in the city. The power relations and hidden codes were the most interesting dimension of the work. While I also appreciate the ambiguities of relationship between the document-as-art and some kind of originary art moment, exhibiting the plates as an artwork (without the city pavement and its attendant meaning attached) tends to refocus on a reading of the plates as individual images instead of the relations those images produced in context. This final step, the one that regards the evidence as the work, completes the change in status of the work from permanent infrastructure firmly back to the ephemeral margins...where it belongs?


Ali Bramwell

1 to 15 of 15
1 articles & 141 comments since 11 Aug 2006
I love these works.
12 articles & 232 comments since 13 Aug 2006
Is that Homer as sewer rat?
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005

That's right, NZN.  Are all the drawings of Homer? They look quite different from the texts in sensibility. The texts seem to be admirably hardhitting and not at all comical.

In a way it is a shame Matt Gillies owned up to the Council. Imagine if he had just kept doing it and never got caught or identified.  It would be fantastic.

19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
They remind me quite a lot of the strange phenomenon of the Toynbee Tile:

12 articles & 232 comments since 13 Aug 2006
Near here we have a pavement spray-stencil-marked in white italic capitals saying "DANCE".

I like it. DANCE survives rain, hail and snow, and makes me smile, but it is inadequate ….

The house which it is outside is a burnt-out hulk, and the owner reputedly lived/s on at the back in a lean-to or sheds.

Before it was burnt on 6-7 November 2004 I had researched the house because it looked interesting. I found it was built about 1909 for Philip Presants and family. Presants was a chromolithographer and he is mentioned in a biography of Sir Alfred Munnings, relating to working at Page Bros lithographers in Norwich, as follows: "He was an enthusiast and he helped me on". Some of Philip Presants' New Zealand descendants say Presants designed the Edmonds Baking Powder tin label - the rising sun design with ‘Sure to Rise’. It seems quite possible that he did produce the ca 1906 version that became famous, and although it is insinuated that a much earlier design existed, there seems to be neither tangible evidence nor reports of it.
12 articles & 232 comments since 13 Aug 2006
Well, correction: in 1898 the baking powder factory in ChCh (those premises were 10 yrs old by then; the product itself goes back to 1879) had tins with labels "all ... printed in the colony" and of "nice design" and they included the name "Sure to Rise". So to that extent I retract the relevant part of my last sentence in the earlier post.
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Always one to prop the store, despite the work being totally different, don't forget our own Pete Haward who also uses Homer Simpson in his art.

Nancy, the important, beautiful and intelligent difference between what Gillies is doing and stencil art, is as Alibi points out, his work was not furtive, and had an official feel. He broke conventions of public art both within the art-world and the underground world of illicit art. That's pretty awesome.
12 articles & 232 comments since 13 Aug 2006
Ah yes, I get it, Artbasher. I wish they'd left the plates there.
3 articles & 366 comments since 9 Oct 2006
the problem with leaving the plates there is that they would then become what my Wellington wanderer friend thought they were in the first place...weird and uncomfortable officially sanctioned messages... the council couldn't leave them there. and if they had the work would have failed in its subersive intent. an odd wee dilemma all round.

interesting link to the toynbee tiles populuxe, I didnt know about that. has an element of obsessive paranoid dementia to it that is missing from the beautification project

personally I regret that Gillies broke anonymity, but I can understand why he did.

ps nznancy Homer as sewer rat is a nice take on that image...he's supposed to be a kind of anti-consumer I think, bordering on grotesque but also irreverent. works a lot better as an image on the pavement outside a shopping center than it does as an image on a wall.
12 articles & 232 comments since 13 Aug 2006
Homer on the access plate also looked almost as if he dripped a bit of spittle (though it was the side of his open mouth, perhaps) and was looking rather mad (well, he is like that); what I thought was gob or drool reminded me a bit of the let's say wetness of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992) because I had watched it for the first time Saturday night. Quite a rabscallious updated version of the tale (I gather), a romp almost - and I don't usually like 'horror' genres (but I do like Homer).
Sewers came to mind because I have been (plug: do not read on if personal interests not of interest) researching in a minor way some of the history of city facilities to do with water, artesians, windmills, wells, pumps and pump-houses, that sort of thing; and later I might look at drainage.
I can see both sides of leaving/not leaving the plates. The Homer ones w/could be intelligible for quite some time and if left could have formed a set of in situ historic artifacts eventually; not sure about the word ones. Could it have been made known at the time they became noticed as interventions, anonymously if necessary. If that had happened, then could they have stayed perhaps.
12 articles & 232 comments since 13 Aug 2006

Alibi, a bit of reality-checking here:
You say the meeting with the directionless stranger happened "some weeks ago" which is vague but not a year ago, say, but when you describe the plates being noticed you say that it was after "a significant time lag" (and part of the reaction involved "bemused and variously upset letters ... to the newspaper") and that there has been enough time since then for the council to remove the plates and for Matt Gillies to make up his mind to go to the council and even agree to have an art exhibition
In that case:
Therefore, if your stranger indeed saw a work 'some weeks ago' then this was after the exhibition, and so it - one work at least - survives in situ though depending on my interpretation being correct.
Ie, the work that says:

"Without competition there can be no success."

3 articles & 366 comments since 9 Oct 2006
very good detective work NZnancy, like your namesake the indomitable Ms Drew...
this is true. you are quite correct, this plate was spotted after the rest had been tidied up. can only speculate that the council missed one...the sighting isnt verified (bit like seeing Elvis after he died?)
but Mr Wellington didnt know Matt Gillies, definately didnt know me and told me about it unsolicited, so..
just one of those weird synchronicity moments
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
This article is the first Artbash review of some aspect of the Dunedin scene. It is an 'istoric event, irrefutable proof that Dunedin actually exists!

So Dunedinites, what's happening at DPAG or Blue Oyster? Was 'Reboot' any good, or just hype? Are CAG mugs for taking it?
3 articles & 366 comments since 9 Oct 2006
yes well, now that I no longer work at Blue Oyster I will be able to comment more freely when the spirit moves me. there is an excellent offering from James Robinson on there at the moment.
5 comments since 26 Apr 2006
Good work Ali... you write so well. Fantastic project too. There's always a lovely tension between anonymous public interventions and the percieved irrelevance of the project if there is no feedback or notoriety forthcoming. I reckon they're still good value though.
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