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Institutionally Hobbled Horse

Forum > Reviews

He knew something was up. He could smell it!

Sam Eng at The Physics Room
29 Sep 2005 - 23 Oct 2005

Lee-looking-profound-1 by Artbasher
Article of the Month October 2005
2005_09_16_842217 I've read the wall text from the P Room, and Kate Montgomery's essay in CANTA a few weeks back. They're good pieces of writing, but they don't do the work justice. Now Sam is a smart guy, and I want to do more than just scratch the surface of the monster he was trying to uncover with his installation.

They start out well, giving the necessary fact that Sam was recreating / re-imagining the post-office savings bank, which used to occupy the entire building. Then there's (obviously) some sort of melt down and death; there is Sam, lying dead on the floor. But where is the monster here? They mention some historical function and re-interpretation, but that's boring, not scary. Did everyone miss it?

The post-office used to be a government institution. It had its conventions, a checkerboard black and white floor, (as did all government departments so I'm told) a prison-cell like door and its evacuation instructions. Now, perhaps not everyone knows, but the P Room is also a government institution, funded mostly by Creative New Zealand ($149,000 last year.) It too has its conventions. The wooden floor, the white walls, the style of their brochures, the way they write and talk about work and the type of work that they promote. The Volume series asks the artists to respond to the small space, "in an investigation of current installation practice." How did Sam respond to that space? How did he feel about showing in a government institution, the ivory tower of the Christchurch art-scene? "GET OUT NOW" is what he said, isn't that right? Get out of that all consuming lumbering giant that swallows up what could have been creative and productive people. Look at those slag heaps, the soot, the dead guy. This is the P Room folks and something died in there. Something killed Sam, something killed the art. What was it? Was it the old institution or the new?

And how about Kaleb Bennett? I feel there's a bit of a trickster in him too. Seriously, I can't believe his work was all about Mexico. Why the boards all over the windows into the P Room? They looked so good from the street. It was definitely the best view of the show. I wish I had a photo. It made the P Room look like what it is, an abandoned, old fashioned, irrelevant empty building that hardly anyone visits or cares about. Or perhaps it's a kind of tree-hut for a bunch of kids in an exclusive club who don't know how to deal with the real world.

Who ever thought artists could be so subversive, and get away with it too? I mean, this show must have been really grating on the P Room staff and supporters for the last three weeks. Didn't they realise something was up? Couldn't they smell it? The P Room claims its aims are to be, "a catalyst for the development and promotion of ideas and debate through art," and, "to involve art as a contributing voice in wider intellectual, social, and political debate." But surely it's totally ridiculous to have art taking the piss out of the very gallery and institution its showing in and being supported by? I guess it's a kind of paradoxical-playful-insanity. I like it!

Images courtesy of the Physics Room Website and my apologies for writing about another show after it's finished.
2005_10_26_673653 2005_10_26_418896

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19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
The Windmills of My Mind

Is Sam's work a deliberate parody of Ronnie Van Hout? Or is it a sincere homage? There is that clear sense of paranoia and the use of YBA-style mock figures. And am I mistaken, or is there a bit of Twin Peaks as well (no, not the little dogs)? - think about the floor. It also made me think - disturbingly enough - of a gas chamber.

I enjoyed Kaleb's work - constructivist, minimal and yet very human and playful. It reminded me of those exquisitely constructed L. Budd et al toilet cubicles - especially with the sound element. Is there a connection?
1 comment since 28 Oct 2005
the monster

Hi Artbasher,
I like that you've done more than scratch the surface with these shows. It's refreshing to see. I think you've pulled out some interesting points, particularly with respect to Sam's work - I'm not sure what you're really saying about Kaleb's installation. Your comments seem to reflect your own preoccupations, and says nothing about the work...

With respect to your comments about Sam's installation. yes, we (the institution) knew something was up, sure. It was an interesting metaphor as we gassed visitors from our safe office! And yes, the artist states 'get out now' as you enter the space. The artist is dead. He didn't get out in time. What I find most interesting about this is that the artist is working from within. He knows how the institution works, and he uses this to his advantage. He is working from the inside out.

Sam's reflection of the 'monster' makes this work an engaging and critical work. I find it interesting that you would think that the institution would find this threatening - is that what your saying when you say taking the piss? Why do you think Maurizio Cattalan, for example, is described as one of the most important artists in the world, when he constantly challenges, and attempts to subvert, the systems that contemporary art is based on. In this tradition, it seems to me that Sam understands the freedoms and restrictions of showing his work with the gallery, having been involved with them over time - most intimately as co-chair of another government funded organisation.

As you have gleaned from the website, The Physics Room exists as "a catalyst for the development and promotion of ideas and debate through art," and, "to involve art as a contributing voice in wider intellectual, social, and political debate." I think Sam's work contributes to a political debate about the role of the institution - right or wrong, he leaves us to decide what to think. Personally I don't think it's rediculous that Sam has a voice in this context at all - or that the institution supports this voice. The work seems unconcerned with how the 'ivory tower' might respond to this critique - I see that as the strengh of the work. He's putting the idea out there, using humour as a vessel for his critique. 'cushioning the blow' as one person described! And perhaps it is a reflection of Sam's interest in pedagogical structures. He makes tranparent the mechanisims of the institutions, offering multiple readings and varying entry points. I also like the way the work reflects ways artists can operate under the radar, commenting, provoking, revealing things that are right before our eyes.

7 articles & 27 comments since 30 Jul 2005
The Physics Room

I thought artbasher was talking about Sam using the new physics room institution as a metaphor for the old building and foundation (SIAP) that they moved out of. “Get Out Now” talks explicitly about the sad dregs of an old space (ostentatiously the South Island Post Office Savings Bank) but more implicitly, the new Physics Room that has just moved into the space in 1999. Isn’t it a precise metaphor for the run down and abandoned nature of the new institution? I don’t feel like this was addressed in the relating comments. There has been general talk about the nature of the institution and government funding (for good or bad) but what about the Physics Room specifically? Shouldn't we have a discussion about whether or not it is making good use of our taxpaying money?
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
A Great Big Suicide Machine.


Thanks for replying, you’ve given me plenty to think about.

I’m trying to understand what your position is, but I keep getting confused. In particular I’m amazed that you don’t find Sam’s work a threat. I’m going to talk in particulars this time to be very clear.

Sam's work is a direct attack on the Phyiscs Room. He’s saying that you guys, and the Physics Room Trust, are killing art and artists. It seems, (although I find it hard to believe,) from what you have said, that you agree. – At least with that interpretation of the work, if not with the actual argument.

If Sam is correct, and you have a genuine concern for the health of art and artists, it follows that you need to change the Physics Room, or close it down altogether. This is a direct threat to the institution and your livelihood as a gallery worker. Even if you think the Physics Room is not harmful to art and artists, the argument that it is still threatens to you.

Do you find my numerous rants on this website a threat? I think you should – If enough people read and agree with me, the Physics Room and other such galleries may eventually have to considerably change or close altogether.

I don’t think Sam’s “working from within” makes any difference. A spy, traitor or suicide bomber is normally treated in the most loathsome way. Shouldn’t you be cutting him off and never giving him a show again?

It’s like you find it quite healthy and enjoyable to debate the justification of your own existence after someone has paraded proof in front of you that your institution is without foundation. Don’t get me wrong, it would be great if more government institutions did some self-critique. But what pisses me off is that I just don’t believe you would ever decide to commit suicide if you concluded your existence wasn’t a good thing. That is what makes the Physics Room and the talk that comes from it shallow and irrelevant to the real world. That is also the reason most institutions don’t even consider issues such as their own justification, and anyone who brings it up is quickly censored – because they are never actually going to change or disband themselves.

Indeed, I take your and Vanessa’s lack of comment on this website until now as further proof that you’re not really interested at all in seriously considering such issues. I think for your own sake you’d be better off denying the whole thing.

You mention Maurizio Cattelan. Let’s consider his work at the MOMA. Here he, “arranged for an actor in an over-sized cartoon Pablo Picasso mask to meet and greet visitors. Cattelan said he was satirising the postmodern museum and its similarity to a high-cultural Disneyland. He was impressed MoMA put up with such a cruel joke against itself.” [1]

And MOMA didn’t like it, at least not until he put a spin on it they could deal with:

“I told them it was about fame. And they didn't believe me. So I told them that it was about user-friendly museums, and they liked it.” [2]

However, he wasn’t as sneaky as Sam. The MOMA wall text read, “What was incredible was the fact that the museum accepted Maurizio's project despite the fact that it was highlighting the way in which American museums have drifted into excessive marketing.” [3]

Certainly he is similar to Sam, however it appears institutions do treat him as a genuine threat.

Does it make you happy artists are making work about their dissatisfaction with your gallery? Wouldn’t you rather they had something better to do? Cattelan’s work is great, but what he’s trading on (in this piece) is his proximity to the even greater Picasso and Pollock. If everyone was doing what Cattelan was doing, it would be so boring. I think NZ art, in particular that encouraged by the Physics Room is far too weighted in this direction.

More Cattelan: he cracks me up.

BOB: And you don't have a studio anywhere?
MAURIZIO: If I didn't have any shows, and there wasn't any interest, I wouldn't do anything.
BOB: If people stopped asking you to be in shows, you wouldn't make anything ever again?
BOB: I've always been a fan — long before we met.
MAURIZIO: When people tell me, "I like the work," I say, "Okay, okay." But I can't believe it because I'm not able to take myself seriously.
BOB: You can't believe that I like your work?
MAURIZIO: I mean, yes, I do. But it's amazing.
2 comments since 26 May 2005

Since my name has been mentioned above, I thought I'd respond to your suggestion that I'm "not really interested at all in seriously considering such issues" and take no interest in the online critical discussion. I'd just like to point out that we have discussed, on many occasions, face to face, "such issues" that have arisen within the local (and national) art community. Perhaps I, like many others, prefer a more physical, "real world", discursive dialogue, which is less of a one way conversation and has a wider circulation than the few that contribute to this website. This is in no way a criticism of your website as I think the majority of the discussion that goes on here is great, but for you to assume that we would add comments from the beginning brings to mind that you are setting yourself up as yet another institution.

If you are questioning and reflecting on why institutions are not commenting on your website, why the focus on us, The Physics Room? I wonder why you haven't commented on why other institutions aren't contributing to your online discussion. Perhaps accessibility is one of the many answers? For instance, anyone can walk into The Physics Room, see into the office, step into the office, why, you have done so yourself on many occasions. Whereas, if you were to visit other public institutions, there is no face or ownership of the space. You can't enter into the offices of the institution's staff, hidden away behind the closed doors.

These issues, like many of the other comments you have posted, seem less about the art and more reflections on your own personal frustrations with the art world.
19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
Everyone down a valium

Contemporary art is by its nature contradictory, generous, multi-compartmentalised and able to appreciate its internal ironies.
I think it's fairly safe to say Sam's work is meant playfully and that the P. Room gets the joke. But I think Artbasher - and I mean it without any malice - the art world is a broad church and (paricularly in Christchurch)a small clique, but you seem overwhelmingly determined to attack what you percieve as institutional without any context, comparison, or enlightening us as to what the alternitive should be.
The brutal, pragmatic reality is that the world at large doesn't give a shit about contemporary art, and organisations like the P. Room have to conform to certain expectations on behalf of funding bodies in order to achieve anything at all.
Having worked in various capacities in arts administration, I have observed a number of truisms - none of which would I accuse Sam of as he has experienced it himself on more than one occasion.
(1)Artists hardly ever see themselves as in a team with administrators, but rather in competition.
(2) Many artists feel entitled, and don't like to be told 'no'.
(3)Many artists see themselves as victims of the system, and behave with apalling arrogance to galleries.
(4)A number of artists don't give a crap about the writers, curators, gallerists, dealers, administrators etc. which they see as peripheral and parisitic to them.
(5)Running a gallery to a professional standard is exhausting and time consuming - so give a little respect to the people who do all the work day in and day out.

The world's a bitch, but it doesn't owe anyone. I don't want to offend anyone, but the whining is tiresome and everyone gets more done when we work together. There's nothing wrong with criticism but watch your tone.
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Just can't get enough.


I dispute that real world conversation is less one way than, "the few that contribute to this website." Artbash has 106 members and was visited by 1,647 different computers last month. That's more people than I could ever possibly talk to in real life. I can't imagine and have never had more open discussion than those I've had here. The internet is (part of) the real world.

I didn't assume you would add comments. You said you would, and at one stage you were even going to write a review. I'm disappointed, but not surprised, that people who's livelihoods depend on money that comes to them purely on the basis of philosophical arguments and politics are not be interested in defending those arguments against criticisms.

You're spot on about accessibility. The Physics Room is a nice target: HSP would be too easy, and the Public gallery or TePapa too hard. Plus I feel they get enough criticism anyway. Loads of people tease TePapa / big galleries, including people in the art world, and just about everyone teases HSP. I kind of felt the Physics Room was sitting a bit comfortably there.

May I also point out that the Physics Room door is almost always closed, and the staff (although seen through the window into their office), are seldom if ever in the gallery. I first entered the office only when a friend of mine was working there. Compare to the public gallery where there are always scores of staff waiting to help you and who can direct you to more senior employees if necessary, or any of the dealer galleries, where the dealers always approach patrons, greet and talk to them. (Perhaps with the one exception of Judy Gifford- although her door is always open, and she is friendly if you approach her.)

My frustration is that I’m living in an artworld I’m really not sure I want to be a part of. I’m attacking, and trying to change those parts I like the least. Aye, so negative. Now what I should really be doing is creating what I would like to have and letting the rest decay and die. That is my challenge. However, I think some negativity is justified. I think a whole lot of people have got it wrong, and I’m trying to point that out. Although, once again, the way to convince someone you’re right isn’t to disagree, but simply show them the better alternative. So that makes me a fighter rather than a charmer.


Where is Tyler Durden these days when you need him?

"I say evolve, and let the chips fall where they may." I guess that makes me Darwinian.

But seriously, I thought my alternative was obvious. You can all tell I'm a raging free market capitalist right? The alternative already exists and is the basis of the art world. - In particular it is the basis in the large cities where the art is most influential. A successful artist can make a living through the dealer system and needs to understand the dealers as vital to their livelihood and that of the art world. However (although I think public museums are necessary historical archives), organisations like the Physics Room are parasitic. The Physics Room, HSP, or ArtSpace, etc etc actually contribute next to nothing in real (financial) terms to the art world. All the concrete action is at the dealers. Without them, there would be nothing. It’s kind of like record companies and radio stations to musicians, or publishers to writers.

My resolution: I will write more about the dealer galleries and the art that I like.
39 comments since 27 Oct 2005

Last year I worked with David Clegg when he put some stuff in the public gallery here in Chch. The staff were often rude, distrustful, and unhelpful. The staff at the Physics Room on the other hand were friendly, talkative, and keen. Still, you may have experienced otherwise? What I wanted to say was that maybe it's time for you to get out of Christchurch? And I mean that in the nicest possible way. I think your frustration is symptomatic of living in small town NZ — a hole you can't bash your way out of?

Anyhow, can you explain what you mean by the only "real" contributions being financial ones? I guess I'm thinking about bands that I like, and how much money they make for the industry, as opposed to that annoying frog thing that's been #1 for like 2 months now!
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Money and art.

If no one was making decent money off art, no artist would bother struggling away trying to break into the scene. Just like small bands wouldn't do it if there was no potential to make it big. Take away the carrot and it would all disappear. Or am I wrong?

Not denying that small bands or artists who are not successful make cool shit. Just that the successful people are vital to the scene.
39 comments since 27 Oct 2005
Uh huh

Ok I see what you mean... you need the mediocre stuff that sells truckloads to provide a support structure for the fringe.
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005

I'd say normally the good stuff sells too.
19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
A flie in the ointment

The problem that is the artist who paints the mediocre stuff - or for that matter the good stuff - wants it to support them rather than the fringe.
I thought you were a Capitalist, Artbasher? Fancy a spanking from Ayn Rand in heels you sick puppy.
Besides, by your own definition, that would make the fringe stuff rubbish because it can't support itself.
So much for 'survival of the fittest' - you seem to be picturing it more like the dreadful 'Intelligent Design' - Darwin would turn in his grave.
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
You just had to name a name

And stick me in a box didn't you?

I'm trying to walk a fine line between appreciating the fringe and accepting the best of the mainstream. What I detest is a propping up of the bad fringe. Then, if that isn't enough, a philosophy that justifies the bad art and creeps into and takes over the rest of the art world's thinking.

The best of the fringe will make enough, or make it eventually.
6 articles & 50 comments since 19 Oct 2005
Damn government

Unfortunately Artbasher, our lovely NZ govt thinks nothing of supporting crap art (no dig on any gallery here). While everyone else has to struggle in business and life, budding artists are capable of getting the 'artists benefit'. What absolute garbage! Did any of New Zealand's top artists need this? Nope, they all worked full time, and produced their art in their spare hours, building up a fan base and popularity until they could become full time artists. Consequently, shit art was never more than a passing fad and good art remained and formed the basis of NZ's art identity.
Now however, the government has eradicated social darwinism. By supporting artists, the govt inadvertently sponsors crap fringe art, and instead of dying out like it should, it festers like an open wound, polluting everything around it. If the art market is to be taken seriously, then the govt needs to eradicate the artists benefit and let the people decide.
Down with crap art, long live the people's choice, long live artistic darwinism, and survival of the fittest.

The Tattler.
4 comments since 5 Sep 2005
hallmark headings

What exactly would be considered fringe art?

Something that would not be printed on the front of hallmark card?

What artbasher & curators of 'contemporary' art galleries might consider fringe art might be quite different from what 'the people' (or helen) consider to be fringe.

137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Definition of Fringe . . .

How about, "Anything that doesn't make enough money to support itself."
4 comments since 5 Sep 2005

So then TVNZ is fringe?
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Oh, definitions . . .

See, I guess that is part of the problem. That when the government starts funding things, it takes them out of the fringe. The funding legitimizes and makes them more mainstream.

But doesn't TVNZ return a profit to the government anyway? I think they do, so even on my original definition, they're not quite an exception. But of course, you could just mention TePapa, Christchurch Art Gallery, or the Universities or something, because they definitely loose money.

Maybe if we just stick to art and the artists. I say, "A fringe artist is one who doesn't make (at least a half-decent) living off their art-work."
19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
Point & Counterpoint

But the Government is the only real source of major junding without strings attached. NZ has no real patronage culture beyond a small minority of the rich and educated, and it's largely the institutions you are bashing that raise the public artistic consciousness and taste. Good art is expensive to make, and generally people don't see any inherent value in the experimental or fringe. Catch 22
6 articles & 50 comments since 19 Oct 2005
Why change

That small patronage of the rich and educated has kept the art scene alive until now, so why change it at all? Surely the govt has better things to spend the nation's hard earned money on? Things like education, student debt, and gang control need more priority funding than art. Goverment sponsorship of art should limit itself to the funding of major galleries and not localised bodies with 'shut doors'.

I also think that good art is not at all costly to make. The art prices you see in New Zealand are so inflated that it really is a joke. Not even our 'wonderful' Hotere is well known overseas, but his art commands prices within New Zealand with which prominant global artist's works can be bought with (think Warhol etc). Since the early 90s, the value of good New Zealand art has grown by between 600 and 800% (see The Index Group's figures) and NZ's prominent artists are running gleefully to the bank. The price neither reflects the quality nor the cost of creating the art. Hell, I'm sure any reasonably skilled artist could buy a nice canvas for under $50 from the Warehouse and with an alright set of paints (bought cheaply from the same place), create something really great.

Just remember, once Hammond's art was considered fringe, but thanks to artistic darwinism, his art managed to progress into the mainstream (I just wish he'd progress beyond those bloody birds). Fringe art has its place, on the fringes where it can either be acclaimed and progress forward, or trashed and forgotten. Let us keep it that way, and let the government spend our money some place where it is more needed.
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