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Outing of Erewhon

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Out of Erewhon: New Directions in Canterbury Art

Jennifer Hay and Felicity Milburn at Christchurch Art Gallery
26 Nov 2006 - 5 Feb 2007

by John Hurrell
Article of the Month January 2007

We have here an extremely disparate but absorbing show of fourteen Christchurch trained artists who have been asked to draw on themes from Samuel Butler’s 1872 satirical novel Erewhon. That seems like an intriguing undertaking for a gallery to organise, doesn't it? After all, Butler is widely regarded as a fascinating historical personality. Yet somehow the project hasn't really taken off.

Very few of these invited individuals have been so excited by his story that they have made his ideas central to their displays. Most have just ignored him and his novel altogether [like the local online writers have done] and simply made good contemporary art that is a product of this time and only that - with no anxiety about historic baggage or encouraging overly determined interpretations from the curators. When artists have worried about the brief, the results seem forced in their literalness, with normally remarkable talents like Langford or Parkes trying in vain to fit in with - for example - a mountainous landscape theme.

Some exhibitions are presented under a banner that can include anything at all, for an irrelevant title is a common phenomenon in group exhibitions, and cannot in itself stop the creation of an exciting line up. Here though the wide variety of included genres does introduce a certain lack of cohesion. Yet because most of these artists - though not widely known - are very good, the 'fragments' make the exhibition exceptionally interesting and well worth visiting.

There is a story I want to bring up about Butler, a celebrated author, colonial farmer and notorious atheist, who had an affair with Press newspaper writer Charles Pauli. This is not well known, yet it should be. It is one of the great classic love stories, infused with passion and betrayal - on a par with Oscar and Bosie; or Rimbaud and Verlaine - and began in the original Carlton pub on Papanui Road in 1863. A year after they met Pauli persuaded Butler to suddenly sell Mesopotamia, his huge sheep station, and return with him to England. Of this abrupt departure the curators’ account is annoyingly circumspect – they allude to ’considerable speculation’. This reduces the conceptual scope of the discussion and ignores a chance to make this period of history more relevant to contemporary discourses. Butler’s life was in fact much more interesting than what this exhibition indicates. Not because he was bisexual, but because of his self-torment and vulnerability to blackmail. Some artists, like Peter Trevelyan and Ri Williamson, happen to accidentally connect with this by referencing Foucauldian concepts of social control and surveillance. If they have done so deliberately, there is little hint of such in the online support material.

The show’s seemingly ironic title is also ambiguous in its treatment of Canterbury as a site. On the one hand the title alludes to Christchurch’s chip on its shoulder resulting from its isolation from ‘over-populated’, northern New Zealand and the rest of the world, seeing itself tarnished as ‘nowhere’. On the other, when explaining that some of the included artists are currently living in Europe, the ‘outness’ of Erewhon goes beyond an ‘anywhere but Canterbury-ness’. Those individuals subvert the inferiority complex by showcasing a new ‘nowhereness’ located far beyond Christchurch. They are anonymous, living invisibly in densely populated urban centres with few friends or relatives to support them.

There is a lot to comb through in this show, and my visit to Christchurch and its public gallery was short. However four works I found myself repeatedly returning to were by Hannah and Aaron Beehre, Robert Hood, Phil Murray and Grant Wylie.

DeArmond is a mini installation that is part Planetarium, part camera obscura, part early cinema. For me it is the highlight of this exhibition and easily the most exciting work I have seen from the Beehres. It has a surprising depth, an otherworldly, underwater quality, as if you are immersed in a Jean Painlevé movie, but one which alludes to the night sky. It seems derived from Bill Culbert’s early light-boxes, but is infinitely more exciting because you can walk around inside the space trailing prismatic jellyfish floating in and out of focus on the darkened walls.

Robert Hood’s video captures your attention long before you see it - due to its wonderfully penetrating soundtrack of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson singing ‘My rifle, my pony and me’ from the 1959 film ‘Rio Bravo’. This work depicts in a shimmering puddle an inverted reflection of the spectacular mountain slopes of Erewhon itself. I like the humour of bringing a schmaltzy Hollywood movie to Mesopotamia, and its tongue-in-cheek ‘man alone’ espousal of the joys of solitude that accompany rugged, pioneering masculinity.

Phil Murray’s sculptures look like dinosaur eggs found in the high country that an encased human has managed to hatch out from. Funny but also rich in metaphor, they allude to the growth of the self or an escaping from rigid societal confines or antiquated belief systems. You can peer into the shattered spheres and attempt to figure out how the torso and limbs of a doubled-over adult created the network of tunnels penetrating these solid balls.

A waka leaning on its side and constructed out of gridded concrete blocks is an unusual and amusing notion. Grant Wylie's boat seems to be referring to the nineties sculptures of Sol LeWitt or Carl Andre’s Lever, giving an inventively 'Pacific' take on minimalism and primary structures. For all its roughness – the blocks are handcast – this craft is surprisingly elegant. It’s the nicest object in the show and part of a sub-theme in which several artists [like Williamson, or Moar] look at travel and its role with language in the recreation of cultural identities.

Trevelyan3 Williamson1 wanderer-1 Beehre1 Wylie2 Langford1 Murray1 Parkes1 Wylie3 Murray2

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6 articles & 46 comments since 2 Sep 2006
Much like the School of Fine Arts Painters Graduate exhibition at CoCA last year, it seems there is a real lack of enthusiasm to discuss emerging Canterbury artists on this website. Is it all a little too close to home? Is there a fear of offending somebody? Thanks for posting the review John, when I first read it I thought it would spark some interesting discussion, but there's been nothing but the kind of deathly silence one might find midweek in Erewhon (the location, not the exhibition).
You rightfully pick out Robert Hood's video work, which drowns out the silence with a twee western tune, whistling in the wind that scrambles the still reflection. I agree that it's a highlight of the exhibition, and is far superior to his accompanying work outside the gallery. I give him credit for attempting to do something with the concrete monstrosity on Montreal Street, and hope it's the first in a series of pieces to enliven that zone, though it seems somehow invisible to many people, and it's inaccessability to those who do notice it renders it as a sculpture that we want to see inside of, but cannot possibly do so. This seems a real shame, and it is perhaps this frustration that makes me dislike the work. The video piece, on the other hand, invites us in (as you say, long before we even see it), and takes us to Erewhon without us having to leave the city.
So, we're in agreement over that highlight, but I'm much less convinced by your personal favourite, 'DeArmond'. Presumably named after the guitar brand (Hannah and Aaron are both accomplished musicians after all), there is a kind of musical allusion, in that one must remain absolutely silent for the work to engage. Movement or noise cause the projections to halt, and thus the installation is a simple reversal of a previous Beehre work, where the more noise one made, the more leaves rained down the wall. Fun, if not entirely thought provoking. As a totally enclosed room DeArmond is more complex, enriched, and satisfying than it's predecessor, but the whole thing falls over with the ridiculous revolving glass ball placed on the floor in the middle of the space. It's all very disco-fever-soothsayer-lordoftherings-tarotcard-sci-fi-celestial-elysian-battle-for-middle-earth-i-don't-know-what-the-hell-it's-doing-there-awful. It undoes all the good work and shows some really poor decision making. Do I seem incensed? That'll be the incense....
OK, they didn't have any Sandlewood burning, but wow that revolving ball is straight outta Isengard.
As for Langford and Parkes, I'm not sure there was any pained, overarching response to the exhibition brief. Parkes' work didn't seem particularly different to anything else she's shown in the past eighteen months, except for perhaps being a little better realised and benefiting from a bit more room to move, The 'normally remarkable' Langford may have made her most remarkable piece yet, and at least it did seem to encapsulate the Erewhon theme, which you rightfully point out was a pretty dismissable idea as far as the overall show was concerned.
Anyway, there are other artists in this exhibition who have gone unmentioned in John's review - Scott Flanagan, Cat Simpson - neither of whom is represented by their best work, Clare Noonan, carrying on strongly from her excellent Physics Room show (which was reviewed on Artbash last year), Richard van der Aa's exceptionally subtle contribution, and the oddly out-of-place Joanne Moar.
Quickly skimming the rest, Murray, Wylie, and Trevelyan all offer strong sculptural pieces that really add a lot of flavour to the show, and are all well deserving of more widespread attention in the future, and it would be great to see some further discussion about their works, but I'm a little worried that my response is going to be longer than John's review soon (maybe it already is), so I'll leave it at that. But lets get some dialogue going on this exhibition, it's a really good show, though not without faults, full of talented practicianers, and it would be a real shame to see it quietly pass by without comment.
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
Delighted to get your take on this show, jt.

By the way, write as much as you like. The longer the better as far as I'm concerned - especially if you want to discuss artists I have ignored. Or if you disagree over things I have said about certain artists.
All opinions welcome.

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