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Storming the museum - onside and outside

Artists can be powerful commentators and re-framers of public and political territory.   And as active citizens, deciding to work within or without an institution often raises questions for artists about the best or even possible ways to challenge, question, activate and inspire action.

Our current Letting Space project, Siv Fjaerstaad’s Projected Fields - is very much outside the gallery - and yet relies very heavily on the institution of the Wellington City Council.  It is a extended field painting on a sports field, highlighting one of Wellington’s largest inner city ‘commons,’ in Berhampore.  It uses grass as its medium and gently reminds us of the choices that are made about the activities we conduct in our parks. 

There won’t be much to see of the art work until November this year even as we beaver behind the scenes - gumbooting around in the rain testing paint samples mostly.    We're currently working to engage residents and users of McAlister Park, Berhampore and you're welcome to take part in our survey here


Siv and David Jackson (WCC) test paint samples. PHOTO: SOPHIE JERRAM

During July, I’ve instead enjoyed the indoor protection of the gallery space in contemplating and discussing two exhibitions in Wellington at the Adam Art Gallery and Enjoy Public Art Gallery.    Both exhibitions highlight the role of the artist in heightened political environments: at the Adam, Hito Steyerl’s compelling video lecture Is the Museum a Battlefield?  is showing in the Kirk gallery.  Emil McAvoy's Prismism is at Enjoy until Saturday this week.

Set during the Istanbul Biennial in 2013, Hito Steyerl's  Is the Museum a Battlefield? reveals the artist as a character caught in a time loop, implicated through indirect association with the armament industry, yet aware of her protected status at the time of the anti-government protests occurring at the time of the Biennial.  Implicating ‘star’ architects as co-conspirators with multinational clients and munitions manufacturers, and implying a gradual softening in our attitude toward weaponry through an extended socialisation within museums of armaments and guns, she asks for our assistance as viewers in reversing the ‘bullet’, citing the history of the storming of the Hermitage in 1815 and the Louvre in 1789.   As Steyerl chooses to remain and act within the institutional boundaries of the Biennial she keeps a finger pointed at the galleries that choose to receive sponsorship from armament and related companies.   For those of us in New Zealand this has been echoed by the withdrawal of several artists from the Sydney Biennale who protested the sponsorship of Transfield Holdings and the Chairing role of Luca Belgiorno-Netti - Transfield had taken over the management of detention centres in Australia. (He eventually went on to resign).  Whether Biennales can ever escape the close association with multinational companies involved in a range of activities,  - some more ethically dubious than others - is debateable while art practice continues to rely on the market and playing the role of status symbol for the wealthy.  It is not just star architects who are close to the wealthy but many individual artists as well. 

At the launch of Is a Museum a Battlefield, Adam Art Gallery Director Christina Barton asked Massey Professor Martin Patrick and me to begin a public discussion, armed with Bruno Groys’ (highly recommended)  essay on Art Activism to discuss the relevance of art as a force for action.  Sitting in the very beautifully designed Gallery space (Architecture: Ian Athfield) with around 30 others, the discussion managed to touch on some initial ideas about the role of the museum as a safe place for debate - at least when the streets are lined with tanks.    A collaborative online discussion has since been started as a publication and I look forward to seeing how the conversation will extend the ideas of Steyerl's work.  

The next day I was party to Emil McAvoy's artist talk for his show Prismism at Enjoy Public Art Gallery. The show is an examination of the design of power spaces, and links Edward Snowden’s revelations of global surveillance with police culture and abstract art.   The show comprises a set of portable-adjustable (free to arrange to your taste) abstract paintings appropriated from police car designs. Invoking an imagined boardroom of the CIA or SIS or GCSB and insinuating greater relationships with the designed casual ‘break out spaces’ of corporate architecture, Emil encouraged a healthy discussion of ones’s ability or inability to be removed from surveillance culture. The apparent indifference of abstract art and its willing co-option into the marketplace was also up for discussion even as Emil spoke of his own need for a collector to purchase his works.  We sat around on bean bags covered with police uniform fabric, in our own Saturday morning ’think tank.’ This was a cloistered space -protected physically, culturally and financially and there was not so much storming going on as 'norming' and 'forming' within our think-thank.  (See here for an explanation of the Tucker's theory of the stages of group development widely used in management).  We can’t call Emil’s work an incitement to activism per se, and yet his works have the last laugh - go and see the show and watch for your reaction next time you see a Police car.  


Sophie Jerram

Emil McAvoy's show, Prismism is on til Saturday August 2nd at Enjoy.

Hito Steyerl, Is a Museum a Battlefield? until 10 August at the Adam Art Gallery

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