Reading Room, no. 5, 2012.
Julian Dashper died in 2009, after a battle with cancer—he was forty-nine. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was one of New Zealand’s most visible and most talked-about artists. For me, at that time, his work reframed New Zealand art and set much of my agenda as a curator.1 The Big Bang Theory (1992–3), one of his key bodies of work, is now almost twenty years old; too old to be part of the current conversation, yet not old enough to feel like history. Times change and today’s art audience is unlikely to be familiar with the peculiar pressures and possibilities that gave rise to the project and made it crucial; on the other hand, it can now be appreciated in ways that it wasn’t at the time. Indeed, aspects of its significance are only now becoming clear.2
To understand Julian Dashper’s work, it is necessary to appreciate the shape of the New Zealand art scene that formed him and that he responded to. Dashper started studying at Elam School of Fine Arts, at the University of Auckland, in 1978. In the 1970s, New Zealand art’s mainstream was ‘New Zealand painting’. It included senior figures like Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, and Rita Angus, as well as younger ones like Pat Hanly, Don Binney, Michael Illingworth, and Philip Clairmont, who were also becoming household names. The more-or-less nationalist painting mainstream was challenged on either flank by the internationalisms of modernist abstraction in painting and post-object art, each of which presumed the artistic-intellectual high ground. The modernist abstract painters considered the mainstream backward. They fetishised painting’s intrinsic formal properties and asserted the ‘autonomy of the art object’—its independence from the artist’s biography and psychology, and from the wider world, politics, etcetera. They liked the aesthetic insulation of white-walled galleries, where art could be showcased in rarefied isolation. Conversely, the post-object artists, who emerged around Jim Allen’s Elam Sculpture Department in the early 1970s, had no truck with the autonomy of the art object, stressing instead the extrinsic or contextual—site-specific, social, political, and global factors. They often rejected white-walled galleries, preferring overtly loaded sites, such as volcanic craters, beaches, abandoned factories, radio waves, and their own bodies.3
As Dashper completed art school in 1981, everything was changing again. Modernist abstraction and post-object art would both be absorbed into the New Zealand art mainstream. However, their presumptions to being advanced would be hit hard by a new international sea change going under the name of postmodernism. Internationally, it ushered in a ‘return to painting’, which incorporated both nationalistic neo-expressionisms and a post-formalist take on abstraction. From the outset, Dashper played the field, working across the idioms of mainstream painting, formal abstraction and post-object art, nationalism and internationalism. Dashper’s loyalties were always split; he would claim expressionist Clairmont and expatriate conceptualist Billy Apple—both tutors during his Elam salad days—as his key early influences.4 Dashper’s first solo show, Motorway Schools, at Auckland alternative space 100m2 in 1980, was a conceptual-looking ‘intermedia’ installation. However, by the mid-1980s, Dashper was mostly showing neo-expressionist-looking paintings in dealer galleries.5 While they looked expressionist, Dashper’s neo-expressionist paintings were oddly affectless. His Cass Altarpiece (1986), for instance, was really a pastiche of expressionism—expressionism with nothing to express. While its title framed it as a homage to Rita Angus’s iconic 1936 landscape painting Cass and as religious, Dashper’s triptych had nothing to say about the pioneer woman artist, the place, or religion. Indeed, the four-and-a-half-metre wide painterly abstraction could not have been further from Angus’s modest, little, hard-edged landscape. Any reference to Angus turned entirely and exclusively on the title, making the painting little more than an alibi for exploring the effects of titling.
In the late 1980s, Dashper began to work in a more overtly detached, conceptual manner. However, his work would continue to expand upon ideas implicit in Cass Altarpiece. Dashper kept addressing canonical New Zealand artists, as if seeking to ride on their coat-tails into local art history. However, his homages remained perverse because, despite claiming to celebrate his elders, he always managed to sidestep their achievements, preferring to revel in technicalities and trivia. For instance, for his painting The Grey in Grey Lynn (1989), Dashper left on the masking tape as a nod to McCahon’s existential dilemma over the stuff. Sometimes Dashper’s homages nodded to diametrically opposed figures. For instance, 1989 drawings and paintings representing the year of his birth, ‘1960’, seemed to cite Angus’s iconic date painting AD 1968 (1968). However, in being abstract and probably having been drawn using French curves, they also suggested a debt to modernist Gordon Walters. Whose side was Dashper on?6
Dashper’s interest in art apocrypha would prove to be part of a growing fascination with art’s unacknowledged and overlooked supports. While the autonomy of the art object is associated with elite old-school modernist critics like Clement Greenberg, at another level it is simply prevailing common sense. Artworks are generally considered auratic objects, with viewers commonly disregarding the supports and paraphernalia (physical and ideological) that ground and enable them. Dashper, however, drew attention to all and any such devices, in myriad ways conflating, confusing and switching them with the art object proper. He made works out of slides, reproductions, labels, catalogues, invitations, packing materials, hanging devices and art advertising—a banner advertising one show was the show. He made works out of empty frames—suggesting that art is all frame. Observing that artists display their CVs in their shows, he exhibited his own CV as a work—his life’s work. Etcetera.
Dashper’s enquiry was bound up with what Jacques Derrida called ‘the logic of the supplement’. As Jonathan Culler explains: ‘A supplement … is “something that completes or makes an addition”. A supplement to a dictionary is an extra section that is added on, but the possibility of adding a supplement indicates that the dictionary is itself incomplete . . . The supplement is an inessential extra, added to something complete in itself, but the supplement is added in order to complete it, to compensate for a lack in what was supposed to be complete in itself.’7 Supposedly autonomous, the art object rests on all manner of disavowed supplements, without which it would not function. By placing these supplements centre stage, Dashper constantly begged the question: Where does the artwork begin and end—at its edge, at its frame, its title, its label, the gallery, the catalogue, the myth? What is inside the artwork? What is legitimate and germane to discuss as part of it?
The Big Bang Theory centred on five works, all created in 1992, each involving a drum kit whose kick drum bore the name of a key figure in the 1970s New Zealand art mainstream, as if it were a band name, for a covers or tribute band perhaps.8 The kits were first installed in New Zealand cities with which the artists were associated, the four main centres plus New Plymouth: The Woollastons (referring to Toss Woollaston) in Wellington, The Drivers (Don Driver) in New Plymouth, The Anguses (Rita Angus) in Christchurch, The Hoteres (Ralph Hotere) in Dunedin and The Colin McCahons (Colin McCahon) in Auckland. But Dashper didn’t start out with an overarching plan. The project was improvised, evolving in response to opportunities as they presented themselves.9
It started as a prank. The National Art Gallery, Wellington, invited Dashper and John Reynolds to give a lecture on the work of senior New Zealand painter, Toss Woollaston, on the last day of his 1991–2 show, Toss Woollaston: A Retrospective.10 Dashper and Reynolds had studied together at Elam, and regularly exhibited together and collaborated. Both were represented by Wellington dealer Peter McLeavey, who also showed Woollaston.11 Inviting these two young artists to celebrate the much older artist was a curious move. While it may have been done to argue a lineage, it pointed instead to a generation gap. Woollaston may have been a key figure in the development of New Zealand painting, alongside McCahon and Angus, but his big, brushy, brown landscapes were remote from current art thinking. Indeed, the curator of Woollaston’s retrospective, Gerald Barnett, acknowledged this, although he spun it as Woollaston’s own disinterest, his active ‘resistance … to … postmodern discourse’.12
Anticipating their lecture, Dashper and Reynolds published a pagework in the Listener. Dear Toss reproduced a two-page handwritten letter in which the young artists offered fulsome praise for the veteran Woollaston.13 Parts were written by Dashper (in his distinctive all-caps style) and parts by Reynolds.Their fan letter was presumptuous, even cloying: ‘It’s looking great Toss.’ They congratulated Woollaston on his retrospective, waxed lyrical about his 1974 painting From Spooners Range, Nelson, and compared him to fashionable American painter Philip Guston. They also mentioned Woollaston’s 1988 copy of Las Meninas, the 1656 Velázquez painting famously celebrated by Michel Foucault at the beginning of The Order of Things. (How did New Zealand’s mass-circulation TV guide come to run this art world in-joke? What were they thinking?)
On Sunday 16 February 1992, Dashper and Reynolds presented their ‘ lecture’ in the Blue Room, the largest gallery space at the National Art Gallery, where Woollaston’s grand late landscapes were hung. The young artists had set up a drum kit in front of From Spooners Range, Nelson. The face of the kick drum bore the legend ‘The Woollastons’ in a kitschy typeface. On one side of the drum kit was a corporate-style whiteboard. For the performance, Dashper and Reynolds took turns playing the drums, rather amateurishly (Reynolds playing better than Dashper), suggesting that they themselves were ‘The Woollastons’. The one not playing the drums drew on the whiteboard; Reynolds sketching impressions of Las Meninas and reproducing erudite quotes from The Order of Things, Dashper making modernist doodles. Occasionally, they handed whiteboard printouts to the audience. After some time, an alarm clock rang, signaling that it was all over. In truth, the performance—witnessed by a tiny audience14—had virtually nothing to do with Woollaston, who was effectively exploited by Dashper and Reynolds as an alibi, as they did their own thing.
In May 1992, Dashper made The Drivers as part of his solo show Julian Dashper’s Greatest Hits at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.15 A major local artist, Don Driver was strongly identified with the Gallery and the city. His work had always been a staple of the Govett-Brewster’s programme; he showed there regularly and was well represented in the collection. He had also worked at the Gallery continuously since 1969 in various capacities, including a stint as acting director. However, by 1992, he was employed as a gallery attendant. Dashper installed The Drivers in the two ground-floor galleries. In one gallery, he placed the drum kit. In the other, he inserted a large window into a wall, providing a view into the collection storage area behind it. That scene—which prominently included two iconic Drivers, Flyaway (1966–9) from the Govett-Brewster collection and Red Lady (ca. 1968)—was artfully arranged, as if set up for a photographic shoot. Indeed, the scene recalled Marti Friedlander’s iconic photographs of Driver in the Govett-Brewster basement (in which Flyaway and Red Lady also appear) from Jim and Mary Barr’s 1980 book Contemporary New Zealand Painters A-M.16 For those unfamiliar with the book, Dashper left two copies opened at relevant pages in a display case.
The Drivers was utterly site specific: the Gallery itself and Driver-on-duty-in-it were crucial components. One’s experience of the work was informed by knowing that its subject was right there, patrolling the gallery. Dashper’s work played on the Gallery’s complex relationship with Driver, as simultaneously a lofty artist and a lowly employee. It made an issue of the space between the celebrated name artist, collected by the Gallery and represented as a younger man in Friedlander’s photographs, and the older, frailer customer-services officer, there on the gallery floor. (Perhaps these were the multiple ‘Drivers’ of Dashper’s title.) With Driver there, one’s reading of the work was complicated by having to think about it through his eyes; considering how he felt about the liberties Dashper had taken with him and his work, the way Dashper had exhibited him. One also had to think about the ethics of the Gallery (his employer) in allowing his works in its collection and him as an employee to be co-opted by another artist in this manner. Interestingly, while Dashper’s show was on, Driver lost his job at the Gallery, having worked there for over twenty years.
I suspect that it was as a result of seeing the iconic installation shot of The Drivers drum kit taken by Govett-Brewster photographer Bryan James that Dashper realised that the drum-kit works might become a larger project in which photography could play a pivotal role. From here on, Dashper created his drum-kit installations with the camera in mind, engaging professional photographers to create single ‘ hero’ images to represent them.17 (Fortunately, the Barrs had taken a snap of The Woollastons at the National Art Gallery that Dashper could use to represent it. Omitting the performers, it could have been taken before or after the performance. Indeed, it did not suggest the drums had even been played. Originally shot on colour-slide film, Dashper printed the image in black and white, giving it a period feel.)
In late July 1992, Dashper opened a solo show at Christchurch’s Brooke/Gifford Gallery.18 At the same time, over the road, in Smith’s, the famous secondhand bookshop, he presented The Anguses, named for Rita Angus, the famed pioneer Canterbury regionalist realist. Dashper located the drum kit upstairs in the shop’s New Zealand Room, where all the precious New Zealand-specific material (including books, maps and the odd Maori carving) was held, separated off from material from the rest of the world. Of course, this recalled the way ‘ New Zealand art’ is habitually imagined to operate in a separate frame from ‘ world art’, as its supplement. Dashper played on the location as a paradoxical mise en abyme—a New Zealand room within New Zealand! Peter Bannan’s photograph of the set up has the signature melancholy of another Christchurch-associated artist, photographer Laurence Aberhart. It is as though the camera were a time machine, transporting us into a dusty past. Through the window, however, one could see the Brooke/Gifford’s modern-looking signage, as if glimpsing the future.19 The Anguses was the last of The Big Bang Theory works to be open to the public.
Dashper set up The Hoteres at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in October 1992, while he was in town for a solo show at No. 5 Gallery.20 It was installed simply to be photographed; there was no audience. Ralph Hotere was something of a local hero, having lived in Dunedin since receiving the Hodgkins Fellowship in 1969. Peter Hannken’s photograph shows the kit installed in a gallery space, but with no art to be seen. Instead, around the kit are a crate (the Gallery was in changeover) and food trays and trestles (leftover from a supplementary function the night before). The scene was bleak, dismal, matter-of-fact—no mood lighting. Apart from the name on the kick drum, there was no reference to Hotere in the photograph, although the stenciling of the Gallery’s initials on the crate and the trestles perhaps recalled the stencil-lettering style Hotere had once made his own.
Dashper was determined to do The Colin McCahons at Auckland Art Gallery. McCahon’s and the Gallery’s histories were intertwined. From 1954 to 1964—a crucial time in the invention of New Zealand art—McCahon worked at the Gallery, first under Eric Westbrook, then Peter Tomory; first as a cleaner, ultimately as a curator. His museum work informed his art practice and his developing art practice informed the emerging canon of New Zealand art that the Gallery promoted. The Gallery showed McCahon’s work while he was employed there (something that would be considered unethical—a conflict of interest—in Dashper’s day), and, after McCahon left, it presented no fewer than three retrospectives of his work.21 Today, in addition to its own substantial McCahon holdings, the Gallery also has works from the McCahon estate on long-term loan and is represented on the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.
McCahon is New Zealand’s most celebrated artist. In the 1970s he represented something of an impasse for younger artists. Almost any artistic direction they might care to pursue, he seemed to have always already been there, making younger artists feel like belated followers (’The Colin McCahons’ perhaps). Indeed, Dashper’s own entrée into the Auckland Art Gallery programme came via McCahon, when he was included in the Gallery’s 1989 After McCahon exhibition. In that show, Dashper co-opted the glazed box that the Gallery used to protect McCahon’s fragile painting-on-paper Imprisonment and Reprieve (1978–9) to frame a set of his own miscellaneous sketches, like some art cuckoo taking the master’s place. Back in 1989, the Gallery was happy for Dashper to use the box, but, in 1992, when Dashper asked if he could install The Colin McCahons drum kit in one of their galleries to photograph, they said no. So, embracing the user-pays spirit, Dashper instead hired the Gallery auditorium—a non-gallery space used for the Gallery’s supplementary public programmes (concerts, screenings, lectures, etcetera) and rented to outsiders—and did his installation there. Technically, he could claim he was exhibiting in the Gallery, although not in its galleries.
On 13 November 1992, Dashper installed the drum kit on the auditorium’s stage, between a piano (pressed against the wall, so it couldn’t be played, at least not conventionally) and a lectern (recalling that The Woollastons had been billed as a lecture and that, after leaving the Gallery, McCahon took a lecturing job at Elam). It was an ambiguous set up, perhaps suggesting a fluxus performance for drummer, lecturer and acrobatic pianist. Or perhaps the lectern and piano just happened to be there, and were beside the point. Dashper had his installation ‘ witnessed’ by Professor Tony Green (a key commentator on both McCahon and post-object art, back in the 1970s) as it was photographed by Geoffrey Short. In all, The Colin McCahons was up for less than two hours.
Dashper completed the project with a supplementary exhibition, which seemed to include all the others but was something else entirely. For The Big Bang Theory at Auckland’s Artspace (16 June–9 July 1993), Dashper mustered the five drum kits, presenting them in a line, showroom style.22 This seemed a perverse thing to do, because, in the original installations, the kits had been used as a means to coax latent histories out of the contexts in which they had been shown. Brought together, in this relatively neutral space (that none of the artists were specifically associated with), this was lost. As if turning his back on his own site-specific idea, Dashper seemed to fetishise the kits as ‘ autonomous’ artworks, as if they might be read as meaningful in themselves, out of context. Or did he?
Alongside the kits, Dashper exhibited the five photographs of the original installations. He also produced a publication featuring six essays, one on the project overall, and one on each of the five original installations.23 The photographs and the publication filled in the site-specific dimension of the original installations. The publication’s writers also relayed arcane, beside-thepoint, ‘ insider’ information, much of it doubtless fed to them by the artist himself. From Lara Strongman and Tony Green, we learnt the names of the fancy typefaces Dashper used to brand the drum kits (Gold Rush for The Woollastons and Mr Big for The Colin McCahons) as though these names were of allegorical import. Green even considered it relevant to tell us that The Colin McCahons drum kit featured an unusually large snare with a 22″ Ebony Ambassador skin made in Hollywood especially for the New Zealand market.
William McAloon made much of the fact that the drum kit for The Hoteres had been borrowed from Dunedin band The Verlaines (who, incidentally, in being named after the French symbolist poet, provided a serendipitous precedent). However, another kit was used for The Hoteres at Artspace. Stephanie Oberg observed that, at Smith’s, The Anguses ‘lacks cymbals but [is] supplemented with symbols’, but also noted that, when shown at Artspace, The Anguses had cymbals.24 Etcetera. One might wonder if such trainspotter trivia was germane.
Were the writers reading too closely or the wrong things? As publisher, was Dashper endorsing their readings, even enfolding them into his project? Dashper’s The Big Bang Theory show was like a shell game. It asked: What is the point and what is beside it? What is the actual artwork, as opposed to its supplement? First, the actual work could have been the five original installations. Except that, for one of these (The Colin McCahons), there was only an audience of one, and, for another (The Hoteres), no audience at all. These two ‘works’ were surely intended to be seen as photographs. Second, it could have been the drum kits themselves. Except that the installations had all been so site-specific. Third, it could have been the five photographs. But, while two were set up only to be photographed, others were documents, and, of those, two fundamentally misrepresented the original works (as documents are wont to). The Woollastons photograph didn’t show the performance (in fact, it was not even taken during the performance) and The Drivers photograph only showed the drum-kit part of the original installation. Fourth, perhaps it was Dashper’s publication. Much of the thinking and information that subsequently animated discussion around the project would be from there, and would have been nearly or totally impossible to deduce directly from the installations, the drum kits, and/or the photographs.
The project survived as discourse; it lived as legend. Ultimately, Dashper seemed to be saying, ‘the work’ was everywhere and nowhere, dispersed and relayed across and between many supplements. In a way, it was all supplement. Each iteration of The Big Bang Theory was quirky—exceptional. The project was riddled with inconsistencies and anomalies, which may have been incidental or crucial.25 For instance, The Woollastons photograph was the only one in which the named artist’s work appeared; The Colin McCahons was the only work where the artist’s Christian name was used; The Anguses photograph was portrait format and in colour, while the others were landscape format and black and white. As a half-baked allegory, an elaborate mixed metaphor, The Big Bang Theory begged more questions than it answered. For instance, if the drums are a supplementary instrument, making little sense musically on their own, what was missing?
While the pluralised band names suggested groups, why were these groups represented by drum kits to be played by individuals? What kind of music would be played on the drums? If there were bands, had the other instruments come and gone or were they yet to show? Were the performances yet to begin or already over? If the band names referred not to the artists named but to followers, who was implied? Did the vacant drum stools suggest absent artists, or that the job of playing the drums belonged to the viewer? A playful master of misdirection, Julian Dashper was forever posing such unanswerable questions.
In refusing to clearly construct its reader, The Big Bang Theory forced its readers to double guess Dashper’s intentions or risk getting lost in the Duchampian fine print—although, of course, many did both. In being so distinctive, so exceptional, The Big Bang Theory prompted its audience to confront the general conditions under which artworks are written and read, and specifically the ‘logic of the supplement’ at play in that. It offered itself as a test case.
In 2001, the Chartwell Trust acquired The Big Bang Theory. At least, they acquired some objects: the five drum kits and the five photographs. Along with the rest of its collection, these items are currently on long-term loan to the Auckland Art Gallery, the institution largely responsible for inventing and promulgating the nationalist New Zealand art canon back in the day. Here, they can be regularly exhibited in the company of actual Woollastons, Drivers, Anguses, Hoteres, and McCahons, giving the Gallery’s curators and education officers ample opportunity to tell tales of the halcyon days of New Zealand art. But, given that The Big Bang Theory project was fundamentally contextual, what exactly did Chartwell acquire in buying the kits and the photographs? Was it documentation, relics, or intellectual property—the right to put the art objects (the kits and photographs) into play in new contexts. The Big Bang Theory is now a curators’ plaything.
Since being acquired, the kits and the photographs have been shown on numerous occasions, as a group, as individuals and in various combinations.26 They have been, and will continue to be, put in all manner of new conversations with one another and with other works outside of Dashper’s control and authorisation. Which raises the question: to what extent are these subsequent iterations and their quirks part of Dashper’s project? Of course, this new question only deepens the problem the work already poses of itself: What am I? Where am I? Where do I begin and end?
Julian Dashper took the edge off his often dry and arcane art by weaving funny stories around it and his commentators got in on the act.27 Puns and boom-boom jokes abound in the literature. In his essay ‘Conundrum’, Stuart McKenzie said the project was about banding together and drumming out the good news, while William McAloon titled his essay on The Hoteres ‘Hits from the Sticks’.28 Such gags go with the territory, but they also distract from what is at stake in the work, which is all about idioms of art-making and the past, present and future shape of New Zealand art and art history.
If The Big Bang Theory was intended as a representation of the earlier nationalist canon of New Zealand art, it was certainly a peculiar and inadequate one. Certainly, Woollaston, Angus and McCahon were ‘ the big three,’ the basis of the nationalist canon originally backed by Auckland Art Gallery Director Peter Tomory and his disciples. If Dashper sought to evoke the old nationalist canon, it was clear why abstract painters Milan Mrkusich and Walters had been overlooked. But why include Hotere and Driver, and not, say, Pat Hanly, to whom Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith had devoted an entire chapter of An Introduction to New Zealand Painting? Driver seemed a particularly odd inclusion, having made his name as an abstract painter and as a sculptor and installation artist. He had even featured in New Art, the 1976 post-object-art-ish anthology.29
Also, the way Dashper located the artists in cities didn’t totally add up. Sure, Woollaston had long shown with Wellington dealer Peter McLeavey—from whom Woollaston’s painting Above Wellington (1986) had been purchased by Wellington’s National Art Gallery (it featured on the cover of the publication for their Woollaston retrospective)—but he was famously a Nelson artist. Rita Angus may have lived in Christchurch in her early days (so had McCahon), but she lived in Wellington after 1955 and was famous for her paintings of the capital. She would seem to be a better representative for the windy city than Sir Toss.30 Of course, by the early 1990s, the nationalist idea of New Zealand art had been discredited, and Dashper was not trying to endorse it but to parody it. Although its title, The Big Bang Theory, suggested an audacious, dramatic, sophisticated, scientific explanation of the origins of New Zealand art, the project provided no such explanation. There was a gulf between the title’s grand promise and the rickety metaphor of the five drum kits. The pre-scientific, metaphoric folk cosmology of Dashper’s ‘ theory’ pointed only to the enduring contingency and quaintness of ‘ New Zealand art.’ Perhaps Dashper was making light of New Zealand art’s desperate need to find a legitimising point of origin, however implausible.
The Big Bang Theory is essentially about the transposition of idioms. It makes an analogy between the idiom of (high) art through that of (popular) music—it treats a silent musical instrument as a sculpture. But, more significantly, it is a perverse homage to key figures in the 1970s New Zealand-art mainstream through the then-hostile idiom of post-object art, although this went largely unrecognised at the time.31 (In doing this, it engaged a cliché of post-object art, that of site-specific installation mediated through supplementary photographic ‘ documentation’ .)32 It is as though Dashper deliberately misconstrued the object of his veneration, as in a country-music tribute to heavy metal.
As art, The Big Bang Theory owed little to the five mainstream artists it ostensibly celebrated. Rather, it was indebted to a key figure in post-object art who wasn’t named, Billy Apple, particularly those works he produced on his second New Zealand tour in 1979–80 under the name The Given as an Art-Political Statement. Dropping in, ‘direct from New York’. Apple had toured the country, visiting galleries, making exhibitions on the fly. His exhibitions consisted of interventions into gallery spaces; he essentially exhibited the spaces themselves. His shows drew attention to the galleries’ quirks and inadequacies, and suggested ways they might be improved. Like an architectural proofreader with a big red pen, Apple prompted gallerists to get their acts together and showed them the way. His provocations raised questions about how much galleries and museums actually did for the artists that showed in them and for their audiences.33 The Given works made explicit back-of-house matters not normally considered part of the public art discussion. They were all about supplements. The project not only addressed exhibition spaces, it foregrounded didactic panels, catalogues, advertisements and magazine write-ups. And it involved and implicated other art-world players, illuminating the industry, the social scene of art.34 All this would be echoed in The Big Bang Theory, which was equally contextual, improvised and opportunist, and similarly presented itself as some kind of encompassing ‘ national tour.’ So, if The Big Bang Theory was a homage to anyone, it was a homage to Apple, albeit unacknowledged.
It is a problem that The Big Bang Theory is still sometimes simplistically presented as a cheery affirmation of the fine artists named and of an out-of-date idea of New Zealand art when it’s neither. Indeed, those five forlorn, silent, abandoned drum kits lined up at Artspace suggested a drum-kit graveyard. (Compare Ronnie van Hout’s contemporaneous 1992 Dead Artists photographs.35) While its title, The Big Bang Theory, proposed a beginning, Dashper’s project was more about the end of something. Certainly, its meaning would be transformed by what he did next, which was to largely turn his back on New Zealand art as a topic. While Dashper’s work had been keyed to the New Zealand scene, exploiting its peculiar insularity and intimacy, after making The Big Bang Theory he increasingly exhibited outside New Zealand, jettisoning local references and themes, producing works that could travel, physically and philosophically. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of New Zealand art had real traction. New Zealand art had largely been an enclosed discourse. It was an art made by New Zealand artists, shown in New Zealand galleries, bought by New Zealand collectors and institutions, and written up in New Zealand journals by New Zealand critics. It was often explicitly about New Zealand. By the 1980s, that idea had lost its lustre, and today it seems irrelevant, at least for current practice.
With art world globalisation—increased mobility and access to information—everything is different. These days, our artists work outside the country as much as in, finding the stakes for their work in other contexts, other conversations. We are operating in a period I like to call ‘ the end of New Zealand art.’ Dashper always aspired to be part of a larger, more international conversation. When he started shifting his work offshore, it was still a hard row to hoe. By contrast, subsequent generations of New Zealand artists have taken international engagement almost for granted. So The Big Bang Theory comes at a point of transition and, because of this, there is a real question of how to place it art historically. It can be seen as preoccupied with old-school New Zealand art (addressed to the past) or as part of a process of shedding it (clearing the way for moving on). We can see Dashper as backward looking, as ‘ the last New Zealand artist’ perhaps, or we can see him as the forerunner for a generation of younger New Zealand artists operating internationally.
There are different ways to read The Big Bang Theory. One can read it allegorically, as a tongue-in-cheek celebration and critique of the old-school nationalist canon. One can read it idiomatically, as a meditation on the contextual nature of art generally, and on post-object art’s site-specificity specifically (making Billy Apple a crucial reference point). And, in the light of Dashper’s subsequent work, one can read it as a harbinger of our global, post-national, post-medium present. Despite being absorbed into ‘ the museum’ — and, in part, because of it—the project’s complexity, slipperiness, and radiance are only increasing. In so many ways, New Zealand art — and our reading of it—might now be seen to pivot on The Big Bang Theory.
- Curated by Bernice Murphy and myself, Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1992) not only included Dashper’s work, it was indebted to Dashper for its overall approach. His work gave us precedent and permission to take liberties in rearticulating New Zealand art history.
- An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, in 2010, on the occasion of the exhibition Play On, which reflected on the art of the 1990s. Play On included the five drum kits from Dashper’s The Big Bang Theory.
- In America, abstraction and post-object art were implicated in a progression. Art evolved from abstract expressionism through minimalism into conceptualism. However, in time-lagged New Zealand in the 1970s, they appeared simultaneously, as equally current options.
- ‘ Art Historian Tony Green Talks to Julian Dashper’, Nine Lives: The 2003 Chartwell Exhibition (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2003), 13.
- By this time, his work owed much to another Julian, American neo-expressionist hero Julian Schnabel. Seeing the then-portly young Dashper pose on the cover of Art New Zealand (no. 43, Winter 1987), Lindsey Bridget Shaw wrote, ‘Julian Dashper, not content with ripping off the ideas of Julian Schnabel . . . is actually beginning to look like him.’ ‘Outside New Zealand Art Looking In’, Listener, 9 April 1988: 35.
- Walters’s Still Life with French Curves (1943) was reproduced in Francis Pound’s essay ‘Walters and the Canon’, in Gordon Walters: Order and Intuition, ed. Lawrence Simmons and James Ross (Auckland: Walters Publication, 1989), 52. Pound described the drawing as a ‘ premonition’ of the korus to come (55) and argued that Dashper had canonised Walters ‘ from below’ (63–4).
- Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), 102–3. In Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida discusses the role of ‘ the supplement’ in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings. Also relevant is Derrida’s discussion of the frame in The Truth in Painting (1987). Derrida observes that, when we look at a painting, we take the frame to be part of the wall, yet, when we look at the wall, the frame is taken to be part of the painting. The frame is an ambiguous divide between the work and that which is exterior to it. It is necessarily unclear as to whether the frame is part of the work or part of the outside world.
- The drum kits recall the eminent tradition of art-school bands.
- The Big Bang Theory was enabled by Dashper’s receiving an inaugural QEII Arts Council Visual Arts Programme Fellowship in 1991, which allowed him to develop an ambitious string of exhibitions throughout the country.
- 7 December 1991–16 February 1992.
- Early on, Dashper and Reynolds exhibited together in two-person shows: in 1983 at Durham House, Auckland, and in 1985 and 1986 at Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington.
- Gerald Barnett, Toss Woollaston: An Illustrated Biography (Wellington and Glenfield: National Art Gallery and Random Century, 1991), 89.
- Julian Dashper and John Reynolds, ‘Dear Toss’, Listener, 23 December 1991–5 January 1992: 60–1. Dashper and Reynolds’s letter accompanied a one-page preview piece on the Woollaston retrospective (Pam Walker, ‘A Meteor Eye’: 59). On that page, it was explained: ‘Over the page, in an open letter, post-modernists Julian Dashper and John Reynolds pay tribute to Woollaston’s work.’
- I speak from experience. I was one of the few in attendance that day.
- 9 May–28 June 1992.
- Marti Friedlander, text by Jim and Mary Barr, Contemporary New Zealand Painters A–M (Martinborough: Alastair Taylor, 1980).
- Peter Bannan photographed The Anguses, Peter Hannken The Hoteres, and Geoffrey Short The Colin McCahons.
- 28 July–14 August 1992.
- Peter Vangioni’s eyewitness account provides interesting background to Dashper’s opportunism and improvisation: ‘ When I first saw the drum kit, my immediate thought was that Ross Humphries, Smith’s proprietor, who also happens to be a musician, was using the space as a practice room, maybe for an AC/DC tribute band. A quick chat with Ross informed me that the kit was in fact an art work by Julian Dashper, referencing the New Zealand artist Rita Angus . . . As a drummer rather than an art historian, my appreciation of The Anguses was also assisted with the work being shown in a bookstore and not within the context of an art gallery. There were no labels, didactics or the reverent hush found in many art galleries. The installation was very low key with promotion being made by word of mouth instead of the local arts guide. The Anguses was originally proposed as a gallery installation. In April 1992 Dashper had wanted to display the work alongside Rita Angus’s oil painting Cass at the Art Annex of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery. This proposal was declined in favour of his exhibition Slideshow. Similarly, he intended to display The Anguses at the Brooke/Gifford Gallery, his Christchurch dealer, but this also failed to reach fruition. In the end Dashper settled on installing the work at Smith’s Bookshop.’ Peter Vangioni, ‘ Four on the Floor: The Anguses at Smith’s Bookshop,’ in Julian Dashper: To the Unknown New Zealander (Christchurch: Christchurch Art Gallery, 2007), 9–10.
- Julian Dashper at No. 5, October 1992.
- Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition, 1972; Colin McCahon: Gates and Journeys, 1988; and Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, 2003 (which opened at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 2002).
- The Artspace show was the first time Dashper used the phrase ‘ The Big Bang Theory’ in relation to the project. As you entered the space, the closest kit was The Hoteres, then The Woollastons, then The Anguses, then The Drivers, with The Colin McCahons furthest away. The kits were carefully ordered to suggest neither the artists’ relative positions in art history nor the order in which Dashper had made the original installations. In the Artspace show, Dashper did not use the kits he had used in the original installations, as could easily be ascertained by consulting the five accompanying photographs.
- The Big Bang Theory (Auckland: Julian Dashper, 1992).
- At first, Dashper borrowed drum kits to present The Big Bang Theory works. However, when The Big Bang Theory was acquired by the Chartwell Collection, kits were purchased.
- In addition, references leak out into other Dashper works, previous and subsequent. The Drivers harks back to Building. A Type (1989), Dashper’s wall-painting installation for Artspace’s Occupied Zone series. Here, Dasher wrote the word ‘DRIVE’ large in the same typeface he would later use for The Drivers. At the time, however, the Artspace work seemed to have nothing to do with Driver, but was read instead as referring to McCahon’s being inspired by speech bubbles on a Rinso packet (Drive being another brand of washing powder), to Dashper’s day job as a taxi driver and to Dashper’s careerism (his ‘drive’). Similarly, consider Dashper’s bizarre inclusion of The Anguses drum head in his 1994 exhibition at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, where it was bound to be (mis)read as a reference to the ANG, the Australia National Gallery (now the NGA, the National Gallery of Australia).
- For instance, in Nine Lives: The 2003 Chartwell Exhibition (Auckland Art Gallery, 2003), curated by myself, The Anguses kit was shown with all five photographs and Cass Altarpiece. In Play On (Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, 2010), curated by Tina Barton, all five kits were shown, without the photographs, in the company of works by Michael Parekowhai, Slave Pianos, Terry Urbahn, and Ava Seymour.
- Back in 1992, I reported: ‘ In the lectures he gave as part of the proceedings, Dashper proffered a unique interpretation of The Drivers. For instance he noted that drummers also play with brushes and that 40-gallon drums often appear in Driver’s work. He noted that the artist lays down a rhythm track for the rest of the culture. He spoke of the portable nature of the drums and of his art, the idea of touring art like touring a band, and the exhibition as a gig . . . Dashper treated the installation . . . as a prop . . . to weave new mythologies around.’ ‘Sleeve Notes: Julian Dashper’s Greatest Hits’, Midwest, no. 1 (1992): 23.
- Both from The Big Bang Theory (Auckland: Julian Dashper, 1992).
- New Art: Some Recent New Zealand Sculpture and Post-Object Art, ed. Jim Allen and Wystan Curnow (Auckland: Heinemann, 1976).
- Similarly, Hotere settled in Dunedin in 1969, but was born and bred at the other end of the country, in Mitimiti, Northland.
- Only Tony Green made the connection, in his essay in The Big Bang Theory publication. In New Zealand in the 1980s and early 1990s, post-object art was off the radar, a ‘missing chapter’ in New Zealand’s art history. In the late 1990s, it was put it back on the agenda with two exhibitions, Action Replay: Post-Object Art (Artspace, Auckland, 1998; Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 1998; and Auckland Art Gallery, 1998–99) and Intervention (Robert McDougall Contemporary Art Annex, Christchurch, 2000).
- See Christina Barton, Action Replay: Post Script.
- Apple’s project was also perverse, in that he was a post-object artist (for whom context was everything) seeking to perfect the kind of ‘neutral’ space favoured by abstract painters (for whom context was nought).
- For instance, at Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, Apple was assisted by artists John Bailey, Ian Bergquist, Robert Ellis and others, with photography by Peter Hannken; at the Brooke/Gifford Gallery, Christchurch, by artists John Hurrell, Paul Johns and others, with photography by Glenn Jowitt; at Bosshard Galleries, Dunedin, by artists Jeffrey Harris, Ralph Hotere, Clive Humphreys and Russell Moses; and at Auckland Art Gallery by artist and staffer Ron Brownson and art historian Tony Green. Wystan Curnow, ‘Report: The Given as an Art-political Statement’, Art New Zealand, no. 15, Autumn 1980: 26, 29, 30 and 32.
- Ironically, Dashper was survived by two of the artists named, Driver and Hotere.