A talk given at Michael Lett, Auckland, in the exhibition Julian Dashper: Again and Again, Again, 14 May 2016.
The best artists are those you keep coming back to in your head. Julian Dashper is one of them, for me. He was a contemporary of mine. I watched his art thinking unfold over the years, from show to show. His art took shape as my thinking about art took shape. I measure my own art adventure against his. And I worked with him along the way, although our sensibilities and commitments were different and, at times, at odds. I wrote on and curated his work sporadically but often. He died in 2009, aged 49, from melanoma. It was a life cut short, an oeuvre closed prematurely, a great loss.
The show here at Michael Lett is a rerun, restaging Dashper’s show Again and Again, held at Aratoi, Masterton, back in 2006. That show was curated by Mark Kirby, Dashper’s house critic and curator, but I think it’s fair to count it as an artist project. It was a retrospective of sorts, sampling and surveying Dashper’s art strategies through twenty years of his multiples, 1986 to 2006. The works were all hung on one wall like a dashboard. This was Dashper’s Box in a Valise. It spoke volumes about his work.
Dashper was a promiscuous exhibition maker. He made so many shows, in galleries big and small, often in out-of-the-way places. His approach, of making shows ‘on the road’, carrying his art in a suitcase or producing it in situ, was heavily informed by two precedents: first Billy Apple, then John Nixon. His work was shaped by the practicalities of showing continually and needing to offer a new twist each time. Dashper’s engagement with the exhibition as a medium is one of the reasons he is of interest to curators in general, and to me in particular. But what he had in common with curators is also why he would keep them at bay—because he wanted to make the show.
I didn’t see Again and Again in Masterton. I was living in Australia by then. And, even if I hadn’t been … who goes to Masterton to see art? No one. It’s the provinces of the provinces. I remember Dashper once joking about his perverse hanging strategies, advising me to ‘put the biggest work on the smallest wall, the smallest work on the biggest wall’. Again and Again was like that, staging the densest, grandest show in the most out-of-the-way place, alert to the fact that it would become legendary, but principally through photos.
I was always impressed by the official photos of the Masterton show, with Dashper and curator Kirby standing in front of their masterpiece, contemplating this expansive, vertiginous salon hang (at Aratoi, the stud was higher). They seemed engulfed and dwarfed by it. Massed, this truckload of works, some tiny and trivial, had a collective force and authority. It was unusual for Dashper to offer such a feast. His shows were usually spare and rarified, spotlighting the tweak. Less is more.
With retrospectives, we expect to see works hung in chronological sequence—telling the story. But this retrospective is not hung in a sequence. It is hung as a field, as if everything is equally current and live, participating in the here-and-now. Of course, if you are familiar with Dashper’s stuff, you know that some works came before others, some even begat others. But, even Dashper diehards will be pressed to put more than a fraction of the works shown into chronological order without reference to the room sheet. Anyone who tries to will feel thwarted. Too much.
Again and Again is like a big mind map, waiting for us to connect the dots and we can connect them in many ways. When I look at it, I take successive sweeps or sorties through the territory. With each scan, I harvest different connections. I link up works to make families. I link the striped works. I link the circles; the circles and the targets; the circles, the targets, and the chains; the circles, the targets, the chains, and the frames. I link the photos. I link triangles, frame corners, and stretcher wedges, formally and conceptually. I generate sets and subsets. I think of Venn diagrams.
Some connections are profound, others trivial. I distinguish the made and the readymade. I link silent circular things that suggest sound (a CD, a record, a drum). I find holes in the centre of a CD, cut in a piece of paper, and naturally occurring as a painting stretcher, empty frames, and chain links. I note habitual moves (one thing put on top of another). Some works become crucial in mapping the field, nodes at crossroads between categories. Categories themselves are tested: I see multiples, but also hybrids of the multiple and the unique. I see themes and variations. I revel in plays of visual différance, like a linguist distinguishing ‘bat’, ‘cat’, and ‘rat’.
Again and Again is like one of those newspaper puzzles, where you have to make up words by joining letters. You are challenged to make more words, longer words, and to use all the letters, perhaps every letter. Standing in front of it all, here, sometimes I feel like I have agency, that I am making the connections; other times, I feel like a ball in a pinball game, bounced between bumpers, targets, and flippers, like the ensemble is playing me.
As I say, I only knew the show from photos until seeing it restaged here, and those photos just show the big wall. I had no idea that the exhibition also included a video of Dashper talking about his work, explaining himself, installed off to the side. Here, the artist is present, being charming, giving us a helping hand; or, alternatively, blathering on, distracting us from the art, saying what should go without saying. The video stands in counterpoint to the works on the wall. It seems insistantly personal, while the wall works seem so impersonal.
In Wellington, I’ve just done the Julian Dashper & Friends show—it closes tomorrow. It places Dashper’s works in conversation with those of his elders, his contemporaries, and others who followed. It stresses his work’s conviviality, its warmth. But, one could also say that Dashper’s work is rather cold and calculating—impersonal. So, what is the role of this personal element, so present in the video? This ‘personal’ is also present in Dashper’s quirky lectures and writings, which were and are full of inane anecdotes, shaggy-dog stories, throwaway lines, and dad jokes.
Dashper’s ‘personal’ schtick was not so personal or original, but a self-conscious pastiche of Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Peter McLeavey, and others. To me, it seems, this witty, personal element is not a meta-key or the ‘the real’ Dashper, but either another trope or a front. So, I wonder if those who love Dashper for his cute and quirky side—who feel close to him for this—might fundamentally misunderstand his project. Beneath the witty surface, Dashper is a machine, relentlessly grinding out his programme.
I think of Warhol. He said he wanted to be a machine, yet, perhaps inadvertantly, spawned a huge personality cult. Dashper has much in common with several other artists who operate out of the Warhol legacy. John Armleder and Martin Creed similarly explore and catalogue generic art strategies, yet drizzle their arm’s-length high-concept inquiries with ‘personality’ (Armleder’s snappy attire, ponytail, and Christmas albums; Creed’s contrived dithering and obsessive wet-wiping). They are charismatic front men for their projects. But it’s a ploy that can go pear shaped if fans prefer to miss the point.
Dashper had a lot of art friends. They are still in mourning. They assert the personal aspect. They fondly retell Dashper’s stories or come up with their own tall tales about him. The real Dashper. For me, with Dashper’s project, the personal is the next obstacle to address, to overcome. I suspect doing so will help us to understand Dashper better, but it may come at the cost of friendship, for some. Perhaps we will see a schism in the Dashper church, between those who prefer the work and those who prefer the anecdotes. I know which side I’m on.
[IMAGE: Julian Dashper: Again and Again, Again, Michael Lett, Auckland, 2016.]