Hangover, ex. cat. (New Plymouth, Dunedin, and Hamilton: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and Waikato Museum of Art and History), 1995.
The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor, of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land.
The artists in Hangover live in Bonanza-land. Their eyes are glued to the rear-view mirror. They value things past their use-by date, stuff literally ‘hung over’. Most of this stuff comes from pop culture, much of it American: classic rock and heavy metal, big cars, Marlboro men, Dean Martin, old TV shows, snakeskin, decals, Pentecostal Christianity, girl gangs, horror and war comix, centrefolds and forum pages, guy films, supermarrionation, sympathy cards, tattoos, charm bracelets, bargain basements, karaoke … In their work, this imported trash often meets up with chunks of distinctly local trash. Sometimes this local colour derives from popular culture, like tourist tack, other times from the now-stale high culture of yesteryear. Some examples …
Tony de Lautour’s favourite character is the solemn and benign kiwi, but de Lautour corrupts our national bird, casting him against type, offering him as drooling, degenerate, and demented—no damn good. In his paintings, the deviant kiwi often appears surrounded by little images as if he’d stepped into a Killeen cutout, except here the images are all base, a sump of tattoo classics and special-forces insignia.
Judy Darragh’s work is also about accumulation and waste. She gathers and recycles the most unbelievable stuff. Local references abound: paintings of indigenous persons, scenic landscapes, paua shell … She’s not really trying to analyse, critique, or comment on this material. She doesn’t even transform it that much. She remains close to her sources. Her works are part of a larger art project which includes her activity as a collector, the clothes she wears, and her role as the Queen of Kitsch (now abdicated)—it’s lifestyle art.
In Ronnie van Hout’s photos, McCahon’s silent land is reprised in plasticine, only to be overrun by Nazis and the undead. McCahon’s heroic grail quest is remade as a z-grade movie.
In Bill Hammond’s ‘bar’ paintings, native birds await death at the hands of the celebrated and bloodthirsty nineteenth-century ornithologist Walter Buller. In their print shirts, they squander their youths drinking, smoking, shooting pool. Their lumpy pool table recalls the landscapes immortalised by McCahon and co.—no level playing field.
Jason Greig’s Southern Man is equal parts Hellraiser, Albert Steptoe, and Speights man. Greig’s work is full of romantic ‘men alone’—a staple of local art and literary history.
It’s been said that the city is corrupt, tainted, while the backblocks can remain themselves: isolated and distinctive. But when painter Mike Stevenson went looking for New Zealand in out-of-the-way places, what he found was middle America. His chronicle of our small towns showed them to be both isolated and international, full of Pentecostal Christianity, Easy Rider, Jack Daniels, and ape hangers. Stevenson should know about this stuff, he was born in the tiny burg of Inglewood.
Terry Urbahn was bred in nearby New Plymouth, and yet he called his promotional exhibition for his home town Alien Space. One of the videos linked scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey with footage of Fitzroy Beach, Rugby Park, and the Blue Room of the White Hart Hotel. The videos also included interviews with New Plymouth surf, rugby, and metal heroes, and excerpts from David Bowie, Sex Pistols, and Buzzcocks clips.
With all their references to local stuff, these artists could be understood as exploring national identity, and yet this work is far removed from that older art that fetishised New Zealand’s distinctive characteristics at the expense of what else that it was or could be, that made a noble utopian project of national identity. In this work, distinctly local trash culture and global trash culture collide—just like they do here for real. If those artists are concerned with offering a sense of place and identity, it’s one that is porous and tainted rather than essential. And they don’t present these old nationalist images as things to believe in exactly—they are not endorsed for being truthful so much as neat.
Whether they use local imagery or not, all the artists in Hangover are exploring and celebrating ethnicity: a subcultural, trashy, ‘white’ ethnicity. But they don’t have a holistic, noble approach to ethnic identity—they’re not Morris dancers. They don’t believe that ‘culture’ is necessarily good, in and of itself. Their idea of cultural values has been expanded to incorporate drink-driving, Charles Manson, high heels. Here, the example of Peter Robinson is instructive. A little while ago this 96.875% Pakeha artist stopped making noble and deeply spiritual works, in favour of exploiting the more familiar imagery and sentiments of the bogan bargain basement.
All this work could be mistaken as having an ethnographic bent. It’s true, Saskia Leek offers social studies. But her considerations of girl gangs are not structural analysis so much as reportage/fantasy/anecdote. And Terry Urbahn’s Hangover installation pokes fun at ethnography. In this work, ‘Tracey’s World’ colonises the embarrassingly amateurish representations of African tribal life he found in discarded National Museum Education Service mini-diorama cases.
The artists in Hangover are not high cultural. They don’t claim a superior critical, analytical, or emotional position. They don’t promote themselves as advanced or original. Their work’s not avantgarde. It’s not trying to forge a new language, but to redeem old ones. In place of critiques and theories, they offer throwaway lines and self-deprecating remarks, pulling down all that smells of spiritual or intellectual transcendence.
Indeed, when the Hangover artists do explain the world, their analyses are often intentionally implausible—conspiracy theories. This is particularly apparent in the recent diagrams of Mike Stevenson, which offer spurious evidence of the art world’s complicity in covert operations: surveillance, military research, close encounters, satanism. Robin Neate is plagued by a similarly obsessive turn of mind. He recently conducted an interview with Marcel Duchamp ‘beyond the grave’. In it the old man explained how Martin Scorsese had cunningly cribbed the themes of his Large Glass in Taxi Driver. Such discussion is arcane, clever, even erudite: a parody of the intellectual. But really, how different is it from theory proper?
Paul Mann recently presented a compelling critique of Theory in his article ‘Stupid Undergrounds’: ‘Intelligence is no longer enough. We have witnessed so many spectacles of critical intelligence’s dumb complicity in everything it claims to oppose that we no longer have the slightest confidence in it. One knows with the utmost certainty that the most intense criticism goes hand in hand with the most venal careerism, that institutional critiques bolster the institutions by the mere fact of taking part in their discourse, that every position is ignorant of its deepest stakes. Each school of critical thought sustains itself by its stupidity … What is most “subversive” now is neither critical intelligence nor romantic madness… but the dull weight of stupidity, spectacularly elaborated, and subversive only by means of evacuating the significance of everything it touches—including the romance of subversion itself. In this zone, criticism is stupid, hence only stupidity can be critical.’2
Marie Shannon’s stupidity is certainly critical. Her work nags the vanity and pretence of art-theory and theory-art. She presents portraits of particular and generic art-world luminaries as pipe-cleaner figures. She proposes novel intermedia-art projects like her ‘funniest art video’ and ‘art bloopers’. A recent work recalls a dream in which a Milan Mrkusich Journey painting is accidentally soiled, when someone dribbles pink Fristi onto it.
‘Stupidity’ comes from the Latin stupidus, ‘stunned’. The stupid artist has no pretence to an overview, being similarly transfixed, caught in the headlights. The stupid artist prefers immanence over transcendence. And, in a sense, this ‘stupidity’ may be less stupid than the intelligence of the intelligent artist, who presumes to be above everything white being in the thick of it. It’s certainly more honest. ‘Cause stupid is as stupid does.’
And so it is that Hangover offers a kind of contemporary vanitas. It’s art about how things look the next day: beer slicks, cigarette butts, a bad smell, and records out of their covers. It’s the aftertaste of our repartee, our sophistication, the things of which we were so proud. And yet this work is not all headache. As it goes about foraging through stuff, it takes a perverse pleasure in redundant paradigms, continuing to love what has already been dismissed. And that’s why it’s hard to fault it. It sidesteps theory, knowing that it too will reach the use-by date.
- The Medium Is the Massage (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 74–5.
- Paul Mann, ‘Stupid Undergrounds’, Postmodern Culture (e-zine), vol. 5, no. 4, May 1995: paragraph 5.