The Artist is not Present

The impossibility of the situation makes me want you even more.
Re: Truly, the impossibility does not kill the wanting.

In 2014, Walters Prize finalist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s nominated work went largely unseen. Mo’ui Tukuhausia, first performed at Te Tuhi Gallery, Pakuranga in 2012, was being re-staged at the Auckland Art Gallery for the Walters Prize, a biennial exhibition of four works selected by four jurors for being the most outstanding works of contemporary New Zealand art produced and exhibited during the past two years.

‘Uhila’s performance was originally conceived for the group show What do you mean We?, curated by Te Tuhi curator Bruce E. Philips, which considered how artists could draw out latent bias and prejudice. Mo’ui Tukuhausia was the only live performance, introducing real-life, real-time urgency into the exhibition. ‘Uhila committed to spending two weeks living around the gallery in order to gain lived knowledge about what it means to be homeless while drawing out some of our collective assumptions about homelessness. His work took the form of an ‘unauthorised’ occupation of public spaces rather than a performance of specific actions. Mo’ui Tukuhausia, as a result, was mostly uneventful. There is a short video clip online, for example, that shows the artist sitting on a bench seat, lighting a cigarette and sitting in silence before walking slowly through the grassy fields next to the gallery and sitting behind a makeshift tent-like shelter: all moments that in another space would be would be neither non-obtrusive nor provocative. A guest book managed by gallery staff collated the responses to ‘Uhila’s presence, from the artist being spat on and called names through to sceptical comments about him not being authentically homeless enough.

The bare bones of Mo’ui Tukuhausia remained the same for its second enactment at the Auckland Art Gallery: ‘Uhila would live homeless around the grounds of the gallery, temporarily putting his life on hold to live instead by the pace and routine of a homeless person. But distinctly, the Auckland Art Gallery performance would last for three months—the full duration of the Walters Prize exhibition—and would take place under the scrutiny of a much wider audience. These changes foreground one type of distance created by restaging Mo’ui Tukuhausia at the Auckland Art Gallery: the breach between two works occurring in different areas, witnessed by different audiences, conceived by one venue and hosted in another. Even taking the work out of a group exhibition and into a format where it had to stand against, rather than with, other works, distances the remake from the original.

At the same time, another, more perfunctory distance was also being performed. ‘Uhila’s oft-missed presence and frequent silence highlighted the function of writing in making the rarely visible legible. Beyond his artist talk, direct contact or conversation with ‘Uhila felt hard to come by. His daily garb consisted of black clothes, a conscious attempt to de-politicise his Pacific identity, and though he was able to lurk around the gallery during the day, much of his engagement with the realities of living on the street happened at night. As a result, aside from those who knew and recognised him, ‘Uhila’s status as an artist and his existence living in public spaces as an artwork was camouflaged, merging into the backdrop of homelessness that pervades Auckland’s CBD. As Philips noted, “There may not be anything to see, as such, because the expectations of a conventional viewer experience are put to the side in favour of the artist engaging with the given public context”.

Since the elusive work exists only as a live event, an experience of Mo’ui Tukuhausia is primarily vicarious. Curatorial essays, a raft of reviews on the Eyecontact website, blog entries, and news articles are the main point of access. Specific readings of Mo’ui Tukuhausia are encouraged almost exclusively by those who enjoy—or are burdened with—some degree of editorial privilege. Take for instance the catalogue essay from Stephen Cleland, which places the performance within a lineage of social interventions dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, a legitimate but somewhat tangential framework to choose for an artist who consistently links his work back to personal experiences and influences that largely sit outside of Western contemporary art history. Cleland’s text also foregrounded the crisis on homelessness and collective or institutional responsibility as key issues raised by Mo’ui Tukuhausia. Many reviews, articles, and interviews followed the same line of enquiry, elevating the work for seeking to renew consciousness about social inequalities. The majority of texts wrote around, rather than about Mo’ui Tukuhausia, and the artist was absent yet again.

The idea that writing often bridges the gap between artwork and audience isn’t revelatory. Documentation and interpretation offer an artwork further distribution, in particular stretching the lifespan of live performance. Some see this insertion of work into an interpretative discourse as vital to legitimising an artwork or artist. In 2011, curator Robert Leonard gave a talk at The Adam Art Gallery titled Nostalgia for Intimacy, in which he references art critic Wystan Curnow’s characterisation of the art scene as a pyramid:

At the top, where the air is thin, are a few artists posing and answering the big questions. Below them are mediators, cultural middlemen, such as curators, critics, and university lecturers. They broker the artists’ work to the biggest group, the broad base of the pyramid, the public for art. Curnow argued that the work of those at the top will simply never be understood by the great unwashed. He said, in a functioning high culture, the middle men see it as their job to insulate the artists from the public by generating cultural clout, a climate of legitimacy for art, so that art is valued even if it isn’t understood. By doing this, they seek to increase the distance between the artists and the public, allowing artists to be ambitious, audacious, and extreme; allowing them to get on with the business of problem identification and solving.

According to Curnow, not only is distance—as embodied and even exaggerated by the ‘middle men’—key to validating art and artists, it also actively enables artists to be braver in their approach, the implication being that this will result in better, more challenging outcomes. In many ways, the work of the curators and writers in relation to Mo’ui Tukuhausia was to create this buffer, to ascribe value so that ‘Uhila might be allowed to “be ambitious, audacious and extreme.” Given the context of the Walters Prize exhibition, which claims to showcase the four best works made by New Zealand artists over a two-year period, a further impetus to justify and validate Mo’ui Tukuhausia was surely a factor.

The antithesis of this distance, according to Leonard, is not proximity, but intimacy. Leonard invokes intimacy to characterise the New Zealand art scene prior to Julian Dashper and other artists of his generation: inwardly focused, enclosed, but full of fervent debate. Though intimacy is positioned in the past tense as a key characteristic of a zeitgeist that has given way to a more international, outward-focused scene, intimacy (and distance) as a framing device still has use-value when extended to describing the differing levels of access to artists. During the Walters Prize exhibition, an arguably more intimate witnessing of ‘Uhila’s performance was taking place, with a few moments paradoxically recorded, via Facebook, Instagram, and email. One image captured ‘Uhila waiting outside of an Auckland dealer gallery with his bike for a friend to arrive; another showed the artist having lunch at a local Japanese eatery with two others; yet another captured the artist having lunch in South Auckland. ‘Uhila notably had a mobile phone during the Walters Prize—a phone charging at a power point could often be spied in the corridors of the Auckland Art Gallery. It serves as a visual reminder of an informal and personal network that ‘Uhila, and by extension Mo’ui Tukuhausia, were a part of that did not include the wider public. In this circle, a different, and at certain times more critical conversation about the work was taking place, one informed by seeing the artist and hearing him talk first hand.

This intimacy is, by its nature, an unlikely experience for most views. But the impossibility of the situation does not kill the wanting, nor even the nostaglia. An ongoing desire for close access or fervent debate is now often satisfied by catalogue texts, reviews and articles, with their implicit promise to act as conduit between artwork (and artist) and reader. Mo’ui Tukuhausia, or more specifically its reliance on writing for visibility and interpretation, unintentionally betrayed the paradox much art writing represents, whereby its very existence occupies and further cleaves the distance it frequently seeks to close. Though the middleman is an important player for all the reasons Curnow outlines, Mo’ui Tukuhausia is a reminder that writing is its own encounter rather than its subject’s surrogate or double. Don’t mistake distance for intimacy.

May 2013

This text was produced for the publication Reading, Writing, Walking, co-published by ST Paul St Gallery and The Physics Room.

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