Published on the occasion of SOCIAL MATTER, curated by Louisa Afoa
It often feels like contemporary art sits ‘above’ everyday life: concerns about finances, families, friends, are all simply secondary to the intellectual activity that is thinking about and making art. But we all know that’s false. Making comes out of and is supported by a number of relationships and communities. Some of these are obvious, like the collegial support of other art-minded friends to the social networks that help disseminate work and secure reputations. Other interactions are too rooted for us to identify.
Despite the importance of social contexts to the production, reception and circulation of contemporary art, it’s only rarely that they are acknowledged as a pre-existing set of conditions, even if it has become trendy to talk about social engagement as an outcome of a project. When the social sphere is directly acknowledged in artist’s practice, it’s often sidelined as being ‘community’ art, or cliquey, or earnest. And nothing kills the perception of being critical like the stigma of being earnest.
Social Matter, curated by Louisa Afoa, is governed by a belief that far from being unremarkable or twee, everyday social interactions are central to how we place ourselves in the world. Afoa is careful to sidestep existing social practice discourse and walk directly into the social life that both precedes and informs art making. Her questions then are much more fundamental: what social spheres do artists encounter; how do these act upon us; how might the social manifest as the subject of a work?
Across the exhibition, the internet emerges as a dominant site of social activity. Janet Lilo’s Untitled (2016) suggests that the internet is where the individual and the collective are in a constant cycle of influencing each other, a dynamic forgotten perhaps in the normalisation of social media. This has been an ongoing concern in her practice. An earlier Lilo work, Top 16 (2006), featured images taken from strangers’ accounts on the now defunct social media site Bebo. The resulting montage — in addition to disconcertedly emphasising how private images become public property — identified the prevalence of selfie tropes: the car selfie, the duck pout). 10 years later, Untitled (2016) employs the same strategy of collecting together images taken from the internet. It marks something of a turn since Top 16, with social media no longer a novelty and user responses more predictable. As a result, an app like Snapchat features (and is even popularised by) filters targeted specifically at selfie behaviour.
Sione Monu’s images are similarly taken from the internet, but unlike Lilo, he is also the uploader. #BlanketCouture (2016) originally featured on Monu’s Instagram account. Born out of play, the images together read like the visual diary of an economical artist who is always practising, pulling upon nearby materials to make and construct dramatic gowns. They also subversively read as a celebration of economic, culturally-marked materials. The mink blanket is, for me at least, an icon of the Pacific Island home. Uploading these images then has the potential effect to not only create practise as practise, but to distribute a pride in cultural identity and the elegance possible in the domestic space where family value and cultures are practiced loudest.
Lana Lopesi is interested in spaces that act as archives, including both the internet and physical sites. Seki (2016) draws inspiration from the popular Facebook page ‘Tasty’, which shares video recipes of Western foods. Lopesi borrows the format to create video recipes of typical Samoan food, suggesting the potential of both food as a mode of talanoa and the internet as a site of exchange. Working in a different vein, Social Reader (2016 – ongoing) is a compilation of social practice in Aotearoa New Zealand. Each project has been graded on a spectrum of successful social engagement.
Moving away from the internet altogether, artist collective Public Share and artist Valasi Leota-Seiuli both look at physical spaces that act as containers of social activity. Leota-Seiuli’s Vala au mai si ou Tina (2016) features images of houses transferred onto plaster casts reminiscent of tombstones. Four depict houses the artist’s father lived in that were subjected to dawn raids in the 1970s, while a fifth depicts the home Leota-Seuiuli’s father consequently moved to in Dunedin. For this iteration of Social Matter, Leota-Seuiuli has also added a sixth image of the house she now lives in with her parents.
For Social Matter, Public Share have converted the rm archive room into a workers club space, replete with pool table, dart board, card table and fridge. The project continues the collective’s interest in reinstating time for “a rest and a break”, which has slowly been eroded in recent regulation legislation. In the past, the making of ‘break time-related objects — mugs, cups, stirrers — has offered a way in which to engage a range of people in taking ‘time out’, from those who helped source clay to the collective’s own times together making to those who were eventually invited to take away the objects and use them functionally to make tea or coffee. This project places a greater focus on the importance of space in encouraging breaks, and moreover, the collectivity, education and politicisation that can come with it.
Together, the works in this exhibition point to a multitude of different social experiences, ranging from the domestic to the workplace, the digital to the physical, the personal to the public. If what social interactions seem difficult to contain, ‘matter’ is as equally broad and open. Significantly though, ‘matter’ denotes a tangible substance. By extension, the term ‘Social Matter’ implies that we could think of ‘social’ as having a physicality; of having weight. Though disparate, each of these works asserts the importance of social lives in the formation of well being and the understanding of one’s place within society. It’s no coincidence that it feels like there’s an unspoken ‘s’ at the end of the exhibition title: Social Matters.