Thursday, September 10, 2009

This finalist's response to the 2009 NCAA 'controversy'

You are an agent of change- Meliors Simms (Finalist, New Zealand Contemporary Art Awards 2009)
It's a painful thing, having so many people saying they are outraged on my behalf. Yes, I wanted to win the 2009 National Contemporary Art Awards (NCAA) with all my heart, but as soon as someone else's name was announced, I let it go. Really, I did. I'm a grown up. I can take disappointment. I moved on (literally: the very next morning we shifted to a new house).

But over the past few days friends and strangers have been eager to tell me (personally and in the media) that I and the other entrants were 'ripped off', 'insulted' and 'mocked' by the judge's choice.

Every time someone tells me the winning entry is a mockery or or an insult it prods at my equanimity. And since I don't particularly like the winning work*, I feel somehow forced onto the side of the outraged and offended. But I don't want to take sides in this controversy.

I deliberately, knowingly, chose to place my work in a contemporary art context, rather than any number of other environments. Therefore I accept the terms of this context: the values, fashions and foibles of the contemporary art scene in New Zealand.

I have chosen to participate in an environment that values highly conceptual work. Damien Hirsch is the most expensive living artist in the world and he is no longer physically involved in creating his own art.

 Works questioning the nature of art by presenting banal found objects in a gallery context are not actually new, challenging or surprising. Think of Marcel Duchamp's urinal a century ago, Tracey Emin's bed a decade ago, and, most pertinently in this case, Patrick Lunberg's bit of wall board that won last year's NCAA.

I wasn't surprised or offended when the NCAA's winning entry turned out to be a pile of the discarded packing material collected from mine and the other entries, placed by gallery staff following the artist's instructions provided, sight unseen, from his artist's residency in Berlin.
I'm quite sure that neither the artist, Dane Mitchell, nor the judge, Charlotte Huddleston intended me, or any of the other finalists, any insult or mockery (although they are mocking the very art world in which they hold privileged positions).

I googled Charlotte Huddleston before entering the Awards and I could tell that she's into very minimalist, very conceptual, quite abstract art. It looks like the Museum selected her precisely because they wanted a controversial winner in order to draw all this media attention and thus more visitors to the exhibition.

But should the point of the NCAA really be to get people talking about art in ways that entrench divisions between those who are in on the joke, and those who prefer work displaying talent and skill, beauty and craftsmanship, complexity and depth, as well as conceptual intelligence?

Personally, I'm not much interested in a debate over what art is or isn't. I have other concerns. But I want to participate in the contemporary art world. My intensely handmade, busy, colourful entry is not at all like the art the judge is associated with on the internet, so I worked hard to write an artist's statement that would frame my piece in terms that I hoped would resonate for her.

You are an agent of change (detail of embroidery)

I want my work to be appreciated not only because it is thought provoking, but also because it is beautiful and complex. You are an agent of change was pleasurable for me to make; I want it to be pleasurable to look at, so that it encourages and supports viewers to think about uncomfortable issues, rather than provokes and disturbs them to defend entrenched prejudices.

Most of all, I hope that the outcome of my 400 hours of so of intensive, time consuming, handwork will provoke reflection and conversation about questions such as our relationship as a species with the rest of the natural world, an issue that desperately needs fresh responses, impassioned debate and righteous indignation.

You are an agent of change (detail of crochet)
Thus my concept and practice puts You are an agent of change at another place in the spectrum of contemporary art from Dane Mitchell's Collatoral. However, that doesn't mean our works shouldn't co-exist in the same gallery. The judge selected both of our pieces as finalists, and wonderful variety of other art works. If you insist on the question of 'what is art', then it is this diversity that should answer it.

Dane Mitchell's entry is consistent with his body of work. Charlotte Huddleston's decisions were consistent with her curatorial history. Both acted consistently with the values of contemporary art activity in New Zealand. I can't be upset about that even if I don't share their taste.

What I find offensive is actually in the way the exhibition is being promoted and publicized, as though the main point of art is controversy. The insult to us all is in the media's rehashing of this tired argument in ways that perpetrate stereotypes and prejudices.

Contemporary art is a very broad church and the contemporary art scene is a game and a gamble.

Contemporary art works that are clever in-jokes will never be dislodged from their valued status by outsiders' outrage.

Your expressions of passionate indignation are counterproductive if your intention is to unseat the privilege afforded to purely conceptual art, since the controversy serves the commercial goals of cultural institutions who are deliberately provoking it.

Please don't be outraged on my behalf. I suggest that you don't even bother being outraged on your own behalf, as there are more important things to be upset about right now.

If you must direct some energy into being angry, channel your righteous indignation at our collective greed and intertia causing thousands of species extinctions every year, melting ice caps and warming oceans.

Be outraged at poverty, war, slavery, rape and child abuse.

Be angry at corruption, at prejudice and hatred, at the pointless consumption of limited resources.

But don't waste your energy being outraged about art.

 As the 2009 National Contemporary Art Award online catalogue quotes:

The good thing about art is… it’s good to try out this kind of experiment because it doesn’t matter what happens , it’s not dangerous, it’s not life, if you don’t like it you can switch it off, or rent another DVD. Art is something we deliberately let ourselves enter into because we know we can take some mild psychic risk.

Brian Eno, keynote address, Luminous Festival, Sydney Opera House June 2009

Edited 2018 to correct errors, remove references to dead links and adjust formatting. 


Rayna said...

Goodness how do you communicate a standing applause in a blog comment?

yes, yes, yes and YES!


Loretta said...

I love you Meliors!

Tim Jones said...

That's a great response, Meliors.

Bronwyn Lloyd said...

A brilliant attitude Meliors!
All the very best,