Mark Kirby Essay

Some of the more interesting 20th century artworks must surely be Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings from 1951. These blank white surfaces embraced indeterminacy at a time when the prevailing paradigm saw the artist as central to a work’s conceptual and material existence. Rauschenberg’s intention was to embrace art with life by making his paintings part of life. In the white paintings he did this by producing something that responded to the environment they were in, to the extent that, he argued, by looking at the reflections within them you could tell exactly how many people were in the space. Later he extended this idea by making art using found objects and images that he indiscriminately collected, and by using technologies that reduced his input as an artist. By doing so, he said, he made ‘today’ the creator of his art; which he did principally by making the viewer the primary giver of meaning, and interpretation the primary creative process. His art became, in effect, vacant spaces waiting to be occupied by whosoever could be bothered to stop, look, and think. By doing so however, he also showed how interesting the banal object can be, and the unexpectedly interesting connections that can be drawn between the disparate detritus that became his iconography. While Rauschenberg predated many of the ideas of post-modernism, his ideas were not unique even at that time, which is a point not often made in discussions of pre-postmodern art.1

Vacancy then, is an exhibition about how vacant spaces are rarely empty, or if they are, about how they become occupied. It is also about what connections can happen between things that appear to have no clear relationship, as when a number of diverse artists are included in a single show, as has happened in this exhibition. Most of these artists have also chosen what seems at first sight banal subjects, things so ordinary so as to appear vacant of anything that might be interesting. In so doing they seem to offer definitions of art that contradict the meaning of this show’s title, which is the proposition that within every vacancy there lies thoughtful opportunity. Vacancy is a collaborative project by Ron Left and Monique Redmond that includes an exhibition and a publication. As well as exhibiting their own work, they invited John Reynolds, Stella Brennan, Paul Cullen, Haruhiko Sameshima and writer David Cross to participate in the exhibition and or catalogue. This essay focuses on Left and Redmond’s work in particular, and later extends to briefer discussions of the other exhibiting artists.

Monique Redmond’s series Island Life speaks of how informational systems alter interpretive play, by coding information within syntax. These works are made of coloured dots stuck over large format photographs of suburban traffic islands, in a laborious process that typifies the way Redmond, normally a sculptor, frequently makes her work. Her photographs are named after the places where they were taken, at Onerahi, Parnell and Westmere, and were taken by Redmond while driving so as to best represent a driver’s point of view. Traffic islands tend to be dreary unpopulated sites that we see but rarely notice.  They are meant to be unspectacular so as to assist in the avoidance of accidents, although blooming flowers decorate these ones. However visibly mundane, traffic islands are important in the language of the road code, in the way they organise traffic the same way grammar organises speech. Traffic islands are intended to close down freedom of expression on the road, or more particularly, ‘expressive’ driving, and by so doing avoid confusion, chaos and calamity. So while mundane and unnoticed, traffic islands are not conceptually empty places; they may look dull but they are vital in contemporary transportation systems. As such, in their quiet controlling way, they are somewhat sinister. But traffic islands are also no place in particular, because they are places you only come to when going somewhere else. Like Rauschenberg’s white paintings they are neither here nor there, they are simply in between, part of a traveler’s process.

Redmond’s original photographs are surprisingly beautiful considering the modest subject. However, the original images became unseeable under the coloured dots. Although she matched the colours of the original with the dots as best as she could, Redmond still created an impenetrable screen between the original and the viewer. Because of this, the rich variety of colours and tonal variations of the original image became essentialised into the tonal and colour restrictions of the stickers that were available to her. This is not to say that the second version is less interesting than the first, just that it is completely different, offering new readings.  To me they refer to digital pixilations, the method by which computers transform electronic information into representational images on a screen, as well as Pointillism, the 19th century painting technique that came out of Impressionism. This becomes stronger as you move away from each image, and notice how the coloured dots merge in the manner of a Pointillist painting. In doing so these works stop being photographs and become paintings, and the media, arguably, as much an author as the artist.2

Photographs of plugholes and trains passing through railway stations are the source material for Ron Left’s paintings in Vacancy. His subjects are similar to Redmond’s traffic islands, ordinary and banal, repetitive and contradictory. They are also places where things visit enroute to somewhere else, in that a sink holds and then releases water down a plughole, while a railway station holds people waiting for or departing from trains, as part of a trip elsewhere. Left catches things between places, things that are not really here or there. He arrests a train as it moves through a station, the movement of the water as it flows down the plughole, and paint as it flows across the surface of his paintings. If you look closely at the images you may see people sitting in carriages, caught like water in a sink.

In a similar way to Redmond, who coded photographs of traffic islands into a veil of coloured dots, Left has translated photography into painting. In so doing, a different set of values is applied to the work, and other readings made possible. He has further reorganised the photographs by placing them within a subtle grid configuration. Grids are perhaps one of the more banal and repetitive iconographic elements of Modernist painting, yet conceptually vacant sites, as shown by how they have come to symbolize the contradictory forces of spiritualism and fascism.3 Left likes to refer to Giles Deleuze’s idea that a grid is a non-hierarchical structure; however there are others who see it is as a system that subordinates all that enter it into geometric totalitarianism.4

Left is usually known as an abstract painter who sometimes makes abstract sculpture, however these paintings sit between abstraction and representation, or more particularly, are both abstract and representational at the same time. In this way Left references mid century American painting, such as the colour-field paintings of Barnet Newman, which to me have always looked like walls, and more particularly Jasper Johns’ targets, which have a more than passing resemblance to a plughole. John’s paintings were an enigma of their time, conflating reality into representation, by painting something that was simultaneously a copy of a target and a real target, something that you could shoot things at. But Johns’ targets are also no more than paintings of concentric circles, abstract art made from geometric forms, something since taken up by a number of following painters, including New Zealand’s Julian Dashper. As such, they suggest that abstraction is not as representationally vacant as it would like to be, that it is as much a representation as not, of objects from the world it attempts to avoid, and of other abstract paintings, which it pretends to ignore.5

Left is also interested in what makes some banal objects seem interesting. This interest is a matter of preference of course; as for some a plug is no more than a plug, and a traffic island no more than a nuisance. This is reflected by the deliberate hesitancy of some of his titles, such as Subway – coming or going, In between, Making and remaking, and Now then, among others. When talking to Left, repetitive themes are psychoanalytic ideas about latent and manifest, about why commonplace objects trigger thoughts that belie their ordinariness. This becomes clearer when you closely inspect one of Left’s paintings, where he has poured paint onto a surface held at an oblique angle so that it runs down the length of the painting. His process resembles the controlled-accidents of Morris Louis, although on primed canvases, which prevent the merging of paint into surface that is typical of Louis. The result is a perceptually ambiguous surface, that could be sky or sea or land or something else, one where the latent suggestiveness and sensuality of paint becomes patent, and lures you into a hedonistic, or even libidinal, binge.6 In thematically similar work, in a series called FY Mugshots, Redmond has photographed plants from Auckland’s inner suburbs that at first glance seem as interesting as plugs. These plants are mostly unspectacular though flowering bushes used by people to break up the tedium of their even more ordinary front lawns. They are things we would not ordinarily pay any attention to, so uninteresting as to appear vacant of curiosity.  Despite all this, the art context that Redmond places them in, and by isolating them through close cropping, personifies them to the extent that you need to take a second look, where otherwise you wouldn’t bother. This is exacerbated by their names; Four looking shaggy, Six looking glamorous, Four looking keen, so on and so forth; which causes them to develop personas, and, as strange as this may seem, a suggestion that they just might be alive, watching us as we watch them. Redmond’s flora therefore, also exists in an in-between space, between house and street, public and private, flora and fauna, and conscious and subconscious among other things. Here, the uneasiness of her traffic islands is repeated, the ordinary or banal made interesting once again, and the manifest once more suggestive of the latent.

This is not to say that Left and Redmond place art in a realm of apocalyptical indeterminacy, just that the vagaries of meaning is what their art is often about. As such, their interest is not so much in viewers finding specific meaning, as them taking part in and enjoying the never-ending play of association that vacancy provides; or as Jacques Derrida has said, where interpretation is ‘…not a matter of finding the meaning of the text, but of taking part in and enjoying the infinite play of meanings in a text.’7

Haruhiko Sameshima talks of his photographs in Vacancy as if they are one of Rauschenberg’s white paintings. His five works, made of four pairs of large format black and white photographs of Auckland car parks located in empty inner city lots, and a text panel, were made without thinking about the idea of vacancy at all. However, they are conceptually relevant, and not because they are composed around open, vacated and banal spaces. They are relevant because, according to a quote from the accompanying text panel by 19th century critic Charles Baudeliare, a photographer should be little more than a secretary who archives the poetry of others.  According to Baudelaire, if photography ‘…be allowed to encroach upon the domain of impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be much the worse for us.’8  By this argument photographs have to be intrinsically and artistically vacant, which some say is the nature of most art anyway.

Stella Brennan’s DVD White Wall Black Hole and catalogue essay present Antarctica as a vacant space, a ‘blank continent’, awaiting inscription and definition. The DVD incorporates images of the 1979 disaster when an Air New Zealand plane crashed into Mount Erebus, with a text written by Brennan, but spoken in the asexual ‘voice’ of her computer. Antarctica is in some ways a hollow place, a vacant site, a place where the more you venture inside the more unpopulated it becomes, as weather conditions restrict the levels of sustainable life, and limit human occupation in particular. Thus this entirely unforgiving continent has remained peculiarly mysterious, untamable and virginal, and consequently a sublime force within our imaginations. Brennan has in part focused on some of the tragedies that have formed many perceptions of the Antarctic continent, including the Erebus disaster, (which in retrospect was an accident waiting to happen), as well as other ill-fated Antarctic adventures, as with Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic crossing of one hundred plus years ago, which is a way of representing the extent and folly of the Antarctic obsession.  In a literal sense Brennan makes the Antarctic look like one of Rauschenberg’s white paintings, as a camera slowly pans over the Erebus accident site recording the crash marks in a manner that resembles charcoal drawn across clean white paper; and conceptually, as an ideologically vacant terrain waiting for but resisting definition and colonization, by the imagination and otherwise.

Paul Cullen is also interested in how the imagination inscribes itself into our perception and memories of significant sites. In some recent work he has photographed a number of installations of yellow pencils that he has placed in isolated but important tourist venues, in New Zealand and overseas. These are given some detail by text panels placed next to each photograph, which give descriptions about the circumstances and locations of each photograph. The yellow pencils reference the traveling artist. They also allow the artist anonymity and remove his images from usual tourist portraiture by offering a consistently uncharismatic subject, if you can call a pencil a subject. These photographs are further removed from tourist photography in the peculiar way they have been taken. Ignoring the fact that the subject is a pencil, there are never enough clues to clearly identify the venue, which is always secondary to either the pencil or some comparatively uninteresting detail, such as a hedge, wall, or in one case, a blurred passing cyclist. In these travel logs we would be lost without the explanations of the text. In this way Cullen’s images reference the bland snaps of many 1960’s Conceptual artists’ work, that were used to document the largely ephemeral art from that time, which is work that would otherwise exist as memory or anecdote, as happens when we travel. As such, Cullen is more concerned with the vagaries of memory and documentation than any objective representation of the places he has seen. To him the idea of a place is more interesting and real to those who go there, than the place itself.

John Reynolds usually starts his work with a vacant plywood surface, which he populates with energetic circular marks, that don’t seem to say anything in particular. Songs often provide Reynold’s titles; Bob Dylan’s song The Next Sixty Seconds (can feel like an eternity), provided the title for his work in Vacancy, which is partially about how Reynolds made the work, and partly about how he expects people to respond to it. Sixty seconds was how long it took Reynolds to make his squiggles (believe it or not he timed himself), however the title is as much intended to provide a distraction away from the artist as it is to act as a point of entry into the work. Things such as a song title, particularly a well-known title, come with its own content, which tends to partially vacate the work of the artist’s intent. As such, Reynolds might be asking us to consider the way we stop, look and think, or not, as the case may be. Most people spend no more than thirty seconds in front of an artwork, which can make sixty seconds seem like a very long time, like an eternity, if you are looking at something you find uninteresting. Those who do look at The Next Sixty Seconds (can feel like an eternity) might think it resembles high-brow graffiti that has been tagged onto the expensive space of painting; but then again, it could be furniture, or a door, or more simply, a varnished paneled wall. There is a calculated scribble quality to the marks, not so much provoking thoughts of a toddler’s painting, as the obsessive doodling of someone in a near transcendental trance, not that dissimilar to Cy Twombly’s spontaneous scrawls, but with less of his expressionist intent. There seems to be a dissinterestedness in the process, in that they could only be made by someone who has, somehow, vacated his consciousness in the process of making them. They are accidental yet deliberate, abstract yet representational, meaningless but very thoughtful scribbles that free flow across the painting’s surface, like one of those screensavers that hypnotically hover over the monitor of a vacated computer.

1 For a discussion of Rauschenberg as well as contemporaneous colleagues such as John Cage and Jasper Johns, who worked with similar ideas, see the somewhat elderly but still relevant publication by Kelvin Tomkins, Off the Wall, Rauschenberg and the art world of our time, 1981

2 This is a Structuralist-cum-Poststructuralist argument argued by Roland Barthes in his 1979 essay ‘Death of the Author’, as also put by Jacques Derrida, who has said, ‘The subject … is inscribed in language, is a function of language, becomes a speaking subject only by making its speech conform…to the system of rules of language.’ From Margins of Philosophy (trans. A Bass), The University of Chicago Press, 1981, p.16.

3 While Piet Mondrian and fellow de Stijl artists provide examples of the grid as a spiritual motivator, in the work of the not so known Mario Radice (1898-1987), there is evidence of its potential to represent Fascist values. Radice was known to produce a number of relief murals based on the grid for the Fascist Party in Como, Italy, 1936.

4 Giles Deleuze, for example, has argued that the grid has a continuous horizontality that is both democratic, in the way it forbids the formation of hierarchies, and continuous; whereas in the 1990s artist Wendy Bornholdt produced a number of installations that attempted to find ways of resisting the order imposed by the grid. See Giles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, first published in 1968 by Presses Universitées de France, and republished in translated form in 1994 by Columbia University Press; and Priscilla Pitts, Wendy Bornholdt Installation VI, conversation with a grid, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 1995.

5 These ideas are of course central to the work of Julian Dashper, who dislikes his work being referred to as targets, but freely acknowledges their representational status, in how they represent other abstract painting.

6 I am reminded of artists here such as the Australian Brett Bailey whose landscapes are loaded with explicit sexual references, and whose landforms at times, lead the imagination as much between a woman’s thighs as into an valley. Bailey also attempts to seduce, ala Left, via sensuous surfaces produced by delicate brushwork and controlled accidents. See Brett Bailey, in Artful, Campbelltown City Art Gallery, Summer-Autumn, 2003. For a famous essay in which psychoanalysis is applied to visual art and the subliminal eroticism of artwork, see Sigmund Freud, Leonardo  da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, from Philip Alperson, (ed), The Philosophy of the Visual Arts, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 171-175

7 From Jacques Derrida, Dissemination , London, 1981, p. 129.

8 Charles Baudeliare, as quoted by Sameshima, from Le Public Moderne et la Photographie, 1859