Braille has loomed large in Wellington over the past few months. Anton Parsons's braille sculpture Invisible City was unveiled as the final piece of the Lambton Quay sculpture walk in May. A few weeks later Irene Ferguson offered up her braille paintings at the Janne Land Gallery. Both artists play the same game, turning the system designed to aid the blind against the seeing and artistic conventions that cater to them. The texts inscribed across the surface of these objects in braille symbols, in Parsons's case a poem by long-term collaborator Peter Beatson, and words of wisdom passed on to Ferguson by her grandmother, announce their presence but refuse to yield their message.

The austere, minimal surfaces on show indicate that both artists have their eyes firmly trained on abstraction's faith in a universal language and the communicative potential of art. But their use of braille especially serves to disorient the experience of the viewer. It is a frustrating gesture, akin to holding back the punch line of a joke. Bad blind jokes often hinge around Helen Keller. Ferguson refers to Keller's story in her quest to make bad paintings, in the sense of being poorly behaved or disruptive.

ANTON PARSONS Invisible City 2003
Satin polished steel (Photograph: Viviene Atkinson)

The ten aluminum panels that make up her exhibition each have their shared braille massage hand-pierced into their surface. They are subsequently stained with red nail enamel, suggesting a seepage of blood and bodily fluid from these jagged puncture marks. The story of Helen Keller reading braille until her fingers bled appears to be built into these weeping surfaces. Ferguson's paintings in turn serve as traps for prying fingers set on discovering hidden messages, suggesting that there may be a price to pay for such knowledge. These are sharp paintings in both sense of the term. Ferguson assembles a host of meanings and values around these works which enliven the rather well-trodden post- formalist concerns they raise.

Parsons's sculpture is better behaved. Consisting of two highly polished vertical forms with protruding braille symbols, it pretends to speak with all the authority and dignity of public sculpture. It employs this refined formal language to compete as art in the message-laden urban environment. Yet in rendering Beatson's poem undecipherable through sheer scale, it also writes its joke out large.

Parsons's braille sculptures are uncanny objects to encounter in a gallery context. As public sculpture the issues they raise, especially related to communication, audience and physical context, are all significantly amplified. Invisible City simultaneously manages to uphold and negate many of the functions of public sculpture. In some ways it reads as a statement on the fate of art in public spaces" which is invested with so much civic pride but inevitably becomes a mute marker of outdated values.

Not that Invisible City is out of place on the Lambton Quay sculpture walk. According to its own press, the sculpture walk offers a collection of 'creative' public work that signals the city's nurturing of creativity and diversity. This is definitely not the vision of Wellington presented in Ray Ritchie's Local Knowledge at Idiom studio. This large exhibition consisting of painting, sculpture and mixed media, much of which dates back to the mid-1980s, delivers a whimsical form of social criticism.

RAY RITCHIE Claustrophobia 1990
Acrylic on paper canvas 485 x 400 mm

Ritchie sets himself up as a suburban prophet, firmly ensconced in an Arcadian Newtown where he suspiciously eyes the ills of urban Wellington. The city is envisioned as a bureaucratic and technological wasteland. In one particularly riotous strand of his practice, Ritchie becomes cultural anthropologist, documenting the mindless automatons who inhabit this foreboding place. Other images . envision flags for Newtown, claiming a creative independence from the city. This humour and wit frees Ritchie from the potentially solemn role of the social critic. Within a single work he can swing from the political satirist targeting specific figures, to the prankster making puns relating to the human anatomy.

Ritchie came to light via Stuart Shepherd's investigations into the largely uncharted territory of local self-taught and visionary art. This is the second exhibition of Ritchie's work that Shepherd has curated. The debut showing at the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery in April was more in the mould of the eccentric outsider. It stressed Ritchie's transformation of everyday objects into whimsical creations through a highly personal vision. While this emphasis remains in this follow-up exhibition, more attention has been placed on Ritchie as a deft satirist. This may be a subtle shift in presentation, but it does remarkable things for Ritchie's art.

By exposing the political and satirical dimension of Ritchie's practice, Shepherd demands that the artist be seen in relation to culture and specific artistic traditions. The exhibition still displays an idiosyncratic vision. But it stresses that this vision is based on the consistency and development of a firm set of ideas, techniques and working processes that both responds to and seeks to revitalise the material world within and beyond his beloved Newtown.

While Ritchie is the star attraction here, a lot of credit must go to Shepherd. He has not only unearthed the artist and ensured the survival of . these largely ephemeral objects, but has also developed the necessary frameworks for presenting Ritchie to the very world that is kept at arms length in his work.

Bombs Away at the Adam Art Gallery brings a sly twist to the art and bomb / war exhibition. Its artists were asked to respond to an atomic testing film produced by a nuclear nation, to identify with the perpetuators of the arms race. This focus on aggressors rather than victims, on the scientific benefits of nuclear weaponry rather than its human cost, inverts the ways art conventionally responds to these issues. New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance, and the potential role art played in procuring this position, necessarily provides the subtext of the exhibition.

Ultimately the artists do not side with their nuclear power as strongly as it would appear curator Sophie Jerram would like. Most pay closer attention to the delivery of the message than the message itself, exploring propaganda, power and representation. Fiona Jack turns towards scie~ce to produce her Miasma series, reversing the ways many of these films present their scientific experiments through a carefully orchestrated cinematic package. The refined formal language of Jack's large digital prints masks the secret of their construction, that they were produced through the combination of toxic chemicals.

RICHARD REDDAWAY No-one believes they are evil 2002 (Detail)
Wax, dimensions variable

Richard Reddaway's fluorescent mutations that spring up around the exhibition space operate on a similar principle. The fragility of these degenerating wax forms offers a perverse take on the French insistence that testing in the Pacific would not impact on the holistic systems of nature. Like the French government in the Pacific, Reddaway abandons his mutations which are allowed to spawn and disrupt the sanctity of the gallery.

The careful selection of artists and their pairing with a particular nuclear power is crucial to the success of this exhibition. Jack's previous explorations into the languages and techniques of coercion presumably marked her a likely candidate to respond to a recently declassified American testing film. Reddaway's wax forms are themselves mutations of his crystal world works, with their reference to scientific systems and theories laced with a sci-fi sensibility. These very values underpin the utopian visions presented in many of these films of a world materially transformed through the bomb. Tony de Lautour's imperial and heraldic iconography with its related themes of lost heroism and false pride clearly offered useful tools to respond to the British testing film celebrating the nuclear cause.

Through this selection and delegation Jerram manages to present a tightly focused set of responses, allowing the exhibition to achieve its ambitious goal of tracing a 'post- nuclear' attitude. This focus itself subverts many of the expectations of an exhibition based around the politics of nuclear positions. There are no artists from the Pacific, for example, who in similarly themed exhibitions have responded more forcefully and directly to the issues emerging out of nuclear testing. At certain moments Bombs Away, with its focus on representation, memory and mediated experiences, looks decidedly apolitical. It could function independently from this theme as an interesting survey of contemporary practice. This is of course its central point. Bombs Away is as concerned with exploring the power and purpose of art in a post-nuclear world as it is with examining nuclear politics.

IRENE FERGUSON IF/ 20035:2 2003
Acrylic and shellac on aluminium detail nail enamel 790 x 1030 x 30 mm

Since its first showing at the Physics Room in Christchurch, Bombs Away has been bracketed with and infiltrated by more directly political projects that serve to pinpoint and highlight the importance of the issues the exhibition raises. It has been bolstered by the inclusion of a video work by New York-based Rainer Ganahl. In utilising the now very familiar rogue television news bulletin to deny that he is a terrorist, Ganahl provides a more pressing political edge to the exhibition.

In the downstairs gallery, Brett Graham's Kainga tahi kainga rua challenges any potential validation of New Zealand's international relations one may inadvertently glean from Bombs Away. This complex multi-media installation exposes and memorialises New Zealand's role in the plundering of phosphate from Banaba for its own agricultural and technological advancement. Finally, Nalini Malani's video installation Remembering Toba Tek Singh offers a harrowing reminder of the catastrophic realities of nuclear testing in Pakistan and India, the spectre of which is so carefully avoided or masked in the testing films.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 108 Spring 2003