The Pleasure Hunters
Yuk King Tan and Ani O’Neill
Angela Singer
Light Box Invitational


The point of installation art is that it’s not just painting or sculpture. This is a big deal in the contemporary art-world, where installation has become entrenched. It appears to offer a way beyond the supposed autonomy and aesthetic unity (nasty modernist tropes, both) of paintings and sculptures. An installation should take over the gallery, envelop the spectator. It should do precisely what the abstract painter Phillip O’Sullivan declared, in 1978, that paintings shouldn’t do—that is, ‘leap off the walls and otherwise behave in an unseemly manner’.

When, in the 1960s, artists and art-writers got their tongues around the word ‘phenomenology’, the idea of an exhibition as an environment, rather than a collection of objects, really took off. But here’s the thing: an exhibition of paintings by, say, Milan Mrkusich, forms a more coherent environment than (to use a high-profile example) Peter Robinson’s installation at the Venice Biennale a few years ago. Robinson’s installation was a collection of disjointed fragments. The paradox is that for an installation to work—for it to have a profound impact on the spectator—it has to be unified. All parts must contribute to the whole, forming a convincing environment or ‘world’ of experience. An installation is simply a highly ordered exhibition.

Complications arise when installations intersect, as in The Pleasure Hunters at Titirangi’s Lopdell House Gallery. There were four installations, one each by Fiona Lascelles, Susan Jowsey and Leanne Williams in the larger space, and a collaborative work in a smaller room. For the artists, the complications are in the transitions between their installations—articulating actual or artificial affinities. (These transitions are like those in a written review which discusses a series of different and disparate exhibitions.) For spectators, the complications are in the process of negotiating and making sense of the overall environment.

mixed media installation

The three individual installations stretched along two walls and the floor-space immediately in front of them. In combination they were impressive, drawing the viewer in, making them want to discover more. But it was difficult to get amongst all the stuff. Signs on the floor warned viewers not to tread on the installations, dissuading them from lingering in the midst of their many components. How super it could have been to enter Lascelles’ created world (natura stupet: ‘nature is dumbfounded’) if it were in a room by itself, rather than crammed into the available space.

While there were clear linkages, visually and thematically, between Lascelles’ work and those of Jowsey and Williams, its striking sterility, and simplicity of form and colour, was compromised by the profusion of items encroaching on it from the other installations.

There was also scope for ‘mistaking’ its meaning. What do you make of skeletal buggies, with office furniture wheels or model kitset wheels, carrying sods of manicured lawn, a rack of ‘test tubes’ succouring seedlings (and what looked like weeds consuming an archway within the gallery), all on top of a network of signs? I’m not referring to post-structuralist blah, but literal signs indicating telephones, toilets, parking and so forth, interspersed with green dots. Perhaps it is a plan of some futuristic city, in which grass and foliage can only be sustained with careful nurturing and artificial techniques, like the preparation of a cricket pitch. The installation was actually a vision of Mars. If you were not aware of this, would it diminish your experience of the work? Probably not. It looked splendid on a visual level, a harmony of plastic forms, transparent, black and green. It conveyed an overall feeling—an appealing and excessive purity and order. Likewise, Leanne Williams’ virtuosic arabesques of icing were delightful in themselves.

The overriding impression from the combined installations was of abundance or excess. Call me a reactionary nincompoop, but I felt averse to pursuing the layers of meaning that a competent critic would squeeze from the wealth of material amassed here. Jowsey’s installation alone was packed with paraphernalia, simulating the acquisitions of a Victorian collector. This plethoric quality, obviously intentional, ultimately exhausts the viewer. There were so many small items that to take them all in, and think about them, would have been impossible. While Jowsey’s nineteenth century collector was a classifier and categoriser—creating order, a ‘world order’, in fact—disorder was clearly the ordering principle behind the installation—which allows me to segue into the next exhibition . . .

At the Sue Crockford Gallery, Yuk King Tan and Ani O’Neill held an exhibition called Disorderorder. My first action on entering the gallery was unwittingly appropriate. I kicked one of a series of balls, arranged on the floor and titled The Beautiful Game. The balls were constructed in pompom-like fashion out of small firecrackers, each made to the design of a national flag (‘the symbol of unity and political order’, according to the artist’s statement). My immediate thought was that I had destroyed this order or pattern of spheres. I later saw a bearded rock-star-type heartily hoof one of them across the gallery. It dawned on me that such disruptive acts were in keeping, albeit trivially, with the ‘chaotic explosiveness’ alluded to by the artist; the radii of the balls were calculated according to the percentage of GDP each represented nation allocates to the military.

YUK KING TAN Overcast 2004 (detail)
digital photographs

However, the reason that I booted North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, or whichever, was that my eyes were fixed not on the floor but at the wall—at Overcast. This was a series of 25 detached images, each the shape of a snowflake floating on a white ground. They consisted of multiple and mirrored photographs extracted from the newspaper one day in every week of 2004. The pictures are minute, necessitating close inspection, but (as with The Pleasure Hunters) the sheer profusion of images, and their small scale, defeats comprehensive visual analysis. Some of the panels were placed too high on the wall to be deciphered. Moreover, the doubling and mirroring produces unfamiliarity, giving them aesthetic or abstract form. Tan has also used luscious colours—ochres, oranges, violets, pinks and soft blues.

I regard this work as a return to form for Tan. Like the best of her previous output, a visual seductiveness carries the idea. This work is effectively about ideas (disparate socio-political systems and ideologies from which people hopelessly seek order amongst chaos) becoming ‘merely’ aesthetic. That idea itself has a certain independent purity; it is (deceptively) simple, clear, brilliant. Tan’s mind seems to brim over with sparkling ideas of this kind. But her works only ‘work’ when they are inherently visual. In recent years—the skydiving and that sort of carry-on—the ideas have not been interesting enough in a visual sense. In Disorderorder, neither was the idea behind the work entitled Centre (the title denotes both a photograph and a DVD). Island Portrait (photograph and DVD) was more effective: Chinese construction workers uniformly donned in blue overalls and yellow or orange hard hats, constructing of themselves a visual pattern against the picturesque backdrop of a Rarotongan beach.

The goal of Disorderorder was not to create a visually unified whole. It included objects that were vehicles for displaying art—TV sets, for example—rather than aesthetic entities in themselves. Also, O’Neill’s covered plastic bottles, dangling from the wall like bunches of bananas, were not visually related to Tan’s work. Unlike an effective installation, concepts alone linked the individual works in this exhibition. It was engrossing enough for me to risk getting a parking ticket. It is interesting to compare this with the collaborative installation by Lascelles, Jowsey and Williams in the small room at the Lopdell House Gallery. Dubbed the Bird Room, the walls were littered with as many birds—stuffed birds, toy birds, rubber duckies, etc.—as the artists could lay their hands on. To look at each and every bird seemed pointless. An installation of this kind does not invite prolonged exploration of an environment. The unifying idea of abundance was instantly apparent and sufficient.

Mixed media

Stuffed birds also featured in Angela Singer’s outstanding and pleasantly macabre show at Oedipus Rex Gallery, Insides Outsides. In Perch the birds were attached to mounted deer antlers, decorated around their base with shiny red beads simulating blood. But the artist had put them together all wrong, with heads and bodies mixed up. Singer generally uses existing examples of cack-handed taxidermy, making them appear even worse, or more ridiculous, by decorating them with cheap jewellery and ceramic flowers. Particularly amusing are those works, such as Pounce (a kitten with big goggly eyes and no paws), which have a cut-away view of internal organs, rendered in red or orange plastic. This work reminded me of Francis Upritchard’s badly stuffed pet cat. In contrast to Upritchard (and this is my only criticism), there is evidence that Singer’s intentions are partly didactic. For my part, I’d rather not know that (and not just because I happen to have a flaccid cat skin draped over my television). It reduces her work to a simple, faintly righteous, message. The exhibition was amusing as a collection of mangled and grotesquely adorned dead animals, and uninteresting as a critique of hunting and taxidermy.

The ‘beauty’ of Upritchard’s dead cat is that it really is just a crudely stuffed cat. (As Frank Stella famously declared of his abstract paintings, ‘what you see is what you see’. It was probably the stupidest thing he ever said, but it’s useful when applied to a work which cannot be justified by a load of waffle.) Unlike Upritchard, Singer strives to make her animals into ‘art’. In tarting them up, she invites speculation about her motives: ‘why has the artist done this?’ With Upritchard’s work, the question is: ‘what is this dead cat doing in here?’ That’s a more interesting question. To not cover a deer with beads, or to simply present a badly stuffed animal, is a more extreme proposition. On the other hand, it is only a proposition. Singer’s works have a certain peculiarity and visual appeal, a spectacular tackiness that goes beyond the specimen itself.

I should also tack on a mention of the Light Box Invitational at SOCA, because it was such a good idea. Unfortunately, artists let loose with a light box tend to make something incredibly naff. That aside, Hamish Grotrian’s Roan was visually appealing in its binding of wood and glass; Susannah Bridges cleverly compiled a series of tiny landscapes from fragments of backlit porcelain (cute rather than profound, but beautiful rather than dull); Mark Cross converted a light box into a vending machine; Simon Kaan replicated the ‘Instant Kiwi’ logo (a comment on immigration, perhaps, but more commendable as graphic design). Some good glass art would have given the show a lift. Many of the works would have benefited from the removal of those features indicating a desperate struggle to make ‘art’, leaving the light box to do its thing.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 113 Summer 2004-05