I first heard of Anthony Byrt quite recently, when Kim Hill quoted him extensively at an event about Simon Denny’s Secret Power installation (first shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale – a section of this exhibit is now at Te Papa). I state this to explain my own perspective: I am interested in art, but have not studied it extensively and am not familiar enough with art criticism to know New Zealand art writers by name. It quickly became clear that I did not have to be an historian of contemporary art to enjoy and appreciate this new book.
Over the course of several years, Byrt visited exhibitions and studios around the world, interviewing or reflecting on 12 contemporary New Zealand artists. Six longer chapters are interspersed with shorter features on artists whose work extends or links to themes in the longer sections. Byrt appears to have given a lot of thought to the first-person narrative style of writing. I think that it works very well here: in places he steps back to detail an artist’s background, then he comes back into the frame to talk about his own experiences and changes in perspective relating to their work. Becky Nunes’ photographs throughout the book seem similarly well-thought-out. There was a conscious decision to focus on the artworks and the artists’ working spaces, rather than photographing the artists themselves.
The promotional blurb describes this as “a riveting first-person account of one author’s travels to the edge of contemporary art”. I did find Byrt’s journeys quite riveting. He has a talent for describing certain scenes so you can imagine yourself in the space with the artwork. However I’m particularly drawn to the phrase “the edge”. We in New Zealand “live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else”, as Bill Manhire’s words remind us on a concrete slab on the Wellington waterfront. And now, after so long being considered physically on the edges, we can participate in the global conversation about art more instantly than ever before, like everybody else. What will this mean for New Zealand art and artists?
We’re looking at some of the big, tricky, –isms here: globalism, commercialism, post-colonialism. Questions of how to critique a system while taking part in it. These themes interweave the stories of individual artists and their preoccupations.
I read this book over a couple of weeks and, on numerous occasions, found parallels between themes coming up in other parts of my life and in Byrt’s writing. I attended a symposium about health research, at which a book of new protocols for working with Māori genomic data was launched . One of the researchers stated that in this context we see how whakapapa is both a scientific AND a cultural construction. That evening, I read the chapter on Peter Robinson, whose early work dealt with his identification as “3.125% Māori”: “whakapapa rendered as stark biological fact”. Byrt sees some of Robinson’s more recent, interactive work as “a critical examination of the power dynamics of knowledge acquisition, of putting people to work, of who can speak about what and for whom”. And I found myself exclaiming, yes, exactly, that’s what we social researchers have been pondering too!
It was only partway through the chapter about Steve Carr that I realised Byrt was describing an exhibition I had just been discussing with my visiting father (we headed to Wellington’s City Gallery and his first question was whether “the watermelon” , which he had watched last time, was still there). I recalled Carr’s clever video works, some of which feature a slowed down bullet passing through several apples, and balloons containing contrasting coloured paint being popped. I had felt a childish glee, watching these scenes of beautiful destruction in a way that the human eye could not hold onto in real life. But there was something more going on – something visceral that I could not quite articulate. Byrt, of course, can articulate it: Carr uses camera technology “to create an image of total bodily empathy. His balloons, and the paint they contain, hang like organs and burst with human release.”
It has been a particular thrill for me to read Byrt’s take on several exhibitions that I had seen but not taken detailed notes on. I could certainly say that Yvonne Todd’s photographs struck me as creepy and hyper-real but, again, Byrt can explain why they seem that way.
Postcolonialism is, unsurprisingly, explored from various perspectives. Shane Cotton is known for painting large canvases with recurring themes including wide skies, stylised gang patches and the tattooed, preserved Māori heads that were notoriously collected and traded to European museums in the late 1800s. The discussion of his work is woven through a chapter which also features Byrt’s visit to look at different large panel works in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas (I wondered whether anyone other than a recently-arrived New Zealander would describe the edges of these panels as having “a jet-lagged shimmer”) and a brief tour through the problematic history of Western exhibitions featuring Māori art. Cotton and his contemporaries work in an era where people recognise and debate the ethics of representing colonised cultures. Rather than taking an explicitly moral position, his representations of the disembodied heads, Byrt surmises, is “simply an act of re-presentation: a way to keep the disruptive residue of our violent history, still alive, staring back at us”.
In the final section on Simon Denny, Byrt draws links between historical events, rapidly evolving media representation of these events, and how our (that is, Byrt’s, Denny’s and my ‘older millennial’) generation sees the world. I had also briefly visited Venice in 2015. I had taken the opportunity to do two specific and, I thought, unconnected things. Firstly to retrace my maternal grandfather’s World War Two footsteps, taking a photo in the exact same spot as him outside the Hotel Danieli. Secondly to visit Denny’s Secret Power biennale exhibition at the Marciana Library. I was somewhat stunned when the chapter on Simon Denny opened with a description of the New Zealand forces’ stationing at the Hotel Danieli. Byrt linked that earlier example of New Zealand’s contribution to global affairs with the opening of Denny’s exhibition in Venice 70 years later: “a test of New Zealand’s contemporary political significance”. Byrt says that Denny made him rethink the significance of personal memories linked to historical moments. Now his writing on Denny’s art is having a similar effect on me.
I found this book thought-provoking and personally resonant. Alongside the description of the modern art world is a reflection on how contemporary New Zealanders negotiate our tangled global whakapapa to contribute to international conversations. I might have considered these ideas before, but not with such a focus on the role that art plays. I believe Anthony Byrt has come up with something quite profound here. I look forward to reading more of his writing.
Reviewed by Dr. Rebecca Gray
This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art
by Anthony Byrt
Published by Auckland University Press