Creating New Experiences
Crystal City at the Dowse Art Museum is full of strong work that encourages the public to engage in unique experiences of their world, or to observe the artist engaging in it on their behalf.
It makes us look at the world anew across cultures and countries, writes Mark Amery in his latest visual arts column.
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Two weeks ago I took possession of a bamboo wind chime. I collected it from Enjoy art gallery in Cuba Street, selected from an elegant community of them, hanging above a pentacle design made out of rice on the floor (a design that for centuries has been used as magical evocation to provide the user protection).
With possession of the wind chime came a contract to be its guardian. To take it home and use it as I pleased, but eventually journey with it to the Dowse Art Museum and hang it there in a tree as part of the Dowse’s Crystal City exhibition of seven Asian artists, from both New Zealand and abroad.
A meaningful and tangible way to connect two public art galleries, more importantly Tiffany Singh’s work provides a unique experience for the participant. It is rare to be in possession of an object that needs to be taken care of and played with for the collective good. I jangled walking around town with my wind chime, feeling part of something bigger and joyous. At first I hung it from the mantelpiece above the fireplace in my office, feeling the need to ask my colleagues to treat it with respect. At home it hung from the end of our garage, making a melodious racket in the winter storms, causing my children to respond to it with drawings and creative dramatisations of what might happen to it. On Sunday we painted it, glued on feathers and headed off to the Dowse. An altogether magical experience.
The second part of Singh’s work is a series of 306 wind chimes hung up high in rows in the Dowse’s internal atrium, catching the wind from outside the gallery and showering the walls with shadow play. It summed up the works title, a Zen proverb, Knock On the Sky Listen to the Sound.
Crystal City is full of strong work that encourages the public to engage in unique experiences of their world, or to observe the artist engaging in it on their behalf. This is the show’s strongest theme - a series of instructions and demonstrations to make us look at the world anew across cultures and countries. On Crystal City’s stated central theme of what it means to live in a built-up environment however, I found the exhibition far weaker – its ambit is far broader.
Pak Sheung Chuen from Hong Kong provides a whole room of poetic suggestions, printed up on the wall, from “use your body to measure the city” to “get a thick map book and travel the line where right and left pages meet in the middle”.
Pak’s work may on first thought appear flippant but its often packed with poignancy. Elsewhere he is to be seen in Busan conducting a work Breathing in a House, which entailed collecting all his breaths in plastic bags over ten days, to fill the entire apartment he was renting. The work, which appeared at the Venice Biennale in 2009, is humorous and poetic, visually and conceptually speaking to our complex feelings of confinement in the inner city. Indeed Crystal City feels somewhat unbalanced by the amount of space given to Pak’s work compared to others, even if we’re blessed to see so much of this artist’s fascinating practice.
Another Pak work attempts a little awkwardly with participatory theatrics to get us to engage with his experimentation of looking at the world. In 2009 Pak took a five-day package tour of Malaysia (one he’d done before) but kept his eyes closed or covered for the entire journey. The result is a soundtrack of sounds, and a series of photos, typical of those one might take on a tourist jaunt except naturally their compositions are all off-kilter, sometimes missing their intended subjects altogether. The interest of this approach is marred by the work being placed in a blacked out room (the images kitschly placed within mock frames on floral wallpaper) that you’re instructed to view by using the flash of your camera. This strikes me as a rather clumsy aping of an experience rather than, as with Tiffany Singh’s work, a real one.
The exhibition’s engagement throughout with its location – Wellington – is very welcome. This isn’t just another show demonstrating the vibrancy of international Asian contemporary art through importing it, it constantly engages with our sense of place. Another well known Asian artist Cheng Ta Yu from Taiwan filmed actors around various well known locations in Wellington, well lit at night reading awkward Google translations of entries about the city in local English guidebooks, which are also shown in text in Mandarin and English on screen. Like many of Pak’s works Cheng’s video uses humour to get under the skin of our blurred experience of places, travelling cross-culturally.
Hye Rim Lee is an outstanding video artist, but represented here by only one work. Yellow Flower Ring presents an elegant rotating city of dildos vibrating like a set of mantelpiece ornaments, within which a dragon and Barbie like figure prance and a baby’s bunny pacifier bounces. It’s a gorgeous piece of animated sculpture, exploring the sexual fetishism of the object in all its complexity.
These are just some of the strong works that makes up a very satisfying and diverse exhibition, speaking of new experiences across cultures, countries and cities.