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An outsider's perspective

Janet Lilo: Hit Me With Your Best Shot (the remix), installation view City Gallery Wellington, 2013. Photo: Hamish McLaren.
Janet Lilo: Hit Me With Your Best Shot (the remix), installation view City Gallery Wellington, 2013. Photo: Hamish McLaren.
Janet Lilo: Hit Me With Your Best Shot (the remix), installation view City Gallery Wellington, 2013. Photo: Hamish McLaren.
Janet Lilo: Hit Me With Your Best Shot (the remix), installation view City Gallery Wellington, 2013. Photo: Hamish McLaren.
Janet Lilo, Juan Pablo (still), 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
Mark Amery on an outsider’s perspective of Christchurch.

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By Mark Amery

Since the post-quake media reports started to dissipate, it’s been the occasional art from Christchurch in our galleries that for me has provided expression of the situation for the people of that city.

The experiences come compacted together and abstracted, with emotions compressed for travel in cryptic messages.Familiar objects and forms are twisted and fractured. Surreal parcels from an elsewhere, the art has often felt strangely uneasy. Part of that unease I think is our own sense of distance.

How can we know what it feels like to live in such a state of transition? We can’t. But we can give finding out our best shot. In its outsider and experimental documentary approach Janet Lilo’s installation Hit Me With Your Best Shot (the remix) is quite different from other post-quake work seen in Wellington. It celebrates human resilience – her wallwork’s rich fabric of overlaid imagery feels saturated with tenacity, sadness and hope. It brings us closer to Christchurch. A recent visitor to that city, Lilo started creating this work initially as a commission for that city’s smart contemporary gallery The Physics Room.

Lilo suggests living in Christchurch might be a little like the new sport of slacklining. The exhibition features a video demonstration in Christchurch’s Latimer Square by Juan Pablo. Described as a cross between tightrope walking and trampolining, a polyester strap is strung between posts, trees or other anchors and tightened with a ratchet. The performer walks, bounces and does other tricks on the stretchy line.

As the cars roar past before fenced off buildings, Pablo is constantly trying to keep his balance, whooping when he finally achieves a pose. He falls but gets back on again. It’s a metaphor for a life of uncertainty – constantly on a line between things, trying to keep balance, having to be endlessly creative. It also encapsulates the spirit of play in Lilo’s work: a savvy mash up of popular street culture and different technologies, visually bright hard-edged industrial surfaces and graphics meeting the softer blur of human activity.

The video is projected on the far wall of the gallery, yet our access to it, as if behind a construction site cordon, is restricted by an actual slack-line strung up across the space. A slick purpose-built mat below it is reminiscent of other temporary plastic roading materials that fill Christchurch. A sign tells us not to play on the line. A familiar, gallery game of ‘look, don’t touch’ is being played out here, but I find it smarter than it is actually effective in conveying the strangeness of having a city’s buildings put at a distance from you.

Lilo’s accompanying wall mosaic is created digitally but then printed onto hundreds of standard four by six photographic prints, as if leaving the imprint of the many as handprints in the gallery. This is a rich, brave exploration of the potential in art to extend documentary to represent the complexity of layers of perception of an experience. The visual artist as DJ producer, Lilo collects materials and experiences through photography and scanning and then intricately, expertly mixes them together as a warm human kaleidoscopic weave of pattern. It’s like a giant memory board but one in this instance reminiscent in its structure of the city’s fences of chain-link security mesh.

Also used for visual structure are enlarged covers of cassette tapes Lilo found abandoned in a box, and portraits of people she met. They hold Polaroid photographs of themselves, and in so doing take an active part in the construction of the work and, ultimately, also the building of an identity for the city. The mixing in of faces, hands and notes of remembrance softens the hard industrial gravels and fences of the city as building site.

There’s a very rich visual play with the quality of imagery, blurring, leaching and fading into each other. It’s as if time is overlaying impressions at the same time as the fading of memory wears them down. The colour mixes are the familiar old ones of the cheap photographic print and the overplayed and recorded video cassette. Lilo recognises in these analogue technologies rapidly becoming obsolete a residual visual power in the way they hold our impressions of the world and our review of them. 

Consumer objects and technology are not designed to last forever but the memories they hold are for keeps. Lilo’s excellent work recognises the strangeness of this: how much emotion and thought is invested in what we touch, own and record, however ephemeral it ultimately is.

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Written by

Mark Amery

2 Oct 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.