Being the art lover that I am I frequently make visits to the Auckland Art Gallery. Since its refurbishment (which on the whole I think is a resounding success) I have spent quite a lot of time with the works in the permanent collection, revisiting the works I know well, some of which I have loved since a child, taking in the ones I don’t know so well and acquainting myself with the new acquisitions.
Last Tuesday I was there intending to have a wander through the contemporary New Zealand section on the first floor and I encountered something rather interesting and very unexpected. There is a work in the collection by artist David Hatcher called The Simplest Surrealist Act (André Breton), 2002, which consists of the artist’s reinterpretation using an eye chart format of a quote by Surrealist writer André Breton propounding a revolutionary ‘down with the establishment’ position.
The unexpected component was that a tall woman wearing black trousers and boots and a white t-shirt with similarly formatted text was standing arms-crossed stock-still in front of the work. At first I didn’t notice her but when somebody is that still for that long, pretty soon one realises that it must be a performance of some sort. This was interesting in itself given that this gallery is a temple to the static visual art mileau so I deduced that this was an uncommissioned act.
I decided to stay for a while and take this in. I re-read the Breton quote, very much challenging the capitalism and conformity of his 1930 world, and then read the performance artist’s reponse – hers instead critiquing the original sentiment and in turn the critique made by Hatcher as well as the late-capitalism of today. A clever shift.
As I watched from the other side of the gallery I realised that almost everybody who came into the space noticed her. Her presence not only provoked people to read her response but also to look at the Hatcher work more closely. At the time I considered this an interesting comment on our fast-paced society and the short-attention span visits that most of us make, and the Auckland Art Gallery obviously now expects – I ‘exited through the gift shop’ to find that there were Auckland Art Gallery postcards displayed which follow the quite engaging branding where the word A R T is picked out vertically in red from various three word statements. Next to the one with ‘A BRIEF ENCOUNTER’ was one that stated ‘A PROLONGED ENCOUNTER’. On a slightly different stock I realised that the performance artist had planted these. I wonder how long they might last there.
So an artist making an institutional critique. I am drawn to make a comparison with US artist Andrea Fraser who rose to fame in the 1980s with her performances blending quirky humour with cutting critique. While Fraser critiques, for example in Little Frank and his Carp, 2001, the commodification of art and the commercialisation and glorification of the contemporary art museum, this performer seemed to be challenging the viewer to fully engage rather than to ‘drive by’ as encouraged by the gallery’s ‘brief encounter’ sentiment.
There is also another layer to this work that intrigued me. I looked on as this artist looked at the Hatcher work while being looked at by others. This play on the being seen while seeing is an interesting one given the original work is all about seeing – it is an eye chart afterall. Was she making a statement about the visual being privileged above all other senses in the art world as it is in human society as a whole. It brings to mind a philosophical work by Maurice Merleau-Ponty where he explores the notion of seeing. He states
As soon as I see, it is necessary that the vision (as is so well indicated by the double meaning of the word) be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me, installed in the midst of the visible.
I was stimulated by this performance. I never did get her name as she was still standing there when I left. But I wonder whether I might see her again making a response to another work in this gallery or perhaps elsewhere.