Author: Anna-Marie White (16.12.2006)
Fleur Deighton uses the mechanics of vision – the interior surfaces of her eye -as a metaphor for discussing the way in which the values of others affect subjective experience. Deighton brings to attention the collaboration of eye and mind, emphasising the way in which external influences impinge upon perception, distorting memory and throwing into question both personal values and those imposed from elsewhere.”
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Existential writer Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) appropriates Greek myth to give example to his philosophic beliefs. It tells the story of Sisyphus who has been condemned to push a rock to the top of a hill only for it to repeatedly fall back down. Camus used this fable to demonstrate that life is essentially without ultimate meaning. Sisyphus however, constructs meaning, gains fulfilment and a reason for being through the act of continually applying himself to the task.
In this exhibition, emerging regional artists were asked to examine their own reasons for being. For some, this was a straightforward proposition: their inherent values and beliefs provided a solid foundation upon which to approach the question. For others, it was an opportunity to consider how they make sense of the world and bring purpose to their lives. In respect of this and in the spirit of Existential philosophy, this essay approaches the exhibition as a forum of discussion of the very nature of our being, and seeks to document the respective artists’ process of rationalisation in response to the proposition.
How do you know?
The Existentialists rejected the notion that there was a higher truth or natural order which pre-determined the nature of human existence. They argue that one is thrown into the world and makes sense of the world according to individual experience. Subjective experience was therefore the only ‘truth’ and relevant solely to that individual’s existence. Implicit in this belief however, is the assumption that humans are free to make choices that determine the world around them. For many of the artists in this exhibition ‘freedom’ is a farce in the face of constant bombardment with external values that congest our ability to experience our world.
Fleur Deighton uses the mechanics of vision – the interior surfaces of her eye -as a metaphor for discussing the way in which the values of others affect subjective experience. Deighton brings to attention the collaboration of eye and mind, emphasising the way in which external influences impinge upon perception, distorting memory and throwing into question both personal values and those imposed from elsewhere.
Natalie Jones shares similar concerns and relates them to representation. Using the camera as an extension of her eye, she exposes the absurd reality that results when one group’s cultural values are imposed on the ‘other’. Her triptych is based on 19th Century romanticised paintings of Maori women by European artists but in two of her photographs the maidens are replaced with unnamed Pakeha males in demure or cowed positions. At centre, the artist presents herself in a triumphant victorious stance. In doing so, as a woman of Maori heritage she seeks redress for the legacy left to her by the subjective values of the colonial male artist.
The act of framing and the power of the ‘gaze’ is further investigated in the work of Cindy Flook and Lou-Darcie Lewis. Flook adopts the role of voyeur, spying through windows and documenting with the camera on her cell phone. The works pass comment on our aspirations to lofty ideals when considering issues such as our reason for being, and direct attention to the ‘grey matter’ of life; those moments between formative experiences that fill the space between the formative experiences of our lives. Her documentation of social interactions, mediated between two frames of reference, invest the anonymous situation with covert meaning and raise awareness about the impact of the peripheral or unconscious on our subjective and personal experience.
Lewis’ video installation presents one man’s search for meaning in art as analogous to his search for meaning in life. Gallery viewers are invited to scrutinise, at extremely close quarters, a man whom is in turn closely scrutinising a painting. It begins to bud, giving birth to enigmatic messages, assisted by his caeserian-like dissection of the painting’s surface. In his search for pre-ordained meaning, he comes to realise that he is the architect of its meaning, and that of his life. Lewis complements this narrative with hundreds of notes, similar to those in the projection, affixed to the walls of the gallery. On these, she has asked others to inscribe their own reasons for being, an invitation that is also extended to visitors to the gallery. Through this act of documentation, she extends the power of interpretation to others.
Katherine Wilkin-Slaney finds it impossible to escape from the influence of external values on her construction of self. Her work is concerned with the way in which we categorise and contain ourselves within collective identities represented by common symbols or motifs. This exterior skin is a construction which obstructs our ability to comprehend ourselves and others. For her, the only truth is our own mortality in which we face with the prospect of never really coming to know ourselves.
How can you know?
With the Existentialists’ rejection of a higher sense of order, humanity is cast adrift in an indifferent and ambivalent world. Through the act of doing one defines the nature of reality and place within the world. For a number of the artists in this exhibition, there is a need to document their unfolding experience and give it material form. Through the process of archiving and cataloguing, they expose or declare their values by the material trail they leave. By doing so, they also create a sense of permanence which counteracts the otherwise transitory nature of being in the world.
Anna Leary uses the artist’s palette to chart the unceasing passage of time. Painted over a single period of twenty-four hours and in celebration of a full moon, her work documents the dominant colour of Tasman Bay at hourly intervals. In this respect, Leary is an archivist of time, recording in colour the complex interplay of light on land and sea. It is also a gently self-reflective process which echoes the infinitely subtle shades of experience which comprise one’s individual being.
In the face of an indifferent and meaningless world, Charlotte Lipp seeks solace in the belief that there will always be life. For her, the construction of meaning and our life’s aspirations are fragile fictions that can come tumbling down at any moment. Like Leary, she accepts that there is a natural rhythm, a pulse, to which she finds herself drawn for reassurance. In this respect, Lipp positions herself on a universal continuum although she doesn’t know where that the future may lead. In her work she gives form to what she sees as the unshakable foundations of our existence – a society of penile extensions, cavities and womb-like spaces – “nature’s useful forms”.
Bridget Saunders is a beach-comber, archaeologist and treasure hunter. She obsessively collects what others discard which she then meticulously organises, arranges and presents. Like Lewis and Flook, she exposes the arbitrary methods by which society determines value – that which is to be preserved (the rare and valuable) and that which is to be ignored (the common and useless). In this respect, Saunders is an advocate of the marginalized, the overlooked and undervalued. Through her investment of time and attention, she rehabilitates the value of the object and, by proxy, passes comment on our relationship to others.
Like Saunders, Nicky Gilkison and Jennifer Murphy use objects as symbolic of their existence. Central to the work of Nicky Gilkison is a chair from her childhood, a metaphor for her body and physical growth, and by inference, her mental development. The chair is muddied with a visceral concoction of dirt, glycerine and dead birds. As if to protect itself from this polluting soup, the chair is wrapped in clear film -a flimsy barrier from inevitably death and decay.
As with previous artists, Jennifer Murphy views self-perception and physical form as in a constant state of construction. Her meticulously painted self-portraits show everyday objects arranged and rearranged to represent her shifting and transient sense of self. These painted assemblages address the conflicted values that society place on female beauty, with its time-consuming grooming, careful accessorising and the exultation of icons from the past whose experience bears little resemblance to our own. In the deficit between external and internal values, Murphy exposes the void in which she searches for her true self.
Andy Clover uses a literary description of one man’s battle with Parkinson’s Disease as an entry into his work (Franzen, 2001, The Corrections, London: Fourth Estate, p. 76). In this body of text, the indices that make life significant – names, actions, tasks – take on a mercurial nature, constantly slipping beyond comprehension. Perhaps in reaction to this dissolution of meaning, Clover responds with a towering structural form that floods the gallery with stark artificial light. What we see as constant beams of light are in fact successive waves of particles that dissipate into a different form of energy -light constantly dying only to be replaced with energy transforming into more light -a cycle of life that is illuminating but beyond our grasp.
Despite its important function, the lavatory’s association with human waste means it is a hidden space within the home. Paula Cunniffe likens the lavatory to the repressed memories of the mind which continue to influence both conscious and unconscious behaviours. For Cunniffe the lavatory was a place of refuge, a private space in which she was most aware of her bodily processes. In her work she recreates her childhood lavatory, complete with the type of reading material that influenced her early development. By appropriating the format of her beloved
Readers Digest, Cunniffe examines and subverts the values it inculcated in its readers.
Knowing is doing.
While we find ourselves as individuals in the world with an experience unique unto ourselves, our actions and behaviours have broader consequences that affect others and shape the world around us. In the act of constructing life meaning and purpose, we have the potential to contribute or to harm what is around us. This holistic or ecological sensibility informs the work of Dominique de Borrekens and Mieke Scoggins who conceptualise their own being as intrinsic to and indistinct from the being of the universe -believing that we harvest what we sow.
Mieke Scoggins recognises a higher order in life which provides a framework and purpose in her life. The message of Christianity is to love and to love indiscriminately. For Scoggins this belief creates a perpetuating cycle with far- reaching consequences. In her work she documents acts of love: received, witnessed or given. Her book is a potent vessel that records and channels the love she experiences and empowers the act of love with the authority, that for her, is the reason for her being.
Dominique de Borrekens believes that life has a biological basis where energy constantly flows between forms. In the process of transmission, both parties are inevitably affected and indelibly transformed. This is manifested in her work as a cell-like bundle of metal, plastics and fibre-optic wires which remembers and responds to the visitors’ presence. For her, the construction of reasons for being is an ‘artificial intelligence’ that masks true meaning in life, creating a false consciousness or inauthentic experience of the world. In her practice she tries to probe beneath the façade in order to understand the nature of knowledge/being/existence in order to live and contribute in an authentic way.
How do we know what we know?
This exhibition began as an invitation to consider reasons for being. What has resulted is a collection of self-portraits of each artist as Sisyphus, each work a declaration of the values that the maker holds dear. As such, the exhibition heaves with the weight of these declarations: with the memories, beliefs, values and experiences of fourteen individual experiences. Unlike Sisyphus however, their task in life has not been prescribed -the artists in this exhibition are confronted with freedom of choice in defining their reasons for being. But as Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) so rightly pointed out, with freedom comes responsibility, and the anxiety that hangs in the air of Reasons for Being, is testament to the weight of that responsibility.
While this exhibition is broad in concept and multiplex in nature, there is a common attitude -the impossibility to comprehend the totality of our existence: we only know what we can know. Implicit in this understanding is a respect for individuality and diversity, a dismantling of boundaries and refusal of impositions. As such there is prevailing melancholy concerning both our hapless existence, that which is beyond our control and the disastrous consequences of selfish human behaviour. Within this framework, the exultation of the individual and the search for meaning takes on the utmost importance. What unites the artists in this exhibition is a call to power – a harnessing to their individual agency for the betterment of society. This conscious awakening was a central principle of Existential philosophy and proves the ongoing significance of this historic movement and its enduring message.
Anna-Marie White, The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu