I have been digging around the web looking for more contemporary Wellington-based photographers, other than those I mentioned in an earlier post here and here on this blog. In doing so I came across the work of Mark Marriott, Hans Weston, Tracey Kearns —art photographers who have both an online presence and who exhibit regularly. Wellington has a number of good active photographers and small artist-run spaces. The scene appears lively and the work interesting and diverse.
A good example is Mary Macpherson’s Old New World, a book of her photographs made over seven years about change in New Zealand society as seen in the small regional/rural towns throughout the country. The narrative is one of a shift from a traditional New Zealand, to places of prosperity and development that look very different to the 1960s and 70s. Presumably, the background reference is to the way that the neo-liberal mode of capitalism has systematically shaped New Zealand’s economy and society, so deeply affected aspects of everyday life as the process of commodification permeates all segments of society including art. A book is an appropriate form of expression for this kind of photographic work about our historical experiences about what is passing away.
In reworking of the photographic approaches of Walker Evans, Steven Shore and Joel Steinfield Old New World is against forgetting the past by proposing to remember the poetry of place in the landscapes and urbanscapes of the backroads of New Zealand. In doing so the text puts the past and recent works of New Zealand art photography into a different light, and opens them to different meanings inside and outside the art institution.
Whilst reflecting on Macpherson’s Old New World work I became curious about the breadth and depth of the critical writing about photography and the visual arts in Wellington. I wondered if the situation in Wellington was the same as Adelaide. Both are provincial cities with the mainstream newspapers getting smaller, the resources devoted to journalism and editorship dropping, and the space for the visual art continuing to shrink. So where to for critical writing on photography?
Mark Amery, speaking in relation to Wellington, says that the closure of his fortnightly visual arts column with the Dominion Post newspaper in 2014 leaves Wellington without any visual arts commentary. The story is a familiar one: the mainstream media are increasingly treating the visual arts as irrelevant. The consequence is that Wellington’s visual artists are left with the critical writing about their work having a marginal existence in niche online publications, just like Adelaide with the Adelaide Review. Emery, who runs public art programme Letting Space, mentions the Pantograph Punch, The Lumière Reader, Eyecontact and The Big Idea in relation to New Zealand.
At the moment we have more curators in Adelaide than art critics who value the work of artist outside the art market enough to write critically about it. We do have in this city, that celebrates thinking and talking, a framework for selecting and drawing together strong strands from this wealth to provide a crucible of vital ideas and stories the form of an Artists’ Week and a Biennial of Australian Art in the Adelaide Festival. In this respect Adelaide is better off than Wellington. Then it all kinda dies until the next festival opens people up to new ideas across the various art forms. That implies a lack of depth of photographic scholarship in Adelaide.
Even though some of the photographic work being produced in Adelaide s good, the critical writing on this photography is so limited that I have started to do some myself. Without the critical writing the exhibited photography is consumed rather than interpreted and contextualised in terms of historical and conceptual concerns. The need for critical writing is that art works, as sensuous artefacts, speak concretely, addressing themselves to the senses, and its meanings are borne by sensuous particulars.
The truth-content is inseparable from the sensuous particularity of the works, and this helps to reveal/express what is incomplete in any form of knowledge that limits itself to concepts alone (eg., the abstract economic language of prosperity and development).These conventional concepts suppress those things that are particular and embodied about our engagement with the world. The sensuousness of art strives to assert what rationalized concepts have let slip away from the world.
Whilst art makes claims as a form of knowing, it presents us with insights that are not reducible to their conceptual equivalents. These insights need to be interpreted by critical writing that is external to art. In this sense art needs critical writing that needs art. Art and critical writing about art are different, but their permanent relationship is one that is in constant tension.