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Revolt into style – three new shows at City Gallery

Review by Howard Davis


Combat, Jemima Wyman.

“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” – attributed to Dennis Diderot (1713-84).

“Humanity won’t be happy till the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat.” – Occupation Committee of the People’s Free Sorbonne University (May, 1968).

“The children of the next century will once learn about 1968 the way we learned about 1848.” – Hannah Arendt (1906-75).

After the recent remodeling of its entranceway and vestibule, Wellington’s City Gallery has bounced back brilliantly from the initial embarrassment of its opening show with a plethora of provocative art pieces.

Unlike Te Papa’s cluttered and confusing new lay out, its latest exhibition Iconography of Revolt makes optimal use of large white walls and negative space to isolate pieces that range from newspaper and magazine illustrations to fashion design, free-standing sculptures, films, music, and movie trailers, giving each of them plenty of room to breathe.

It remains to be seen whether Te Papa’s latest exhibit (Curious Creatures and Marvelous Monsters) marks a significant improvement by aiming at a younger, family-friendly, and less discriminating audience.

Iconography of Revolt, expertly curated by Robert Leonard, is definitely not for kids.

The entire ground floor is given over to serious and politically engaged artists concerned with the often incendiary ramifications of producing risky and provocative cultural statements. It pivots around a common theme that both reveals and revels in the various ways in which protest and resistance movements have been represented in art, film, and fashion. Excavating slices of social history from the barricades to the catwalk, it explores not only just how challenging to the status quo such images can first appear, but also how they eventually become absorbed into or co-opted by popular culture. This is a perpetual paradox faced by all potential revolutionaries. It is perfectly captured in the title of George Melly’s wonderful account of the sixties, Revolt Into Style. Those of us who are old enough may remember the pot-bellied, pot-smoking dipsomaniac and self-described ‘poof’ invariably appearing on stage nattily attired in wide-brimmed fedora hat and double-breasted pin-striped suit, recalling the tailored elegance of a bygone era, to perform the trad jazz pieces he loved so dearly. Melly successfully managed to navigate the transition from his carefully cultivated image of anti-establishment rogue and general reprobate to that of much-loved entertainer and all-round clown. In a similarly process of cultural metamorphosis, British designer Vivienne Westwood is now considered a doyenne of the fashion establishment. She launched her career, however, by hawking her trashy latex-and-rubber punk apparel from a King’s Road boutique with her erstwhile partner and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McClaren, who claimed to have borrowed his promotional shock tactics from the radical French Situationist movement of the 1960s. La plus ca change indeed …

City Gallery’s main hall welcomes visitors with an enormous photographic enlargement by Australian artist Marco Fusinato, who creates industrial blow-ups of news photos of those decisive moment in riots when a masked activist is captured lobbing a rock or throwing a Molotov cocktail against a bleak backdrop of urban rubble. Fusinato’s preferred technique is to appropriate images from political protests around the globe and print them full height on large panels, leaving a black margin on the right hand side. The Infinite 5 (2015) is one example of this idiosyncratic method of preserving a permanent testament to often ephemeral protest movements. He employs different approach in THIS IS NOT MY WORLD’ (2018). Since 2006, Fusinato has invited a number of prominent graphic designers to update Croatian avant-garde photographer Zeljk Jerman’s historic protest banner in their own unique styles. Jerman was a member of Zagreb’s Group of Six Artists who often defied legal restrictions to mount defiant protests in public spaces. In 1976, using handwritten capital letters drawn in developer ink on a roll of photographic paper, he hung a huge banderole emblazoned with the slogan outside a Belgrade building. Dana Mitchell’s large, red Untitled (Flag) is attached to a nearby wall by the handle of a spade. It is excerpted from her 2007 installation piece The Barricades, which explored improvised strategies of resistance and dissent, including shields made from the cladding of the gallery’s walls.

Facing The Infinite 5 are three much smaller photographs that are in many ways equally effective in forcing the viewer to make connections which may not be immediately obvious. Michael Stevenson’s Donald Judd Incident 3 (1995) is based on a famous 1974 security camera photograph of heiress Patty Hearst leaving San Francisco’s Hibernia Bank after her abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Front. Stevenson has replaced the bank tellers in the background with white cubes from a gallery wall featuring sculptures by Judd, clearly comparing and contrasting his revolutionary art practice with the criminal activity of urban terrorists. The two symmetrically framed photos that constitute 14 May 1968 by Kiwi artists Michael Parekōwhai and Giovanni Intra present an identical black and white news photo of rioting in the Paris streets from a period when radical chic was all the rage.

Echoes of the civil disturbances that took place in Paris during that hot and heady summer reverberate throughout the show. Shortly afterwards, Jean-Luc Godard moved to England and shot the incendiary One Plus One in a conscious attempt to deconstruct the myth of the ‘genius creator.’ His piece of agitprop film-making documented the Rolling Stones rehearsing Sympathy for the Devil in London’s Olympic Sound Studios, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring the Black Panthers and intercut with exterior shots of them milling around in a junkyard littered with rusting cars as they read from revolutionary texts, and toss rifles around as though preparing for an impending insurgency. A group of white women, apparently kidnapped, are brutalized and ultimately killed off-camera; their bloody bodies subsequently shot in various tableaux throughout the film. That same year the Stones also recorded their anthemic track Street Fighting Man, which Jagger allegedly wrote about student activist Tariq Ali after they marched together in a vast anti-Vietnam war rally outside the US embassy and mounted policemen tried to control a crowd of 25,000. Jagger also found inspiration in the violence of the Left Bank student rioters, explaining in a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, “Yeah, it was a direct inspiration, because by contrast, London was very quiet … It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France, but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions … I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; de Gaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing.” Now, of course, the millionaire with middle class roots relishes a more traditional role as a proverbial pillar of the rock-and-roll establishment. Parekōwhai and Intra are too young to have witnessed the Parisian riots themselves (in a strange coincidence, they were born two days apart, Parekōwha on 13/5 and Intra on 15/5/68), but nevertheless were deeply affected by them.

Emory Douglas’ graphic illustrations from the late 1960s and early 1970s for the Black Panther Party’s newspaper (which at its peak had a weekly circulation of almost 140,000 copies) regurgitate similar memories and emotions. His heavily outlined figures are infused with yellow, brown, and sepia undertones, producing a minatory effect reminiscent of German Expressionism in its brutal pungency. They could not be more different to Oliver Maxwell’s five glossy, large-scale fashion photographs from the July 1986 issue of The Face magazine, with the punning topper Who’s Shooting Who? Ridiculously handsome and moody male models are posed in costumes representing different factions in the bloody Lebanese civil war that was raging at the time. In a manner that is simultaneously both confrontational and complicit, Maxwell’s camera records a kind of tribal anthropology, playing with images of violent armed struggle and the co-option of signifiers of revolt by the fashion industry.

Los Angeles-based artist Jemima Wyman also explores the rhetoric of camouflage and masks as visual tools common to a variety of protest and resistance movements. Inspired by militant Mexican Zapatistas, her use of brazen colour combinations, wallpaper patterns, and large free-standing sculptures also recall early Soviet textile designs. Viewers may be reminded of the cover of The Clash’s triple album Sandanista, which exuded the same sort of ‘double consciousness’ that was such an integral part of the political and cultural context of the era. More recently, Melania Trump’s albeit ambiguous, possibly misguided, but certainly belated ‘I Don’t Care – Do You?’ flight jacket served to underscore the way in which sumptuary codes can question and subvert traditional channels of political discourse.

City Gallery’s show also includes two music videos by the Russian anarcho-feminist punk band Pussy Riot – Putin Vassal (2012) and Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland (2014). The latter shows Pussy Riot activists being whipped and beaten by Cossack security staff at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, while their lyrics address the corruption of Olympic officials, the plight of environmentalist Yevgeny Vitichko, and the suppression of freedom in Putin’s Russia. Famous for performing in brightly-coloured balaclavas, this year Pussy Riot invaded the pitch during the World Cup finals at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium and one courageous member of their cohort even resorted to smuggling herself out of Russia to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, having been prohibited by the government from traveling abroad.

Known for her machine-knitted ‘paintings,’ which often render masculine signs and symbols in a traditionally female medium, German artist Rosemarie Trockel shares Pussy Riot’s fascination for the iconic headgear favoured by protestors to obscure their identity. Her set of five boxed balaclavas feature the Playboy bunny, the Wool Mark, the Soviet hammer and sickle, the Nazi swastika, and plus and minus signs – neatly stitching together images of both fascist and communist totalitarianism with the exploitation of women and consumerism. Trockal’s piece connects directly to a selection of Varvara Stepanova’s Bolshevik sportswear and theatre costumes from the 1920s.

Dress sense and sartorial style can clearly be critical tools for artists working within such repressive circumstances. Handy Blackman founded the London fashion label Maharishi in 1994 and throughout the following decade specialised in the urban warrior utility look in men’s streetwear with his trademark combat trousers and camouflage prints. Maharishi made a comeback in 2015 and launched a promotional video, Viet-Afghan Coalition Tour, advertising a collection he presented just days after twelve people were killed in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and several hostages were seized at a kosher supermarket in Paris. Given its tone deaf insensitivity, it was understandably heavily criticised in the press at the time for being complicit in advancing and validating ‘jihad chic’ for commercial profit.

Belgian artist and film-makerJohan Grimonprez contributes his harrowing collage documentary Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) and Inflight: No Man’s Land: What to Do with a Stolen Boeing 777 (2000), a faux airline magazine, both of which explore the romantic heyday of skyjackers as depicted through the fascinated eyes of the media. The misguided and murderous maniacs who garnered copious amounts of air-time by taking entire passenger planes hostage in the 1960s and 70s eerily foreshadow the Islamic terrorists who perpetrated 9/11. By the 1990s, however, such appalling shock tactics had largely evaporated like so many evanescent sky trails, to be replaced by news stories of state-sponsored suitcase bombers. Grimonprez grimly investigates this evolution, unwrapping the general public’s apparently insatiable appetite for witnessing the ultimate disaster.

Manchester-based experimental musician Bryn Jones died in 1999 at the age of thirty-seven, having released over ninety albums largely inspired by Arabian and North African music behind the moniker of Muslimgauze. Although he never personally visited the Middle East, Jones was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and his focus gradually grew to encompass other conflict-ridden Muslim countries. With his clever alias punning on the interwoven words ‘gaze,’ ‘muslim,’ and ‘muslin’ (as in the gauze used in bandages), Jones was incredibly prolific, producing over ninety albums during his brief lifetime. Many more posthumous releases soon followed.

Short film trailers are shown for Godard’s twin Maoist tracts La Chinoise (1967) and Le Gai Savoir (1969), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), and James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2005). Early in his career, Godard astutely articulated the connection between the overt trappings of radicalism and cultural displays of fashion within the very same bourgeois society that sixties revolutionaries sought to transform. Antonioni’s big-budget, widescreen motion picture may have been a commercial bomb, riddled with contemporary cliches and uniformly poor performances, but nonetheless it unflinchingly explored the more visionary aspects of the counter culture. As the gravel-voiced announcer intones above a Pink Floyd soundtrack, “How you get there depends on where you’re at.” Written by the visionary Wachowski brothers and based on a 1988 DC/Vertigo comic book, McTeigue’s movie depicted the UK as a fascist police state in which an anarchist (identified simply as V) tries to spark a revolution by staging elaborate acts of terrorism. Evoking memories of Patty Hearst, a young working class woman becomes his accomplice. Following the film’s release, V’s Guy Fawkes mask was soon adopted by protestors in marches and demonstrations against politicians and international financial institutions around the world, as well as by the Hactivist group Anonymous.

As a former feature film editor who toiled deep in the bowels of Hollywood for much of my professional life, I can only applaud and admire the immense patience that went into the most enjoyable part of the show – a marvelously skillful compilation movie called Terror Nullius. Produced in 2018 by Dominique and Dan Angelero (who together style themselves Soda_Jerk), it is a highly entertaining cinematic mash-up of excerpts from iconic and canonical Australian and Kiwi movies, a perverse kind of punk revenge tragedy that decodes Antipodean mythology and national identity. The fifty-five minute film is a fascinating farrago of eco-horror slasher flicks, road movies, and political satire. Cross-referencing the maltreatment and destruction of indigenous people with that of refugee ‘queue jumpers,’ it mounts a hilarious critique of misogyny, homophobia, and racism, exposing Australia’s seamy social underbelly with an offensively adolescent larrikin sensibility.

The Angeleros deftly replace various incarnations of Mad Max movie dialogue with alternative lines and images, seamlessly interweaving scenes from such diverse films as Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Crocodile Dundee, Samson and Delilah, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Romper Stomper, as well as brief snippets taken from Jane Campion’s The Piano, An Angel at My Table, and Top of The Lake. It must have taken years of dedicated research and wrangling to obtain clearances for all the found footage – if they bothered to observe such legal formalities at all. The resulting bricolage both juxta- and super-imposes brief passages from crusading journalist John Pilger, crocodile wrangler Steve ‘Tight Shorts’ Irwin, and comedic drag queen Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everidge. Like America, Australia is a geographically spectacular continent drenched in the blood of colonial oppression, repression, and genocide, but somehow the film still manages to infuse such macabre themes with a sense of manic humour. Much of the fun comes from trying to identify the various films that have been so skillfully and irreverently re-appropriated.

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand (it was the first country to give women the vote in 1893), City Gallery also presents the work of a female artist from one of the most oppressive political regimes on the planet and the last country to give women the vote – Saudi Arabia. Arwa Alneami is a key figure in Saudi Arabian art who courageously questions and challengs the restrictions her country still places on self-expression. Created in 2014 and curated by Moya Lawson, Never Never Land consists of surreptitiously made videos and photos of women spending their evenings at an amusement park in Abha. They are constantly policed by a strict set of rules that prohibit any screaming or wardrobe malfunctions. One video shows women (who only this year have been allowed to drive on the roads) bumping into each other in dodgem cars – sometimes carefully, sometimes recklessly, but always with a delicious sense of illicit and somewhat guilty pleasure. Another shows them muting their shrieks on the Drop Zone, while modestly trying to hold down their abayas. Alneami offers a wry commentary on the position of women in a country where political activism is highly constricted, when it is not curtailed entirely.

Patrick Pound’s Museums of Things both works with and actively resists the many ways in which collecting, curating, and connoisseurship impose meanings and values on the objects they assemble. By establishing fresh imaginative and poetic associations between various pieces, he grants them “a temporary reprieve” from their ascribed roles, prompting the viewer to see them with fresh eyes. In 2013, the New Zealand-born, but Melbourne-based artist concocted
The Gallery of Air for Melbourne (now at the National Gallery of Victoria), packing a room with hundreds of exhibits from his collection and the Gallery’s. From a John Constable cloud study and an Air India ashtray designed by Salvador Dalí to an asthma inhaler, each item bore some connection to inspiration, respiration, and the air we breathe. Filling NGV’s entire ground floor with over four thousand items, Pound’s next show, The Great Exhibition (2017), revealed just how far he was prepared to take this concept. It included such disparate items as a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, a ventriloquist’s dummy, and The Museum of There/Not There, in which everything either recalled something else or represented nothing at all. For his latest show, entitled On Reflection, Pound shuffled his private holdings with Te Papa’s collections, continuing to play with the power dynamic between artist and institution. Focusing on ideas about mirroring and doubling (hence the punning title adopted to describe his preferred procedures), the show is deliberately organised as a kind of Rorschach test. As the catalogue intriguingly inquires – “Is there method in this madness?”

All three City Gallery shows are free and run until mid-November. I cannot recommend too strongly that you check the results and draw your own conclusions.

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