The precedent for this exhibition was at Waitangi Park on the Wellington waterfront when it opened in 2005. Tens of thousands enjoyed the outdoor exhibition of photographs by Yaan Arthus-Bertrand. Overhead shots of flocks of birds, herds of hippos or whatever seemed to conform to most peoples’ idea of exciting photography. (I guess these are the same people who flock to the international press photography award shows for similar reasons.) Risking sounding like a snob, the nature images bored me rigid. (This is possibly a result of excessive exposure to nature docos on telly in the 90s.)
As Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast said in her speech at the park opening last Friday evening, 2nd May, some of the images were not to her taste. And I have to say, as exhibition openings go, this was a goodie; very nice wine and food, a jazz band, no bouncers on the door or the kind of heavy-handedness experienced at City Gallery openings, (where one can feel like a schoolkid being herded around, forced to listen to interminable speeches by numerous sponsors before being allowed to touch the wine, etc (I can feel myself being plucked from the invitation list…)), and the speeches were kept concise.
I would like to congratulate the Wellington City Council for their part in this project; for agreeing to put large scale photographs in the middle of town where thousands will see them daily, and for not butting in and censoring the images, even though they have expressed a level of disapproval. Public art should be controversial. No, it would’ve been much easier for the WCC to push for “professional” photographs, highlighting or celebrating some absolutely positive aspect of the city, perhaps making people feel more optimistic about the place, but being ultimately banal. Glad they saw sense and let the curator and designer do their work.
Funnily enough, I was the only person at the opening with a proper camera (with the intention only of taking the images for this blog). There was no press photographer there, and no appointed WCC photographer that I could see. Could it be that with the possible controversy surrounding these selected images, the attention of the press was not sought? Normally an event like this would receive coverage, I would’ve thought.
http://www.wellington.govt.nz/news/display-item.php?id=3198 for more info about Courtenay Place Park.
My favourite is John Lake’s photo of a girl standing in a tree; one of those images that asks more questions than it answers. Palmer’s pale treescapes, panoramas disconcertingly rotated and set vertically, seem to predict the aging effects the other images may suffer in their six-month tenure. Shaun Lawson has set out to be controversial, with the box at the Mt Victoria end of the park housing his image of a grossly extended tongue; one of the photos that didn’t appeal to the mayor. His other image, from his Actress series, shows a young woman who has suffered a beating from her partner. (This image may soon be withdrawn and replaced by another in the same series.) I particularly enjoy Steve Rowe’s larger than life photos of money machines. At this totemic scale, they are at once deceptively real (I wonder how many people will bowl up in their cars to use them, or maybe try to tow them out) and objects of worship to the stuff that increasingly drives our society. Courtenay Place is the perfect location for them. Clare Noonan’s almost featureless coastal landscapes have a walk-in feel, and are confrontational in their abandonment of traditional, camera club-type compositional elements. I’m a fan. Amelia Handscomb’s images of the historic Thorndon house The Moorings (as photographed by Robin Morrison in the mid 1970s) gain in tension from being sited in the urban pastiche that in Courtenay Place, 2008. The architecture of the Reading Theatre opposite, with its neon signage, is a particular contrast. Others will find the images by Jessica Silk (a nude, via Gustav Klimt, no less) and Victoria Birkinshaw (a boxer) fascinating.
The photographs are somewhat eclectic, but are all by photographers in their twenties or thirties, none of whom appear in the recent book Contemporary New Zealand Photographers; that is to say, this lot are not the usual suspects, but the up and comers, the real contemporary photographers.
While, apparently, a few teething problems have arisen, getting things to look perfect first time round at this scale, backlit and in the open, and dealing with the elements—it pissed down for the unveiling—would be near impossible. The technical issues are now known and will be resolved, and the minor flaws do not affect my enjoyment of these images. I look forward to future exhibitions of photography in this great new venue. Go the Creative Capital.
by james | 8 May, 2008
(I have removed the links below as they are mostly no longer not live.)
- Abby Storey, on May 8th, 2008 at 7:05 pm Said: Thanks for this post James, it looks like a fantastic project. I especially like the fact that, as you say, the photos are by up and coming photographers and aren’t simply the usual ‘named’ photographers. I’d be interested to know how people are responding to the works and if they will be viewed in the way people view artworks in a gallery. There will of course be many more, and varied, viewers than in a gallery but I wonder if people will give the works time, rather than simply seeing them as akin to billboards and other visual advertising?
It makes one want to move to Wellington…..
- james, on May 8th, 2008 at 7:58 pm Said: Hi Abby. See my other posting on Reading Photographs: people don’t even give photos enough time when they’re in a gallery, never mind on the flippin’ footpath. Standing round watching people, they are at least curious about the light box images.
And yes, that ‘usual suspects’ thing is a hobby horse of mine. Yours too? I also get tired of CNZ constantly giving the same old people the grant money. (Oops, I’m in the pooh now, doomed to a dollarless eternity. So I might as well really get stuck in, but in a future posting.)
- Matt, on May 9th, 2008 at 11:15 am Said: I think these are fantastic, I’ve seen them from the bus and was half afraid they would turn out to be a Sony promotion or something. I think it says great things about Wellington that we take art seriously enough not to just have photographs of absolutely positively Wellington. It really makes that whole part of town so much more interesting, and says that we think the experience of living here should be rich and stimulating. And this is all due to the selection of photographs. So a big congratulations to all involved from me anyway.
- DayOut, on May 10th, 2008 at 12:32 am Said: Congratulations to Dominika for her fine images
- andy, on May 10th, 2008 at 8:33 pm Said: Stepping out from behind my non de plume (http://microphen.blogspot.com/), firstly I’d like to say thanks for posting this. I was with a bunch of council urban design guys last night and they were all thrilled that you’d taken the time to write the post.
The curatorial process was a fascinating one - you can check my blog for some discussion of it. Simon and I started on it in about Nov 2006 and it was only in the last couple of weeks that other branches of council got involved and threw obstacles in the way.
That in itself was interesting. While it never got to the point where images were going to be pulled by council, it was eye-opening to discover their collective thinking processes. With any project council are concerned about minimising negativity. Every project will have those for and those against, and it seems that council’s main concern is to limit any negative fallout; weigh up which group they can most afford to annoy with the minimum of harmful comeback.
This isn’t a process which really allows for grand provocation and controversy. That said they were happy for us to run with potentially challenging works. It certainly helped that the Public Arts Panel were involved, and okayed our process and the image selection. I think it’s fair to say that there are people in council who have no interest in ‘art’, so rely on the opinion of the Public Arts Panel to get some idea of the ‘value’ of the work.
For me the really interesting thing with this exercise has been the realisation that as an artist you do lose a certain amount of autonomy when working in the public arena. Generally I can shoot what I want, when I want, and exhibit it as I see fit. I am generally only concerned about myself, and what I want to say/express. I am generally not concerned about the potential audience for the work, or how they may respond to it.
In the public sphere these things do come into play whether you want them to or not, and it does require a reassessment of approach. Recently I missed out on a commission because I felt that if I followed the council’s wishes I would actually have been going against the concept of the proposal. I am fully accepting of the outcome (after all I freely declined to fllow their wishes), but in hindsight I may have proposed something that would have been less contentious.
That’s how it is; you forego some artistic autonomy and freedom to fulfil other people’s criteria. You are required to play be other people’s rules. I’m not entirely against that - entirely.
Getting back to the light boxes, I do think council need to be congratulated on having the balls to put the light boxes up in the first place – especially at such a prominent central city site. But also to have the courage to allow the process to be somewhat removed from their hands. It does go some way towards a publicly demonstrating that we are the “Creative Capital”.
I truly hope that the project, starting with “Flânerie and Figments”, encourages greater public interest in, and interaction with, the ‘arts’. Equally I am thrilled to have been involved in the project.
I should also add that the works will be up for 6 months so there’s plenty of time for out-of-towners to come and experience the works, and enjoy the park which is a work of beauty in itself.
- photoforum-nz.org » Blog Archive » Light Box Project - Courtney Place Park, on May 11th, 2008 at 7:11 pm Said: […] gives a good description of the opening and some on the works on his blog. Be sure to read the comments as they include some reflection on the project by one of the curators […]
- Daniel, on May 23rd, 2008 at 4:54 pm Said: I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Photography as Public Art; the Courtenay Place Park inaugural light box photo exhibition, Flanerie and figments, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.