Reflecting on the now, Melissa Laing

Towards a History of the Contemporary: Gordon H Brown Lecture 16
Christina Barton
Art History, School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, $15.00,
ISBN 9771176588005

For the last 16 years, the art history department of Victoria University of Wellington has presented the annual Gordon H Brown Lecture. In the tradition of the discipline, the many eminent scholars of New Zealand art history have looked backwards at what artists have created and why this is historically significant. In some cases, this historicising has been used to reflect on the now – both art as it is practised at this moment, and society as we are shaped by it in the present. Christina Barton’s lecture “Towards a History of the Contemporary” reaches towards this end – an understanding of the contemporary as a cultural state with a specific historical context and trajectory.

In the time-span of a lecture, captured in this slim and beautifully designed volume, Barton draws a path through a period of New Zealand art history that can be defined as the contemporary. One end is anchored by the appearance of the television in domestic living-rooms, and the other by Facebook live-streaming in our pockets. She tells us of an art history shaped by the evolution of broadcast media and the changes that have accompanied it: a history of the critical and adaptive responses to this media that, as Barton describes, brought the outside world into New Zealand homes as a culturally colonising force, and enabled a counter movement towards a social identity informed by tangata whenua and minority experiences and voices.

To survey this path, Barton ranges widely, from the later work of modernist painter Rita Angus and early made-for-television documentaries on political activism, to this year’s Turner Prize finalist, Luke Willis Thompson. In doing so, she posits two readings of New Zealand art in relationship to the contemporary. The first examines artists as the documentarians of the contemporary, reflecting the social, cultural and economic state of the world as it is in that moment through the technologies they record and use. The second positions artists as the creators of a contemporary consciousness, one where performative video practices are understood as an ethical endeavour to construct the self and, from this, critique the self’s relationship with society. 

In pursuing these readings, Barton draws together the beginnings of a history of New Zealand art that is not constrained by what she calls the “shibboleths of the art history we have inherited”. This is a pointed reference to the dominance of the painterly narrative of New Zealand art history elucidated so comprehensively by Francis Pound, as well as its counterpart, the object-based conceptualism theorised by Wystan Curnow. In making this reference, she brings into the open the awareness that no major scholarly work has been written on the role of television and its partner domestic technologies, the video camera and later mobile phone, as signifiers and as sites of experimentation in New Zealand art since 1970. Indeed, it demonstrates that such a history is urgently needed. 

There are few academics so well positioned to discuss the contemporary in art through the tools and methodologies of art history as Barton. She is a researcher, lecturer and curator of post-1970s art, as well as director of the Adam Art Gallery, New Zealand’s leading university gallery exhibiting contemporary art. Her influence on our understanding of post-object art and conceptual practices since the 1970s is substantial, and her gallery plays a significant role in defining and furthering contemporary art practices in New Zealand. Sadly, Barton verges on apologetic as she advances and evidences her hypothesis throughout the lecture. Her concluding call at the end of the talk, that we trust “that artists can intuit and render palpable the conditions within which they find themselves”, is undercut by her inability to trust her own readings in the preceding pages. The text is peppered with disclaimers that art history is not science, and her assertions softened by qualifiers that turn her interpretations into doubtful suggestions, devaluing the results of her close reading, observation and expert analysis. It seems to me that, in 2018, as we watch the humanities being decimated in our universities, we should resist apologetically undercutting the observational and theoretical tools of the humanities by placing them both below and in opposition to the methodologies of “scientific” knowledge. 

There is a rich vein of possibility running under the history Barton advances in her lecture: one that draws contemporary art practices into a close relationship with film and television through the same period and addresses the role of art in negotiating the changing conditions of time of the contemporary. This would be a history that eschews discussing video art in isolation from the broader discipline of contemporary practice, instead weaving it into a fuller medium-agnostic history. Seeing the possibilities, I can only read Towards a History of the Contemporary as a precursor essay to what I hope will be a book more confidently grounded in its material and methodology. A book that takes these as-yet still-in-development ideas and develops them into a cogent and coherent analysis of the contemporary as both a state of society and of New Zealand art.

Melissa Laing is an Auckland-based artist, writer and curator.

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