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THE EBB AND FLOW Powered By Docstoc
                                                                                     AND FLOW
Below: Tony Schwensen, The Art of Watching (After Vermeer) Thorpe’s Feet, Pittman’s Knee,
Bradman’s House, Schwensen’s Arse, 2006 Photo courtesy the artist (Photographer: John Brash)
Opposite page: Tony Schwensen, Complain to an Australian about Australia Day, 2006
Photo courtesy the artist and Michael Letts Gallery, New Zealand
                                                      broadsheet 163

           SUE GARDINER

           New Zealanders love extreme endurance events. A.J. Hackett

           invented the lunacy of the bungee jump, Sir William Hamilton
           invented an adrenaline pumping jet boat and two crazy Kiwis
           invented ‘zorbing’—where you roll down steep hills strapped
           inside an enormous plastic ball. Now, Australian artist Tony

           Schwensen has come over to New Zealand to introduce a
           new activity—endurance conversation.

           In April 2006, Schwensen set up two chairs, sound and video
           equipment to occupy Michael Lett Gallery in Auckland, for a
           two-day participatory project called Complain to an Australian
           about Australia Day. On day one, he invited people to visit
           him to tell him their complaints about Australia. Schwensen
           spent the day in conversation, as people wandered in and out
           of the gallery, watching, talking, considering, participating,
           communicating. At times, he spent long periods waiting for
           the next visitor—glancing in hopeful anticipation at the empty
           chair. Filming continued uninterrupted throughout the day.
The camera was set up directly in front of the chairs positioned        “that was something I loved—having to watch interaction               part, he remained seated on the chair awaiting the next
against the back three-quarter length white wall of the gallery.        and not understand anything beyond the physical play.”3               conversational opportunity, watching the door with expectant
As the artist noted; “The visual aspect was crucial, two chairs;                                                                              energy and at times, with justifiably flagging attention. The ebb
dressed in black; a quasi-confessional set up but with no               You become aware of time—aware of bodies in time and                  and flow of energy levels obviously took its toll.
absolution other than the betterness we all feel when venting.”1        space. Even if you submitted to the slowness of time that the
The angle was such that a sliver could be seen of the everyday          video demanded, passively letting the ebb and flow of human            So why offer people in New Zealand the opportunity to
activity that was going on in the back office, reflecting the ebb          exchange wash over you, it would be difficult, of course, to see        complain to an Australian about Australia? Don’t all New
and flow of the gallery day and firmly placing the conversational         or hear the whole six-hour video in one sitting. Rather than          Zealanders want to go and live in Bondi Beach if given half
project within the art context. The camera also captured people         looping shorter video sequences, the work progresses slowly, as       the chance? The trans-Tasman relationship certainly has a long
as they walked through the gallery, past the chairs into the office       it embraces silence and emptiness along the way, reflecting in fact,   history and it is one that has had its own dramatic ebbs and
to meet with staff working there.                                        the gradual unfolding of conversation and social exchange itself.     flows. The relationship fluctuates wildly between faux hostility
                                                                        It is, as Margaret Morse once wrote, like discovering content or      and warmth and the anecdotal examples signifying each position
In this way, Schwensen plays around with and eventually                 “potentialities at a very slow rate”.4 You become subject to the      are endless. It dates back to 1901 and the Federation of the
undermines ideas of the stage or staged. While the two chairs           dislocation of the human attention span and capture a glimpse         colonies of Australia. While New South Wales, Victorian and
defined the project space/stage clearly, visitors unconsciously          instead of the reality of infinite time.                               South Australian representatives, for example, were signing up,
subverted this formality, wandering freely across and through the                                                                             the New Zealand delegation rejected the offer to become part
area, walking in front of the camera, talking to Schwensen out of       I started watching a review copy of the DVD at home over              of Australia, saying there were twelve hundred reasons for not
range of the camera or even walking right past without engaging.        breakfast and then throughout the day, came and went into             joining—being the number of miles across the Tasman Sea that
Some refused to formalise the exchange by not sitting on the            the room as I carried out daily activities. It was nice company,      separated them. The jokes, taunts and competitive jealousies
available chair during the conversation, but standing with bag          like having the family about, coming and going and chatting           —combined significantly with a deeply felt camaraderie and
on shoulder, as if ready to make an escape. The visitors always         occasionally, leaving every now and then. I kept my ears pricked      shared connected histories in both peace and war times
maintained control over the situation, acting as equal                  and ran into the room when I heard anything unusual, such as          —have continued ever since.
inhabitants of the project space.                                       someone new entering the space or when things had been quiet
                                                                        for awhile. As Bruce Nauman commented about his 2001 work             Largely, over time it settled into a jaded routine of New
On day two, the resulting six hour unedited video was presented         Mapping the Studio1, he liked the idea that the viewer wouldn’t       Zealanders viewing Australia as the lucky country and Australia
in the gallery and the project entered a different stage. This time,     necessarily sit down and watch the whole thing but would come         seeing New Zealand as the poor cousin. But in recent years
viewers were stopping to watch, to look and to experience the           and go. “I like the idea of knowing it is going on whether you are    another sea change in the relationship has emerged. Australia
ebb and flow of the video itself—as it moved between bouts               there or not.”5                                                       seems to have progressed from thinking all New Zealanders
of conversational activity and spells of inactivity and emptiness,                                                                            were dole-bludging Bondi Beach bums to calls for immigration
when the artist left the room for extended periods. Watching            Schwensen’s strategies for the conversations were                     from the highest political ranks. Changes are signalled in New
the emptiness of the unoccupied room for any considerable               straightforward—to welcome people as they came into                   Zealand on the other hand, from a perception of Australia as
time leaves the viewer trying to make sense of what is going            the gallery, introduce himself and his project, then encourage        the promised land to (being) one with which there are concerns.
on. New Zealanders might be tempted to complain, as did                 them to sit down with him to talk. At times, there were lengthy       Even though statistics come out daily about the large numbers
the Australians in their 2006 world wide television tourist             conversations, but others were awkward and over quickly.              of New Zealanders still moving to Australia, others are taking a
campaigns: “So where the bloody hell are you?” It is then that          The project evolved, changed and fluctuated depending on               renewed sense of pride and pleasure in living in New Zealand,
the artist’s black jacket, left on the back of the chair, taking on a   which topics his fellow participants wanted to cover and              particularly in the light of foreign policy and cultural policy
surrogate role—acting as an agent for the artist while he was not       Schwensen responded to and embraced different situations,              differences between the two countries. Two comments from
there. There were times when his muffled and distant voice could          successfully recognising the potential in each new conversation.      the general media serve to highlight this sense of change. In a
be heard, talking to staff in the back room—our sense of his             “Once someone has stated a position”, he says, “especially when       19 May, 2006 conversation with Virginia Trioli on ABC Radio,
presence again thwarted.                                                you are asking them to list their problems, it is not difficult to      Australian Treasurer Peter Costello commented:
                                                                        begin a conversation”.6 In this way, the outcome was determined           If there are Kiwis who have skills and who want to
The sound level of the video at all times was low and                   by those who took part, often taking Schwensen in unexpected              come to Australia as skilled immigrants, of course
full of interference—sounds from the gallery phone, other               directions.                                                               they would be welcome in this country. If they can
conversations, the classic gallery echo, the hum of outside                                                                                       play rugby union, they will be doubly welcome in
traffic and the odd siren served to disrupt a clear or sustained          At one stage, a couple came into the gallery with a dog.                  this country.
understanding of what was being said. It seemed natural instead         The artist readied himself to talk to them, but in a surprise
to let the actual words slide by and to respond to other things         move the couple directly asked the dog what he thought about          A letter of 3 June, 2006 to the editor of the New Zealand Herald
happening. The back wall of the gallery became like a screen or         Australians. After a couple of tense moments, when it looked like     encapsulated changing New Zealand sentiment.
back-drop to this casual engagement. Reflected flashes of light           Schwensen thought the dog might sniff him, detect an Australian            If New Zealand did unite as a federation with
flicked across it, as the sun caught moving cars on the street or        and attack, he simply let out a loud bark, making everyone jump           Australia, would it not result in our country being
the glass front door as it opened and closed.                           and laugh. After some uncomfortable moments attempting to                 exposed to bigger drug problems, racist displays on
                                                                        get the dog to ‘converse’ with or respond to Schwensen, who               city streets and shameless involvement in unjustified
The resulting interplay of shadow and light on the wall reflected        remained steadfast on his chair, everyone settled into a long             wars… and would it not mean that a racist, greedy,
the dance occurring in front of it—the dance of communication.          and expansive conversation with the dog happily resting at                war-loving little man they call Prime Minister would
When you stopped trying to hear the spoken words, you slipped           their feet.                                                               have a huge say in what happens to our beautiful
into a heightened awareness of gesture and body language.                                                                                         country?
As Chrissie Iles writes; “Whether rendered visible or invisible,        The consummate endurance conversationalist, Schwensen
audible or silent, language always emanates from the body…              never let an opportunity go by for prolonging the interactions        So it was with perfect timing that the artist jetted into this new
the locus of communication.”2 At one stage, I fast forwarded            he encountered and he expertly introduced new topics, asked           climate of doubt about Australia. His project also coincided with
the video and the dance pace quickened into a comedy of                 questions at strategic moments, or else simply adopted the policy     budget mode in both countries, with Treasurer Peter Costello
twitches, arm waves, wild scratches, repeated leg swings and            of talking at length to keep things flowing. “I have spent a lot of    announcing tax cuts for Australians and the New Zealand
feet stroking the floor—some participants were certainly more            time in bars talking with whomever, maybe that is where that          Treasurer, Michael Cullen, preparing to resist them for Kiwis.
balletic than others, who firmly clutched handbags and sat               comes from, the search for a common ground to pass the time           In the weeks that followed, the Letters to the Editor pages in
up straight. “There is a certain beauty to watching people talk         and the ability to keep on talking,” he said. As any endurance        New Zealand’s major daily newspapers were rife with Australian
when you do not know what they are saying. When I lived in              performer would do, Schwensen took the chance to stretch,             /New Zealand complaints and comparisons such as the one
Rotterdam, before I picked up the language”, says Schwensen,            re-hydrate and shift positions as necessary, but for the most         mentioned above. Billboards around Auckland sponsored by
                                                                                                                                                                                                                      broadsheet 165
the main opposition party, the National Party, proclaimed in a
peevish, divisive manner, “290,000 New Zealanders did get tax
cuts. In Australia.”

Schwensen’s visit also occurred just after the Commonwealth
Games, held in March 2006 in Melbourne, during which the
artist conducted another endurance performance, The Art
of Watching (After Vermeer) Thorpe’s Feet, Pittman’s Knee,
Bradman’s House, Schwensen’s Arse. Enclosed in a site office
in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art forecourt, he
watched every moment of the Commonwealth Games television
coverage all day, every day, for the duration of the event,
recording as he went the number of times each national
anthem was played on the network coverage. As he said in
an ACCA interview, by watching television all day he was
emulating the ingrained national behaviour of every Australian
couch potato, but he was “the only one to call it art”.7 His aim was
to focus on what he sees as the stupidity of Australia as a country
that places undue emphasis on sporting success and places little
attention on the breadth of creative endeavours in the country.
He points out with despair that in Australia the Federal Minister
for Sport is also Minister for the Arts. (In a more enviable
position, the New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark
is also the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.)

If ever there was an opportunity for trans-Tasman rivalry
(often described as war-like), it has been in the area of sport.
New Zealand sporting successes have been the butt of jokes
from many an Australian comic, most hilariously Roy and H.G.
during the 2000 Sydney Olympics. During the Commonwealth
Games though, Australian officials with seemingly serious
intent (or at least with very straight faces) complained about
the over-use of the haka by New Zealand team members, while
simultaneously relishing the cascade of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”
and “Oi, Oi, Oi” chants. The haka is the traditional Maori
challenge performed by a large group, dramatically symbolising
strength and determination and made famous by the All Blacks
rugby team. High-ranking officials also complained about the
New Zealand Prime Minister’s non-attendance at the Games
to cheer on the New Zealand athletes. No-one pointed out that
Helen Clark was in Chile witnessing the inauguration of their
first woman president, Michelle Bachelet. She then attended
the Regional Interfaith Dialogue Conference in the Philippines,
while also addressing issues of the effect of bird flu in the region.

Given such complaints and in the spirit of reciprocation,
perhaps New Zealanders were ready for a bit of a whinge.
But was this in fact what Schwensen encountered? It was
interested that a number of those keen to participate in the
complaint process were people not originally from New
Zealand—the artist met and spoke to people from Moscow,
Los Angeles, Sweden and Ireland for example. He found it
strange that these “other others, not the New Zealanders,               Tony Schwensen: Complain to an Australian about Australia                          Bruce Nauman, ‘A Thousand Words: Bruce Nauman Talks About “Mapping
                                                                                                                                                         the Studio”’, in AC: Bruce Nauman, Mapping the Studio 1 (Fat Chance John
had the most virulent complaints which were totally affected             Day, Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand, April 2006                     Cage) Köln: Museum Ludwig, 2003: 11
by their own perceptions of Australia.”8 There was not exactly
                                                                        Notes                                                                                Tony Schwensen, ibid.
a queue of New Zealand complainants lining up for the chance            1
                                                                          Tony Schwensen, email correspondence with the author, 20 June 2006
to let off steam and Schwensen’s first visitor actually told him                                                                                           7
                                                                                                                                                           Tony Schwensen, interview, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, March
she adored Australia. Maybe the long periods of emptiness in             Chrissie Iles, ‘The Metaphysician of Media’, in Gary Hill, Selected Works and   2000; see
                                                                        Catalogue Raissoné, Wolfsburg: Dumont, 2002: 18
the room spoke more deeply about the mixed perceptions New                                                                                               8
                                                                                                                                                             Tony Schwensen, email correspondence with the writer, 20 June 2006
Zealanders hold for Australia—love/hate, it’s a fine line. Possibly          Tony Schwensen, ibid., 20 June 2006
                                                                                                                                                             Tony Schwensen, ibid. 20 June 2006
Schwensen sensed the topic was full of doubt and uncertainty.           4
                                                                          Margaret Morse, ‘Video Installation Art—The Body, the Image and the Space
“Love/hate—it came out and was a good mirror of how I feel              In-Between’ in Illuminating Video: A Necessary Guide to Video Art, Doug Hall
                                                                        and Sally Jo Fifer (eds), New York: Aperture Foundation, 1990: 16
about the place too”, he said.9 In this way, the project successfully
tapped into the multitude of private spaces that exist between                                                                                           Below: Tony Schwensen, The Art of Watching (After Vermeer) Thorpe’s Feet, Pittman’s Knee,
                                                                                                                                                         Bradman’s House, Schwensen’s Arse, 2006
two strongly held opinions, so often vented in the public domain.                                                                                        Photo courtesy the artist (Photographer: John Brash)