Groundswell: That 70s Show

Hamish Coney makes a case for the timeliness of the exhibition Groundswell, Avant-Garde Auckland, 1971-1979 currently on display at the Auckland Art Gallery (until March 31).

The sound of what appears to be hi-jinks, laughter and a bit of mayhem greets the visitor to Groundswell, Avant-Garde Auckland, 1971-1979. You ‘hear’ the early 1970s performance work Contact by the legendary ‘post-object’ artist Jim Allen before you see the wonderfully evocative black and white video recording of the performers slipping and sliding about the interior of the then Auckland CITY Art Gallery. It’s the sound of people having fun…you know, being an artwork.

From there all senses are engaged to take in an intriguing exhibition that achieves the almost impossible to comprehend feat of making 1970s Auckland look cool, happening and at the cutting edge of international art practice. Who would have thought?

New Zealand in the 1960s was still serving up a meat and three veg type of art menu. At the dawn of the 1970s colour TV was still three years away - arriving just in time for the 1974 Commonwealth Games. Keith Holyoake was Prime Minister. On the visual arts front Auckland had a handful of dealer galleries, amongst the most notable of which were New Vision Gallery and Barry Lett Galleries where emergent environmental concerns were articulated in the 1971 group show Earth/Earth. It was a pretty radical concept for the time and the catalogue reflected the urgency of the conservation debate as new roads and housing development sparked concern for the future of the city (sound familiar?) This landmark exhibition featured works by artists who went on to become household names including Don Binney, Toss Woollaston, Michael Illingworth, Colin McCahon and Michael Smither. Painting, painting and more painting was the only game in town.

Jim Allen, Contact, 1974 (installation view) three-part performance, photograph of ‘ Body Articulation/Imprint’ at Auckland City Art Gallery. Jim Allen Archive.

But change in the form of one Jim Allen was coming down the wire at speed. Allen stands as a pivotal figure in the post war period. Perhaps only the kinetic artist Len Lye (1901-1980) bears comparison as a New Zealand artist for whom there appeared to be no precedent within the local scene. It is no coincidence that the moving image is one of the key methods that both artists deployed to jack-knife the status quo. But where Lye’s large scale sculptures were the very definition of an art object, Allen’s performances and installations are in the main, moments in time existing today only in 16mm and VHS recordings.

Those who can, teach may well have been Allen’s motto because his legacy as a teacher and change agent is equal to his influence as an artist. Allen set the template for research and installation based practice that in a New Zealand context blazed a trail for later artists such as Michael Stevenson, et al., Dane Mitchell and Simon Denny - who have all either won the Walters Prize or represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in recent years. 

In a textbook case of travel broadening the mind Allen’s 1968 sabbatical was the catalyst for the 1970s arriving in real time in Auckland. At that point he had been teaching in the sculpture department at Elam since 1960. On an extended global tour he visited art schools and practitioners in England, Europe, USA and Mexico. His timing was perfect. He had a great contact base from his own time as a student at the Royal College of Art in the 1950s. 1968 was a year of massive political, social and artistic rupture. Student riots in Paris were in the headlines and ferment on the streets in Europe and America meant Allen was able to witness these upheavals at first hand and bring back a blueprint of activating concepts to insert into the fertile space that was Elam in the early 1970s. 

The driver of these ideas was to energetically generate a more activated relationship between artist, artwork and viewer. The entire history of the visual arts up to this point revolved around the dazzling artwork, read ‘object’, created with the express purpose of being admired by a passive and frequently mute observer. Nothing wrong with that of course. I have spent a goodly proportion of my life in gobsmacked wonder in front of a great painting or sculpture. But that all felt a bit old hat to Allen and his post-war generation and the revolution had to start in the teaching institutions which in many cases (including Elam) still adhered to the practice of drawing from antique plaster casts of ancient Greek, Roman and Renaissance sculptures pithily described by Elam student of the era John Perry as ‘David’s (as in Michelangelo) ears, David’s nose and David’s toes’.

The post-object movement was all about rewiring the space between practitioner and audience. The result was a freewheeling intersection of performance, music, the human body and new media, frequently staged in locations as far away from the hallowed halls of the art gallery as possible. One of the key works in the exhibition Poetry for Chainsaws (1974) was performed at the Epsom showgrounds. Other artists in the scene performed live on Queen Street, another in the outré interior of Road’s celebrated Pink Pussycat nightclub. 

Nick Spill, Getting Plastered, 1978, (installation view), Groundswell: Avant-garde Auckland 1971–1978, 2018.

Interesting times I hear you say, but why this exhibition now? Why does the saga of an near forgotten and marginal ‘scene’ need to be re-examined today? These were questions I put to Natasha Conland, Curator of Contemporary Art at the AAG. Her response was surprising and daring to a degree. Conland has been a longtime follower of performance art and apart from her interest in the vitality of this genre of work she has concerns that ‘generational amnesia’ can mean such a vital group of personalities and the ideas could be lost – as she explains, ‘this period, though brief,  is important to our understanding of history. It is more important than ever to ask the question of how to invent artistic practice’.

One of the most important questions the exhibition poses relates to the nature of the avant-garde. In 2019 as we see cultural, religious and hard won social freedoms under threat all over the world, is there still a space, safe or otherwise, for the crazy shit that artists do?

The term itself feels like a blast from the past, conjuring up images of chin stroking Parisian hipsters, sipping absinthe, listening to jazz, and debating existentialism. So what was the avant-garde in the traditional sense of a hot new vanguard rewriting the playbook of what art constituted doing in Auckland in the 1970s? More to the point the show seems to scream, does such a beast still exist today and could we do with some of this ginger now? Groundswell  is about the THEN, but the question it asks about the NOW is intriguing and nags away as you perambulate your away through an exhibition where almost all the artists and the work feels new.

Notwithstanding the lo-fi, analogue nature of the presentation which is articulated via lo-res video, letraset type and period photography and newspaper archive material what is revealed is a genuinely coherent and collaborative artistic movement. But almost all of the active players will be artists most viewers will be unfamiliar with unlike the  icons of New Zealand painting who featured in Earth/Earth. In this regard Groundswell is a welcome restorative, an homage if you like to the contributions of creative practitioners such as Maree Horner, Bruce Barber, Roger Waters, Nick Spill, Kimberley Gray and Mathew Maclean, whose performance on Queen Street outside the St. James Theatre in 1974 captures the chutzpah and spirit of the age perfectly.

Fiona Clark, Matthew McLean Untitled Performance outside St James Theatre, circa 1974.

Post-Object art also comes with some built-in currency and this has been seized on by a new generation of curators. Those grainy old VHS performances and their attendant concepts can be re-staged, much like a musical or theatrical performance. In 2019 this is where the contemporary art moment meets the archival nature of Groundswell with a hitherto little known reveal. Turns out Allen, Phil Dadson, Billy Apple, Maree Horner and many of the artists in the exhibition were operating within an international context for the first time in New Zealand art history and it is for this reason alone Groundswell is both significant and timely. In the 1970s New Zealand arts practitioners looked outward, made noise and simply refused to be isolated. This Groundswell moment was a vital precursor to a growing creative swagger in Aotearoa and traces of this global outlook and ambition can be found all over our music, literary and arts scenes from the 1980s onwards. 

During the course of the exhibition a number of key artworks and performances will be re-staged some forty five years after their original iterations (see schedule of performances below). After nearly half a century, contemporary audiences will see these artworks literally come to life. These back to the future recreations are one of the notable features of the current art scene. The global dramatis personae of the 60s and 70s reveal just how networked and linked the artworld is and in fact was. That 50 years ago New Zealand’s isolation was ending is illustrated in a curious link I found lurking in the du jour wave of conceptual art re-stagings. 21st century artists and curators are working out just how cool their parents were.

One of the key re-staged exhibitions of recent years was the landmark conceptual art show When Attitude Becomes Form originally presented at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969. This legendary show was re-staged in 2013 at the Prada Foundation in Venice in 2013. That exhibition was the brainchild of the iconic Swiss curator Harald Szeemann (1933 – 2005), who in 2002 was the judge of the first Walters Prize which he awarded to the photographer Yvonne Todd. 

That slightly shaggy dog story is proof positive that what goes around, comes around. Groundswell is an exhibition that rewards repeat viewing, providing as it will to the determined observer, some startling insights into the dreamtime of the avant-garde. 

Groundswell re-staged events at the Auckland Art Gallery – March 2019

Sunday March 3 at 1pm: Nick Spill on Groundswell. Miami based Spill reflects on the period and his involvement in the avant-garde scene in 1970s Auckland.

Friday, March 29 at 8pm: Phil Dadson, Short and Medium Wave Piece, (1974) re-staged by contemporary sound artists

Saturday, March 30 at 11am: Jim Allen, ‘Parangole Capes’ from Contact, (1974) re-staged by a contemporary group of students

Sunday, March 31 at 10am: Kieron Lyons, Superimpression, (1974), re-staging by the artist

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