Happy New Year: ‘You didn’t look, did you?’

Detail: 'situation no. 41: happy new year', 2000 - Gail Hastings

A ‘Happy New Year’ card is a common greeting sent at this time of year to convey best wishes. This particular card is part of a sculptuation by me exhibited in 2000. It may be 13 years too late, but I return to it to send registered readers with a wish for 2013. The wish concerns not only this card in particular, however, but something about greetings cards and art in general, something encouraging.

For a greetings card’s design has us open it to look at its contents inside. The design thereby differentiates two spaces: an outside image that operates within a public space and an inside content that, in contrast, becomes a private space. With this, a card’s outside is accessible while its inside is inaccessible to all—except the person to whom it is intended.

At odds with this, however, is the way a greetings card is also designed to stand on its own on display. To do so, the secreted inside space cannot remain closed to onlookers, but has to stand slightly open—ajar. This raises the question of whether the inside of a card is a private space in a public sort of way in that we, to whom it is not addressed, are by its very design beckoned to trespass and take a look.

Unlike a card, an everyday object does not have a private space made public. An everyday object may have an internal space with a lid or a door slightly open yet still, by design, it does not instate a differentiation, and thereby a transgression, of space. Unless, that is, the object is an art object.

We see this in the very language with which we discuss art. We discuss the ‘content’ of a work of art when we do not discuss the content of a chair, a spoon, a ladder. The content is the meaning of a work of art as opposed to its image, its surface, its container. This content, as with a card, is generally deemed ‘inaccessible’ except for those to whom it is addressed, which is generally thought to be art’s authorities (the artist, the art historian, the art writer, the curator)—those supposedly in ‘the know’. Art, though, is only ever addressed to art.

This particular card is part of a sculptuation entitled situation no. 41, exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW in the group exhibition ‘Passing Time’ — the last of the Moët & Chandon Exhibitions.

In situation no. 41, we see the frustration many may feel towards contemporary art made physically and spatially manifest, through the placement of eight greetings cards; each standing ajar on a black topped pedestal, barricaded by a chest-height wall that one has to peer over.

Hampered, this way, from being able to physically reach and open a card to read its content, we are left with the dissatisfaction of an engagement with contemporary art that we feel excludes us.

Although situation no. 41 spans an adjoining wall and floor with objects arranged on both, if one were to lay the sculptuation out flat, one would see that its floor plan forms a one-to-one correlation with the pattern repeated on the cards.

A form from the ‘Bureau of Repetitions’ requires the participation of  ‘a curator of contemporary art’ to receive each of the eight cards sent to them through the post and record the time the card is received, on a prepared form (Bureau form). In this way, a curator is ‘tasked’ by a work of art to record it. Unlike the myth perpetrated by some and regrettably enacted by others that insists curators, these days, dictate the terms of a work of art then enacted by an artist, here the curator defers to art. For is it not their vocation to receive, record, repeat, review and enable works of art to be re-lived?

Temporal measurements recorded on the form became stripes painted within a room that doubles as one of the shapes on the card.

Striped paintings are a particular breed of Abstract art that flourished in the century just passed. The repetition of striped paintings is not, however, the only type of repetition referred to in the watercolour conversation of situation no. 41.

To a certain extent one can say that any work of contemporary art is a repetition of past art. In situation no. 41, we see this in the way the eight differently coloured cards act as art elements received and ‘recorded’ by an art authority — an art record then reckoned with by an artists and turned into coloured stripes.

Although the repetition, here, between one art instance (posted cards) and another (painted stripes) occurs with little resemblance between the two (except for a correlation of colour), this type of connection between art of the past and present is what  stokes the coals of art history.

On one side, it is called ‘appropriation’. Once common in Australia as a celebrated practice, our distance from international art centres that limits a direct engagement, fuels appropriation. For artists gain access to this art through art history and art periodicals; an influence that generally tags the resulting art, whether wittingly or unwittingly.

On the other side the direct engagement of art by artists who make their own record (response, reception) and, from which, a repetition of sorts is derived no matter the lack of admittance by the artist or lack of resemblance.

Either way, art makes art. There is no other way to make it. When art does not deny this, we find its truth beyond its repetition as art that is original.

The watercolour conversation in situation no. 41 reiterates the repetition of art by art when it refers to the pattern on the blue card as being a repeat of a ‘famous fabric pattern … seen in a museum, somewhere’. This  automatically places the work of art’s influence, content, meaning—all that is within a card—somewhere inaccessible to us here, now, looking at this present work of art (seen in a museum, somewhere).

In effect, two spaces are delineated: an inaccessible space within which the meaning of the work of art is located that we are outside of, and the more public space of the work of art—its image—that we do have access to and, in situation no. 41, find ourselves inside of.

For most, the conversation ends here as it does in the watercolours. The resulting tone, therefore, of the watercolour conversation is critically dismissive. It cannot see beyond its own fear, dread, prejudice. It cannot see beyond itself.

Yet this is the opportunity situation no. 41 offers, an opportunity to overcome this disconnectedness from art through the empowerment of realising one is in fact standing at the very centre of its meaning.

For the ‘famous fabric pattern’ source of the work of art’s repetition is, in fact, the framed fabric pattern one passes upon entering situation no. 41; which makes the inaccessible museum somewhere else the museum one is, in fact, standing in the middle of.

Since the fabric pattern hangs on the sculptuation’s boundary, the very process of passing it to enter the delineated space makes it a memory. It is as memory, then—not a private but public and accessible memory—that the present work of art’s repetition is generated. The power of recognising this is the power that awaits anyone who dares to trespass and correlate the space one feels locked out of with the space one is actually walking around in, when one engages with a sculptuation.

And so this is my wish for art readers in 2013: that you will find much joy in the thrill, the liberation, the freedom and the power that comes when one is prepared to take ‘that’ look at art and thereby step beyond a self-imposed limit into the centre of meaning—the centre within which one already stands—with the reply ‘Of course, didn’t you’.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.