The Lei Maker  (2015). Harinani Orme and Debbie Young. CONTACT 2015.

The Lei Maker (2015). Harinani Orme and Debbie Young. CONTACT 2015.

 
 

ESSAY

NOT A CLOSED CIRCLE

 

NGAHIRAKA MASON
CONTACT 2015 Juror

 

In a global sense, the contemporary art scene in Hawai’i is situated somewhere between detectable and emerging. This does not mean there is not an active contemporary arts scene; it is just differently rendered to other parts of the Pacific region and the world. And this is the good news!

Despite the politics of place, race and identity, the cultural offerings of an arts community shift and develop according to its cultural particularities. It is what it is. The layers of histories accrued to Hawaii’s indigenous population mostly describe a place and its peoples as occupied, politically-colonised and American-ised through contact with the rest of the world. This is a fact of history but not the sum of Hawai’i or her people who have survived and are thriving on their own terms. Their story is not a closed circle, but ripple-effect vignettes.

Beneath the surface of CONTACT sits a platform for magic waiting to happen. This second iteration of a series of exhibitions is also themed and juried with two curators invited to assess the relational ambitions of the artists. The topic of contact is the same idea differently for non-native and indigenous artists whose historic reflections and personal stories separate and simultaneously draw people closer together.[1]   A showcasing of new ideas and styles is part of the logistics of exhibition making, but the fun aspect is the public gets to make their mind up about what they like and why, as will the funders, critics and discerning buyers.

Where I come from (Aotearoa New Zealand), juried exhibitions are not a cultural norm. To understand what I was getting myself in for as a juror, I looked to understand how a paradigm of judging contemporary art is good for the visual arts community. This is partly a rhetorical inquiry because there are obvious benefits and opportunities for artist’s works to be exhibited, recognized and supported. I asked myself three questions. (1) How are juried exhibitions different from invitational and curated art museum exhibitions; (2) Is exhibition making a lottery, dependent on the tastes, values and inclinations of jurors? (3) If curating is my ‘game of chance’ and follows a pattern of potential possibilities, how am I engaging this process? This writing seeks to contribute ideas concerning past and emerging models and thinking pertaining to the globalisation of art and culture and how it relates to Hawaii as a future location for large-scale exhibition making. [2]

 

THE MARKET

A market for art has long existed dating back centuries to the ancient Greeks and Romans who were commissioning, buying and selling art for as much profit as could be turned. Staying in Europe, the Renaissance period produced a market for Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci’s art and these artists did very well. They are still the subject of museum market discussions and a measure for a standard for bankable art. Playing the art market in ancient times during the renaissance and into the late 19th century period was the purview of royalty, nobility and the wealthy. This patronage baton has since been passed on to wealthy corporates and individuals. Acquiring art has become lucrative and also trickier than it was at any other time in history.[3]  Nonetheless, there is a willingness from this sector to support artists albeit there is a growing number of artists who are seeking patronage from a smaller pool of patrons.

Collecting is part of the market and historically churches commissioned and collected art. The Vatican in Rome possesses a large collection of objects of worship from cultures that were converted to Christianity. Explorers are also part of the ‘collecting’ story; they obtained objects from the places they visited and these items are now some of the most sought after pieces by collectors across the globe. For the most part, the art collected by institutions such as the Vatican and those who inherited and gifted art handed down the ages was exhibited in palatial homes and churches before the art transitioned from private hands to public art museums.

Making art ‘public’ paved the way for art and artists outside of elite patronage to enter the art market. Artists who did not paint landscape, portraits or historic narratives entered the field because a gap was created in the market. Artists turned their backs to the norms of art of the time and those who ‘made good’ include a roll-call of art heroes from this groundbreaking period. They include Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse to name a few. Modernity and the end of the 20th century brought competition, extreme speculation and ambition to the front of our experience of contemporary art. The opportunities that ushered in Picasso et al. diversified and remained largely unrestricted until recent times. It is demonstrably clear today we are currently in a market that places an obscene monetary value on art.[4]

I worry about the proliferation of contemporary art on the market that ends up at high-end auctions. There is no lack of art production today in fact this has exploded exponentially; rather, there is an absence of depth, heart and clear thinking. Critics say that contemporary art is out of control and there are too many rock stars, inflated prices, ugly art and individuals, gallerists, art auctioneers, corporates rule the market. Bluntly, art is a commodity and when fed into a continuum of capitalistic priorities it is hard to make the logistics of contemporary art look pretty or to acknowledge that this is what art has become. Art is no longer the sole domain of cultural and competent art makers. Anyone can become an artist, curator and cultural expert. Theories are being produced; some which precedes the making of art! It is hard to ignore the realities of this cycle of commerce and exchange to which contemporary art is currently attached.

 

GOING FORWARD

Hawaii, I feel is poised to philosophically pave a way forward for how we approach global art practice, and for how to be in the world. Despite its reputation as the home of President Obama, or a mecca for some of the worlds wealthiest people, and a beacon for tourism, sun, surf, sand and hula, Hawai’i is the world’s flagship for aloha - something that its people still value and practice. I know from personal experience that one eventually succumbs to aloha which is a way of life, and culturally specific to Hawai’i. In a world where aloha is not often enough practiced, encouraged or exhibited, it is a platform for radicality. By this I mean that we are in a time that created a gap not too dissimilar for artists such as Henri Matisse in the 1920s to enter the field and create paintings and prints that were bold, simple and emotionally unconstrained. Contained in aloha are the same elements that Matisse and others seized on, which produced the freedom to nurture creativity, raise consciousness and shift paradigms from one reality to another.

Aloha does not make its population pushovers or its artist’s less-than anyone making contemporary art in China, New York, Japan, LA or Berlin. Notwithstanding, Hawai’i has been part of the global art market since contact with European explorers in the 1700s. The market has yet to see or experience Hawai’i in all its diversity and magic. Hawai’i will rise to the challenge of contact with the global art scene that will make landfall in late 2016. It is true of other places as much as it is true of Hawai’i; visual art firstly evolves through recognition and support of artists and a relationship with place. The 2015 exhibition CONTACT is part of the ripple effect.

Ho’omākaukau? Ae!      


[1] This essay is not purposed to address ‘contact’ as a topic, rather, to shape an argument for discussing contact as a contemporary subject that is ongoing yet reaches back into deep history.     

[2] The inaugural Honolulu Biennial launches in October 2016. The theme for the Honolulu Biennial has yet to be announced.  The curator is Fumio Nanjo, Director of the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.   

[3] Saatchi and Saatchi has amassed an international contemporary art collection and support selected art projects the world over. The 19th Biennale of Sydney held in 2014 attracted protests from artists who objected to the event’s major sponsor’s involvement in mining. The 2014 Kiev Biennale in the Ukraine was also plagued by political protestors.     

[4] Christies is the leading auction house for contemporary art. They are achieving record prices in the history of art sales. A Francis Bacon work Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969 oil on canvas, in three parts sold for US142, 405,000 in November 2013.  

 

 
 
 

The topic of contact is the same idea differently for non-native and indigenous artists whose historic reflections and personal stories separate and simultaneously draw people closer together

 

Art is no longer the sole domain of cultural and competent art makers. Anyone can become an artist, curator and cultural expert. Theories are being produced; some which precedes the making of art!

 

Contained in aloha are the same elements that Matisse and others seized on, which produced the freedom to nurture creativity, raise consciousness and shift paradigms from one reality to another.