Thursday, November 6, 2008

JIM ALLEN: From Elam to the Experimental Art Foundation, Blair French



1. Our appreciation of the world is active, not passive, and art displays an emergent apprehension.

2. Art is only incidentally and not essentially aesthetic. Art is concerned with every kind of value and not particularly with beauty.

3. Art interrogates the status quo: it is essentially, and not incidentally, radical.

4. Art is experimental action: it models possible forms of life and makes them available to public criticism. (Statement displayed in foyer of Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1970s)[1]

Jim Allen left New Zealand for Australia in 1976 to take up a residency at the Experimental Art Foundation (EAF) in Adelaide. Here, free of the burdens of administrative and teaching duties associated with his position as Associate Professor and Head of Sculpture at Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland 1968 Allen produced a number of performance and installation worksNewspaper Piece, Poetry for Chainsaws (or Chainsaws), The Elastic-Sided Boot, On Planting a Native, There are Always Elephants to be Made Drunk (also presented at the 1976 Biennale of Sydney), and Sending/Receiving outside the general consciousness of New Zealand's burgeoning contemporary art scene. Furthermore, Allen never returned to teaching at Elam. In 1977 he took up the position of founding head of Sydney College of the Arts. Allen's influence as an art educator runs deep in both locations. It is only in New Zealand, however, that his own earlier work and his example as an artist figure is inscribed in the folklore of contemporary art and written with increasing precision into its history, for during his tenure at Sydney College (1977–87) Allen by his own admission made no work.[2] These EAF works are therefore little acknowledged in the recent art histories of either Australia or New Zealand.[3]

””””””””””
By working towards these works I hope not only to address this neglect in some small way, but to suggest also the manner in which Allen's work operated within, even exemplified a certain dynamic, multi-lateral movement or exchange between New Zealand and Australian contexts. We might treat this movement in conceptual, material, bodily and metaphorical terms as a form of productive intellectual and cultural energya sideways exchange between two sites traditionally figured in colonial, provincial or antipodean frames and yet quite peculiarly foreign to each other in many ways.[4] In rehearsing some observations regarding the intellectual framework and imperatives underpinning the establishment of the EAF and driving its program, then casting these against particular conditions of the Auckland or New Zealand scene as characterised by Allen himself we might begin to conceive of that space (conceptual and social) of transition or exchange within which Allen's 1976 work developed. Although some basic comparative analysis is useful, and certain impelling agents of difference must be acknowledged, it is most appropriate and productive to think of how Allen's 1976 work simultaneously acted as both departure from and extension of aspects of his earlier work, of how it both problematised and attempted resolution of certain concerns that trace back at least as far as his 1969 exhibition Small Worlds.[5]



From Elam…

The late sixties and early seventies saw a radical opening up and proliferation of modes of art investigation and practice in New Zealand, and particularly at this moment in Auckland. Allen recalls first instances of work by Elam sculpture students during the latter part of the sixties beginning to respond to increasingly open forms of inter-disciplinary teaching and manifest a growing interest in propositional forms of environmental and spatial engagement and site-specificity.[6] Things accelerated following Allen's return from his sabbatical sojourn in Europe, the UK and USA during 1968, both in terms of Allen's own activity and the critical and creative energy abounding in the Elam sculpture department.[7] A full history of the determining conditions, drives, impulses, relationships and trajectories feeding into the plethora of work emerging from Elam during this early-seventies period is an undertaking too large and complex to undertake here, but one which needs tackling at some point if for no other reason than to discriminate myth from actuality and so ascribe agency and responsibility where it's truly due amongst some quite remarkable young artists of the time. For the time being, whilst acknowledging the undoubted importance of Allen to the early development to certain specific artists,[8] there are three apparently simple but key quantifiable inputs we should particularly note, in part for their relation to the type of environment or context later fostered at the EAF. First, the development of a contemporary art library at Elam that not only ensured student access to the latest in international practices but encouraged an intellectual, investigatory approach to art. Second, the visiting artist program initiated by Allen that brought people such as Steve Furlonger, Adrian Hall, Kieran Lyons, John Panting and Ti Parks to Elam. Third, the instigation of critical response and discussion sessions between staff and students. These sessions were based in part upon similar interview sessions Allen had witnessed at British art schools in 1968, and both fostered and in turn demanded a culture of intellectual rigor, integrity, and trust. Interestingly, this in fact quite structured discourse model not only carried over to situations outside educational contexts (indicating a general emphasis upon critical reflection and discursivity built into the very motive force of much work) but resulted in a number of important published texts such as the discussion regarding Bruce Barber's Bucket Action (1973) and the two discussions on Allen's O-AR exhibitions (1975).[9] In a sense group discussion provided an early model for contemporary art writing in New Zealand.[10]

This furthermore indicates, of course, how Elam was not the only important site of activity in Auckland at this time. The Barry Lett Galleries provided a crucial location for the public presentation of work, hosting important exhibitions by Allen, and Adrian Hall amongst others. The Auckland City Art Gallery hosted the Four Men in a Boat projects by Allen, Bruce Barber, Philip Dadson and Kieran Lyons for the 1974 Auckland Festival, before John Maynard instigated the first set of solo-artist contemporary Project Programme exhibitions there in 1975. And of course numerous activities took place in various public sites around the city and its environs. It's important to note here, however, that none of these sitescommercial, institutional, publicwere configured in primarily ideological terms, nor were they successful in fostering much of a public consciousness of this work.[11]

Allen himself proposed some key characteristic or conditions of the Auckland ‘scene' both immediately prior and subsequent to his departure.[12] He claimed that works the equal of any international model were being produced. However, whilst New Zealand artists had a detailed knowledge of overseas practices, they had little actual contact or direct dialogue with a contemporary international art scene. Allen conveyed the impression of a hothouse atmosphere, but one characterised by a fundamental sense of detachment. In an audio recording he made with the EAF and Radio 5UV in Adelaide he spoke about the necessarily alternating roles played by all participants at one moment the artist or performer, at next the supporting collaborator, the audience, the critic or discussant. The limitations of such a small, compressed community were felt in the manner that periods of extremely close dialogue were inexorably followed by participants spinning off into disparate orbits in search of fresh creative space. What is clear in both this tape recording and the interview with Pauline Barber that preceded it is Allen's increasing awareness of the insustainability of such an impermeable set of conversations occurring within isolated pockets or groups.[13]
Whilst all this activity of the early seventies was obviously taking place within broader contexts of social and political activism, and particular works were driven by political imperatives (or as applied more acutely to Allen’s work were interventionist, challenging or disruptive in form and action rather than content) there appears to have been little sense of an over-arching ideological project being pursued. In fact, one source of the energy of the time appears to have been a sense of inventive possibility of making ‘art’ itself anew in each work or action (which itself, of course, does bear political implications). And in this in fact we can perceive an individualism underpinning this more apparent sense of communality or collective action.[14] With the work of Philip Dadson (including Scratch Orchestra and From Scratch) the notable exception, the collective action or activities of the period don’t necessarily correlate to a collective ethos or manifesto—an important point given the appearance of collectivity engendered in retrospection by New Art.

What I’m trying to convey here, however loosely, is a sense of the context in which Allen’s New Zealand work was undertaken—the tensions in that context between a small community and the energies such intellectual and creative relationships gave rise to, alongside otherwise disparate, quite individual sets of concerns and impulses around which various critical or theoretical interests clustered. The stress here should be that critical issues or trajectories very much emanated from rather than led work.

…to the EAF
It would be deceptive to simply claim the inverse to the above as conditions in Australia at this time, however it is clear that there were more specifically determined organisational frames and networks which provided support as well an ideological impetus to post-object practices. And the EAF was one the most important.

Formed by artists and academics in Adelaide in 1974 with Australia Council support, the EAF provided, in Anne Marsh’s words, “a venue and a critical forum within which experimental art could develop”, and for founding board member and influential art theorist Donald Brook in particular, “a kind of theoretical laboratory where he could test out his theory of experimental art.”[15] Founding director Noel Sheridan brought with him a library of documentation of American and European conceptual and performance work, and under his stewardship the EAF was committed to national and international networking and exchange, including acting as host to the work of a number of important visiting artists and theorists.[16] It’s easy to see the appeal of this situation to Allen—the opportunity for new conditions of dialogue within just the form of supportive and internationally engaged context for experimental practice that he had been seeking to establish at Elam. Whilst Adelaide like Auckland contained a very small contemporary or experimental art scene, it was a focal point within far larger Australian and international networks, and furthermore in the form of the EAF had become a site insisting upon the overt intersection of artistic and polemical activity. Crucially, Allen was resident at the EAF during a particularly active moment in its history: performances, screenings, and presentations such as an important lecture by Donald Brook on post object art[17] took place on an almost weekly basis, whilst a major exhibition, Australian and New Zealand Post Object Art: A Survey was put on during May.[18]

Marsh’s discussion of performance art at the EAF during the seventies is useful for imparting a sense of the dynamic creative and intellectual environment Allen was entering in 1976. It also infers something of its compatibility to his own general concerns as well as the manners in which his new work may have set out to negotiate it. Marsh rehearses a discrimination between three modes of performance—body art, ritual performance, and conceptual performance[19] —whilst clearly marking the inter-determinacy of these modes. As she notes, Brook was most interested in conceptual art modes, in art “more inclined to explore intellectual systems than sensory experience,”[20] but in his own writing on early performance work by Imants Tillers recognised the crucial meeting of intelligence and imagination that activated the propositional nature of much performance (and certainly that of Allen.)[21] Allen’s work, as we shall see, traverses these categorisations (although they remain useful tools for its exegesis). Allen’s Contact (1974), for example, which did pursue concentrated bodily and psychic states (body art), was fundamentally located at a nexus of experiential and intellectual investigation—at the productive intersections of sensory experience and formalised, repeated action structures or patterns. In Allen’s performance work the intuitive, pragmatic and intellectual always met in discursive play.

Also of interest is the manner in which Marsh points to a key issue of intellectual conflict fermenting at the EAF: the meeting of Brook’s determination for an art of and interventionist within the social—an art of social ethics—and Sheridan’s equally determined separation of art from social or political responsibility. There’s an oscillation between these poles within Allen’s work itself, right from the beginning, with the social coming strongly to the fore in Adelaide works such as On Planting a Native and There are Always Elephants to be Made Drunk, particularly when compared to his most recent New Zealand works, the O-AR exhibitions of 1975. However, as we shall see, all Allen’s work was in part based on responses to immediate social situations. The EAF work illuminates this to some degree, but any clear reading of an art of social politics within Allen’s work is also complicated by On Planting a Native which actually disrupted the masquerade-as-progressive of a politically comfortable response to a contentious issue of the day.

Pursuing Contact

Contact (1974) was a performance work in three sections undertaken as part of the Four Men in a Boat project at the Auckland City Art Gallery. It was Allen’s first important performance work, but marked an extension of rather than rupture with many of the key determining characteristics, questions and impulses of his preceding (and subsequent) installation work: the setting up of a system or structure within which acts of exploration (on part of both artist and spectator) take place, often in terms of physical articulations of space to be moved around and through; the enclosure as a (porous) boundary; the triggering of interaction between dynamic clusters of bodies, space and material forms; the investigation of material occupations and articulations of space as fluid dialogues or ever-changing relations of corporeality; the determinacy of spectorial presence upon the work; the relation of the individual to the collective or the social; and the cognitive capacity of the sensory body and its relation to linguistic utterances, structures and meaning.

The four environmental structures of Small Worlds (1969) functioned, as Christina Barton has noted, as proposed situations “which invited actual or implied participation on the part of the gallery visitor.” As such, Barton claims, “they fulfilled Allen’s new conception of sculpture as an activity rather than an object...”[22] New Zealand Environment #5 (1969) involved a total enclosure separating viewers from both gallery and normal social environment and immersing them in almost overwhelming sensory stimulus. Arena (1970) was a set of barbed wire barriers (or enclosures) running at eye, crotch, and knee levels that posed problems regarding spectorial apprehension of inside/outside relations.[23] A later work, O-AR 2 at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1975 involved the division of each of two gallery spaces (side by side to each other) into corridor like spaces with a single, large hanging sheet of plastic: black plastic for one gallery, clear plastic for the other. In one gallery a viewer could see others moving through the space on the other side of the plastic, in the other gallery viewers were hidden from each other. However in both spaces the disturbance of air caused merely by the movement of people on either side of the plastic was enough to cause it to shift, sway and ripple and so the presence of others was conveyed and ‘perceived’ sensually.

The relation of Arena to O-AR 2 is in a sense emblematic of what was an ongoing dialogue or oscillation in Allen’s work. O-AR 2 was the most experientially subtle and open-ended of Allen’s installation work to this point. Its phenomenological exploration of subjectivity differed from that of Arena in that it was stripped of obvious social reference other than that of the specific context of the institutional gallery. On the other hand Arena (exhibited with a work comprising small tent-like structures entitled Community ) was deeply sourced in the social conditions of lived experience, in part like New Zealand Environment #5 via the cultural metaphoricity of its utilitarian materials, but more specifically in reference to the alienation engendered by life in state housing environments. Arena was an attempt to manifest the barely suppressed aggression and indeed actual conflict experienced living in such an environment, as well as to explore (in both phenomenological and metaphorical terms) the means by which people protect themselves (practically and emotionally) within such environments. Indeed, all Allen’s installation works of the period operated in some way as defensive structures (barriers) involved in this exploration of the aggressive (yet on occasion protective) controlling of space (and so relations within space).

In wishing to attribute to Allen’s work (and working spirit) an exploratory openness Wystan Curnow, writing in the mid seventies, down-played both the aggressiveness of the work and its scope of social reference, preferring to emphasise in the first instance a contained phenomenological encounter, on occasion prompting a further linguistically negotiated reflection upon individual cognition. Curnow’s critique promoted a structural reading of Allen’s installation work (as, almost paradoxically a self-contained structure for the opening out of sensible perception) rather than one seeking to embed the works’ materiality and metaphoricity within a broader world of material and social reference.[24]

Curnow used the figure of irony (the conscious attribution of a double-experience of positioning within the work’s structure) to redeem Allen from the charge of over-determining both Arena’s phenomenological and metaphoric dimensions through tight social reference: the active passage through the spatial dimensions of the work supposedly resulting in a pacifying enclosing within those dimensions—that which is protective is also restrictive. This allowed Curnow to refute a criticism that might otherwise be made of Allen’s enclosures, that they “may seem machines for processing the viewer” and so subvert the viewer’s freedoms (which Curnow held dearly).[25]

Christina Barton has raised similar concerns regarding aspects of Allen’s practice, primarily by concentrating upon a distinction between ‘environment’ and ‘installation’ works. The former, she has claimed, were involved in the “exploration of spatial and temporal concerns within the bounded confines of a closed situation” rather than in “an open-ended interplay with the phenomenal world.”[26] The environment was “essentially retroactive in intent.” It risked “denying the potential for the participant to enter into a dialectical relation with the work which might, by offering insights into the real environment beyond its confines, provide an opportunity for the viewer to re-examine their own relation to the world at large.”[27] On the other hand an installation (of which she claimed Arena as Allen’s first), “rather than generating its own spatial and temporal parameters, functions in relation to the specifics of real space…The spectator, co-existing in this newly charged situation, was therefore, invited to physically and perceptually explore her/his own relation to the dialectical interplay between container and contained.”[28]

Whilst I don’t believe that it’s quite so easy to distinguish between environment and installation as precise critical models for Allen’s practice,[29] Barton’s critique does place a model of interplay between viewer and work within a broader socio-spatial context that assists in moving analysis beyond Curnow’s problem of social reference being treated as by necessity leading to the viewer’s over-determination as subject (and does so without Curnow’s recourse to the de-centring effects of irony).

Contact might in one sense be construed as having put into actual motion the elements already at play in Allen’s installation work. Contact was indeed sculpture “as activity” and thus subject to similar models of analysis, particularly with regard to an oscillation between open-ended exploration and overt phenomenological determination within the work’s structure. The overall work involved three parts or activities. The first, Computer Dance, took place within an area delineated by metal tubing and hanging, weighted nylon and subject to bright, flashing lights. Four pairs of performers operated hand-held emitter/receiver devices connected to audio speakers. A narrow beam of light was sent between the emitter/receiver devices. When the two devices were in alignment (in perfect ‘contact’) a perfect high-pitched tone was heard from the speaker (the devices also vibrated slightly to give a greater sense of ‘contact’ to the performers). In Paragole Tapes four performers were assisted in dressing in layers of calico and hessian (each performer in a different colour). The final layer completely enclosed them in a sack-like structure. Each of the four then began to move to the centre of a cube-structure in the gallery, articulating strange sounds as explorative (pre-linguistic) communication and testing what movement was left available to them by their garments (or enclosures). Once they had met in the middle (after around an hour) they used their teeth to free each other, hanging their garments or capes over the frame, enclosing themselves in a protective cube. Finally, in Body Articulation/Imprint six performers each took up position on a large sheet of polythene over white paper next to a bucket of paint (a different colour for each performer). Each performer smeared paint over their joints and began to move, the colour indicating the movement of their body. They each then covered the rest of the body with paint and made a body imprint on the plastic covered floor (at its peripheries), now recording the movement of their body. Then the performers moved closer to the centre of the proscribed space, formed into pairs, and explored colour changes through dual movement.

Contact was clearly concerned with seeking some form of transcendence of or release from both societal alienation and individual anxiety through collective action.[30] The overall work was, however, highly structured in conception and confined within an institutional space. There was a substantial difference between the structuring and location of this work and that, for example, of Philip Dadson’s “Purposeless Work” actions where although given an initial direction and set of parameters (a plot or score) individual performers were presented with a more fluid context and environment for improvisation or autonomous action. Yet neither could Contact be too closely equated to other complex, structured gallery-based performance works such as those undertaken by Bruce Barber and Kieran Lyons as the latter two artists generally also assumed the role of (sole or principal) performer within more theatrical or narrative-based situations, thus testing the propositions via their own sensual experience. Barton, I think, was accurate in her criticism of Contact as risking over-determination of the limits and conditions of its participants’ experiences.[31] There’s a social laboratory sense to the work, an exploration of social dynamics within a controlled field of spectacle.[32] Such exploration continued in Allen’s EAF performance works but in more direct manners in terms of artist/audience relations and with a more specific focus upon communication acts or vectors as primary means of relation.[33]

Australian Works

In contrast to Contact, most of these works produced by Allen at the EAF were of apparently modest scale or undertaking; involved looser, more porous frameworks; and perhaps most significantly were characterised by a focus upon the performative figure of the artist new to Allen’s work.[34] This location of himself within the work may in part have been motivated by very practical reasons of what was logistically (financially) possible within the framework of his EAF residency, but what emerged across the works was an apparent impulse towards an exploration on the part of Allen of his own embodied experience of the fundamentally phenomenological situations he set up as the limit conditions of these works.

Newspaper Piece was undertaken in April on the same evening as Poetry for Chainsaws as well as performances by Leigh Hobba and Richard Tipping.[35] Allen sat reading a page of a newspaper. When finished he crumpled it tightly into a ball and discarded it. He then retrieved it, read it again, crumpled and discarded it over again, repeating the process until the page became illegible pulp. In Poetry for Chainsaws Allen read Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl against the sound of three chainsaws that he had set running on the floor around him. The piece was prepared so that each chainsaw had exactly enough petrol to operate continuously throughout the reading, but to splutter and fall silent just at the point Allen finished reading the poem. The floor of the EAF was concrete, so not only did this compound the sound of the chainsaws it also meant that they tended to shudder and jolt about dangerously around Allen’s feet. A third similar work, Sending/Receiving , was performed in October also alongside works by Hobba and Tipping. Here Allen had performers call out extracts from literary works The Third Policeman , Gravity’s Rainbow and Tunc . Audience members receiving the information called it back to the best of their ability. All three works explicitly addressed themselves at or inserted themselves within problems of communication—gaps in intention and meaning between ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ positions in any singular or set of communicative act(s). Each engaged limit conditions for communication and proposed pressure points where it broke-down irrevocably.

For The Elsatic-Sided Boot, his major contribution to the EAF post object art survey exhibition, Allen issued an ‘invitation’ in advance to people wishing to “sound-off... make sounds”. Participants were asked to selected sound-making objects and leave them in a designated area of the EAF exhibition space several days prior to the performance “thereby identifying themselves with the piece.”[36] The actual performance took the form of four 15-minute components where participants sat in an area marked off by Allen attempting to communicate with each other solely via their ‘sound’ objects. These were interspersed with ‘rest’ periods in which participants could stand, stretch, walk about and introduce themselves to each other. The area designated by Allen for this piece was ‘roped’-off by a strip of 35mm film wrapped around four pillars. The film contained images Allen had taken one day in Adelaide when he happened to be passing by an intersection just as a shooting was taking place down its cross street. A man was apparently trying to hold up a gun shop but was shot by police. It was later treated as suicide). He didn’t present these as exhibition ‘images’ but rather as the physical ‘barrier’ delineating the space or environment of the work in socially discursive as well as physical terms. In addition he projected on one wall a Super 8 film of a small model he had constructed from Lego components, complete with soundtrack of radio news broadcasts regarding violent acts and disasters. All the debris from that initial performance was subsequently left strewn about in the designated space of the piece for the duration of the exhibition, as trace or material mnemonic of the night’s gathering.

Like Contact, The Elsatic-Sided Boot was an attempted critique of the manners in which people are subjected to stress (the social alienation of a modern, mechanistic society) and the means by which they may attempt to relieve this (on one hand via acts of random violence, on the other by means such as those enacted in the performance element of the piece—seeking and being sensitive or responsive to forms of communication and commonality other than those binding the alienating structures of daily life). In this work, however, the processes of interaction and potential outcomes were far less directed by Allen. It was not unlike the type of exercise Allen and colleagues set students at Elam where certain parameters of action were given and general sphere of activity to occur within those parameters indicated, but both motivation and shape of action (and therefore outcome) left up to the participants to develop in the very process of making, acting, and engaging with each other.[37]

The large text work, There are Always Elephants to be Made Drunk, installed at the EAF in September and subsequently at the 1976 Biennale of Sydney, utilised press material from this same Adelaide shooting along with text (particularly conversational) fragments sourced in a magazine article dealing with the network of relationships that exist within a single family, especially that between a father and teenage daughter. Allen attempted to map or grid these relationships out in a diagrammatic form, replacing names with numbers, so creating a piece that had the appearance of a mathematical, scientific or perhaps technical calculation. Similar to O-AR 1 of the previous year in its utilisation of textual fragments in need of cognitive reconstitution on the part of the viewer, this was a difficult piece to apprehend. It set out to test discursive functions and parameters of language acts in both direct, one-to-one vectors and more complex cultural networks. As Allen said of O-AR 1 , it sought “to create a gap between the definitive statement and the residue of meaning.”[38] Here issues of communication difficulties and information contamination were dealt with in a very different manner from Allen’s performance work. Nevertheless, a similar idea of frissure between transmitted and received utterances and thus dislocations (by and from the social) of cognitive functioning and ultimately meaning were made apparent via Allen’s systematic pressuring of information structures.

On Planting a Native was undertaken in response to the removal by the Art Gallery of South Australia of a work by Tony Coleing—an installation of black gnomes—from their front garden/forecourt area, and the subsequent furore regarding both work and its removal. According to Allen, Coleing had consulted local Aboriginal people prior to installing the work, however an Aboriginal writer visiting from Queensland had publicly objected to the piece whereby it became a major issue in the local press leading finally to its removal.[39] In response, Allen obtained a small gum tree that he set up in a large box in the EAF. For the performance he, in “the role of someone to care and nurture,”[40] systematically attacked the tree with a knife, chainsaw, pruning shears, small axe and oxy-acetylene torch, burning and taking it apart piece by piece (including at the end smashing the tub to remove the roots and pruning them). Once the tree was completely taken apart he reconstituted it by taping its components to the wall in a perfectly regular, geometric fashion (vertical trunk, horizontal branches, leaves fanning off the end of the branches in precise patterns). Thus, to use Allen’s own deliberately ironic phrasings, the “poor neglected, unloved, native” was “reconstituted in its best interests”[41] in a (blindly violent) act of cultural ordering and regulating—an act of representation. Throughout the performance Allen spoke to the audience via a megaphone strapped to his chest describing and reflecting upon his actions. On Planting a Native posed a generatively ambiguous relationship to its source. On one hand it assumed an ambivalent distance from the act of removing Coleing’s work from public display (and the strange mix of interests operating in support of that action ranging from sectors of an indigenous community through to a conservative ‘talkback radio’ local constituency refusing to see the work as ‘art’ through to the host institution itself); and on the other re-staged an act of desecration which could itself have been both (and at once) any act of public representation of the European genera ‘native’ (irrespective of political intent) and the denial or evasion manifested in its censorship.

On Planting a Native was clearly Allen’s most culturally interventionist work to this date. Indeed the social as subject emerged in Allen’s EAF work in new, more direct, more content-driven manners than previously, and did so coupled with a stronger, more overt communicative imperative. In performance works such as Newspaper Piece , On Planting a Native, Poetry for Chainsaws , and Sending/Receiving there was an apparent impulse propulsion outside the body (and indeed consciousness) of the artist/performer. Allen, for example, read or spoke at the audience subjecting their perception to the potentially unstable effects of multiple readings of the same texts, or the discords and discrepancies between word and action (between the act of attacking the tree and its accompanying commentary; between the intent of Ginsberg’s emotive, polemical, textual rant against contemporary society and its dispersal amongst a cacophony of machine-age noise). But in doing so he also tested or challenged audience tolerance for this communicative act. So whilst in Poetry for Chainsaws the act of reading (shouting) must necessarily have constituted an act of both physical aggression and cathartic release on the part of the artist, but also for the audience one of jarring, visceral assault upon both sensory and cognitive faculties. Conversely, in On Planting a Native the body of the artist stood in metonymic relation to the body of culture enacting acts of violence (now via order, regulation, and rationality) upon the body of an other—the ‘native’.

To conclude then, these EAF works resolve, problematise and extend aspects of Allen’s earlier practice insomuch as each relation is in part synonymous with the other, and necessarily incomplete. If we were to attempt some more concrete summation, it might be to claim that these later works foreground, or expose, the very fundamental trajectories, the tensile structures of Allen’s practice: the striving at (and through) the conditions for and instances of communication diffusion, the points at which the clarity of the test-pattern breaks down into static and the vectors along which communication may be re-tuned; the search for the most cogent means of direct, interventionist response to social and material environments; the figuring of pragmatic action, sensory experience, and intellectual reflection within shared frames; and the generative tension between pre-determination and willful intent within the bounds of emotional and cultural convention. There are developments of course, progressions of sorts and shifting concerns and conditions patterning Allen’s practice. But I maintain that it’s the often discordant migrations back and forth between specific works—between New Zealand Environment #5, Arena , and On Planting a Native ; between Contact and The Elsatic-Sided Boot ; or O-AR 1 and There are Always Elephants to be Made Drunk to cite but a small few obvious examples—that most ignites their respective agency, and via which we might begin to apprehend something of the sustained complexity and intelligence of Allen’s post object work of the period 1969 – 1976.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Research towards this essay was undertaken under the auspices of an Australian Research Council Large Grant to Professor Terry Smith at the Power Institute, Foundation for Art and Visual Culture, University of Sydney, to study the history of conceptualism in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Europe.



AUTHOR

Blair French is a New Zealand writer and curator based in Sydney. He is editor of Photo Files: An Australian Photographer Reader (Sydney: Power Publications and Australian Centre for Photography, 1999) and has written extensively on contemporary Australian and New Zealand art including recent texts on the work of Gordon Bennett, Shane Cotton, Dale Frank, Gavin Hipkins, Rosemary Laing, Tracey Moffatt and Jacky Redgate. Having previously worked in public galleries in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom he is presently writing a doctoral thesis at the University of Sydney on the photographic image in contemporary Australian art.

[1] Noel Sheridan (ed.), The Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, South Australia (Adelaide: EAF Press, 1979). Cited in Anne Marsh, Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia 1969–1992 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993) 62.
[2] Letter to author, May 2000.
[3] Even the most recent and comprehensive text regarding Allen and his work published in New Zealand—Wystan Curnow & Robert Leonard, “Contact” [Interview with Jim Allen], Art New Zealand 95 (Winter 2000) 48-55, 99—deals only with Allen’s life and work up until his departure for Australia. The key exception in New Zealand art history is Christina Barton’s detailing of Allen’s Australian work in her unpublished MA thesis, “Post-Object Art in New Zealand 1969–1979: Experiments in Art and Life” (University of Auckland, 1987). Furthermore, prior to the Action Replay Post Object Art exhibitions (Artspace, Auckland Art Gallery and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 1998) and the sets of projects occasioning this publication, post-object and performance art of the 1970s has been largely absent from recent survey exhibitions of New Zealand art such as Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1992). One of the few references on Allen’s work to be found in Australian art-historical writing appears in Marsh’s Body and Self but this merely takes the form of a cursory, slightly dismissive description of Allen’s [Poetry for] Chainsaws as “an angry and potentially violent work.” (66) Moreover this reference is unfortunately illustrated with an image of another Allen work undertaken at the EAF in 1976, On Planting a Native, mistakingly captioned as Chainsaws. Other references to Allen’s work in Australia at this time can be found in the EAF publications Stephanie Britton (ed.), A Decade at the EAF (1984) and Noel Sheridan and Ian de Gruchy (eds), EAF ‘76 (1976), as well as in Julie Ewington’s review of the EAF exhibition, “Post-Object Art – Australia and New Zealand – a Survey” in Arts Melbourne 1/2 (1976). Unfortunately no reference to Allen’s work appears in Nick Waterlow (ed.), 25 Years of Performance Art in Australia (exh. cat.) (Sydney: Ivan Dougherty Gallery, University of New South Wales, 1994). An earlier work undertaken by Allen in Australia is detailed in Tom McCullough (ed.), Sculpturscape ‘73 (exh. cat.) (Mildura: Mildura Arts Centre, 1973), and New Zealand Environment #5 discussed in Graeme Sturgeon, Sculpture at Mildura: The Story of the Mildura Sculpture Triennial 1961-1982 (Mildura: Mildura City Council, 1985). The beginnings of a more comprehensive art-historical project regarding post-object art or conceptualism in both sites can be found in Terry Smith, “Peripheries in Motion: Conceptualism and Conceptual Art in Australia and New Zealand”, in Philomena Mariani (ed.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s (exh. cat.) (New York: The Queens Museum of Art, 1999).

[4] Of course this dynamic of cross-Tasman traffic or exchange runs right through the post-European contact histories of art in Australia and New Zealand, as most recently noted for example by William McAloon in Home and Away: Contemporary Australian and New Zealand Art from the Chartwell Collection (exh. cat.) (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and David Bateman, 1999) as well as curators Christina Barton, Zara Stanhope and Clare Williamson in their introduction to the exhibition Close Quarters: Contemporary Art from Australia and New Zealand (exh. cat.) (Melbourne: Monash University Gallery and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 1999). Yet despite this acknowledgement there has been little critical attention paid to the generative, cogent functions of this dynamic in terms of the production and determination of work. Allen is a good place to start, given his own commitment to this relation not only in terms of educational and organisational activities (the latter subsequently pursued also by Ian Hunter and Nicholas Spill), but his own art practice, as well as the fact his involvment coincides with the beginning of the period (the late sixties/early seventies on) that has seen the most activity in this regard. (And however much this may be in part determined by general cultural, technological and economic globalisation key intellectual and discursive factors functioning in cycles of generation and consequence must be acknowledged.) Key instances of activity here include substantial involvement of New Zealand artists at the Mildura Sculpture Triennial, and to a lessor extent the Biennale of Sydney, and the first of the Biennial ANZART events held in Christchurch in 1981. See Wystan Curnow, “Art Spaces: The Sydney Biennale”, Art New Zealand 13 (1979); Nicholas Spill (ed.), The Mildura Experience (Wellington: QEII Arts Council of New Zealand, 1978); Spill (ed.), New Zealand Sculptors at Mildura (exh. cat.) (Wellington: QEII Arts Council of New Zealand, 1978); and Spill“Oz-Enz Connections: The Trans Tasman Circuit Rewired”, Action 12 (1979-80). New Zealand participation in large Australian events such as the Biennale of Sydney and the Asia Pacific Triennials of the 1990s has continued, but perhaps overshadowed in importance by the increasing number of projects undertaken by artists from each site in public and private spaces ‘over the water’ as well as the now common-place inclusion of work from both locations in numerous group and survey exhibitions.
[5] Some re-reading of Allen’s New Zealand work 1969-75 might in fact be undertaken through this subsequent EAF work. This would certainly supplement the existing material on Allen’s work of this period, with the exception of that undertaken by Christina Barton little of it undertaken retrospectively during the eighties and nineties. However, for reasons of space such a project is merely implied in my work here. In addition to the section on Contact in Jim Allen and Wystan Curnow (eds), New Art: Some Recent New Zealand Sculpture and Post-Object Art (Auckland: Heinemann Educational, 1976), the most useful material pertaining to Allen’s work of 1969-75 can be found in: Jim Allen, “Towards an Attitude”, in Five Sculptors (exh. cat.) (Wellington: New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1970); Christina Barton, “The Last Small World: Jim Allen’s New Zealand Environment no. 5”, Midwest 1 (1992), and “Post-Object Art in New Zealand 1969–1979”; Wystan Curnow, “Making it New”, New Zealand Listener (September 6, 1975), and “Project Programme 1975, Nos. 1–6”, Auckland Art Gallery Quarterly 62–63 (December 1976); Anthony Green “Aspects of New Zealand Sculpture 8: Recent Developments 1”, Education 26/8 (1977); and O-AR: Jim Allen–Recent Work (published transcript of gallery discussions) (1975).

[6] Interview with author, July 1999. For a more detailed discussion of aspects of (and background to) Allen’s teaching philosophy and approach see Curnow & Leonard, “Contact”.
[7] This sabbatical experience had a significant and lasting impact on Allen’s subsequent work as both educator and artist (although he himself would most likely be loath to separate out these roles, each involving similar multi-disciplinary approaches to propositional and explorative modes of activity.) For a more detailed discussion of Allen’s sabbatical activity and some of its ramifications on Allen’s subsequent work see Curnow & Leonard, “Contact”.
[8] We might note here Bruce Barber, Philip Dadson, Kimberley Gray, Maree Horner, John Lethbridge, Leon Narbey and Roger Peters amongst others.
[9] The former published in Allen and Curnow (eds), New Art, the latter as O-AR: Jim Allen–Recent Work.
[10] The invention of a critical project—a contemporary art criticism in New Zealand—whether perceived as supplementing or emerging from within post-object art at this time is another important history yet to be fully explicated. There is little doubt that if not post-object work itself then certainly the cultural and intellectual conditions from which it emerged also gave occasion for the beginnings of other various language-based critical projects, from art criticism to phenomenological texts to American language-poetry inflected writing of the early eighties. Significantly all appeared together under the same publishing banners in magazines such as And, Parallax, Splash, and Spleen.

[11] In general terms the same community of people provided participants and audience for each activity irrespective of locality. Hence the perceived need for the publication Allen and Wystan Curnow edited, Some Recent New Zealand Sculpture and Post-Object Art, which drew attention to experimental edges of sculptural activity, including performance. Some odd exceptions in terms of the included (and omitted) artists notwithstanding, it manifested an unswerving, almost belligerent commitment to the task of documenting the very specific actions, energies and ideals of a particular milieu (and moment) on terms laid out by the participants themselves. In keeping both with its subject and the motivating attitudes of its editors New Art was partial and selective—as passionate, rigorous or speculative as each of the documented works. It disavowed any claim to an encompassing historical or critical overview and contained little in the way of contextualising narrative. It was an ‘art’, rather than art-critical or historical project. It was, as Allen and Curnow stated in the introduction, “a report on current work.” Yet that which is current is merely history in the waiting, and so whilst plainly of its time New Art has also accrued the historical character of summation, of an inevitable (albeit unintentional) past-tense statement upon a first phase of post-object art in New Zealand (with the Elam sculpture department under Allen’s leadership as its central generating site).

[12] In Pauline Barber, “The Splinterview 4: Jim Allen”, Spleen 4 (1976), and Jim Allen, “Experimental Art in New Zealand” (audio recording of radio programme) (Adelaide: Radio 5UV, 1976) respectively.

[13] “I think the dialogue within this countryis of a minimal level, it exists between a few people but not much beyond that, and there are other communities and situations where the dialogue is much better, and I think that Australia has some possibility in this direction.” In Barber, “The Splinterview 4”.
[14] Allen himself alludes to this, with particular regard to his own working position, in Barber, “The Splinterview 4”.
[15] Marsh, Body and Self, 53.
[16] ibid.
[17] In this lecture Brook characterised post object art in general terms as physically tenuous or non-physical, as constituted in human activity, as contextually dependent rather than hermetic or autonomous, as non-hierachical, ephemeral, and dispersed. See Donald Brook, “Post Object Art in Australia and New Zealand”, in Britton (ed.), A Decade at the EAF. Key points are cited in Marsh, Body and Self, 58-59.
[18] In addition to that of Allen himself this exhibition included, partly thanks to Allen’s efforts, work by Bruce Barber/Billy Apple, Kimberley Gray—a performance undertaken by Allen from instructions sent over by Gray—John Lethbridge and David Mealing.
[19] Body art she claims focuses on the “body and psychological states experienced by the artist.” Ritual performance concentrates on the “relationship between the body and environment.” Both frequently draw on mythology and the former additionally upon modern psychological theory. Conceptual performance, she writes, “analyses what art is. It tends to be concerned primarily with intellectual ideas about art: art and its theories.” Marsh, Body and Self, 55.
[20] ibid., 56.
[21] ibid., 55.
[22] Barton, “The Last Small World”, 29.
[23] This describes its first showing at Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, July 1970. In subsequent outdoor showings at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 1970 and Mildura Sculpture Triennial, 1973 the wire was replaced by rope. Wystan Curnow wrote of this change: “He feared, perhaps, that its aggressiveness could be read too simply. There was, for example, this progression: he who braved the wire and reached the centre was the least threatened of participants, the most protected. Had he now fenced himself in against intruders?” Curnow, “Project Programme 1975”, 23.
[24] The context or moment of Curnow’s own writing needs to be noted in this. First, the text in question read back through these works from the occasion of the 1975 O-AR exhibitions—exhibitions, as noted, far more open in structure and inviting of speculative engagement as well as far less aggressive in material form and indeed far less apparently socially determined in terms of materiality. Second, it appears that Curnow’s project involved in part an attempt a break with, or at least complicate a culture of quite reductive thinking regarding art’s capacity for social criticism as being limited to directly representational and metaphoric references. See Curnow, “Project Programme 1975”, 23-25.
[25] ibid., 23.
[26 Barton, “Post-Object Art in New Zealand 1969–1979”, 92.
[27] ibid., 93.
[28] ibid., 99.
[29] The distinction (environment/installation) rarely holds in Allen’s work in any clear-cut manner. Even the self-contained structure of NZ Environment #5, for example, draws strongly upon the cultural allusion of its constituent materials. Is not Barton’s definition of ‘environments’ perhaps more accurately one of ‘enclosures’? And indeed, might not works such as NZ Environment #5 and Arena have been better described as such—so imparting a greater sense of reference to social context, or socialisation? Where Barton’s distinction may continue to prove of value is in terms of thinking of shifts in practice not within large all-encompassing categories but via very subtle moves back and forth from work to work. ‘Environment’ and ‘installation’ assist in identifying such moves. They also offer ciphers for general moves in Allen’s practice between investigations first of subject-object relations and second of the interplay of that relation with socio-spatial context and linguistic context. Allen’s practice moves about here in dynamic fashion (rather than simple progression) in that the former appears to be the key trajectory of a work such as a O-AR 1 (1975), four and a half years after Arena to which socio-spatial context is crucial (but exploration of subject-object relation at best cursory). It should also be noted that throughout this essay I use ‘installation’ in a more current manner as a somewhat generic term applied to all of Allen’s post-1968 sculptural or materially-based work signalling as it does very general conditions of site-specificity, temporality and contingent discursivity.

[30] A model of sorts, Allen has subsequently commented (only partially tongue-in-cheek), informing his instigation of new modes of teaching program at Sydney College of the Arts! Letter to the author, July 2000.
[31] See Barton, “Post-Object Art in New Zealand 1969–1979”, 169.

[32] This despite Allen’s concerns that the situation would spin out of control, particularly in terms of collapsing relations between audience and participants. See Curnow and Leonard, “Contact”, 54.
[33] This set of artist/participant/audience relations is crucial in elucidating speculative shifts in Allen’s practice. In Contact the audience viewed a space of activity from its edges, primarily by looking in through a gallery doorway. On one hand this placed them within similar floor-bound spatial coordinates to the participants. On the other, the particular room was set apart from their movement through the gallery building so marking it as a detached space of the spectacle. In each of Newspaper Piece, Poetry for Chainsaws, Sending/Receiving, and On Planting a Native Allen as performer was positioned before a seated audience in a more traditional theatrical delineation of viewed and viewer, but also in fact a more communally conscious sharing of a singular environment and occasion.
[34] The Elsatic-Sided Boot is a notable exception in this regard. Allen had performed within the work of others in New Zealand and had participated in the Pavilion K performance evenings at Epsom Showgrounds in December 1974, but his own prceding New Zealand work does not otherwise draw attention to the body of the artist as constituent element.

[35] It was performed again along with presentation of There are Always Elephants to be Made Drunk at the Sydney Biennale, 1976.

[36] The Elsatic-Sided Boot, artist invitation (1976).
[37] This establishing of the parameters for task actions of a group nature was also a common structural form or process in the work of Phil Dadson and Bruce Barber during the early seventies. Of course, the element of music within the work, whilst it may be traced back to Allen’s professed interest in music and movement as creative endeavour stemming from his experience teaching in schools during the fifties, must be considered also in light of Phil Dadson’s work and Allen’s participation in Scratch Orchestra (Antipodean Twig) events and performances of the early seventies.

[38] O-AR: Jim Allen–Recent Work.
[39] Interview with author, July 1999.
[40] On Planting a Native, artist invitation (1976).
[41] ibid

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