This Model World, Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art by Anthony Byrt.
Auckland: AUP (2016).
Pb with flaps, 242pp & colour illustrations.
Reviewed by Felicity Milburn.
Anthony Byrt’s This Model World opens in Berlin, Germany, during the 2015 Gallery Weekend, an annual event organised by the city’s dealer galleries that attracts artists, collectors and other art lovers from around the world. Byrt, a journalist and art critic, lived in Berlin between 2010 and 2011, and calls that experience ‘… a crash course in how to be with contemporary art and the people who make it’ (p 3). It’s a description that also reflects what Byrt attempts, and ultimately achieves, in this absorbing collection of essays, which examines the humming engine room of New Zealand artmaking through the work of 11 contemporary practitioners. From the absurd unease of Yvonne Todd’s monstrous adolescents and leotard-clad dancers to Simon Denny’s terrifyingly deadpan documentations of government-sponsored mass surveillance in his Venice Biennale installation Secret Power (2015), Byrt unpacks the work of some of our most interesting artists with humour and compelling acuity.
In a 2016 interview with Andrew Paul Wood for the Spinoff website, Byrt revealed his interest in refreshing conventional modes of Aotearoa New Zealand art publishing by drawing on a range of other genres, such as long-form journalism, criticism, interviews and travel writing. Accordingly, the artists we meet here aren’t stripped clean of the world around them and he favours long, sometimes messy, encounters over decisive takes. We are introduced to Yvonne Todd’s strange and unsettling work – her ‘wheezy, brittle, Hallmark-gone-off photos’ (p 23) – through her early fascination with synthetic hair and by way of a brief, but instructive detour into the mundane suburban reconstructions of American artist Mike Kelly. It’s an unapologetically personal approach that manages to dodge cosy insider-ness to offer unexpectedly rewarding glimpses into complex and demanding practices.
The word ‘travels’ in Byrt’s title echoes the increasingly global way in which many Aotearoa New Zealand artists now operate and, cumulatively, the essays affirm how residencies, awards and biennials usefully connect Aotearoa New Zealand artists and audiences with the wider world. However, it also signals the author’s determination to take readers along with him into artists’ studios, immersing us in a series of diverse, independent realities rather than constructing abstracted narratives that hold the makers at arm’s length. Byrt makes an entertaining and insightful travel guide – he’s curious and perceptive and, though couched in a deliberately conversational style, his observations are elegantly delivered: ‘Driving south along Woodward Avenue from Bloomfield Hills to Detroit is like sliding down a perfectly paced graph of American socio-economics’ (p 24). He remains present in the text in a way that is engaging rather than distracting, and sometimes points to other writers to extend the conversation. This is artmaking observed from the coalface, written by someone who wears a deep belief in its worth on his sleeve: ‘[W]hatever the art world’s failings and fooleries, there is, for me, always a hopeful promise at its heart: the possibility that every now and again, someone will do or make something that shifts the ground for all of us.’ (p 4).
Byrt’s text prioritises immediacy and connection, and it is ably supported by Katrina Duncan’s unfussy design, which combines a clean and spacious approach with deftly deployed, high-impact imagery (including Becky Nunes’ first-rate photographs of the artists’ studios). This Model World is a satisfying, ideas-rich book that offers useful strategies for looking. It will be a welcome and accessible vade mecum for anyone keen to learn more about contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand art.
Felicity Milburn is a Curator at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, where she works with artists on a wide range of projects, from temporary installations through to large-scale survey exhibitions. She writes regularly for the Gallery and contributes to local and international publications.
Published takahē 92, April, 2018.