Eddie Clemens: Unboxed

Art News, Winter 2016


New Years Eve 2015: Klamath Falls, Oregon. It’s snowing and the roads are ploughed. Eddie Clemens is on Chiloquin Blvd searching for the Klamath Falls Tribe Association when an SUV stops beside him and the window winds down releasing the scent of marijuana.

“Are you an international cop?” the passenger asks.

Through his black shades, Clemens notices a huge orange bong on the floor of the car…

“Where am I going with this?” he asks.

I don’t know. We’re 40 minutes into our second Skype interview. So far it’s been a wild ride. Raised in Rotorua, Clemens is now an Auckland-based artist working at the interface of digital media, sculpture and performance. In the local art scene his slick technically-accomplished practice has become synonymous with James Cameron’s Terminator franchise. He’s also a film fan; Clemens’ website features a photo of him as a smiling schoolboy, his arm around a cardboard cut-out of Arnie Schwarzenegger as the Terminator at Rainbow’s End.

“In Terminator 2 when the T-1000 materialises from the future, the first person it encounters is a police officer so that becomes its main disguise, ” Clemens says.

Composed of liquid metal the T-1000 is a shape-shifting villain that can assume the form of other objects; its mimetic properties are an apt starting point for understanding Clemens mind-shifting practice. His sculpture Delusional Architecture replicates the wire mesh fence from the film the T-1000 passes through. “Most people don’t realise it’s hand-made.” Clemens arranged nails on the wall of his studio in a cross-section panel, wove audio-electrical wire around them, then individually cable-tied each weave. The sculpture took months to complete. The semi-circular cuts in the fences include an LED light programme customised to mimic molten wire ends. Delusional Architecture glows as though still electrified by its encounter with the shape-shifting T-1000.

“The T-1000 can morph into anything,” Clemens says; “That’s a nice quality for a sculpture.”

Clemens graduated from the painting department at Canterbury University’s Ilam where he was more interested in the layout of the local art supplies store than the paints it stocked, before completing an MFA in sculpture at Elam School of Fine Arts.

His recent works Screen Used and Collectors Edition Glitch (Viewing Bridge) continue to riff on props and CGI outtakes from Hollywood blockbusters.

“ ‘Screen used’ is the term for any prop used in a movie,” he explains.

He’s also fascinated by the phenomenon of unboxing in which consumers unpack high-end technical goods and post the footage to the internet. “The funniest ones have no explanation of the set up,” he says. “They just show a big knife and hands.” Clemens Wes Craven Marina is – in part – an unboxing video taken from the point of view of Freddie Kruger.

In late 2015, he completed his first international residency at Youkobo Artspace in Japan as part of the Asia New Zealand Foundation residency programme. He then spent Christmas and New Year visiting Rotorua’s four sister cities: Beppu, Japan; Lake Macquarie, Australia; Wuzhong District, China, and Klamath Falls, Oregon, USA. His quest: to unbox a Clone Trooper outfit in each city.

“I think I have taken unboxing to another level,” he says.

Clone Cities, on now at Pakaranga’s Te Tuhi Gallery, is an exhibition driven by a childhood memory of the Rotorua Santa Parade. Clemens remembers a float his older brother built on a flatbed trailer towed by an SUV. The float featured a white tepee with latex Star Wars masks protruding from portholes in its perimeter. “It was this intriguing sculptural thing that I really wanted to be involved in,” Clemens says.

Now he is. His reimagined tepee is the sculptural centrepiece of Clone Cities. Actor Temuera Morrison played Jango Fett, the bounty hunter who is cloned to build an army in the Star Wars 11 Prequel: Attack of the Clones – and Morrison is from Rotorua. “The box is a continuity factor, a prop that activates the chosen setting in each city,” Clemens says. Funded by the Chartwell Trust, his journey to unbox each Clone Trooper outfit is one of jump cuts, strange coincidences, stranger connections and the kindness of strangers.

Te Tuhi curator, Bruce Philips says: “Clone Cities explores how Hollywood films, the phenomenon of ‘sister cities’ and the mechanisms of the tourism industry feed off each other to create cloned cultural representations.”

Getting into the spirit of the project, the Mayor of Rotorua Steve Chadwick sent letters of introduction to each sister city on Clemens’ behalf. Klamath Falls didn’t reply. Clemens arrived at the Maverick Motel and discovered the woman on the front desk was from Auckland. Within an hour he was walking along Main Street to meet Chip at the Chamber of Commerce.

“I kind of feel people out to get a sense of whether they are into finding the perfect place to unbox my Clone Trooper outfit.”

Chip was into it. Turns out Chip had studied film at school and worked on George Lucas’s American Graffiti as a prop guy. He called the Mayor who gave Clemens a first hand account of local history. Clemens interests aren’t confined to Hollywood. On New Years Eve he went to a rodeo – “that literally stank of bullshit” – and a sobriety powwow round dance that had a light show like a school disco.

“I joined in with the round dance, it was amazing, the lights were sound activated by the drumming – I instantly knew I wanted to recreate this laser light show on the ceiling at Te Tuhi.”

Mid-Skype he suddenly says; “the research alone has become much bigger than this project can handle.”

True. Clemens’ mind-map of Rotorua resembles no tourist guide I’ve ever seen and I’m from Rotorua. His research is as hybrid and interconnected as the internet’s deep read. In his mind-map, a jpeg of Howard Morrison’s Bic lighter commercial sits near a screen grab of Alfred Hitchcock. Apparently Hitchcock once visited Rotorua tourist site, Whakarewarewa. “You have to watch North by Northwest!” In the film, Carey Grant plays the part of Roger O. Thornhill who inspired the character of Don Draper on Mad Men. “The O in his name means ‘nothing’ ”, Clemens says. “Hitchcock plays a travel agent in the trailer for the film and discusses all the set locations.”

So where did you unbox? I ask, still reeling.

In Klamath Falls he unboxed at Crater Lake.

In Lake Macquarie at Cave Beach.

In China, cycling the dusty, chaotic streets.

“Everywhere I went I bought a souvenir. In Wuzhong I bought a mop – that’s almost a movie in itself,” Clemens says.

I believe him.

Auckland Jean’s Shop is the show he produced for Youkobo Artspace, Toyko. “I wanted to do an exhibition for the Japanese audience,” Clemens says. He originally arrived on the residency in late 2015 with a proposed project about Karate Kid – “I did karate when I was young” – and Hollywood’s twice-removed romanticised view of Japan. But within 48 hours he’d experienced how ceremony and tradition were integrated into contemporary life there. “It was too obvious.”

Instead his project flipped to a Japanese take on New Zealand culture after he discovered the Auckland Jean’s Shop in a local arcade.

Owned by Hiroaki Tada, the jeans shop is open 7 days a week from 11-11. Tada had visited New Zealand on his honeymoon in the 1970s; the shop window features a wooden kiwi jigsaw puzzle he purchased on that trip. Above the arcade, hangs a large pink elephant made of washi – a papier-mâché technique applied over the top of a bamboo framework. Clemens saw a parallel between the pink elephant, the Pink Elephant Parade sequence in Walt Disney’s Dumbo and the flightless kiwi.

Clemens also discovered the pink elephant was the mascot for the community. He then worked with local artisans to create his own elephant from bamboo. He carried it home on the train intending to cover it in washi but in the middle of the night he got up for a glass of water and his torch threw shadows of the elephant’s bamboo framework across the shōji doors and walls so he decided to leave it naked. The bamboo elephant features in Clemens film – which is part documentary, part flight of fancy – and is the mainstay within the Auckland Jean’s Shop exhibition.

Another element within the show also resonates on more than one level. At one point Hiroaki Tada holds up a desk calculator: 1923, the date of the Great Kanto earthquake. Apparently the first pairs of jeans arrived in the city as part of the American aid effort.

“I love how he was translating through the calculator,” Clemens says.

“What symbolism do earthquakes have for you?” I ask.

Clemens called his 2013 Rotorua Museum survey show Ask the Dust after a John Fante novel. Set in Los Angeles, Fante’s novel includes a major earthquake. Clemens had just finished reading it when the first Christchurch earthquake struck. At the time he was living there with his partner, the painter Georgie Hill, in the Millbrook apartments, two concrete blocks joined by a balcony and an elevator shaft.

“We couldn’t stand up for 40 seconds, the cacophony of sound was unbelievable. I thought ‘there is no way this building is going to survive’.”

But when they opened the door: “It was this starry night, no wind, no noise, and you could see other people from the other apartments opening their doors, just looking around at each other going: oh my God.”

When Clemens finally retrieved his copy of Ask the Dust it was literally covered in dust. Plaster dust.