Fiat Lux Reviews

Tessa Laird, Listener, August 8, 1998.

The vanguard of the avant-garde can be found, eight hours a week, in a Hobson St shopfront.

The general agreement among post-punk arbiters of style is that “grunge” is dead. But at Fiat Lux, an art gallery in the shopfront of 160 Hobson St, Auckland, “grunge” isn’t dead, it’s just having a lie-in. Megan Dunn and David Townsend opened the gallery in 1996, while studying at the Elam School of Fine Arts. In reality, though, they spent little time at school, and the gallery wasn’t “open” much, either.

“Art at Elam is constantly chaperoned by a Protestant work ethic that easily confuses appropriation with apathy,” Dunn says. Meanwhile, the infamous Fiat Lux newsletter has this to say to the disgruntled artists who pay to exhibit there: “It is surely obvious that we cannot be expected to babysit every hour of every show!”

So how exactly do the proprietors spend their time? This is a moot point, for, despite the fact that the Luxers live above their gallery, they are often the last to make an appearance at the openings. “A hairstyle is a lifestyle,” Dunn says, and Townsend’s perfect coif bears admirable testimony to this maxim, although he himself doesn’t say much (his best-known performance involved sewing his own lips together, as graphically illustrated in photographer Ann Shelton’s book Redeye). If truth be told, behind this artfully con-structed slackerism, Dunn and Townsend burn the candle at both ends as, respec-tively, a barmaid and a construction worker. All this so that aspiring artists can use their living room to display stuffed cats and ratty wigs.

The Fiat Luxers vaingloriously profess themselves to be “the vanguard of the avant-garde”. With a modest grant from Creative New Zealand, they painted the walls of the gallery midnight blue and laid some truly migraine-making carpet; a grand gesture of antagonism towards the supposed objectivity of the “white cube” gallery. This year the Luxers decided to go it alone without the support of Toi Aotearoa, although it’s unlikely they would have received any more money after sending each member of the Arts Board invitations pasted on pornographic playing cards.

Then there is the controversial newsletter, a heady mix of manifestos, song lyrics, tirades against the tyrannies of poverty, work and art school, along with a cacophony of spelling mistakes and outrageously bad puns. This paper tiger introduces the exhibiting artists in ways you just don’t see in conventional curatorial publications, eg, “Seraphine [Pick) is a lean mean painting machine and if you’ve seen what I’ve seen then you’ll know what I mean.” The newsletter means that Fiat Lux maintains its contentious role in the art scene, even if it does only open for a total of eight hours a week-(12-4 Friday and Saturday, for anyone intrepid enough to find the art amid the decor, with open-ings on Thursdays at 6.00pm).

And the art at Fiat Lux is surprisingly good. The gallery was inaugurated in fine style by performance artist (and former Teststrip gallery administrator) Daniel Malone: In the middle of “Back to the Future”, an event involving balloons and car headlights, Malone hopped into a cab and drove away, but, later, he came back and took the still-assembled crowd to an empty carpark, where he siphoned some petrol from a car and burnt a New Zealand flag. Needless to say, the Luxers missed this “art moment”, as they were at home having a cigar to celebrate the evening’s success.

Performance has continued to figure in the Fiat Lux schema; old-timer Peter Roche came back for a reprise of his classic confrontational pieces, this time toting a chainsaw. Overcome with libidinal fervour, he began improvising on Hobson St’s hapless wheelie bins, much to the consternation of the neighbours. Roche’s most recent appearance at Fiat Lux involved a sheet-metal sculpture with a swastika painted on it. When asked if this piece was kinetic, like some of his former work, the artist divulged that “it moves in your mind”.

Another show that stood out for its mobility of meaning, if not its actual moving parts, was a group of eclectic installations by Graham McFelin, collectively called Trick Eye. McFelin brought together such heartachingly simple items as a fried egg, a paper bag and a five-cent coin, and made them art. Another highlight of the show was a bone with the name “David” carved into it. I imagine this was a touching gift from the artist to the proprietor’s nose. Indeed, Townsend sports an impressive collection of piercings, but these days he seems to be over self-mutilation, and spends his time painting meticulous homages to the likes of Tretchikoff (most famous for the “Blue Lady” masterpiece of kitsch).

Dunn is proving to be something of an artistic inferno in her own right, with an impressive collection of videos and collages that pastiche references as diverse as Max Ernst, 9 1/2 Weeks, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Where the Wild Things Are, Alice in Wonderland, the Cure, The Exorcist and Bette Midler. Clever, funny and unabashedly retro, Dunn refuses to move beyond felt tips and photocopies to more canonical materials. Needless to say, she has yet to make it into a survey show, although the Luxers have managed to export their unique brand of humour to other renegade venues around the country, and they have a packed programme of self-professed “bad art” and worse cocktails until the end of the year.

So, if you thought the avant-garde was an elusive concept like the horizon or the equator, you were wrong. It’s at Fiat Lux, every second Thursday. Hurry, before the commodification sets in!

Tessa Laird, Monica Magazine[?], October/November, 1996

On arrival at Daniel Malone’s inauguration of Fiat Lux, a new artist-run space in Hobson St, the atmosphere is thick with `performance in progress,’ including the obligatory aural stench of rhythmic feedback. It’s actually a clock radio tuned to taxi signals. Reading 12 AM although it’s around 7.30, de riguer displacement sets the work in a nether-world of the poignantly pointless. With deft nonchalance Malone places Chinese funeral candles in the floorboard cracks, between installation parts comprising a car battery and headlights. The brand, of course, is Fiat. Malone has happily engaged in contemporary art’s most performative aspect: the search for sponsorship. A Fiat banner emblazons the wall, complimenting ‘DRIVE’, an inverse replica of the Dashper mural circa 1984, stencil-cut into black polythene. Whether to read this as an instruction, or as an integral quality of the performance artist (think: Mobil Man), I’m unsure, but Malone delights in corny puns. Fiat Lux is Latin for “Let there be light”, so the back wall is painted with a rising sun, Asian style, and the headlights are unblinkingly appropriate.

The artist spreads a subtler illumination, encouraging his audience to hold candles, ‘lightening’ the proceedings with interaction. He unfurls a New Zealand flag which has “Please walk on me” written on it. This is Back to the Future, the original replica of Dianne Prince’s Flagging the Future shown by Malone in Crime Show (The Physics Room, Christchurch). A mirror is wrapped in the flag and then dashed. Shards are placed by the candles, referencing 100M2, a 1981 performance by Peter Roche and Linda Buis.

Out comes string, and Malone ties one end to an eyelet in the flag, then walks outside, looping the building. Inside, people continue talking, while the artist maps a course through potholes, woodpiles, and existential graffiti, like Theseus in the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Linking the flag, he repeats the circuit, this time blowing up his trademark blue balloons and tying them to an earthbound version of ebullient caryard decorations. Mirroring the aesthetic of parades, this flag-molestation occurs just days after the All Blacks were in town. The audience are mostly unwilling to trample the uneven terrain of the alley, and unused to being deprived of their protagonist, begin to disperse. There is something of a lull, as Malone attempts to revitalise the Fiat lights. They don’t glow, though predictably it’s the failure of the live event that cements its intrigue. Suddenly, he is gone in a cab, leaving tech heads to fiddle with the electrical failure.

But, like a sputtering candle, the evening refuses to die. The cab is back, inviting an expenses paid DRIVE through a city of perfectly naturalistic extras. The final destination is a car park, where the waiting Malone has siphoned petrol from a water inspection vehicle marked ‘contamination control.’ Malone dons a toy Indian headdress, douses and immolates the flag. We’re right behind the district court, but the only sentries are the Telecom building and the Sky Tower. It’s a beautiful sight, with a strange reverence. I wonder if burning a vandalised flag is anarchism or a cleansing form of nationalism? Or just an artist engaged in a personal phoenix-out-of the-ashes-of-my-last-show enaction? Malone’s gleeful impurity in his appropriation of other people’s identity politics, from the candles, to the flag, to the headdress, suggests a deep suspicion of the fixity of identity full stop. Of course we knew all this already, but Malone’s seductive combination of generosity and mystery is worth the reminder.

The seemingly random locale is an indication of how much personal symbolism the artist invests in the smallest decisions. The car park is, in fact, the site where 100M2 was per-formed. Malone’s work is far denser than the 1981 piece; he has scrupulously charted the evening’s associations, working to a recipe that’s more theft than homage, with a hint of superstition (I can almost hear the intonation, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”). There are rules for staging these events, and Malone’s carefully conceived entry into the lineage is, on talking to the artist, so self-referential as to make the roles of critic and even viewer redundant. Malone has become a conspiracy theorist of art, ‘stringing’ together disparate ideas and images to create a larger whole that isn’t whole at all, but boasts some natty threads of coincidence. For Malone, equation solving is the purest aes-thetic. But regardless of whether you are attuned to his constructed meanings, the work tran-scends information gathering. In its real time exposition, it attains the elusive glamour of the liminal. For one magic moment, we are all intoxicated by the pedigree of performance art and its puritanical criminals.

Log Illustrated, Auckland Roundup. Excerpt. On Saskia Leek and Simon Cuming’s Arken Stone of Thrain, 1997.

New Zealand has a proud tradition of children’s Science Fiction TV. We might have not done much, but what we have done we have done well. Which makes it such a pleasure to travel to Auckland, the setting for one such series, Under the Mountain, now lost no doubt somewhere in the New Zealand Television Archives, Lower Hutt (Avalon?). This was the story of two children, a boy and a girl, non-identical twins, who stumbled across a great and dangerous evil that needed fixing. This situation was of such importance that they spontaneously ,developed telepathic powers, thus able to visualise the same things. Their avowed enemies were alien worms shape-shifting as evil suited men, representatives of some invisible threat to humanity, or at least to Auckland. Their evil empire was situated beneath Rangitoto, and other lovely Auckland volcanoes.

In Fiat Lux, Saskia Leek and Simon Cuming constructed Arken Stone of Thrain, a mountain with a pulsing ruby red light on top from corrugated cardboard and a lot of gnomes (a bloat of gnomes?) filing up clear from the door to its base, to scale its lofty, scary heights. The gnomes file towards the mountain as if hypnotised, overcome with desire. Each is the same sort of gnome—gnome painter – all the same ‘cept for their painted skins (done by the artists and some children). Their poisonous colour schemes (don’t eat me—I will kill you) in non-toxic school acrylics, are not of nature. The scene is small enough to make the viewing public into giants.

What are the gnomes doing? Wanting in, it appears. And apart from these wanting creatures, the silver-caped ones that perch on the mountains ledges, are they patrolling it? Drone attendants with certain uniform powers of the nerve-centre? And what is inside the mountain? Is it really a weak-looking unsexy art-fag wizard of Oz muttering on a mental hamster wheel, “publish or perish, publish or perish”? Next year the pyramids are to be opened says Sandy of the Lotus Health Centre, and she is going to Egypt to see it too she says, so there will be one less mystery in this increasingly pornographic world—is nothing to be kept concealed? How are we supposed to process all this information?

Joyce Campbell, Log Illustrated, Winter, 1997. Auckland Roundup. On the Shadows and Fog video package.

Although Auckland has been privy to a great deal of art practice of all kinds of late, the one, night that stood out for me as being both relevant to the theme of this issue; and as a showcase of some of the more engaged and engaging artists currently working here, was Shadows and Fog, Fiat Lux’s inaugural video screening. Most of the works featured were by visual artists moonlighting in a `lighter’ medium, and obviously enjoying it. Video in the hands of the technically challenged can be remarkably revelatory, and many works verged on the confessional.. .

Tessa Laird’s The Life of Bryony

Poet/artist Bryony Jagger is captured in her own environment, contemplating the various colours and textures of domestic entrapment; replete with personal associations and even more personal attire. Never seduced by the excesses of technology, Tessa’s documentary technique owes as much to David Bellamy’s arguably presumptuous empathetic zeal, as to the predatory fervour of Real TV. Where Bryony’s fancy wanders, Tessa follows, her succession of grinding pans and stumbling zooms roughly approximating the mind’s eye. Because ever-present, the film maker is thoroughly implicated, in turn freeing us to indulge our curiosity in a truly remarkable creative spirit. Bryony lets it all hang out, “lovely vulval excitation” and all. Who am I to patronise that kind of passion? Meanwhile, Tessa’s treading a pretty fine line.

Vaughan Gunson’s Holiday Fun

Off to the beach to paint a Karl Marx banner? Not my idea of a picnic but at least it was a nice day for it.

Megan Dunn’s The Rose

As Bette Midler wails and Max Emst’s “magnificent romantic surrealist canvases” roil by “open(ing) windows into extraterrestrial worlds” the great master starts to look something like a panel van artiste. The Rose; a ballad of cultural equality? I’m not sure whether Megan’s intention is to elevate Midler through undermining Ernst, or vice-versa. That depends on your point of view, and that’s really the point. As the two superstars play it off in an attempt to make us feel more, we come to the realisation that, high and low, we’re all after the same thing; Some say love…

Daniel Malone’s The Strike Church

This is a video document of a Stage One Elam performance in which Daniel Malone and Martin Poppelwell dragged a piano up Symonds Street and attacked it with a couple of French sticks. My suspicion of men who prod things with French sticks aside, it’s an energetic tribute to Joseph Beuys — there are the felt hats, walking canes, Agee jars and various other rigmarole in case we missed the significance of the piano (though Daniel reveals a closer physical resemblance to Adam Ant than prime mentor Beuys, who never got into those dangly earrings).

Taisha Hutchison Untitled

This is a video document of a Stage Two Elam performance project in which Taisha Hutchison brutalised a row of miniature tin huts by flicking, kicking and dousing them with buckets of water. Taisha’s presence is certainly the most engaging thing about this film, and after watching it a couple of times I’ve come to regard it as a self portrait.

Robert Hutchinson’s Against Nature

The film of the book is a tale of late gothic flamboyance; 19th century French decadence, heavily disguised as a role-playing meet in the English Lit. Reading Room. A perfectly type-cast Matthew Hyland plays the neurotic, agoraphobic, impotent aesthete Des Esseintes. He sneers at a couple of small children squashing chunks of bread into each other’s sweaters (echoes of The Strike Church here?) and is thus driven into self imposed exile through his desire to escape the horror of human mundanety. It’s difficult to know whether Hyland made this role or the role made him.

Graham McFelin Untitled

I imagine Des Esseintes might have admired Graham McFelin, a genuine aesthete, committed to staying cosy and getting his cultural fix from the telly. McFelin’s canine alter-ego whiles away his days and nights in leisurely reverie over an apparently endless string of Coronation Street closing credits. It’s purgatory with an afghan knee rug.

David Townsend’s Danse Classique

David once again goes a few steps further than Daniel, this time delving back to a previous creative incarnation as anti-hero Captain Hook in the Janete McCutchin School of Dance’s 1988 performance of Peter Pan. This is the first and last performance in which David had no control over his wardrobe. For those who have wondered at the motivation for some of his later performance work this little gem provides some clues.

Janene Knox’s Can Dance and The City that Shimmies

Fiat Lux’s placement of the projection screen in their Hobson Street window frontage provided a public interface at times more fascinating than the videos themselves. It also meant a welcome shift in context for Knox’s videos, sex industry snap shots originally produced for a general public screening and risking the icy indifference of a stoically alternative art audience. Is there nothing these people haven’t seen?

The Night Cleaners’ Carry on Alien Nurse

The Alien Nurse and her hermetically sealed side-kick, decked out in full protective/receptive kitchenware, set out to transmogrify the thermal wonderland, hampered only by a crew of mind numbing, vac-pack toting genuine night cleaners. With a keen eye for the absurd and a mesmerising table-top hula routine, Alien Nurse is the sickest and sexiest tape in the selection. Eat your heart out Russ Meyer. Pure in-camera editing here — we even get a brief glimpse of our stars on a holiday cruise, relaxing before that final shoot in the luv tub.

That pretty much covers everyone who’s done anything around here in the last few months, give or take a few Australians. Graham McFelin’s Kisser show re-featured his favourites, gallery hosts Megan and David. There’s been more Taisha at Lopdell House and Teststrip, Daniel paired up with Denise Kum at Teststrip for some prosthetic kung-fu antics, Saskia Leek (a.k.a. Alien Nurse) showed at Jonathan Smart Gallery, and her side-kick Simon Cumming seems to be everywhere right now, with shows in the world’s smallest gallery (really?), C.B.D. and Teststrip, and a new film in the pipeline. Looking forward to that one.

Jon Bywater, Log Illustrated, Auckland Roundup. 1998. Excerpt.

Judy Darragh has been drawing with twink over found posters since her show at the short lived Spot Gallery last year, including single works in the Fiat Lux fundraiser and the Honeymoon Suite’s Endless Summer. Cube ‘n’ Dice (Oct-14-25) at Fiat Lux was a juicily direct use of correction fluid to play up the not so subtle desires that drip and bulge forth from bedroom and workshop walls. Where the Spot show dribbled milky liquid over the limbs and chins of perfume and make-up supermodels, this plunders the Samantha Fox portrait and anonymous, big breasted, gruesomely titled “Heavy Weights” stationery shop poster bin images for a runny commentary. A rearing motorbike, a skimpy togged muscle boy, a platter of sausages, and Luke Skywalker’s face are amongst those pin ups drenched and patterned with rivulets of white. The many more than 10cc of nail polish-brushed jism make an absurd excess of the airbrushed, shaved, oiled and framed hot rod, fantasy couple and talcum (and I mean tal-cum) powder girlie. This overpainting amplifies or substitutes for the already explicit phallic fantasy and ejaculatory desire, and makes the act of er, pouring over the images something messier, a stickier business, casting us as casting our eyes like spraying semen. My eye gets sucked in though, wants to follow the lines, check their trajectories for gravity-obedient verisimilitude(!). White circular stickers bubble up the dark blue walls, too, finding another office drawer drawing tool to suggest fluid activity. These bubbles recall a previous installation in the gallery, Lisa Crowley’s Blue Movie (Sept 3-13), that reconstituted undersea suspense schlock into a watery, moody, gauze blur of frustrating open-endedness on video screens in the blacked-out room; one that seemed to imply that looking for something deep may be more about the feeling of looking than of actually getting there, invoking the same body-of-water as memory or unconscious mind references and nicely extending the chilly, seaward static gaze of some of her recent photography.

Also at Fiat Lux—who’ve been playing many favourite songs—Ann Shelton’s Cabin Fever (Oct 1-11) made itself at home, a flat enlargement of a cushioned wall, a photo flash stab in the dark of some bar, stuck onto the blacked out window. This characterful decor could have been a detail from one of her earlier shots of her friends and their surroundings, and the gallery is in any case; to some extent, her friends’ surroundings. The sheen of the represented surface matched that of the bare bulb glare on the gloss walls of the gallery, and their similarly deep, dark shades of blue were hard to pick apart. The emboutonne, lairish, garish close up, blow up of night club washable plush finish was a squarely formal remodelling of a room whose ambience so well matches the aesthetic of Shelton’s hyper-edited photo diary depictions of kiss and make-up loud preen parading. The tavern carpet of the gallery and the blue glitter of crystallising liqueur in shot glasses left over from the opening further blurred the subtly claustrophobic, indeed, cabin-feverish sense of closeness between image and room, between seat and eye or image and nose.