“Anzart—Australian New Zeaiand Art Encounter,”

Christchurch Arts Centre

“You live in a country that is very far away,” Pierre Restany said at the third Sydney Biennale. But put it another way: Pierre Restany lives in a country that is very far away. Here, after all, is where we are. There are always those two ways about it. Anzart’s concern, however, was with the intermediate, the more immediate, distances. Spaces are greater around here, and there’s less in them. Places are further apart. Christchurch, New Zealand, is further from Sydney than London is from Moscow. This part of the art world contains a number of disparate centers and no single point of focus or influence. Each is more or less equally separate. Various art events have addressed these distances; Anzart was the most recent.

The show was modest in scale. Some 40 artists presented work; exhibits were up for two weeks, with performances, lectures, artists’ films, and the like occupying the second week. And audiences were of a size (usually less than 100) to allow words for what was seen and heard to circulate freely and enter the common speech of the event. Anzart was artist-run and artist-oriented. Most of those presenting work came, and in fact made up a sizable part of the audience. The three morning sessions allotted to artists’ slide talks dominated the conference portion of the program and allowed the works here to be seen in the context of each artist’s ouevre. In making his selection, organizer Ian Hunter was not giving out prizes; he chose a cross section. Differences in age and achievement were marked: some, like Mike Parr, came with reputations Up Above as well as Down Under; others, like Graeme Davis, were performing outside their country for the first time.

It was a strategy facilitated by an emphasis on performance and in situ installation work. But the structure did have its drawbacks. Works in the gallery space, especially Dale Frank’s psycho-dramatic drawings and Robert Owen’s photographs, got less of the limelight than they deserved. And certain venues became contaminated by overuse. The Arts Centre is an old campus complex, full of former offices and classrooms. Wrapped in a blanket, Graeme Davis locked himself in an office overnight but left a chair so that viewers might take turns viewing him through the transom. Later, Mike Parr shut himself in an office and typed furiously; he left a row of chairs in the corridor so as to reinstate the politics of education, only to have someone move a chair to the door so as to climb up and look in on him. Evenings became the prime-time performance slot; Peter Roche and Linda Buis made a point when they scheduled their piece for 6 a.m.

Each work brought to Christchurch some other place. Those that sought out and found accommodation there were the stronger for it. The theater group From Scratch had rehearsed their piece in the crater of Auckland’s Mt. Eden, site of the group’s annual dawn-to-dusk event marking the passage of the winter solstice. In Christchurch they found an abandoned quarry in the Port Hills to the east of this city of the plains. Tasman-Pacific was, first of all, the experience of climbing hills, feeling a pulse, picking up the beat of bass drums. Then, when the quarry did disclose itself, of seeing from its rim three performers deep in a conversation of drums, megaphones, and movements, heading away from one another (to higher, middle, or lower ground) and back, calling out phrases (thesis, antithesis, synthesis, or other), making and breaking drum patterns. This conversation turned out to be an improvised dialectic which eventually drew its audience down to join it on the quarry floor. Finally, because we were there now and the piece went on for some hours, it was the experience of seeing how we occupied ourselves while keeping company with it.

Although it too lasted some hours, Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Witnessing claimed an undivided attention. Much of their work has been about the expenditure of physical energy; Witnessing, which owed something to their recent experience of the Australian desert, was about stillness. It took place in the body of the Arts Centre’s Great Hall, the stage being left to the audience. Ulay sat farthest away, cross-legged, while Marina stood on a pedestal between him and the stage and off to one side. She pointed in his direction until she could no longer. Then she pointed again. And again. Occasionally, she would turn at the waist and point in our direction instead. That was all. It began with mid-afternoon sun flooding the polished wood floor and ended in complete darkness. Witnessing, in this instance, was an entropic process, one’s attention being drawn (out) by Marina and directed (in) to Ulay’s still form. Sometimes it lapsed; I lapsed into self-absorption, finding myself in Ulay’s position. Witnessed; and Marina pointing in my direction. Or I left for a time and went out into the city. There was no wind, the light was going, it grew quiet.

Wystan Curnow