Review: In Whose Reality do we Reside? Ann Shelton at Trish Clark Gallery

Ann Shelton – two words for black | Trish Clark Gallery | September 3 – October 2, 2014

Ann Shelton’s new show two words for black at Trish Clark Gallery in Auckland unfolds at a rather timely demonstration of the ever-looming threat of Big Brother in New Zealand; specifically in regards to our currently tumultuous political landscape.

The work placed in the Central, Foyer and Small Galleries was created during Shelton’s Artist Residency at Tylee Cottage in Whanganui. It adheres to her notoriously staunch and strong practice of engaging with the political history of a specific place; in this case focusing on the now de-commissioned Wanganui Computer or National Law Enforcement System controversially introduced to New Zealand in 1976 as a way of monitoring both criminal and personal records of New Zealand citizens. The Wanganui Computer signified a threat to privacy unlike any other New Zealand citizens had encountered before and yet it appears that this very real threat is back once again, under a similar guise of mystique and ambiguity.

Clark’s choice of not including the works relating to the controversy around Mayor Charles Mackay and instead focusing on the Wanganui Computer works (all of which were created during Shelton’s residency and included in the summative exhibition the City of Gold and Lead) speaks to Clark’s awareness of our current political climate with the outrage ignited by Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics. More presently, it also addresses the divided voices of New Zealanders concerning the GCSB or The Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill whose stated function is “to contribute to the national security of New Zealand by providing information assurance and cyber security, foreign intelligence, and assistance to other New Zealand government agencies;” or as others see it, specifically private citizens who demonstrated through peaceful protests against the passing of the bill, “legislation which restricts our freedom of expression and right to live without surveillance.” The suggestion here is that every day law abiding citizens are monitored at every turn in the name of national security and more often than not we simply accept this so that we are able to perpetuate our delicately crafted social media personas.

This is where the work Anniversary, “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity” 1982, strikes a chord with the exhibition’s viewership by presenting, in the form of sparkler-writing, the call to action young anarchist Neil Roberts graffitied on a toilet wall in Moutoa Gardens near Wairere House where the Wanganui Computer was housed. Roberts, in his suspected disenchantment with the general population’s lack of action, then proceeded to bomb the centre where the Computer resided,taking his own life in the process.

Shelton’s re-presentation of Roberts’ mantra in a fleeting medium adheres to her recurring theme of absence foregrounding the importance of the viewer’s engagement. Her work calls the viewer to a place of exploratory self-education by first engaging you with beautiful large-scale photographs such as the four Heavy Metal prints that hang from the gallery walls, depicting valuable metal fragments from the now defunct Wanganui Computer.

Shelton’s previous career in photojournalism informs her way of looking, seeing and representing politically charged historical occurrences with the title of the works offering the first insight into the significance of these seemingly banal objects. The work is still staunchly made in the traditional large-format film tradition, allowing the viewer to engage on an intimate level with objects that in real-scale are the size of pinheads, first entranced by the detail then further stimulated by the significance offered only in the form of a title guide.

Much like today, the people of the 1970’s/80’s did not know what physical form surveillance took. In the Big Brother and Punch Cards works, images of the computer coding cards and floppy disks used during the activity of the Wanganui Computer are shown, simultaneously allowing an insight and yet not providing any information to the viewer on the workings of this surveillance machine. Looking at Blue Boy, simply explained as ‘computer part’ continues this confusion and frustration but adds a somewhat sinister edge, as the part depicted seems very foreign and not like any computer technology one would readily encounter today.

Moving to the Front Gallery, the exhibition combines an interesting collision of various series by Shelton to further engage and provide some background to visitors of the gallery who may not be familiar with her oeuvre. Clark aims to appeal to a broader audience, to encourage those perhaps not educated in the fine arts realm to participate in the rather exclusive Auckland art community by not presupposing their prior knowledge of the artist and her work. The majority of Shelton’s work, with stark presentation, emits a total sense of desolation of both spirit and landscape, representing historically loaded sites where ill-fated events took place. The use of “repeated or mirror images to reflect the complex nature of history” (The City of Gold and Lead supporting publication), embracing absence and ambiguity by only offering visual nuggets of the event as opposed to a purely documentary approach furthers her signature ‘after-moment’ approach.

With artists like Shelton still creating not only visually appealing work but also work that is historically and politically engaged being handled by curators such as Clark who wish to expand the viewership of fine art to the laymen especially at a time in which the artwork exhibited is so poignant, one cannot help but be a bit more optimistic about the future shaping of Auckland’s fine art landscape.
Tina Matulic

Images: Photographed by Sam Hartnett, courtesy the photographer and Trish Clark Gallery