Unreal estate

by Ian Wedde / 23 December, 2006
In which Gavin Hipkins - a visitor from Wellington, a "tourist of photography" - stalks New York, tracking its histories of modernism and mass production.

Gavin Hipkins has been back a while now from his four-month residency in New York with the International Studio and Curatorial Programme (ISCP). Not long after his return we met in Mojos, a café on Wellington's Kent Tce. The idea was to sit somewhere without piped music, but Mojos has given in to ambient sound (generic modern jazz). In addition, the coffee roasters are hurling hot beans around the insides of stainless-steel drums. No matter, the micro-cassette stays in its bag and we impersonate the crowd-piercing, nasal intonations of New Yorkers, albeit rather soft-spoken ones.

So how was his time in that loud, talkative city? It was great, Hipkins says, but no way long enough. Let's get this out there early in the piece. Creative New Zealand does a tremendous job supporting the biennial residency. But four months turns to three by the time you've got organised and got up some project momentum. The ISCP arranges studio meetings with curators and gallerists every two weeks. Over three months, that adds up to something like six encounters from which some ongoing connection might emerge. The probability is something like one in five. A residency of six months could double that.

In New York, it's all about making connections. It takes work: meeting, talking, pitching. Getting gallerists interested is hard. Getting a line in through an interested curator improves your chances. Getting connected through a collector is what makes the room go quiet long enough for you to get heard. Hipkins's best chance in New York in future will be through such a collector encounter (she walked in, bought work) - his best one-in-five shot.

The law of averages says that, on this basis, New Zealand artists on the ISCP scheme will make one sustainable connection about every two years. This could double if the residency extended to six months and quadruple if it was annual. Most countries participating in the ISCP programme do six months. The Australians do six-monthers back-to-back. Needless to say, a year would be wonderful. Why go all that way just to make work? It's about total immersion.

For Hipkins, New York's still the art capital of the world. Never mind the southern hemisphere and especially Asian behemoth biennales that have sprung up: the Brisbane Art Gallery's Asia Pacific Triennale; the Kwangju Biennale of Contemporary Art in Korea; Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale; Shanghai Biennale; the Auckland Triennial; Taipei Biennale; Yokohama Triennale ...

Who needs them? In New York, contemporary Chinese art comes to town. In 2005, the astounding Takashi Murakami showed Little Boy, his exploration of Japan's otaku world of geek pop-culture fanaticism. Down on Church St, apexart offers artist residencies that forbid you to make work - the time is to be spent talking and connecting. At the other extreme, the capitalist involution of art is announced with cheerful rage in Paul Werner's Museum, Inc: Inside the Global Art World (2005), in which he parses the proposition that art behaves like money because money behaves like art. This is the capital of the America Werner dubs "the Living Museum of Wild Capitalism". Or perhaps that's Out West.

In Art Journal, summer 2001, Hipkins published "Pleasures of the State", a very funny and sharp account of Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, especially the section dealing with the "Grizzly Park Recreation Area". Hipkins is an accomplished tourist - a flâneur of the weird and uncanny, a canny imaginative opportunist, stalking the talk of the town and its dealers and museums of art, sampling their wares and words, buttonholing the city's frontierists.

Describing the West Coast's artefactual "Grizzly Peak", he wrote that "it must ultimately be read as a perverse and telling photograph". He might equally have been describing New York in 2006, though when that did happen the photographic suite he made borrowed its title from the affectionately surreal Sapphic erotics of Gertrude Stein's 1914 classic Tender Buttons ("A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding ...") rather than the covert pornography of Grizzly Peak ("with its mine shafts, waterways, and virgin forests, Grizzly Peak could easily be renamed Beaver Hill", wrote Hipkins).

That's not to say he's a snob. Preferring New York to Anaheim, Tender Buttons to Grizzly Peak, doesn't mean he doesn't find the unhomely space between them the location of real fascination. The richly ambiguous zone that opens up between the barely repressed sexualising of "Beaver Hill" as a West Coast theme-park experience, and the linguistically flirtatious sexuality of Stein's Tender Buttons as a key modernist (honorary) East Coast work of avant-garde literature, is just the place to take "perverse and telling" photographs.

In an essay published in Art New Zealand (summer 2003-04), curator William McAloon asserted that Hipkins had been "frequently described" as a "tourist of photography". The term "tourist of photo-graphy" was coined by Giovanni Intra, an art-school friend and subsequent co-conspirator, in the catalogue for Signs of the Times: Sampling New Directions in New Zealand Art at City Gallery, Wellington, in 1997.

The "tourist of photography" descriptor aptly classifies Hipkins's diverse excursions. As a curator-tourist, he explored the uncanny and disregarded photographic record of New Zealand identity in the Alexander Turnbull Library's collections, in the exhibition The Unhomely (1997).

He followed this up in 1998 with another curatorial foray at Artspace in Auckland, Folklore: the New Zealanders, which mined such photographic compendia as Brian Brake and Maurice Shadbolt's 1963 coffee-table book New Zealand: Gift of the Sea. As an art-historian-tourist, Hipkins has incorporated the formal ambience of various styles in his work: the oddly fetishistic pictorialism of The Homely (1997-2000), the advertising sheen of The Oval (1998), the sculptural scale of the test-strip "falls" works such as Zerfall (1997-98) or The Village panels exhibited in July at Starkwhite in Auckland, forays into the experiments of the 1920s avant garde in The Port (2000), the scoured concrete look of The Habitat's investigation of functional modernist New Zealand university architecture in 1999-2000.

As a tourist of places, Hipkins has taken his camera through New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Northwest and Canada, Germany, India, China, Hong Kong, London, France, Italy, Brazil and Singapore - work has come, or can be expected from all these places.

In New York in the early months of 2006 it was cold outside, so the "tourist of photography" stayed inside. Hipkins worked on two major projects already under way, The Sanctuary and The Village - but found himself wanting to do something more upbeat. With accommodation and studio space in Williamsburg, and with ISCP studio space in Manhattan over in the west-side garment district, he began investigating the fetish-hoards of the city's great museums.

The flâneur of streets and the stalker of uneasy landscapes and overlooked emblems of identity came home to Williamsburg with trophies of the city's inauguration as the modernist capital of the art world. On the screen of his laptop in Mojos, I saw a parade of objects and images that constituted a kind of "my museum trip" narrative, only the trip had also been to a moment in the development of international modernism, before the US stockmarket crash in 1929, when Fordist modernity, US capital and the symbolic value of modern art and other collectables began to converge on New York. This New York's sister city was Paris - the transatlantic axis of tenderly buttoned Gertrude Stein.

As McAloon has pointed out, Hipkins's diverse "tourist of photography" excursions have often investigated a particular nexus, where modernity's key visual tool, the camera, the look and feel of modernist architectures, surfaces and experiments, and a modern preoccupation with the branding of national identity, have converged with that modern pastime, tourism.

Hipkins also told the artist-curator Tessa Laird in 2002 that this doesn't mean that he's off down the retro track. "Nostalgia prevails in a lot of contemporary art and fashion to the point of complete and utter nausea." What Hipkins likes is to have his history and to make it new.

Whence Tender Buttons, the salute to Stein, New York and four months in 2006 - possibly, for Hipkins, the most significant work to come out of that time, along with The Village and The Sanctuary. Here's a familiar, much reproduced image, the smoothly elongated face of an almond-eyed woman painted by Modigliani - only the image has been "de-faced" by the superimposition of a button.

Similarly, a head-buttoned Alberto Giacometti, an over-buttoned horned head-dress or helmet recalling modernism's fascination with "the primitive", and so on. The buttons, Hipkins told me, were scanned back at the Williamsburg studio and then fastened on the images assembled from museum forays. The buttons originated in the garment district over on 39th St between Avenues 8 and 9, where the ISCP studio is.

The appearance of the buttons is a kind of homage to the proliferations of Fordist modernism. The buttons look like modernist works of abstract art, in the way that such art sometimes reverse-mimed the appearances of cheap, convenience-store-bought objects, especially those moulded or stamped out in modern industrial materials such as plastic and aluminium.

In Buttons, these oddly displaced little fetishes of industrial modernism are also tender - their identities hover between the intimacy of their functions as fasteners and unfasteners of bodily secrets and factory objects piled up in a haberdasher's button and buckle trays; between the erotic and the industrial; the personal and the commodified.

Like Stein's 1914 text, Hipkins's buttons are little teases and teasers. They toy with something hidden - they reveal something and hide something else. The art they appear on top of is what shows off the buttons. Showing off on top of the art, they manage to be simultaneously on the surface of the moment in New York in 2006 and framed in that moment's history as narrated by a tourist of the city's museums.

And eerily quiet, as if the Tender Buttons have also buttoned up the city's garrulous rackets, the F-train's rattling whoosh uptown from Williamsburg to the fetish storehouses of the New York Adventure's Hollow Mountain.

In the month before the ISCP residency, in Rochester, New York, home since 1907 of Eastman Kodak, one of the great Fordist success stories of American modernity but now haemorrhaging stock value, Hipkins found himself stranded in the menacing industrial wasteland between one shut convenience store and the next. He was there in the Picturing Eden exhibition sponsored by Kodak. Cool and scary, holding its breath in the silence between convenience stores, this was Gavin Hipkins's "tourist of photography" Eden.

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