The parallel spaces of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery documentary and Auckland artist Emil McAvoy’s first exhibition of paintings.
For those viewers who struggle with the work of acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman—and there have reportedly been no shortage of walkouts from At Berkeley at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, alongside complaints about his “lack of narrative structure” —there may be no better skeleton key to his work than National Gallery. In a film dotted with dozens of explanations of paintings, his opening choice seems a mission statement, as a docent invites viewers to imagine themselves into a space they no longer have access to, the church where the painting being observed would have once stood. This act of creative displacement of a viewer into a space—be it a strip club, boxing gym, high school, mental institution, or so many of the other locations and institutions Wiseman has profiled over the years—is what his work has done for decades.
A space, of course, has no intrinsic narrative. Inevitably, narrative must be constructed by sequencing scenes, but with few conventional signposts, each viewer will create their own narrative out of National Gallery. A central interview (as is typical with Wiseman, he interviews nobody, but documents other interviews) discusses the hanging of a mammoth Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, as the interviewee (unidentified, again a Wiseman trait) explains that his experience of bringing the works together was less about discovering a narrative than encountering a mosaic: a placement where pieces speak to each other in unexpected ways, and the viewer creates their own connections. This isn’t to say that the placement doesn’t reflect a point of view and privilege some connections over others (as is noted later when one Leonardo painting finds a new place in the gallery post-exhibition), but it does encourage an active engagement both in the moment and across moments.
This multivalent methodology means there’s no definitive way to read National Gallery, or any of Wiseman’s films, but one axis that stuck out to me was the dual interpretations of Rubens’s Samson and Delilah, positioned close to each end of the movie. One focuses on the action between the lead figures portrayed and what it speaks to characterisation, while another considers the historical placement of the picture over a fireplace and how light would inform it. Neither of these interpretations contradict each other, of course, but they point to just two of the many ways into a painting, in a film that considers dozens upon dozens of readings. One late breaking interpretive lecture argues that ambiguity is the key to a great painting’s strength; that by leaving mysteries, the viewer is invited to return and further consider the work, and have it linger in them. It may be the craft that draws the eye in, both to the paintings profiled and to the film itself—Wiseman’s eye and ear for rhythmic and spatial montage is unparalleled, so smooth as to seem invisible until contrasted with other filmmakers—but it’s the ideas that will have your head swimming, overwhelmed, and contemplating a return all at once. If you can’t take in National Gallery in one sitting, well, you can’t really take in the National Gallery itself in one visit, either. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
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Wiseman’s film focuses on the old masters, but for those Wellingtonians who are encouraged by the film to seek out their own gallery experience, Cuba Street’s Enjoy Public Art Gallery provides a youthful and current alternative that productively resonates with National Gallery. Emil McAvoy’s exhibition PRISMISM, on until August 2nd, explicitly asks the viewer to cast their mind into a series of imagined spaces, most prominently with its central piece, Futurist Painting for GCSB Boardroom (2012-13). Figuratively, the painting evokes abstract expressionism (a movement notable for its indirect funding by the CIA), while its colour palette consists of the blue and yellow hues found on police cars. On a quick glance, it may seem a bit one-note, but the purchase into the work’s deeper intent lies in its evocation of an unknowable space. What does a GCSB boardroom look like? How would its inhabitants react to the painting? Would they take advantage of its modular characteristic—the four panels are re-mixed every week in this show—or let it lie in stasis? Would it, inevitably, become as invisible as the surveillance state has become to us?
On an adjacent wall hangs another painting using similar geometries and colors: Study for Donation to CIA Intelligence Art Collection (2014). The title not only tweaks the aforementioned CIA/art connection but completes the loop: surely, if the CIA have funded some of our greatest treasures, which now reside in museums, don’t they deserve to have their investment returned with artwork? As of this writing, this painting was the only piece due for a home after the show, not to the CIA but to a private collector in New York, which allows it to inhabit a second imaginary space for the rest of us—the residence of someone who would like to invite the imagined space of the CIA (or at least their art collection, which it turns out is not at all hypothetical) into their home.
You can contemplate these spaces from the comfort of one of four bean bags—which are also part of the exhibition, a piece titled Four Eyes (2014). Made from canvas designed to resemble police uniforms, they simultaneously evoke authoritarian trappings and a playful, laid back office environment: a comfortable space in which to casually discuss weather, the best methodology for the suppression of dissent, or sport. Or whatever. The banality of evil is further concealed by its extreme comfort. On the other hand, you’re welcome to co-opt these comforts for your own seditious discussion—converting the gallery into a ‘pseudo-governmental think tank’, the artist suggests.
In a far corner, we are admonished, in black and white: “Think.” The Unthinkable (For NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland) (2014) seems like a cheap gag, perhaps, but the discovery of its provenance renders it something else entirely. It’s reconstructed from an appearance in an archive photograph of America’s NSA. The screenprint thus projects one back into this space, and questions what the admonition (or imperative) would have possibly been meant to evoke, free thought being one of the most likely ways to attract the suspicion of such an organisation. What inspiration did its workers take from this? Did they stop, smoke, drink coffee, contemplate its advice, and then calmly return to surveillance work? And what did their office space look like, anyway?
It’s this devotion to evoking these unknowable spaces within the four walls of a gallery that makes McAvoy’s exhibition a contemplative bookend to National Gallery (or, alternately, for those more focused on surveillance, The Internet’s Own Boy). Art has the power to remind us of something greater than ourselves, a role that is as vital today as it ever was.