Artspace
Jan 31-Feb 28 | Reviewed by Thomasin Sleigh

AUCKLAND was a smoggy, humid, soup when I was up there in early February. To get some respite from the heat I scuttled in to the Giovanni Intra exhibition at Artspace. It was a slick show. No dusty, cluttered vitrines for this contemporary art space. Jauntily angled glass topped tables presented the ephemera from Intra’s life and work; sketch books, doodles on serviettes, exhibition invites, photographic contact sheets and working notes. Around the corner, slides projectors flicked through images of Intra’s work and a table displayed books and catalogues collected by Intra and relating to practice.

Archives, and the dissemination and presentation of history has been a hot topic in contemporary art of recent times – the exhibition Archiving Fever (2006) at the Adam Art Gallery and Francis Upritchard’s exhibition Rainwob (2008) are recent(ish) shows that spring to mind which contend with the problem of how to present history and the role of the museum. The museum itself, as a construct of modernism, has been put under the inquisition for all its nation-constructing, myth making, epistemological shenanigans. So, if you are going to make an exhibition of archival material in a contemporary art gallery, it is not just going to be a show about the stuff but also a show about what it means to do this show. If you catch my drift.

2008 Artspace curatorial intern, Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers, neatly negotiates the intricacies of archival problems in the presentation of Intra’s work and in her catalogue essay. She quotes the Derridean idea that the archive constructs a historical reality as much a reflecting or representing its ‘truth’. As such, the exhibition is relatively open ended and doesn’t attempt to be too dictatorial with the material. The archival slides taken from the E.H McCormick Research Library show images of Intra’s work, but they leap around in time. There is no tidy, linear progression of work which would suggest some kind of teleological development; I am always wary of a ‘history’ which suggests each art work leads on from the last. Intra’s ‘history’ is presented here as a series of fissures and breaks.

The show is about process. It’s about ideas and preparations and sketchy, hesitant ideas. And I guess it depends whether you are interested in the finished work or its method of creation. In some exhibitions where archival material is presented, you get the sense that the artist was very aware, in the present of their making, that this would be part of their archive, part of their history. Giovanni Intra’s material isn’t like this, I felt an immediacy in the sketches, notes and scribbles, which suggested their necessity in the present as much as the past.

I guess I liked that the artifacts weren’t too self-aware, and that their presentation didn’t require them to be either. Just as Intra was aware of the myths of “transgressive’ modernism, Beginning the Archive is predicated on a knowledge of the falsity of grand claims, hagiographic constructions, and the laudatory language of art historical monographs. The show drew some conclusions – the potential of Intra’s work to exemplify a nexus of artistic activities unfolding in Auckland in the 1990s, and the significance of his conceptual iconoclasm – but it does so in a necessarily open ended, contingent and understated way.