The Faux Canon


A review of A Retrospective, exhibition by Mercury Tower


A Retrospective | Mercury Tower, Ōtautahi

03.03.22 | written by Charlotte Filipov 



I am a little early walking into Mercury Tower’s opening. I asked my friend to wear his ‘Sunday best’ in the hopes he wouldn’t embarrass me in front of the fresh-on-the-scene Aucklanders. Surely I’d want to get off on the right foot, so to speak. I don’t think they notice, or care about my friends. Maybe it’s best to go to these things alone next time. Or pull up in a Model-S Tesla with a beautiful, tall, and silently-judgemental woman on my arm.

The gallery is painted a fresh, subversive black. Josh Freeth and Jasper Massov are the faces of this young gallery. Josh introduces himself with a charming southern demeanour, Jasper is wearing a very expensive looking suit, he seems cool but maybe a little tense. I am curious because I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone wearing an expensive suit at an opening. At least not in any sort of artist-run-space in Ōtautahi where slightly-too-small T-shirts, paint-covered jeans and some kind of post-human-themed shoe are more the go. A nice little number from one of our many indie designers here, a faux-yo-pro getup there — I am guilty of all of these. It’s the usual sort of thing reskinned in muted tones. An attempt to blend in, rather than to stand out. Something that seems obvious in Tāmaki Makaurau could easily slide under the radar, or be outright avoided here in Ōtautahi for being too controversial or operating outside the city's cultural art-norms.

Mercury Tower Instagram post, 24.01.22,  two images captioned “Only death can take me from here.”
Later that evening I sent Josh a message on Instagram related to how Jasper’s choice of dress reminded me of when the Turkish assassin Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş shot Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey in 2016. Later that night, they posted a diptych of images reflecting this sentiment. The gallery’s social media presence seems to play into their practice as maybe going beyond mere performance; a lifestyle. The attitude seems provocative, well researched and deeply engaged. Looking toward the future, it will be interesting to see how the gallery facilitates this type of engagement when working alongside other artists. This fluidity in the roles of artist, curator, and gallerist will indeed shape the kind of engagement the gallery requires from its audience.

Their debut show, A Retrospective, stages a retrospective of the fictional-historical space that on first glance, seems to evade Google’s ever-lazier crawler-bots. ‘Mercury Tower’ has allegedly been around for 60 years. Upon inspection of the room sheet, or with a good knowledge of our national art history it quickly becomes evident: this gallery never existed. The ‘artists’ who are included, invoked, and responded-to in the show are an all-star cast: Toss Woollaston, Merylyn Tweedie, Luke Willis Thompson, Simon Denny, Peter Robinson, Teghan Burt and Billy Apple. I realised the rumours were true—we have been duped! Most of the works had actually been created in response to some pivotal moments in our contemporary art history, mostly speaking to artists that had been involved in some type of controversy or scandal, from a public media takedown to cultural appropriation. It's important to note that the facilitators are both young artists who, one can only assume, have learnt of these events from a few art history books, articles, and lectures. It's hard to say exactly who Freeth and Massov are targeting as their audience, but the show will read in varied ways for those who are familiar with the events referenced in comparison to a younger viewer (a category within which this writer fits).
A Retrospective, Mercury Tower, 2022, installation view and window onto Barbadoes Street. 
In the show we have oblique references to many of the ‘greats’ of our artistic heritage—however controversial. A Retrospective, in a self-referential manner, artificially poses itself within the canon. This show foregrounds its extensive art historical research but feels exciting, posing questions around the canon and history in Aotearoa specifically. One work, a response to Merylyn Tweedie’s pavilion as et. al. at the Venice Biennale in 2005, references an essay written allegedly by Robert Leonard. Josh reveals to me later in a conversation that this essay contained in the “Tweedie work” is written by an AI and read aloud by “a very intelligent 6 year old.” I laughed quietly as I listened to it on a loop for about five minutes or so. The work references the Mike Hosking scandal that led to CNZ’s funding reform,1 and no artist showing at our pavilion in Venice in 2007.2 

The works, formally, are drawn together in a way you can’t quite explain but that lingers quietly behind them. Perhaps it could be the inexplicable weight being thrown around by including many of the big names of our National art history, setting up some of the national treasures who have represented Aotearoa at Venice, but there are a few red flags dotted along the way.

There is a kind of tongue-in cheek joke on the exhibition room sheet that situates Burt and Denny together in a fictional ‘emerging artists’ show, when in fact Simon Denny is at least a good decade longer established than Burt, having not only more than a couple of seasons in Berlin, representation at Venice (a recurring theme in the selected artists’ careers), and a nomination for the Walter’s Prize. The possibility of Freeth and Massov positing the idea that Burt is somehow aligned with these figures of contemporary art history is a little absurd, in a way I believe to be intentional. In conversation, Freeth repeatedly brought up the idea that it is important to remember to laugh at art sometimes, and not to take it with a life-or-death seriousness as some audiences are wont to do, the artist’s joke being something I find myself looking for as a way to actively enjoy and participate in work. That’s not to say that humour negates critical engagement or excuses poor judgement, but rather offers a chance for a lightness and vulgarity to shine even if something is a bit tragic. That after all, is the innate truth of comedy.
The Artist Has to Die Like Everybody Else, Billy Apple, 1985, Mercury Tower, 2022.
Another work in the show is the response to Billy Apple: The Artist Has to Die Like Everybody Else which reignited a mental spark for me regarding Anthony Byrt’s essay Live Forever, published in his book Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art in 2016.

In Manassas, Virginia, a 126,000 square foot building houses one of the world’s largest collections of genetic material… Among its 3400 cell lines, 18,000 bacteria strains, 3000 human and animal viruses and eight million cloned genes - all stored alive, ready to be deployed in the wars against illness, ageing and disease - are a handful of living cells, constantly multiplying, from New Zealand. They belong to the artist Billy Apple.3

I suppose there are a multitude of reasons why the death of an artist can be an important motivation for taking a second look at that artist’s oeuvre, but it also incites the blasphemy of creating false works from idols passed on. It might be easy for those who never knew Apple. I have a feeling from the content within details of the “Simon Denny” work (also reposted on his own Instagram) that Freeth and Massov might be drawing on the idea that after an artist dies their work tends to climb in value. Billy Apple is also one of two late artists selected. Toss Woollaston is also the only artist representing themselves in the show, posthumously, perhaps as a gesture to help float the validity of everything else.

Though Teghan Burt was not chosen for a major prize, grant, or representation at Venice, it appears Burt was chosen to be represented in A Retrospective because they are new and young and because of their involvement in the recent Mercy Pictures scandal.4 Burt's inclusion may indicate that, within the narrative that Mercury Tower seeks to build in this show, there is a pattern of scandal and celebration which is ongoing and which requires critical engagement. Irrespective of the merit of a show, it benefits no one to render it a subject too sensitive to discuss openly. 
Arter, Simon Denny, 2015, Mercury Tower, 2022
Simon Denny seems possibly the most potent reference of all in this show; the work is in many ways in conversation with the staging involved in his show at The Adam Art Gallery, The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom

Denny’s exhibition rematerialised the entire inventory of confiscated items taken by New Zealand police […] during a dramatic raid on the home of German internet entrepreneur, Kim Dotcom, who, at the time faced extradition to the US for charges of copyright infringement, money laundering, and racketeering relating to his now-defunct file-sharing platform, Megaupload.5

In this show, Denny had a combination of real and copied objects that showcased the cultural material Kim Dotcom had amassed. In many ways, this relates to the way that our artists-cum-gallerists Massov and Freeth have created duplicates, some more as responses than direct copies.

Positioned in the centre of the gallery (accredited to Luke Willis Thompson) is a dramatic staging of a door from Fiona Connor’s show Something Transparent (please go round the back) (2009) at Michael Lett Gallery, smashed.6 The safety glass strewn across the floor below it. During the opening, Jasper quietly tells me a secret about the work I promise not to say anything about. Josh informs me after the opening when we are no longer surrounded by people: “Someone actually fell through the door during the show.”

I’m not sure whether or not they are lying to me.

Freeth and Massov have staged a show with some of the most prestigious figures in Aotearoa’s contemporary art world, formative to contemporary. A show that appropriates some of our most controversial and appropriative artists, giving them a ‘taste of their own medicine’ so to speak. A Retrospective poses in a kind of antagonising and thoughtful way, who makes it to the Nation’s canon? A second underlying, haunting question begins to loom over the gallery like a shadow: what must we, as artists, do to get there?
A Retrospective roomsheet.
Mercury Tower, A Retrospective, 2022. 22 January – 28 February, Mercury Tower, Ōtautahi. 

Images courtesy of Mercury Tower.


Article image: A Retrospective, Mercury Tower, 2022, installation view. 

    1.  More media noise on et al and Venice …, The Big Idea, Arts Work Project, 20 Jul 2004. Retrieved from: https://www.thebigidea.nz/node/169465

    2.  See ‘Other Elsewheres: New Zealand at the Venice Biennale’, Pantograph Punch, Tamzen Dunn, 2015, https://pantograph-punch.com/posts/other-elsewheres-new-zealand-venice-biennale

    3. Anthony Byrt, ‘Live Forever’, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2016. 

    4.  See ‘Swastikas off K Road’, The Spinoff, Amal Samaha, 2020: https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/12-11-2020/swastikas-off-k-road-how-the-worst-art-show-in-new-zealand-came-to-be

     5.  Exhibition text, SIMON DENNY THE PERSONAL EFFECTS OF KIM DOTCOM 4 October – 19 December 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.adamartgallery.org.nz/past-exhibitions/simon-denny-the-personal-effects-of-kim-dotcom/#:~:text=The%20Personal%20Effects%20of%20Kim%20Dotcom%20was%20the%20first%20museum,%2C%20Austria%2C%20in%20July%202013

      6.  There doesn’t appear to have been any such work made by Luke Willis Thompson. See dannybutt.net/


      *  When beginning this review I ordered a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation and The Accelerationist Reader from the depths of the local library network. I could begin to unravel the potential theoretical depths of this show from the various perspectives one could take, but nevertheless, it seems that the immediate context is more of a driving force in its intrigue, so I will leave that to my reader if they are interested.

      **  Further reading:   https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/201605/luke-willis-thompson-59576


  





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