The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Ubiquity

If what was lost from a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction was its ‘aura’, then what is lost today in the age of digital ubiquity? Few works of art are reproduced at all, but most are made digitally permanent and multiform—created not with paints and canvas or woodcut or lithography, but often with strokes of the finger upon a screen. In those cases where oil paint is still revered, the artwork is photographed once and then seems to exist not in space but within a billion screens. 

‘Aura’, the attachment of an art object to its tradition, is certainly lost, but what more? What is lost when works of art are primarily viewed not as material objects—whether reproduced as a print or as a painted ‘original’—but through a 4-inch screen? What is lost when the principal means of viewing art is through Instagram posts? (I was planning to fly to Art Basel, the centre of contemporary art, but decided not to since the galleries displaying there had posted photos of their booths online).

I’m asking about the gulf between an artist’s print like a photograph or a lithograph and that same lithograph viewed through an Instagram post. Even a film has lost its material existence on a tape or a slide. Benjamin could write those fifty years ago that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” But now in the age of digital ubiquity this fragment seems to hold true to our own day and not Benjamin’s: the digitally reproduced artwork is severed from time and space in a way that a perfectly reproduced lithograph is not. The roll of tape that holds a Dziga Vertov film still has its unique existence at the place where it happens to be, as does any number of reproductions of, say, Goya’s Caprichos. But a photograph of that same Capricho? Just where, exactly, does it happen to be?

Maybe it’s something like spirit—aura, but with feeling and heart. A mechanically reproduced artwork seems to me still to have something like spirit, even if it has less aura than the ‘authentic’ painting it is based on: you can pick it up, you can move it, you can hang it, you can damage it, you can gift it. Even a printed photograph carries with it the material traces of its existence, though it may not have the authenticity or the aura of seeing Guernica, say, in the flesh (the room at the Reina Sofia in Madrid even seems to smell of the paint). But an artwork discovered through a screen has lost more than ‘aura’, more than the connection to its tradition, as Benjamin describes it—in losing its materiality, even the materiality of a print or a copy, a work of art in the age of digital ubiquity has lost all relationship to the artwork’s past or its future. It’s as though it has been severed from time itself, bound to exist forever and everywhere, but refusing to carry with it the history of its creation or its existence. 

National Gallery, a Film by Frederick Wiseman: A Brief Review

I happened to read a review in The Guardian of Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 movie National Gallery before I saw the film. That review’s title is devastatingly brutal: “A crushingly dull documentary that lacks an eye for art.” It is such a harsh  headline that I almost decided not to spend the three hours watching—but I’m grateful I ignored it, because Wiseman’s National Gallery is a masterfully subtle meditation on the role of the world’s great galleries. The film can even be called art itself.

Wiseman’s genius with National Gallery is to document the institution, on the one hand, but on the other to demonstrate the experience of being at such a gallery. The scenes change quickly, and we never really quite get shown a painting for long enough to take it in. The camera angles are at times awkward, or someone happens to wander in front of a painting at the wrong time. There is a lot of talking. There is no music. There is bickering among gallery administrators, and some of these scenes run on for absurdly long lengths of time. But far from being boring, Wiseman gets in subtle humour, letting glimpses of paintings speak for him. A rapid montage of a range of facial expressions in paintings had me laughing out loud, so perfectly were the expressions timed to correspond to the at-times absurdity of such an institution—or simply the beauty of the constant looking-at and being-looked-at. All of this, down to the person wandering in front of a painting at just the wrong time, is exactly the universal and unalterable experience of being in a museum like the National Gallery.

Wiseman’s is a respectful but honest documentary of the National Gallery, and it is artful in how it gets across the essence of the experience of the world’s great museums. Ignore that review in The Guardian—if anything, the reviewer lacked an eye for the subtle art of this film. Far better is the review in The New Yorker; and better yet, just go watch the film.

On Te Papa’s Toi Art / New Zealand’s Need for a National Art Gallery

New Zealand National Art Gallery - Te Papa Toi Art - Parekowhai Detour
Michael Parekowhai’s Detour and Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels installed in the foyer to Te Papa’s new Toi Art on the day of its opening in March 2018.

To be clear, Te Papa’s recent expansion of its dedicated art space for displaying the national art collection is an improvement on the old space. The 35% expansion was needed and is to be celebrated, as are the thoughtful spaces and details designed by Warren and Mahoney Architects. But the improvements are, in the end, a bit like expanding and redecorating a leaky home—it does not matter what you do on the inside when the institution and structure itself aren’t serving their purpose. So Toi Art, as Te Papa has termed the redesigned art gallery, does absolutely nothing to negate the need for a stand-alone national art gallery; and in fact, after seeing the institution’s choices of what art to display there, it becomes a glaring symbol of why we need one.

A National Art Gallery must serve a specific function, and it is a function very different to the role that both private museums and smaller galleries play (to say nothing of dealer galleries). A local gallery, whether it be the Suter in Nelson or the City Gallery in Wellington, must provide for the dual need of displaying the visual tradition of its place as well as reflecting the times that its visitors now live in. Most of the time, especially in rural communities, the institution may well be the only dedicated art space in the town or city, and so must provide multiple functions. The Auckland Art Gallery is an exemplar of a local gallery, with a permanent international collection and exhibitions, rotating exhibitions of New Zealand art, and the constant addition of contemporary exhibitions from New Zealand and abroad.

A National Gallery meets a different need, and its functions must therefore be very different. Its role is to reflect the tradition of the nation (showing, too, how that tradition is derived from elsewhere in a long history) and to make this visual tradition accessible to both citizens and foreign visitors. It is necessarily located in a specific place, and that this place is the capital city is taken for granted. But its function is practically irrespective of both its time and its place since it reflects the needs of the nation as a whole. The National Art Gallery of New Zealand should, at heart, be concerned with making our visual culture plain. It is necessarily an historical institution, because it is only with the passage of time that the cultural tradition can be understood and assessed—it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can determine what has made us who we as a people now are.

Toi Art, out of some perverse need to be seen as “relevant” and “contemporary” (never mind that those are goals antithetical to organising and making accessible our national cultural tradition) has viewed as its competition the Auckland Art Gallery, forgetting entirely that it exists in a category with no competition. There is, after all, just one National Art Gallery. And so, to open the new exhibition spaces, Te Papa commissioned Michael Parekowhai to create a contemporary conceptual piece that would comment on museums and their role, as if it were a local gallery needing to fulfil many different functions at once. Parekowhai’s Détour dominates the single entryway to Toi Art: a visitor will see an array of metal tubing, like construction scaffolding, attached to which (hanging down, or being thrust forward) are paintings and artworks from the National Gallery vaults. Between the artworks are giant plastic creatures—an elephant, for one, and what seems to be a monkey-cum-Tiki.

No less an artwork than Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels are attached to Parekowhai’s Duchamp-inspired contraption, amidst Frances Hodgkinses and Theo Schoon photographs, to name just a couple. This happened to be my first time seeing the Northland Panels in its material form, after having grown up seeing reproductions—an exciting moment for an art historically interested New Zealander. Far from making McCahon’s inspiring and emblematic canvases accessible to New Zealanders and to visitors, Toi Art’s choice of display both interfered with any clear view, and risked the material future of McCahon’s canvases for generations after mine. The way the scaffolding structure was placed meant that visitors to Toi Art are ducking under and between different metal poles to see different artworks, and one of these poles was placed directly in front of McCahon’s canvases. The panels are “paintings to walk past”, as McCahon described them, but Parekowhai’s artwork seems determined to make this impossible. Even worse, in the time I was there I witnessed a shoulder brushing the fourth canvas (they are displayed completely unprotected), while the only docent nearby was busy telling frustrated visitors that they could not duck under a nearby pole lest they damage the Hodgkins hanging from it.

My criticism, to be very clear, isn’t about Parekowhai’s artwork, which, in a different context and with different artworks attached to the contraption, I might thoroughly enjoy. My criticism is that Te Papa’s confusion of its role not only hinders New Zealanders from being able to clearly and directly access and understand the kind of visual culture that artworks like McCahon’s Northland Panels represent (and I certainly could not enjoy or understand the panels as they deserved to be), but the institution’s choices even risk those artworks’ existence for future generations. Détour is, quite simply, an enormous and glaring symbol of the problem with the National Art Gallery’s inclusion within Te Papa. Parekowhai’s giant plastic elephant (appropriately titled Standing on Memory), which rears itself up on top of the contraption, seemed to me in the end to represent the weight of the institution risking crushing all the art beneath it—and, if not crushing it, then being simply so distracting as to render all other traces of our visual culture irrelevant. (I wonder, even, if Parekowhai has used his commission to subvert Te Papa with this kind of message; but if so, that idea seems to have been largely lost).

And there we see that the problem with the National Gallery’s inclusion in Te Papa isn’t about space or budget at all. It is instead that the very role of a National Gallery has been forgotten and confused within a larger institution, and that the context of viewing our visual culture within a larger museum—after you visit the Earthquake House, before you go see the Giant Squid—undermines the very goals of promoting and making accessible that culture. There is a legitimate criticism of the common ‘sealing off’ of ‘high’ art from the rest of culture, but if there is one place where this sealing off might be defended it is at the National Gallery. It is necessary there because the National Gallery is the preserver of visual culture of last resort—there is nowhere else to finally understand what it means to be a New Zealander through our art, or to study and research a collection as large, broad and significant as the National Gallery’s. Most of us will see the Northland Panels and other masterworks of our culture just a few times in our lives, and having McCahon’s work levelled to the same status as the giant squid does no viewer any favours, nor does it do New Zealand any favours in the eyes of the many foreign visitors who come through Te Papa’s doors.

Toi Art does nothing to reduce the need for a stand-alone national gallery. It simply brings into relief the absolute necessity of one.

 

The Eyes and Times of Frank and Lyn Corner

Frank Lyn Corner New Zealand Art Collection Art+Object

This essay was published in the catalogue of The Collection of Frank and Lyn Corner by Art + Object. My grandparents’ significant collection of New Zealand art was presented to the market on Sunday 18th March 2018.


Growing up with Frank and Lyn as parents and grandparents meant growing roots firmly in New Zealand, no matter where in the world we happened to be. Our eyes became tuned, through the art, books and conversation that surrounded us, to see New Zealand as a firm part of the modern international world, holding its own from the bottom of the South Pacific.

But this view of New Zealand’s place in the world wasn’t always so clear for Frank and Lyn. Their backgrounds—in 1920s and 30s Napier for Frank, and Hamilton, Masterton, and Whanganui for Lyn—were happy but not remarkable ones, apart from a very memorable earthquake and considerable academic self-discipline. Frank always maintained that “Life, for me, began when I came to Wellington.”

It has even been said that, in the 1940s—when Frank and Lyn came to Wellington, met, and started discovering art together—New Zealand didn’t exist yet: “it remains to be created—should I say invented—–by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help”, went Curnow’s cry in 1945. That period between when New Zealand “didn’t exist yet”, and now, when New Zealand seems to stand upright here and when we can travel abroad, to Venice, to see our emissaries, is the period of Frank and Lyn’s lives.

When we stand amidst Frank and Lyn’s lifelong collection of artworks, in their lifelong home, we view a record of that invention of New Zealand, a visual and a personal history of New Zealand’s declaration of intellectual independence.

It is not the only record, and nor is it the largest; Frank and Lyn certainly never set out to create a survey collection, and in fact they long resisted entirely the idea that they were “collectors”. But theirs is a unique collection, and a significant one, because of the two sets of eyes that created it—and, as Frank and Lyn would be the first to point out, because of the sheer good fortune of the times that they happened to live in. Through this collection, and in the lives of Frank and Lyn, we see the abundance of New Zealand life.

— — — —

First, the eyes. Frank and Lyn always spoke of “having [their] eyes opened” to the world, and to art, during their years studying at Victoria University. From the time they met in 1941, at the Easter Tournament, theirs was a partnership of minds and of eyes. In their library one can see the intellectual efforts of their university years and of those afterwards. Frank was studying history, and Lyn French; but their books show little of this, so widely did they read. They studied the classics, but seemingly in equal measure would pick up all the latest books that arrived in Wellington from overseas (Forster’s What I Believe, for instance, they found as soon as it arrived, and his case for “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” seems to define Frank and Lyn’s outlook).

The great good fortune of Frank and Lyn’s university years was the intellectual stimulation provided by John Beaglehole and the circle of faculty and students he surrounded himself with. Their first invitation to the Beaglehole house in Messines Road, Karori, was also the occasion of their awakening to art. There, Lyn later recounted, “He [Beaglehole] had art hanging on the walls—including some of the very early breakthrough artists like John Weeks, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. This was different from the tame drawing-room landscapes we’d seen before, and excited us.” It seems important to remember in this context, however, that art was always just a part of Frank and Lyn’s education and of their lives. Frank describes the kind of discussion they would have at the Beagleholes’ house:

“On some occasions he would play Bach’s preludes and fugues, share his delight in newly acquired paintings of John Weeks or Woollaston, or pewter plates, or great examples of typography, or would introduce us to the works of E. M. Forster, or Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set.”

The Beaglehole influence extended through the full range of culture that Curnow described as necessary for the invention of New Zealand, down to architects, and even politicians. Frank and Lyn were later to copy the Beagleholes in their commissioning architect Cedric Firth to design modern cabinetry for their 1930s house; and it was likely in Messines Road that they first heard of the arrival of a distinguished Austrian architect, Ernst Plischke, to Wellington. Frank was intrigued; he arranged for Plishke to give a series of public talks, and they got to know one another. Plischke would later design the modernist pavilion across the garden from the Gray Young-designed, Cedric Firth-renovated house that Frank and Lyn lived in for the best part of their lives.

The Beagleholes and the Corners remained lifelong friends, but after graduating from Victoria in 1942 and joining the fledgling Department of External Affairs in 1943 Frank soon began travelling, and the couple continued their informal education overseas. Frank was one of the first to visit postwar Japan in late 1945, and Frank and Lyn both worked in Paris for several months in 1946 during the Peace Conference. Postings took them to Washington D.C. twice, to London and New York. They read widely and kept everything. In their attic are boxes of gallery catalogues, many in French, that they collected while haunting the galleries during their travels.

— — — —

And then there were the times they lived in—times so full of activity and excitement, in both art and world affairs, that from the perspective of grandchildren in 2018 they seemed always to be in the very middle of history in the making. They were in London for the Queen’s coronation, the same day Edmund Hillary summited Mount Everest; they were in New York during the fraught days of the Cuban Missile Crisis; they were in Washington D.C. when Lyndon Johnson visited New Zealand, with Frank overseeing the visit. Yet this was work and everyday life for this diplomatic couple, however thrilling it all may seem from a perspective half a century later.

The upheavals going on in the world of art were almost as grand and exciting as those happening in world affairs, so much so that Lyn later described art during this period being an “automatic, easy addiction.” They certainly appreciated their good fortune to live in London, New York and Washington during these formative decades. While Frank was busy at the United Nations, Lyn would head to the galleries, often with two young children in tow. In London, it was during a brief lunch break that Frank dropped by the Redfern Gallery and returned with Frances Hodgkins’ Pleasure Boat.

As with their eyes, for which art was just one of many great passions, the times they lived in seem to have blurred the boundaries between work and other parts of life. The eyes and the times are one and the same, in the end: so that social and political changes are reflected in the art they bought, and the art they bought influenced diplomatic and political advances. When Lyn was once asked if they had consciously bought artworks that would serve to represent New Zealand well abroad, she rejected any such idea: “We simply purchased the irresistible.” We have to take that statement at face value; and yet Frank and Lyn knew that the art they bought would be the backdrop to so many diplomatic functions, and that art has a unique power to represent and to find commonality. We have always thought of Lyn’s comment as a sign of how inseparable their lives were from the times they lived in, the work they did for New Zealand, and their passion for art, books, music and architecture. What was irresistible to Frank and Lyn Corner, a couple who spent their lives serving New Zealand abroad, was precisely the kind of art that represented the modern, confident and vibrant country they represented and spoke about to countless dignitaries every day.

So when Frank wrote in 1962 that “…for the greater part of the first half of the twentieth-century NZ turned its eyes away from the Pacific”, this was at once a statement of foreign policy and of national and personal outlook. He went on: “Has not a country become in some way unbalanced when it knows little and cares less about its own geographic environment?” He argued over many years, after New Zealand’s two great twentieth century crises—the fall of Singapore, and Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community—that our future lay in this part of the world, in the Pacific. He made this argument formally for New Zealand’s foreign policy; but it was the argument that increasingly our writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers, and, yes, even our politicians, were formulating in their own realms. For Frank Corner, the search for national security was also a part of the search for national and cultural identity.

— — — —

In the minds of diplomats one’s country can paradoxically seem closer while living in a foreign capital, for it is while there that your everyday experience is marked entirely by your nationality. You are only in Washington, London or New York by virtue of being a New Zealander; you only meet people as a New Zealander. In many ways you live through your country’s identity, and are forced to understand on a deep level what it is that you are representing. This seems different from the expatriate’s experience: he or she goes abroad by their own volition, and for the duration that they are away from home they are more or less cut off from home. They are expatrias. The point is the great extent to which Frank and Lyn’s life experiences were marked by being New Zealanders and, in turn, how their vision for New Zealand affected their art collecting.

To Frank and Lyn Corner New Zealand was a modern, vibrant, educated Pacific nation. Naturally, their art collection—much of which was bought while they were living overseas (including, notably, McCahon’s Landscape Theme and Variations, I and Angus’ Storm, Hawkes Bay)—should be informed by such a view. Now we today inhabit the New Zealand that was created and invented during their lifetimes. To look at the individual works in this collection is to see a New Zealand coming to its modernity, coming to terms with its geography, and coming to understand its identity. But to look at this collection as a whole: well, that is to see the modern, vibrant, educated Pacific New Zealand that we now know. To look at this collection is to see the abundance of New Zealand life.