From a Cupboard Under the Stairs
New Zealand-born artist, teacher and writer Bruce Barber is known for post-object performances including Bucket Action (1974) where the wetsuited, blindfolded artist struggled through an obstacle course, laboriously transferring two fish from bucket to bucket, and Stocks and Bonds (1975), in which he spent three days in the Auckland Art Gallery restrained in a set of wooden stocks. Since his departure for Canada in 1976, his projects have been more overtly political. Reading Rooms (1984–1992), for instance, is a series of installations inspired by Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko’s 1925 model for a workers’ study and library. Based around topics including the Vietnam War and male violence and incorporating architectural elements, press clippings, comics, videos and slides, the rooms are critiques, spaces for investigation. A writer on performance and long-time teacher at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Barber continues to exhibit internationally. While he has presented a number of projects in New Zealand galleries in the years since his departure for Canada, increased art historical interest in post-object practice has highlighted Barber’s local significance; his most recent exhibition here was Te Tuhi’s survey show, Reading and Writing Rooms (2008/9), a project with Artspace Sydney.
On his last visit to New Zealand Barber deposited papers, largely from the 1970s, with the Auckland Art Gallery library. The heaped boxes have been subject to archival discipline: sorted, ordered, recorded and filed according to size and kind; ephemera transformed from personal detritus to historical artefact.
Because I am not an art historian, because I am responding to an invitation, rather than following some trail of my own research, I am not sifting this archive for evidence of positioning within a canon, of continuity and discontinuity, of unknown origins to known artworks. For me this archive is a found object – like a box of documents discovered in a thrift store or in clearing a house. I am trying to reconstruct a person, to infer and understand a time, a place and a body of work, to decide what to retain, to tuck into the corners of my own life. There is a strange kind of intimacy in reading the papers of a living artist, intimacy combined with the historical distance that gives black and white photographs and carbon-copies of typewritten letters a nostalgic sheen, and the geographical distance that renders the artist known but not familiar.
In the midst of a spasm of domestic reorganisation myself, I cannot avoid comparing the semi-sorted contents of my own hard-drives, file drawers and shelves with this collection of works on paper, documents and small objects, to imagine what might be revealed of me, what might, perhaps require redaction – because the archive, like the artist, always has an eye on posterity, and cares what history thinks.
As counterpoint to the prudery of my imaginary self-censorship are Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, his series of numbered and dated cardboard boxes of desktop sweepings, into which he piled everything from taxi receipts to audio tape to pieces of birthday cake, to be labeled, sealed and carted off to storage. This to me represents a paramount use of art to solve the problems of life, in this case the rising tide of clutter, which, anointed by the artist’s hand, parceled and placed in deep storage, becomes artwork. Warhol considered auctioning off each sealed box in a high society lucky dip, but the 600-odd capsules never got sold and are slowly being unpacked by the Warhol Foundation, whose chief archivist estimates the task will take four people, working full-time, fifty years. 1
The Bruce Barber Archive is less heterogeneous and certainly runs to nowhere near 600 boxes, but it makes me wonder about the artist’s motivation in gifting the material: a closing of some compartment of a life? A gleeful abdication of responsibility for one’s own leavings? A need to put something else in that cupboard? The amalgam of objects forming physical evidence of the public and private person of the artist reminds me too of an exhibition by Daniel Malone, just before his long-term departure for Poland. In Black Market Next to My Name (2007) Malone exhibited the entire contents of his flat, all his possessions, his furniture, record collection, boxes of art materials, clothes, books, packed into Gambia Castle’s galleries, to be traded away. The entirety of the work is now in the Chartwell Collection, although the artist retains visitation rights, so he can borrow back a shirt or LP if needed, keeping the work live and evolving.
This connection between the personal and the professional is vexed. Warhol’s blank, gossipy omnivorousness is one solution. In Barber’s case, the artwork is formal, conceptual, though embodied and performed by the artist. While Barber’s notion of a littoral art explicitly investigates the space between institutional artistic practice and lived experience, his work operates at a remove from his everyday life. So in this case, rather than the confessional approach of say, Tracey Emin, whose intimate personal life is drawn into her public work as an artist, or Billy Apple’s pieces from the 1970s recording his mundane cleaning activities, there is a sense of looking behind the scenes at what is not strictly part of the work.
Some folders contain Barber’s high school etchings and drawings, university essays, poems, journals and notes. As artists we often want to appear to have sprung fully formed into the artworld; faltering student work is largely suppressed. The voyeuristic (and, of course, art historical) appeal of this evidence of origins was explored by Michael Stevenson in his exhibition Genealogy (2000). Stevenson produced meticulously simulated versions of the School Certificate art boards of artists Julian Dashper, Michael Parekowhai, Paul Hartigan and Christine Hellyar (as well as exhibiting his own, genuine exam submissions). These critical simulations, combining faked evidence of early preoccupations and promise with the required educational exercises of the time, reflect a historical curiosity with what is winnowed by training and expertise, as well as in pedagogical influence.
In Barber’s archive, genealogy and pedagogy are further invoked by lecture notes and a 1975 class photo and grade sheets from his year teaching sculpture at Elam. There’s a certain fascination in examining the first year marks of John Reynolds, Jacqueline Fraser and Judy Millar, a fascination of both the student and the teacher in me. What connection is there between academic performance and artworld success? What became of all those classmates whose names I can’t recognise? What was the curriculum like then? As a student in the same sculpture department twenty-odd years later, I have only subsequently understood how an emphasis on interdisciplinarity, group critique, and the notion of artistic research as creative play reflected, in part, the lingering influence of Jim Allen, head of department from 1960 to 1976. In an archived letter to Barber, his ex-student and colleague, posted from Sydney, Allen describes, amongst other things, his just-completed sail across the Tasman from Auckland, his reluctance to leave the harbour for the artworld. This, to me, having only ever conceived of making that journey in the indifferent comfort of economy class, seems a relic from a heroic era.
Of particular interest from Barber’s own student days are photographs and posters from the project 3 Situations (1971), an ambitiously scaled public installation in Bledisloe Place led by Barber, Maree Horner and David Brown. There are also dead-ends: a folder of photographs and documents of lighthouses in New Zealand, concept sketches for a 1972 attempt to make a public artwork lacing steel cables across the Waikato river, accompanied by yellowed correspondence with the Minister of the Environment, the Minister of Marine and Fisheries and the two councils controlling either bank of the river.
The files of letters suggest a nascent internationalism, a broadening of the influence of the wider world on local artists. There’s a letter to Lucy Lippard (who visited New Zealand in 1975) offering advice on her proposal to write about Maori women’s art, with her replies, written in hot pink ballpoint (who would have thought!), a postcard from Fluxus stalwart George Brecht enquiring about Auckland’s volcanoes for his artwork annotating the Columbia Encyclopedia, as well as more personal and more local communications: collaged party invitations, a series of indignant letters about a hastily cancelled video workshop at the National Art Gallery.
There’s also a sheaf of notes and correspondence on the 1976 New Art publication edited by Jim Allen and Wystan Curnow, providing background to what has become a vital document of ephemeral practices of the time. The continuing re-examination of post-object works often preserved only as instruction sheets, photos or tapes, leaves me thinking of the increasing evanescence of our everyday communications, of art projects that leave trails of bytes, broken web links and defunct hard drives, and I wonder what a similar archival trawl will feel like in another twenty or thirty years. I’m not so naïve as to suggest a paperless future, but great portions of our discourse and exchanges are, for better or worse, no longer localised (perhaps stored in a Google server farm in Oregon or Eemshaven) nor so clearly material (though most certainly embedded in physical stuff). What kind of nostalgia will there be in ancient email logs and discs of images, navigated by tags and filenames, when high definition video projections seem as redolent of a particular past moment as the blurry black and white of a Sony Portapac? What will form the evocative marginalia – in this collection, the venerable letterheads, the crinkly onionskin writing paper, the advertisements in the yellowed newspaper clippings – the things that gives history weight and grit?
First Published in Reading Room Issue 4, 2010