David Haines and Joyce Hinterding's Monocline: White Cube,
part of the "Sound Full" exhibition at the Dunedin Public
Art Gallery. Photo supplied.
What a long way art has travelled, even in just a part of
my lifetime. I was thinking this strolling around "Sound Full:
Sound in Contemporary Australian and New Zealand Art" which has
been showing at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery since July 7.
It wasn't my first visit but because I had recently been
writing about art in Dunedin, New Zealand and elsewhere in
the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the sense of change since those
days was particularly strong.
"Sound Full" was curated by Caleb Kelly and Aaron Kreisler
and includes works by 16 artists. It is a tour de force as
visual spectacle and its integral audio element is impressive
This is not a review but I congratulate the artists and
curators and also the gallery's installation team who, as so
often, have made a fine, no, a stunning job of its
presentation. It runs to November 11, and even if you hate
contemporary art you'd get something from looking at this -
an idea of what some artists are up to and an exemplary
demonstration of their power to impress.
Art has been changing throughout its existence but a big
change happened in the late 19th century, giving rise to what
is called "modern art". About 1970 another watershed was
passed but you still don't read much about it in the history
It's apparent in the scale and the media employed and was
visible 40 years ago, though not many on the ground then
discerned it. I don't think the late Robert Hughes really did
in his influential 1980 television series and book The Shock
of the New, or even in its 2004 update.
Colin McCahon's 1958 Northland Panels paintings were very
big, much larger than anything usually seen in galleries
here. (He'd recently visited America.) "Sound Full's"
projected images are a good deal bigger again.
Also many of them are what are called "moving images" meaning
like the ones you see on television, or at the cinema which
are no longer strictly speaking photography. They produce a
result like old-fashioned cine film but don't use the same
photo-chemical process pioneered in the early 19th century.
The larger scale of contemporary work shows it is able to
command resources, which implies audiences and a level of
support which artists like McCahon struggled for and even his
famous overseas contemporaries found hard to command in the
1950s. But the change in media implies something else and not
just that they've been invented.
If we look at the thing we call "art", which in fact is
specifically visual art outside the huge field of
architecture, it is illuminating to view it in the wider
context of technological history. What the Impressionists did
can be seen as an effort by the practitioners of the ancient
handcraft of picture-making to come to terms with the
invention of photography.
That meant people without their hard-won skills and
techniques could make pictures - illusions of
three-dimensional things on a flat surface - more or less at
the press of a button. The Impressionists learned and
borrowed from photography but their successors resorted to
moving the goal posts.
You can see a lot of early Modernism, the Fauves and the
Cubists for instance, as shifting the handcraft's focus from
making pictures to making images of a different sort. The
arrival at pure abstraction represented the culmination of
There is more to the story of modern art but this was a
Another was the refusal of the keepers of the tradition to
allow photography to enter their realm. Although machine-made
images can be quite as effective as art, the keepers of the
handcraft tradition successfully excluded them until about
1970. But then they stopped bothering to try.
They started welcoming the works of Cindy Sherman (b.1954),
celebrating those of Richard Avedon (1923-2004), to mention
only two of many art photographers. What had happened?
The keepers of the old tradition, which might now be renamed
the "high Art tradition", had found new ways of attracting
attention and support. This happened through the efforts -
some would say antics - of people like Marcel Duchamp
(1887-1968) and Andy Warhol (1928-87) and involved not a
little mockery of the high art tradition itself.
Mr Hughes, whom I greatly admire, never felt comfortable
about it. Like other commentators he was deadly serious about
art and felt uneasy about things sending it up. And he hated
its bid for celebrity glamour, feeling this was a sellout to
big bucks, Hollywood and trivia.
Art has long courted the rich and powerful, princes and popes
in the past.
Contemporary art found a modern equivalent and doesn't need
to pretend hand-made is mysteriously superior.
Old-fashioned painting is alive and well, but became happy to
share its pedestal.
• Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian