Risk and fun inherent to art

Matt Joils, Samantha Cheng (centre) and Sophie Sutherland like to take a playful approach to...
Matt Joils, Samantha Cheng (centre) and Sophie Sutherland like to take a playful approach to their art. Photo: supplied
A group of young Auckland artists are keen to show you can have some fun and have a message in their first exhibition outside the big city, discovers Rebecca Fox.

Pulling a silver suitcase off the luggage conveyor belt at Dunedin Airport, Samantha Cheng did not know whether to be relieved or disappointed that it came off in one piece.

That is because the "suitcase" was made from a styrofoam, spray-painted silver with some dolly wheels attached and filled with ephemera — a tennis racquet, paper pineapple, ceramic bar of soap, plastic lei, T-shirts — involved with the development of an exhibition with fellow artists Matt Joils and Sophie Sutherland at Dunedin’s Blue Oyster Art Project Space.

"I wrapped it as I was deathly afraid it would splinter apart, as it was my checked-in bag, but it’s not even dented. Before I had planned to put in 500 rubber bands and packing peanuts but I had a thought ‘what if it does get caught on the suitcase elevator things and then they go everywhere?’

"It’s like the balance between failure and success. It’s an area that really interests me. There has to be some sort of element of, I had to have some stake in in it."

The disappointment did not last long.

"As I was carrying it in [to the gallery] the handle ripped off and it bumped to the ground."

It was a positive start for the group who are working together for the first time. Sutherland knew both artists and thought their practices aligned "in a great way" so brought them all together over coffee at a cafe.

"We have a similar sense of humour," Joils says.

For Cheng it is their interest in playful humour in their art that unites them.

Over a few more cafe brainstorming sessions they came up with the concept for "Maximum Potential NOW", focusing on how advertising culture and wellness slogans are ever present in everyday life and how dominant they are.

Joils says there is an absurdity in advertising culture and in how overwrought advertising images are.

"The disconnect between the product and the myth of the product. It’s all about the narrative, the fantasy or lifestyle than the cleaning product or whatever it is they are trying to make you buy."

They put their ideas together in a proposal and sought funding for the project. After a few false starts and rewrites, they were successful with Blue Oyster.

"It’s all of our first exhibition outside of where we live," Sutherland, who is also a musician, says.

"And in an established space which is so well respected, it’s a privilege," Joils says.

Having the show in Dunedin also leaned into the component of the project around travel.

"I’m quite interested in mobility and the travel experience. It is in contrast to what is happening around the world with refugee travel. People don’t see that as a different form of travel," Cheng says.

The group are all art or film school graduates (Cheng and Sutherland both have master’s degrees in visual arts from AUT) trying to find a way to become professional artists. All juggle their art practice with jobs, Joils in hospitality, Sutherland as a technician at AUT and Cheng in visitor experience at the Auckland Art Gallery and studying for her doctorate.

"We got sucked into the advertising culture we are now critiquing," Sutherland says.

Joils says it is something they have been asking themselves.

"How much are you standing outside of it asking and how much are you redoing the same thing?"

Sutherland, who is from Wellington, and Cheng who was born in Malaysia but grew up in Auckland, both work in the contemporary video, sculpture and installation mediums.

Cheng has created a video work for the exhibition referencing the digital advertising screens that have popped up around the city.

"It used to be paper posters. Now they are digital screens and they take up so much space around urban areas, you numb yourself to them sometimes. They say so much without saying anything at all."

Sutherland’s contribution is an interactive sound work with an electronic component allowing people to press buttons and get feedback.

"There are seven buttons in total you press. A phrase is spoken to you from the audio interface. It’ll be like a bodyless voice running through advertising slogans and wellness provocations as well as snips from our brainstorming conversations.

"Usually advertising is flung in your face and you can’t get away from it, whereas this is you pressing a button and getting it."

Four of the buttons are housed in an enclosure Sutherland has built, while the others will be attached to bright "pop colour" objects found at local op-shops.

"I wanted it to be accessible. It is a sound sculpture so it has the visual element, too, which I like."

She has also created "merchandise" for the exhibition: T-shirts, printed with bizarre advertising images that will be hung on a repurposed scooter that will be hung on the wall as a clothing rack.

"I’ve attached a microwave motor so it will slowly turn around, relating to those over the top show window displays to pull you in."

Joils, who did film-making as an undergraduate, is the painter of the group and will create a mural on one wall of the gallery incorporating graphic and painterly elements and has created other paintings for the show based on advertising images.

"I’m more interested in the conceptual. I’m hoping to bring them together to give a clear picture of my individual practice while also connecting and having this conversation and dialogue in the show."

To see

Maximum Potential NOW, Samantha Cheng, Matt Joils and Sophie Sutherland, Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Saturday until June 8.