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Without contraries is no progression1 To write about the work of an artist who determinedly uses contradiction and opposition as a tactic poses a challenge. Tao Wells’s work is consciously paradoxical and while there is a desire on the artist’s part to see an analytical text on his practice, there also exists the desire to disrupt the accepted idea and form of analytical text itself. Where then does this leave the writer of such a piece of writing? For the sake of this attempt at providing insight into work that seeks to acknowledge fractious existence, William Blake’s idea of progression through opposition seems fitting as a point of departure. There is no doubt that Wells’s work deals in contraries, it reflects Wells himself as he engages in an agonistic struggle with the complexities of cultural production, both as a consumer and producer. For Wells opposition becomes a modus operandi in his address of the esotericism of knowledge and authority. In the spirit of progression and breaking with tradition, Wells is modernist. Under the influence of his own generation Wells plays with the disruptive strategies of the avant-garde and the fragmentations of postmodernism, to directly challenge a single authoritative position. From the perspective of a latter-day postmodern phase of technology aided hyper-participatory culture the well-documented arguments of postmodernity and the avant-garde can read as distant. However, if we accept cultural movements exist as temporal states, or, as Umberto Eco has said of the avant-garde and postmodernism, “not a chronologically circumscribed tendency but a spiritual category,…” or an attitude, then it follows that these tendencies are cyclic postures, as is much of cultural production.2 Like Blake’s without contraries is no progression, Eco goes on to say that there is a moment when the avant-garde becomes extended to the point that it has its own self referential metalanguage, then it reacts against itself. Because this process follows a non-linear progression that includes not just an accumulation, but also an awareness of these moments this is never simply a reversal. For Wells as inheritor of all that has gone before, the movements and their opposing positions follow each other and co-exist, overlapping here and pulling apart there. Drawing on the foundations and attitude of modernism and the subversive strategies of the avant-garde in particular, Wells is the protagonist of his own hyper aware narrative. It is no surprise then that some of the strongest and most incisive work is his performance-based work. In its focus on activity, performance demands a different kind of meaning and interpretation, holding its own as entity in flux. The simultaneity of multiple actions is well suited to communicate argument and opposition. The recurring work Inuit Time, first performed in 2001, fabricates opposition by drafting volunteer participants into different positions. Past versions of Inuit Time have done this unequivocally by creating two groups and clearly labelling them as opposites, past groups include: ‘have’s’ and ‘have not’s’, ‘popular’ and ‘unpopular’, ‘bad actors’ and ‘good actors’. From the outset they are defined in oppositional relation to each other, how the participants choose to work within the reductive positions is part of the possibility that the work opens. The premise for Inuit Time is simple enough; the players write the script from their conversations, they are in control of the script (although the instruction is to write down every utterance). The resulting text is then edited together by Wells with each group’s transcript forming alternating scenes. The players form a performative intersection with the artist, who, over time pushes at the limits of their commitment to the activity through the use of repetition. Wells assumes control of the performance as he silently projects the script on an OHP for the
players and audience to read and follow. Working through the sheets of dialogue he does not necessarily stop once the script has been read through once, but might keep on cycling through it endlessly, forcing the players to choose between regurgitation of their own, often banal, conversations or something else. At a point unknown this breaks down as one or more players’ rebel, refusing to continue or reading others’ parts and generally interrupting the established structure of the piece. At its best a performance like this runs the gamut from tedious to engaging, encompassing moments of hilarity and insight into how social structures and relationships operate. Like those social relationships its attempts can be abortive and banal. Yet there is even something to be gained from this because it has a built in authenticity, stemming from the anything and everything approach to content, that cannot be denied by any one iteration of the piece. The experience of Inuit Time retains the possibility of being something transformative, which lies in the occurrence of the poetic moment and in the hovering threat of conflict. In the Adam Art Gallery performance of Inuit Time in 2003 Wells pitted a group of acting students against each other. Their commitment to the piece, as the script rolled around several times over, was solid. There was a genuine interest in participating in the performance, possibly because it was the type of environment and exercise that as students of acting they were familiar with, but also because they seemed to enjoy the absurdity and the flex of the performance as they played it out. On the third reading of the script, as the players became more relaxed with the situation and played it more freely, the piece began to feel like it was achieving a level of resolution. Players and audience mixed as some players sat in the audience and began to converse with audience members, still reading parts of the script, audience members reciprocated by reading parts as well. The lines between artist, performer and audience shifted and everyone became part of the performance in some way. By doing this Wells achieved a kind of cohesion or at least complicity of a group of people largely unknown to each other. In a carefully calculated act, Wells remained steadfastly cycling the script on the OHP, unspeaking and separate like a disengaged arbiter. Wells’s performances allow his persona to come most obviously to the fore as he knowingly plays with and challenges the role of privileged white male artist. “The way myself has been central to these early works has been interesting because it is not “me” so much as the aspects that conform to the “role” of privileged white guy art agitator, a role we all know.”3 Wells acknowledges and challenges a belief in, and acting out of, his position of privilege and the romantic notion of the artist. Using this available position he seeks to make an example of the situation through an often rudimentary scenario or set of activities that inevitably place public or group behaviour under scrutiny.Like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave it is an attempt to bring light into the dark, towards an understanding directed, but not prescribed, by Wells. The works provide a way to look, a set of rules to follow, in essence their specificity is manifold; they are examples of ‘things’ that explain or reveal positions. The relationship of the audience and participants to the position is afforded by their engagement and their own pre-existing position. The role of challenger is one that Wells performs with relish. His frequently antagonistic stance is like medicine – foul tasting but beneficial. The work Winning Teacher that was part of the 2004 Artspace exhibition The Bed You Lie in was a strategic ploy to say what was selfevident. Winning Teacher was both a performance and an object based work. Wells invited several artists to make ‘better’ works based on the works of the other artists in the exhibition, he then asked the curator to rank the works in her preferred order. Rather than make a value judgement on works that responded competitively to the works made by her own selection of artists, the curator chose a linear, alphabetised install of the works, thereby refusing to fully participate in Wells’s competition. By creating a show within a show, Wells wanted to make “a template/context/parameter/ structure that would be seen negatively and take heat for it, […] to reflect some ugly reality inherent to gallery culture and then pit this against the [artworks’ attempt at] trying to communicate with each other”4 Winning Teacher, made in response to the arguably exploitative nature of curated theme shows, attempted to expose the machinations of the relationships in this situation. It also brought up the competition between artists as they jostle for recognition. The artists who were in the exhibition responded with a mixture of interest and
hostility to Wells commissioning of other artists, who weren’t officially in the show, to make ‘better’ versions of their works. The artists a part of the show at Wells’s invitation enjoyed a certain freedom under the protection of Wells as they were. Any chaos that might be caused was, ultimately, Wells’s responsibility and there was aggression, bad language and unpleasant odours as a result. At the time there was some discussion between some of the artists about formulaic impositions by curators and their institutions.5 Wells, using the context to advance the critique, writ this large. He sought at least to open some kind of critical discussion of the situation. Winning Teacher beautifully stirred up the microcosm of conflict between egos and institutions. Oscillating between his inherited position of privilege as a white Western male artist and the anxiety that surrounds the responsibility of this, Wells has a conflicting desire for his position to be challenged and to be accepted as legitimate. Wells attempts to use his privilege as leverage to address his concerns around society and art making. It may not be surprising then that Wells lays claim to feminist sympathies. He aligns himself with the reasonable feminism of Camille Paglia that crucially does not build women up by bringing men down. Paglia allows for the strengths of masculine and feminine and recognises that opposition is necessary for a healthy balance in every aspect of existence. She frequently refers to society’s cyclic oscillation between the Apollonian desire for order and the Dionysian penchant for excess and chaos. The Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies are also very much in evidence in Wells’s work. Wells shows a real desire for the chaotic state, yet underpinning this are strategies that by their order allow the possibility of chaos.
STRATEGIES Rules List working titles of what I’d like to see. Make it exist. Present it all together. Add new ideas to list.6 Perhaps the clearest evidence of the Apollonian order is the rules by which Wells makes his work. The rules govern and generate all Wells’s output, operating as a guiding structure to making work. As a methodological starting point, the rules establish a basic and open formula that provides structure without being restrictive. Moreover, they also provide a useful framework to overcome the anxiety of art making, enabling production. The list of rules is Wells’s challenge to himself to make. Quite simply it provides a starting point that operates as a catalyst to productivity, manifest as a continuous approach to making work, like a recurring call and response. Often the list of rules appears with the work, as part of an installation, their presence making a clear statement of intent, or method and providing the audience with a point of entry into the work. The list of rules is circular, not linear, which makes it selfgenerating, cyclic and temporal. The open ended last rule—add new ideas to list—leads back to the first rule, which leads to the second, and so on. While this list of rules is the governing list, Wells also uses other rules as structural devices for creating and presenting work. Inuit Time has rules for writing the script, rules for transcribing the script and rules for the performance, all this is governed by a set of prescriptive rules for creating the piece. The rules for performance are given to the players and the audience before the performance begins. Operating like a theatre programme these rules explain the direction of events and provide a point of reference to kick off from. As a strategy it draws the players and the audience together in an empathetic relationship as they try to work through a problem to see what happens in the situation that Wells has set up. Players explore how to perform themselves and work through the choices they have to do this – straight, slowly, comically or even not at all-Wells usually indicates that not turning up to the performance is an option.
Teacher, shaman7 Another framework that Wells frequently works with is that of the teacher. Wells seeks to lead through example with his work and the role of the teacher is ready made for this. Alongside the obvious connection of teaching and rules Wells, who has a diploma of secondary teaching, frequently uses objects, equipment and methods of teaching. At various times he has used white boards, blackboards, OHPs, lecterns, newsprint and lists of instructions. Other devices include repetition of tasks in a sort of rote method, the work Embarassment (2006) is a stack of 10 self portrait paintings which he painted one after the other as if trying to perfect a representation of himself, and the five second drawings from memory a method which is reminiscent of quick response freeing exercises in life drawing. Many of his installations and works have titles that refer to education: Two Class Hours (2003), Class room (2003), Winning Teacher (2004) and the performance Art Teacher (2006). Wells has also used the 1972 publication The New Avant-garde: Issues for the Art of the Seventies8 as a kind of set text for his practice. The book covered the big hitters of the period —Flavin, LeWitt, Andre, Morris, Smithson, Serra, Sonnier, Nauman, Beuys, Merz, de Maria and Heizer. Wells reproduced the book, published in the year he was born, twice – one photocopied and bound duplicate and one that he remade, replacing the artists’ names with his own and every image and title of a work with an image and title of his own work. Wells’s version mimics the original, taking on its layout and its text. The two books, which Wells made in an edition, are sold together. The duplicate acknowledges its origins and Wells acknowledges a frame of reference and lineage. Looking at the books together requires a double action of turning pages in one, finding the corresponding pages in the other and comparing the two versions. It becomes an exercise in attention or detection as differences and similarities are spotted and the implications and amusements of these are pondered. What stands out when reading the text of Wells’s version is that it makes sense; although it is a wholesale appropriation, it is about his work. Throughout the books there are quotes lifted from the main text and capitalised as excerpts appearing alongside images. Many of these just as appropriately describe Wells’s work: “Feeding the spectator with surrogate information, thereby making him suddenly aware of all the other stimuli and forcing him to find his way around them” comes from the section on Bruce Nauman but also describes the way in which Wells deliberately feeds his audience with what can be an overabundance of objects and ideas with which they must contend. Others include: “the piece becomes information about itself”9 relates to works that use duplication such as The new Avant-garde and the work Two Class Hours, discussed below, and “deprived of certitudes, the spectator faces a situation in which he has to realign himself with reality or another reality and to reinvent his own new certitudes”10, a situation not unlike that faced by the players in Inuit Time. Wells chose to use The New Avant-garde as a template for talking and writing about his own practice. Rather than just referring to it, he remade it with himself as the sole subject, inserting himself into the canon. Wells’s strength of practice lies in his responsiveness to context, another reason that his performances stand out, and this use of the avant-garde as a ready made genre provides Wells with a situation to operate within and explore the boundaries of. The use of the book as a template to make the second book about his own work is a pivotal moment in Wells’s practice. As a found object it represents a given which Wells has appropriated and remade his own. Wells inserts himself into this art historical framework. He also emphasises the continuity of this art history, and by implication the repetition of other histories, by drawing attention to the fact that more than 30 years later the discourse is still applicable and by implication questioning this. The artists in the book, all men, are archetypes of modernism, representing the peak of achievement of the mythic creative genius, the romantic man alone and, as Sol LeWitt has said of conceptual artists, mystics. Perhaps the most potent aspect of Wells’s appropriation is his embrace of the book as a symbol. Much like the shaman cloaks himself in the skin of an animal to take on the attributes of that animal, Wells has taken on the attributes of these artists and the avant-garde via the remaking of the book. Whether this feels authentic or showy is in the eye of the beholder, it certainly hovers on the knife-edge.
Again and again Repetition, duplication and recycling, those tenets of postmodernism, are common to Wells’s work. The recurring use of rules and frameworks as seen with Inuit Time and duplication as in The New Avant-garde are all strategic ploys that serve the artist to make work and to talk about the situation and the context of the work. Duplication and repetition are also strategies Wells uses to challenge the viewer and to debunk ideas of wholeness, value and originality. The work Two Class Hours (2003) was a list based piece that involved works fabricated as separate objects and at different times, brought together in a line and installed running perpendicular to a wall onto which is projected a looping digital countdown runs continuously from two hours to zero. Wells made approximate copies of the objects at a different scale, installing them and the counter in the same configuration in another part of the gallery. Unable to see the two lines at the same time, viewers experienced the work twice. Like Winning teacher, Two Class Hours was also a work made for exhibition in a group show and responded to the context, playing with the expectations and framework. Between each configuration of the work the architecture and exhibition layout meant that viewing of Two Class Hours was interrupted by looking at others’ work in the same exhibition. Two Class Hours deliberately complicates representation and possession by being separate from itself. As Wells describes it the duplication effectively creates one work in two locations, but it also disputes that because logic demands that one of them is the copy and one the original, or one the model and one the real thing. Before this can be considered though, Two Class Hours challenges the viewer to notice the duplication. The ongoing digital countdown creates both a sense of urgency and of dragging time, generating a sense of anticipation and even the expectation that something more will transpire. Yet the counter reaches zero and automatically, with futility, begins again. The objects remain mute and immovable, nothing changes except the viewer’s relationship to the work—a crucial relationship for Wells. Of the objects that make up the work, some originated from previous installations, others were made for the piece, some were working plans for other works which may or may not be realised and others were objects from previous performances. Most were made from familiar objects or materials; coke cans, tennis balls, magazine pages, newsprint, tyres. Working in this manner of reuse and reconfiguration emphasises a human relationship to the world, which can be said to operate via a shifting set of ideas and objects rich in complex cross currents, through which we relate to our surroundings. In this way Two Class Hours functions as a systemic model where the viewer is both outside of and a part of the configuration. Well’s use of remakes and duplication in Two Class Hours creates a rote effect; we have seen this before. Not only does it emphasise the repetitious and cyclic nature of life, it also schools us to notice, remember and to make sense of it, which again involves consideration of our relationship to the work. The work highlights the exploration of, and experimentation with, the context that underpins all of Wells’s practice. Appearing twice, it sits ambiguously amongst the other works in an exhibition, and with equal opacity it fabricates a decisive moment (implicit in the countdown whether the viewer experiences zero or not) to emphasise the relationship of the viewer to the objects, the work of art and by implication the wider world.
MATERIAL Deterioration, Accumulation Throughout his career Wells has continually worked with materials that deteriorate and with an aesthetic that can be described as temporary or even unfinished. He deliberately makes work that has a finite and visible lifespan––through choice of materials such as, magazine
and newspaper pages that discolour or disintegrate fairly rapidly and perceptibly and things like candles, food packaging and supermarket bags that have a finite use value or existence. As a result even Wells’s object based works can be read in a temporal sense. Wells draws this out in other aspects of his practice by using more obviously temporal media such as performance and video. Going beyond media even Wells’s methodology and process of working has a temporal base. One common method is the 5-second drawing exercise (drawing itself is a medium containing a certain amount of time associated responsiveness and rapidity). His frequent re-use of ideas, works or parts of works indicates a continuity of investigation under the influence of time; the notion of re-use itself contains the past and the future. Each time something is re-used it is presented in a different temporal and physical context, thereby as reconfigured potential to challenge and suggest. Like duplication, Wells’s play with deterioration deliberately challenges the idea of art as permanent and iconic. He enjoys the idea that if someone wants to preserve his work, to stop it from deteriorating they will have to intervene, make a decision to take some kind of action and carry it out. This can be seen as a somewhat radical action to take on something recently made; a rescue operation of the kind done to preserve items as old and deteriorated as relics might be. The idea of the relic, of something rare that comes out of the past and has accumulated and lost meaning makes it something that can be both precious and worthless. Wells plays on these points as part of a wider discussion of the value of the artist and art making to society. Wells, like Joseph Beuys, believes in the power of art to affect change, he is also aware of the position of responsibility that as an artist committed to this social and political agenda he is in. That which makes a leader also separates them from others, hence the romanticisation of the artist as a singular and visionary. Wells plays this line of romance and isolation partly to flex his privilege and partly to reconcile his anxieties around the position. On the other hand Wells addresses perceptions of value attached to art objects through the very same deterioration. Low value materials and duplicates are familiar players in discussions of value, hierarchy and commodification. Wells’s works could be described as messy, quickly made, unconsidered, shoddy looking even—another deliberate contradiction, they are carefully considered. Wells deliberately uses available materials, things that already exist, transforming them into something different but recognisable, effecting a shaman-like transmutation that renders the commonplace altered. The works are disarming and approachable and people often feel compelled to interact with the objects, adding or modifying things simply because they do not hold the mystique of preciousness associated with high value. At the same time they are ambitious in their reach and attempt to hold the audience a while to unravel some thread of continuity, to try to intuit the formal language of these particular things. Among a general audience their appearance and arrangement invites comment, help, pity and perhaps even a lack of respect due to their low-grade finish and apparent material paucity. Their simultaneous approachability and opacity can be frustrating for viewers. Wells skirts the edges of the viewer’s patience and understanding, placing humble objects in what can be impenetrable arrangements, both welcoming and challenging the viewer to form a considered response to his installations.
Light Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.11 Light operates as both medium and a metaphor running through much of Wells’s work. In the performance work Art Teacher (2006) and in others such as The Complete Works of et al. (2006) and Some Small Towns Don’t Want to be Cities (2004) Wells used Plato’s Allegory of the Cave for its equation of light with knowledge, and by implication darkness with ignorance. The Allegory of the Cave recognises that light can be blinding and that it can play tricks, but also that there is knowledge to be found in darkness as Plato advocates getting the habit of seeing in the dark, or perhaps more accurately of seeing into the dark. This first requires the influence of light.
In these performances Wells tells a simple version of the allegory using it to bring people to a point in common from which he then introduces his idea of sideways gravity. Sideways gravity also extends ideas of perception and existence. The idea, which Wells has been working with for several years, involves the audience in perception altering activity in order to create a sense of cohesion, or even, briefly, community. Wells asks the audience to lie down on the floor and imagine that they are vertical, that if they look down at their feet they should imagine that there is nothing but space below them. Like Plato’s cave it touches on the mind’s eye or perception and how we can play with it as well as be tricked by it. Wells has created other situations with light that have brought people together if not in direct contact with each other at least with the knowledge that they are participating in a group activity, forming a dispersed, nevertheless, collective consciousness. The 1997 work Tower of light involved the complicity of building owners, tenants and cleaners in the Kodak building near Christchurch’s Cathedral Square in leaving the lights on overnight for one night.12 The project was publicised so word of its existence reached some people, passers-by may have noticed the completely illuminated building and wondered why, others still wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary. City of Light/Country of Darkness (2003) was a similar work made for the Wellington Fringe Festival where Wells advertised for people to leave their lights on and go out to nominated vantage points to view the city of light. These gentle interventions also create a diffuse yet collective awareness of others and a sense of being part of a specific group whose members are largely unknown to each other. This relationship of nebulous collectivity is the same relationship that Wells’s objects have to each other and to their audience and it is the same one that the players and audience of Inuit Time share. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato goes on to reassure that the ability to see in the dark will allow us to see ten thousand times better than those who have never seen the light, we will be able to see the tricks for what they are. In fact Plato says that those who have escaped the cave must return to the darkness of the den, armed with this sight, to bring this light to human affairs. Both Tower of light and City of Light/Country of Darkness contain the possibility that like the people in Plato’s cave the observers would, with the help of someone who has exited the cave and returned, in this case Wells, begin to ‘see’ differently. These two works rely directly the physical/material properties of light as well as its symbolic attributes. Another work, a work in progress, applies the properties of light as a symbol of knowledge and understanding. The work, something Wells has been developing for a number of years, hinges on the creation of a flagpole that involves the cultural partnership that makes up New Zealand—tangata whenua (people of the land, or Maori) and tangata Tiriti (people of the Treaty, all others). Wells’s idea is to make work, in collaboration with Maori carvers, that aims to bring together the tangata whenua and the tangata Tiriti in its creation and symbolism. The work involves using standard flagpoles that have special carved motifs affixed to the top. Each iwi will be represented by its own motif which will be on flagpoles around their region. The motif will be developed in consultation with representatives of the iwi as part of the project. Wells aims to create motifs that will become recognisable as being from particular areas and synonymous with a people. Together the different motifs will emphasise the collective diversity of the tribes that constitute the Maori people. Combined with the symbolism of colonial dominance and renegade activity around flagpoles Wells hopes the motifs will engender discussion and activate a more equal partnership.13 This work in progress is Wells’s most specifically idealistic and overtly political and most difficult to realise because it requires a deeper commitment and degree of complicity between its participants than the aforementioned works. Wells’s point with this complex work is to provide a focus and an activity around which a divergent, at times antagonistic and apathetic, yet irrevocably tied group of people can come together. Underpinning all of Wells practice is a restlessness coming from a desire to agitate born paradoxically out of a desire to participate. The methods and strategies used are those that best serve to do this. Through the fragmentation of the postmodern and the disruptiveness of
avant-garde Wells sets up situations governed by controlled disorder engaging both himself and an audience in deeper thought about what possibilities might be available to us as a community in the broadest sense. Nothing is sacred, he recognises the tropes of artist and audience, and asks that they be challenged along with any other assumptions that might be made in the given context. Plato, like Blake, Eco and countless others after him, recognised the value of contradiction and complexity. In the allegory of the cave he said objects that do not invite thought are those which can be sensed and known, whereas those that do are those which are simultaneous with opposite impressions. Wells’s project is to employ this simultaneous opposition in an ongoing inquiry into the mechanisms of culture.
William Blake The Marriage of Heaven and Hell c.1790, plate 3. Stefano Rosso (trans. Carolyn Springer) A correspondence with Umberto Eco Genova-Bologna-BinghamtonBloomington August-September, 1982 March-April, 1983 boundary 2, Vol. 12, No. 1. (autumn, 1983), pp. 1-13. p.2. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0190-3659%28198323%2912%3A1%3C1%3AACWUEG%3E2.0.CO %3B2-I (13/12/06) 3 email correspondence with the artist. 4 Wells quoted in Dan Arps ‘Office gossip bastard venting. An interview with Tao Wells’ Natural Selection issue 3: 2005 p.6.2 http://www.naturalselection.org.nz/archive/3/3.6_Dan_Arps.pdf . 5 See the articles by Louise Tulett, Emily Cormack and Daniel du Bern also in Natural Selection issue 3: 2005. http://www.naturalselection.org.nz/archive/3. 6 Wells’s list of rules 7 “Conceptual Artists are mystics rather than rationalists, they leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach” Sol LeWitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1968. Art_language, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1969. 8 Gregoire Muller The New Avant-garde: Issues for the Art of the Seventies New York: Praeger, 1972. 9 Ibid p.102. 10 Ibid p.107. 11 Plato’ The Allegory of the Cave’ from the Republic Book VII. 12 It is interesting to note that as a photographic company Kodak has a direct relationship to the use and manipulation of light. 13 In 1844 as an act of defiance against colonial forces Hone Heke chopped down the flagpole carrying the British flag that flew over Kororareka, for the first time. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hone_Heke and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flagstaff_War