One of Auckland’s more ambitious commercial spaces, Hopkinson Mossman has a strong international aspect to its programme and a fondness for staging group exhibitions that push curatorial agendas. This exhibition was a good example of both: an attempt to link three London-based artists – Runa Islam, David Noonan and Renee So – around a central idea. In ‘Busts’, the gallery’s press release-cum-essay declares, ‘images are built in pieces […] This durational aspect of each process enables the artists to distance their chosen forms from their origins, while at the same time revealing the necessarily mediated nature of representation and perception.’
Islam’s hypnotic 16mm film Meroë (2012), focuses on an ancient Roman bust – the head of an emperor found in the Sudan. As the film unfolds, Islam shows it from all angles; a complete view that drifts in and out of focus, not through bad camerawork but by overlaying footage of the original head with its replica. The copy was made by the British Museum, London’s giant repository of the empire’s broken remains.
Noonan’s large, silkscreened collages on linen (all Untitled, 2015) play with different cultural slippages. In each, he presents a single actor, often of an indeterminate gender, making him or herself up for a performance, overlaid with patterns from Japanese Furoshiki textiles. These are superb, beguiling mergers of cultural traditions and performed fictions that lurk in a no-man’s-land between photography and painting.
So presented two interrelated aspects of her practice. Despite their modest scale, a pair of black, ceramic busts, Bellarmine XIII and Bellarmine XIV (both 2015), set in motion a range of complex histories and formal plays. Referencing the ‘Bellarmine’ stoneware tradition, they are both vessels and faces, with lumpy attachments that could just as easily have been bunches of grapes as ancient beards. In the second strand, wry, machine-knitted images play similar games between sign and symbol, image and object. One of them, Fragile (2015), provided the show’s only pop of colour – a vivid, neon-orange ground and two broken wine glasses, like something peeled off a massive shipping crate. The wineglass stems entwine with bandy human legs; the first imagistic loop in a long spiral that, over several works in both two and three dimensions, sees them also morphing with boots, playing cards and Bartmann jugs.
So’s double entendres – drunken legs combined with broken wine glasses (getting ‘legless’), boots that turn into busts that turn into bearded faces – are extremely clever, and did, indeed, reference the show’s central motif of the bust. And yet they also felt a little out of place. The high seriousness of the curatorial brief left little breathing room for So’s complex visual jokes. The physical staging of the show had a slightly leadening effect, too. There were occasional moments when the immense possibilities for tension and exchange between the works were realized: a sight line from Islam’s film to a Noonan silkscreen, for example, which set up a charged conversation about the ways in which likenesses are less records of a reality than tools to create and disseminate fictionalized histories. But, more generally, a quiet, installational inertia negated much of the potential for sparks to jump between works. So’s and Noonan’s wall pieces were hung so as to minimize crossover noise while Islam’s film was projected in its own, darkened room. The only object that managed to break away from the walls was So’s Bellarmine XIII. Her Bellarmine XIV, a ceramic boot with a face, was set on the floor and pushed hard against the wall: clearly a nod to the fact that the work references footwear. However, as an object containing so much sharp humour and history, it deserved the chance to become much more of a conceptual obstacle; it was the joker in the pack that could have upset the room’s careful balance.
The best thing about ‘Busts’ was its sense of cultural dislocation – taking something from one place, smashing it up and reassembling it somewhere it hadn’t ever intended to be. There was the possibility for this to become not only the individual works’ content, but also the show’s polemical form. The spiky specificities of the works promised to deliver that. But, in the end, viewers were left waiting for the radical breakage – a moment where something about ‘the mediated nature of representation and perception’ might actually topple.