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EYECONTACT // CO-EXISTENCE : Harry McAlpine & Kohl Tyler-Dunshea

11 August - 28 August 2017

By Ellie Lee-Duncan

Happenstance & Purlieus
Curated by Laree Payne

Hamilton’s Skinroom Gallery hosted the Auckland artist couple, Kohl Tyler-Dunshea and Harry McAlpine, in an exhibition using both rooms of the gallery space. McAlpine’s large photographs and performative video works were showcased in the front room and dystopian in content; Tyler-Dunshea’s soft botanical watercolours were hung in the back room.

The delicate watercolours of plants and flowers in Tyler-Dunshea’s Purlieus captured me instantly. They are devoid of backgrounds, which at once focuses one’s attention solely on the details of each plant, but displaces them from a spatial context. Rather than sharp definition of their linear elements, the softness of the works creates a hazy indistinctness, which seems to be partially from the wet-on-wet technique that she utilised.

This botanical arrangement of flowers has roots in scientific observation, categorised into meticulous arrangements. They are also segmented with slits of negative space, mimicking tape marks such as one may find within a book of pressed specimens. These conventions transform the plants into objects of scientific examination. However, the lack of linear detail resists this interrogative gaze, preserving something mysterious about them.

The first, largest work we encounter is Rhabdothamnus Solandri Cuttings collected in 1826. The plant was named after the naturalist Daniel Solander, who was a member of Cook’s voyages to Aotearoa. In her research on him Tyler-Dunshea read The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks, who worked alongside Solander.

Banks and Solander were witness to a murder of a tangata whenua chief by their men, who died on the 8th October 1769. He was the first recorded death of a Maaori individual described in this journal. Banks and Solander, so careful in studying and naming plants, left this man unnamed. Instead, he was described only briefly, with more attention recorded to the weave of his korowai than his personhood.

The painting, therefore, layers the beauty of an appropriated and repainted image with the reality of the structural injustice of colonisation and the indifference of the recorders. Tyler-Dunshea discussed the overlaying tensions of the plants; “Plants harbour certain histories—they move throughout the world in the same way that people do… However, objectively they’re just plants, and it’s people who choose to project ideas onto them.”(1)

Florrilegia are books of pressed plants which catalogued all the noteworthy species on an estate, specifically ‘exotic’ or rare plants. Creating florilegia was a practice commissioned only by the wealthy and elite, as a form of sophisticated bragging of plant ownership. As such, even these ‘natural’ archives of individuals’ estates and gardens were complicit (if tacit) in histories of colonial violence and land confiscation throughout the British Empire. The plants would be removed from their site, from their original place in the biosphere and their larger native ecosystem, to the unnatural, inhospitible estates of the British elite, pressed between the bleached, papyrus-like pages of the family Florilegium.

Tyler-Dunshea’s series of works Environ #1-5 are painted florilegium compositions, inspired by postcolonial methodology and work towards recontextualising plants within their uncultivated natural niche. She sources her subjects within her property at Titirangi, near an area of bush reserve. One work, Environ #2, featured nasturtium, drooping spleenwort, totara, and babies’ tears. As such, these plants have largely grown wildly, and are assembled in these compositions as evidence of the operation of natural systems, not despite it.

Harry McAlpine’s Happenstance is concerned with a lack of predetermined reason, and the thought that everything we accept as our reality is only this way due to chance. It was an interesting following of daydreams to the extreme. The titles of the individual pieces are a gratifying combination of poetics, long sentences, and five-dollar words.

The Tyranny of Good Intentions, a large scale photographic print, shows McAlpine as the model wearing a wide transparent dog cone. Concerned with ideas of freedom of speech, he was inspired by the writings of John Stuart Mill, the Victorian feminist and philosopher. Mill’s criticism of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is envisioned in this piece as being forced to wear a see-through plastic cone. The restriction appears to be of benefit to the wearer (the animal) but removes movement and individual autonomy, enforcing control. Muted, the aesthetics reflect this in bareness and with an anaemic colour palette in beige and grey.

A series of three photographic prints, Three Bridle Designs for Orwell’s Dystopia shows a model wrapped in a length of plain cloth in three options—covering the eyes, mouth, and ears. The ear image had an almost religious quality, worn like a nun’s habit. Fittingly too, since the work was inspired by not just Orwell’s 1984 but also by Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This novel (now a tv series) describes a totalitarian regime, with control enforced through strictly specified uniforms to be worn by the citizens depending on their status and ‘function’. The handmaids are limited, like the model in the photo, by restrictive clothing which obstructs even their vision, like horse blinkers. It also reminded me of Aotearoa artist Zahra Killeen-Chance’s recent works Cream and Red, with similarly controlling garments.

Unfortunately, Three Bridle Designs was aesthetically and conceptually the weakest of McAlpine’s works. Literature and philosophy aside, I suspect I am not alone in tiring of the ‘see no evil / hear no evil / speak no evil’ trifecta. It’s overused in art. Personally I think an executed finish is important, especially if the visual strategy is soft minimalism (which it was). This piece generally lacked a polished touch, using a visible safety pin as a temporary fastening. The other works showed a dedication of intent, consistent from the concept to the execution. Three Bridle Designs did not; but we can’t all be perfect.

Luckily the projected video work, The Fortuity of Table Etiquette, was uncannily mesmerizing. In one continuous shot, a dinner party of four go through strange motions of eating. Each, in disquieting synchronicity, feeds the person on their right, one mouthful at a time. They then finally bring their plate to their face, licking it clean in unison. It embodied the notion that each culture has particular rituals, according to understandings of good manners and community. By examining this, McAlpine asks whether happenstance, tradition and normality provide good enough reasons to continue in a certain way? To quote Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, ‘Normal is what you are used to.’

Curated by Laree Payne, the exhibitions carved into ideas of ownership and access; the consequences of political decisions imprinted on both bodies and the land itself. Two visions of the world, coexisting in one bedroom.

(1) Conversation with the writer, Skinroom Gallery, Hamilton, 11 August 2017

Read the review on Eyecontact here.

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