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The politics of risk

The fine line between adventure and peril—in art, and in life

The fine line between adventure and peril—in art, and in life

Hamish Coney

Art

Adventure and its incumbent risk has been central to modernity's geographic and economic expansion.” So says the statement accompanying the 4th Auckland Triennial titled Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon currently on show until June 20.

It is a rather innocuous phrase but one that has tapped into the zeitgeist in this neck of the woods with a degree of acuity, and that demonstrates a refreshing desire to engage with the ‘real’ world as opposed to splashing around in that simulacrum, the art world.

It is a show that I urge the average punter to visit with a degree of caution as it doesn’t contain much that most of us will register as Art with a capital A. If you weave your way around the various locations of the exhibition (log onto www.aucklandtriennial.com for a full tour), you will probably see as many dodos as you will paintings and the initial reaction from many could be some head-scratching.

What you will see is a range of videos, installations, proposals and sculpture that responds to the central question of the exhibition: what is an acceptable level of risk for an artist in 2010? It is a metaphor that plays out in the daily lives of the humanoids as they crash red lights, devise Ponzi schemes, flash at one outside off stump, smoke or Google the word ‘freedom’ in China.

At the same time as this exhibition is taking place, New Zealand is quietly being delivered into the hands of international mining companies. The choice is simple: coal or kokako? Tuatara or titanium? Our government is asking us to take a risk by mining in our cherished national estate, which belongs, by the way, to you and me and our great-grandchildren and theirs as well. The risk is known: the destruction of our pristine natural environment. The reward is, we are told, well worth it: dollars, jobs and the holy grail of rising living standards … for the shareholders of Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and the like.

Installation by NZ artist Alicia Frankosich

Installation by New Zealand artist Alicia Frankosich at the Auckland Triennial’s Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon, courtesy the artist and Starkwhite, Auckland. Photographer Jennifer French, Auckland Art Gallery

In the art world they say context is everything and, strangely enough, so it is in the real world too. The context in which Last Ride in Hot Air Balloon places itself is asking of the artist and viewer to navigate this ‘new’ risk/reward paradigm manifesting itself in the 21st century as we contemplate what could be our last ride.

One of the key reference points for the show is to name-check the recent (or current, depending on where you are standing) global recession. “Today,” according to the curatorial statement, “we need to consider how to contend with a sustainable world—in global politics, in our environment, in our economies and in art's own production.”

And that is just the quandary we, in far-flung Godzone, find ourselves grappling with as the Barbarians demand our gold, coal, dairy farms and orange roughy.

Michael Stevenson will be familiar to Idealog readers as the artist who represented New Zealand at the 2003 Venice Biennale with the work This is the Trekka. He pondered the beginnings of globalisation as it manifested itself in New Zealand in the form of a not-very-good car cobbled together from the Czechoslovakian spare-parts bin and bartered for with some good old Kiwi apples.

His contribution to this triennial is the elegiac video work On How Things Behave, which charts the life of a hermit artist in Spain who lived and documented his philosophies for over 40 years in a precarious position on the seashore until his abode, way of life and actual life was swept away by a giant oil slick delivered to his door courtesy of a holed oil tanker run by the sorts of characters we may well one day invite to Aotearoa to drill for oil down the burrow of an unsuspecting tuatara.

In the lingo of the global M&A specialist or asset stripper, here is art that ‘thinks global and acts local’ and perhaps it behoves us to do the same.