[This text initially appeared in the catalogue for The 4th Auckland Triennial – Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon. Documentation is on the artist’s website.]
Alex Monteith is not a body at rest. A phone call is likely to find her en route to Blacks, Graveyards, Bluehouse or Indicators, to name a few favourite breaks. The waves call, the search is on. For Monteith, the landscape is not a field for picture-taking but a scene of action. How many artists would jump into the ocean from a helicopter during a shoot, as Monteith did for Red Session No.2 (2009)? Her monumental screen works eschew traditional documentary points of view to highlight the ‘techniques of the observer’, and to confront us with cameras and agents in motion.
Visiting the famous Taranaki surf break Stent Road, the casual viewer might only notice dark wetsuits against the grey water and sky; the soft, Sugimoto-like tonal gradations having little correspondence with the adrenaline surfers experience out in the ‘lineup’. Monteith’s Red Session No.2 brings the human activity to the fore, as the artist wrapped local surfers in red lycra surf vests and captured the scene in a multi-camera panorama shot in a single synchronised take with diegetic sound. The performance and resulting projection explores the technics of relations between human surfers and the Taranaki coast; between perspectives from land and sea.
In 1969, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the coast of Little Bay, Sydney in 1 million square feet of fabric. Their subtle intervention dislocated our sense of ‘naturalness’ and displaced the economic eye which consumes that wave-swept coast as ‘landscape’. This activist mode of discovery aligns with Donna Haraway’s conception of scientific research: the researcher intervenes in waves of force, creating ‘diffraction’. When waves spread out after passing through a narrow gap or across an edge introduced by the researcher, interference between the constituent waveforms becomes perceptible. ‘A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather, where the effects of differences appear.’  The physical intervention does not lead directly to an outcome, but is a way to discover the dynamics of a situation.
Similarly, Monteith’s use of the brightly-coloured surf-contest vest to experiment with aesthetic form would both lift and refract the performative dynamics of the freesurfing session at Stent Road in unforeseeable ways. The hegemony of the black wetsuit reflects the identifiably masculine, perhaps even Calvinist culture, which has historically dominated surfing . The bleak New Zealand sky, cold summertime water and gruff stares from suspicious locals at the average ‘serious’ surf break hardly seem to reflect the sport’s Pacific heritage. While deconstructing the dress code was not the focus of Monteith’s project, a lightening of mood was palpable as the red vests diffused through the lineup.
Relational aesthetics in its canonical form attempts to evoke a better world through the construction of a defamiliarised, utopian space of engagement. Monteith’s collaborative works share a certain elegance of form with that tradition, but her role as an organic aesthetician brings to mind Suzanne Lacy et al’s New Genre Public Art, where ‘communities’ are not imagined but are materially located in specific places and patterns of being together. Where the globalised biennale circuit inaugurates the cowboy practitioner of social sculpture, Monteith seems more at ease working in collaboration with communities she knows well. Her last ride will always be a return.
1 Jonathan Crary, ‘Techniques of the Observer’, October, no 45, 1988, pp 3-35.
2 Donna Haraway, ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, in L. Grossberg C. Nelson and P.A. Treichler, Cultural Studies, Routledge, New York, 1992, p 300.
3 Daniel T. Jenkins, ‘A Protestant Aesthetic? A Conversation with Donald Davie’, Journal of Literature and Theology, vol 2, no 2, 1988, pp 153-162.