[This text originally appeared at EyeContact.]
In his essay ‘On Collecting Art and Culture’ James Clifford explains how the classification of objects by collectors is doomed to be a temporary exercise, as objects do not remain in the value regimes of either artistic masterpiece or cultural artefact, but shift between them over time and space. For Foucault, the emergence and decline of stable discourses about objects is precisely the source of their aesthetic power: in the modern paradigm the most powerful artistic experience involves something we thought we knew slipping from our grasp, or something felt which is about to become knowable. Meanwhile, objects themselves hover ambivalently, resisting our attempts to put them in their place.
Luke Willis Thompson’s Yaw presents us with a remarkable, disturbing figure in such a transition. As we enter the gallery a life-sized sculpture of a hunched figure faces away, revealing himself to be a black man in an ill-fitting suit and hat, dressed in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy. He is truly yawing, a ship who has strayed far off course here in Auckland/Tamaki Makaurau, where men of black African descent do not figure in a national story. Wherever this man is supposed to be headed, it is not this city. On closer inspection, his bent posture could be the sculpture frozen in the moment of an entertaining dance, but this possibility is suppressed by Thompson’s precarious balancing of an empty shallow bowl in the open hand. Not only is he a long way from home, but he is skint. He invites the usual distancing comment directed to beggars: “That poor bastard.”
Alone in the gallery with nothing else to look at, our distance cannot be maintained, so he has our attention and his story unfolds. Copied in France from a US sculpture, the figure arrived to an Auckland antique dealer in the early 1970s, entering New Zealand at the same time as a large number of Pacific migrants recruited for economic purposes. On arrival, the figure was placed outside the store to hustle for business on a street corner near the young artist’s then home. After suffering increasing physical abuse on the street, the figure has come to be kept indoors, now on display behind a caged front window. Yet even though he was now inside the store, he was not for sale, continuing to perform his role as the iconic identifying chattel of the antique dealer, a differentiating function for which no money can substitute. He is truly performing the labour of identity, indentured with a debt that cannot be repaid or bought out. The artist’s gesture begins with a three week rented holiday for the figure in RM gallery, where perhaps a certain amount of aesthetic care can be offered as respite from his usual labour. This additional displacement by the artist recalls the efforts among communities and museum workers for the repatriation of cultural artefacts and human remains: this body does not belong here, it should be sent home. But as a copy of a generic stereotype itself many centuries downstream of the founding of the European slave trade, and now on the other side of the world, the figure has no clear “home” to go to.
After a while, the man begins to reveal suffering from not only living rough on the streets, but in the brutality of his creation. In keeping with the tradition of blackface, everything about this man has been designed to caricature, subdue and dissipate the power of the black body in the guilty aftermath of slavery. The nameless, presumably white, sculptor haunts the work with unimaginable cruelty: bowing the black man down before the viewer; slowly kneading the man’s lips into an exaggerated pout; moulding his pants into a decrepit sag; and most disturbingly, leaving sunken hollows in the eyes where the irises should be. A sad political figure in his native habitat of the store, the white cube directs attention to the human singularity of his making and being: he becomes less a political symbol of racism and more a monstrous example of the impossibilities the history of racialisation leaves for an ideal interpersonal community we seek in the art world. There is simply no easy way to be with this man. The artist’s installation strategy engages political and social issues through the modality of the personal and ethical: the plate being offered by our figure bears a Nazi-era stamp on its base identifying it as being from porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal, whose Jewish founder was forced to leave the business and became exiled while the company was “Aryanised” (though retaining its Jewish name) in the 1930s. There is no interpretive text to help the viewer to “get” the connection, but gallery staff have been instructed by the artist to share with interested visitors a moving story about the artist’s father that shows this juxtaposition of figure and object in a new and painful light.
When the art historical brain catches up to this racialised figure in the gallery, one is immediately put in mind of Michael Parekowhai’s works Poorman, Beggarman, Thief (1996) (more easily remembered as the Māori figures wearing the badge “Hi, My name is Hori”); and the 2003 Kapa Haka series of Māori security guards, recently given a reworking in the 2011 Venice Biennale. Those works cunningly (and rightfully) asserted the presence of Māori in the public-commercial sphere through the Warholian strategy of the multiple, while retaining the European individualist authorial signature of the “hand-crafted.” This mark of authorship, further enhanced by the artist’s use of his immediate family as models, turns out to be essential for maintenance of the significant exchange value Parekowhai’s works carry today. The aesthetic complications of this strategy are perhaps most palpable looking back to Parekowhai’s 1994 work Mimi, a series of carved replicas of Duchamp’s Fountain. At the time, the work seemed like an assertion of Māori (and thus New Zealand) relevance in the Euro-American history of contemporary art; while also a statement in favour of “crafted” sculpture that would “keep it real” in the no-bullshit Kiwi manner. From today’s vantage point, one can see how the art market has enthusiastically consumed Parekowhai’s interplay of cultural difference (differentiation) and individual authorship (property), with the finish and craftsmanship of the works securing the viewer in their position of financial and aesthetic appreciation.
In Yaw, Thompson seems to take the opposite strategy, restoring the power of Duchamp’s ready-made gesture. Thompson has not even been able to buy the figure at the centre of the exhibition for himself, let alone circulate it for financial gain – the trajectory of the figure is away from the market, and hopefully away from comfortable display. We are increasingly used to stories of such limits on circulation taking place in the world of indigenous cultural materials, among communities stereotyped in the West as non-cosmopolitan, pre-modern, and resistant to capital accumulation. This is why Parekowhai’s infiltration of a race- and class-bound artworld’s mode of circulation creates such useful openings. Thompson’s gesture, however, is much more radical, both in aesthetic and cultural terms. Thompson finds in this generic object of blackface minstrelsy an absolute singularity, one that potentially speaks to every instance of the commodification of race. Refusing the shelter a ‘cultural identity’ might provide in the Parekowhai/90s-Peter-Robinson fashion, or any explanatory narratives that justify the work, Thompson’s courageously bare presentation of this object leaves us decomposed by undigestibility of the figure for either cultural edification or capitalist consumption. We are ourselves “thrown off course”, yawing against the bitter squalls of power that punctuate the winds of the global multicultural economy.