ONLY a handful of people knew my conceptual art-work, My Five Year Old Can Do Better Than That, featured in two 2012 art awards shows.

One of them was the 21st annual Wallace awards at the Wallace Arts Centre.

My text-based piece was installed in a modest salon some distance from the main galleries. It was modestly visited and a digital video took top prize.

The other big show was the Walters prize at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Auckland Art Gallery. Picture

Works selected for the Walters prize exhibition push the edge of the envelope. They can be challenging. Sometimes they exist mostly in the viewer’s mind.

In 2004, conceptual artist et al’s entry, restricted access, was so much about an idea, the artist didn’t exist.

2 Photographer Stephen Cleland
restricted access by et al. Picture by Stephen Cleland

et al was an imaginary collective and had nothing to say about the cyclone fencing, bundles of table-legs, shrink-wrapped texts, photographs of grey-green uniformed installers at work, noise, scrawls from the fringes of consciousness, and portaloos, which made up the installation.

The so-called collective’s silence drove the media mad. That noise was wittily echoed by the installation’s braying dunnies. Brouhaha was also seen in looped footage on a silent television of infotainer Paul Holmes as he blew a raspberry at the Creative NZ funding et al had received.

restricted access – detail

The portaloos in restricted access were based on an early work by the grandfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp. The Frenchman’s 1917 “ready-made” was an inverted porcelain urinal.

Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. Captions read Fountain by R. Mutt, Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, THE EXHIBIT REFUSED BY THE INDEPENDENTS
Fountain, 1917, by Marcel Duchamp. Picture by Alfred Stieglitz

Duchamp’s stance was: “it’s art because I say it is.” He titled the urinal Fountain, conceivably because it follows that, since it is upside-down, the stream of urine would flow upwards.

Modernists of the time rejected the work in the belief Duchamp was taking the piss. But because the Frenchman put art in service of ideas rather than aesthetics, Fountain changed the way we look at art, and possibly urine, forever.

Back in Auckland, my piece, and Kate Newby’s installation, Crawl out your window, pushed the boundaries of where a gallery ends and other environments begin.

Newby - big idea
Crawl out your window by Kate Newby. Picture from Big Idea

In Newby’s work, a blue concrete lahar led to a yellow passage which extended outdoors to make a virtue of the newish building’s yet-to-be-completed architecture. Snatches of text scrawled on the patio drew the viewer’s eye further outside. In the park beyond, two words were daubed on rocks.
Crawl out your window (exterior) by Kate Newby. Picture

Newby’s installation is more about an idea than an aesthetic. It lights up places in your brain regular art doesn’t reach.

photograph from the GAK website on stark white blogspot
Crawl out your window (detail) Picture from starkwhite blogspot

It is a mine field though. A great deal of crap goes by the name of conceptual art. I’ll admit, my modest installation is among it. The scale of it alone is shamefully apologetic.  What’s more, the my-five-year-old-can-do-better-than-that response was ratified a couple of years ago when Saatchi Gallery ran a contemporary art competition.

A picture of a penguin won first prize. It was painted by five-year-old Leilah Poulain.

Penguin by Leilah Poulain (5). Picture from Daily Mail

I aimed to address this kind of negative press with my installation. My piece was text-based and designed to be affixed to each of the four walls of a gallerette. It waved at Duchamp’s Fountain, and et al’s portaloos – but toilet humour didn’t just define my installation. It gave it a place to go.

After a dummy run in the Tairawhiti Museum toilets, after which I later emailed to explain my Banksy-like behaviour, I drove to Auckland.

In the visitors’ toilets at Auckland Art Gallery, where the Walters prize exhibition was held, I blu-tacked cards, each printed with identical, replicable blocks of text, to the four walls of the gallerette’s toilet cubicles.

Each card was headed My Five Year Old Can Do Better Than That.

Each card read:

“A man takes a bunch of his five-year-old’s crayon drawings and hangs them around the four walls of an inconspicuous gallerette. They rhyme but lack reason. It’s art, he says, because I say it is.

I’m no artist, he says. I’m what you’d call an ideas man.

Now consider this: the man did not hang up those drawings. There is no small gallerette. He described it though, in detail, to the media, the idea.

The ideas man withdrew so as not to exist. So that only his idea would exist, stand on its own, in people’s minds.

In fact, the ideas man did not exist at all. No, really. He was just an idea. I made him up.

One day, I’ll get someone to write this down. Duplicate it. Hang the photocopies around the walls of an inconspicuous gallerette.

Call it art.

Call it: My Five Year Old Can Do Better Than That.”

Toilet 1

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