Criptic Critic Conscience and Known for it

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dunedin Art Lecture Transcript - Biting the Hand that Feeds - " Take Your Hand Out of My Mouth" Tao Wells



Transcription   

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Gilbert May, Academic, Curator, DJ, Journalist, Editor, Artist

Welcome, ( inaudible ) Tao Wells is here in Dunedin, and has been all this week, about to show at Rice And Beans, on Stuart St. His reputation, proceeds him, everywhere he goes, I imagine, that's a threatening and  important part of his practice. I remember talking to him on the radio, about (inaudible) I remember talking to Tao on the radio about six months ago regarding his show called the Wells Group or project Wells group as part of a letting space, in Wellington. 


And the letting space project if you don’t know anything about it, I’ve been overtly critical about, because it seemed to represent art being news and  a crutch for the gentrification of real estate property, and the raising of  real estate ( inaudible) For me art projects into abandoned real estate in Wellington, central Wellington as a way of making that real estate look attractive again, to those that own it and giving our artists an opportunity to show, and in that conversation Tao said, “you’ve always got to bite the hand that feeds” and I was quite struck by that and slightly worried given that he had a Rice and Beans (May’s Gallery) Show, what that might mean. But I think that that notion, biting the hand that feeds, is particularly deeply related to this reputation that proceeds him, and I think, I hope that we might get some insight to how that functions as part of Tao’s practice.  Indeed welcome. 

Tao Wells, Community Conceptualist.

Thank you, great intro, thanks for coming. My practice came out of necessity. I was a class representative, I represented at art school and I was asked to take forward some concerns, that the class, the photography class had to the head of the school. This was in 1993. And because I took this, these concerns to the class, and I was representing the class, I for some reason received  repercussions for that, from the school. 


I was then, my body my years work received an E and I was pushed out of the school. They would not come to my meetings etc etc, and that was a real shock to me, because I thought you know, as an out spoken young person, I thought why would they just hand me this radical credential (laughs) Ooh I got kicked out of art school, that’s so hot, that’s so hip (laughs) but there was of course another thing going on there, I mean this is the absolute silencing of my democratic role in that procedure of trying to bring attention to the administration some concerns that the class  actually had.

 So that was a real Whoa, ok. And I’ve basically found myself in that position, well I’ve carefully cultivated that position from then on. It took me a couple of years to get over that, I was quite young, twenty, twenty one at the time, I took two years off, well did a B.A (half ) on the side and worked in a hospital laundry department, that was good. And then I decided to go back, this time I had something up my sleeve.  And I wanted to show you what that was because I knew that I was going to get the same treatment, I had a little mark above my head, but regardless of what they were going to do to me, I knew I was going to do this work here. 

Yeah so imagine this, I’ve gone back to art school, no one wants to have a bar of me, don’t want to have anything to do with me, so I align myself with one radical teacher in the school, Andrew Drummond, and I saw him twice in two years.  The first was just a spitting match, the second was when he invited my to show this work, to the entire sculpture department, in order to ridicule my lack of understanding about the nature of sculpture. I stood there quite happily taking his bile because I knew it was a good work and I had moved the discussion past his little pasture of students and into the broader public and I think again this is a theme I’ve continued to pursue that of going straight to the people.

Bypassing the priests and the administrators of institutions, working with some as well, I mean it’s not a clear divide, but definitely making sure you are trying to talk with people who normally don’t want to listen to what you are saying. I think that is where communication becomes really sharp is when you actually succeed at talking to someone who really doesn’t want to listen to what you are saying. But anyway I had this idea up my sleeve, it took two years to pull off. This is the channel one; this is budget night 1997,  channel one news. 



                   



Damn, maybe we’ll just watch the visual and I ‘ll tell you what she’s saying, what’s he saying. “He’s a man on a mission, in the name of art, “oh hello, can I leave a note on your light switches” Like any creation it’s labor intensive. A thirteen storied office block this is the final reminder for its workers to leave the lights on “uh oh, they have forgotten, this is not good”. Obligatory Pink Floyd sound track, overlaying this montage. “I was reading a book by Paul Sherbert, where he talked about cities of the future would lend enchantment to the night with towers of glass and steel. 


So I thought I’d take that idea and just see where the glass and steel ideas of the future actually existed now. He wrote that around the turn of the century around the 19th century. And so I was looking for where enchantment was, where was it? “I’ve tried to unite thirteen different businesses under one artistic vision” It took two years to write that. Its observers may think the occupants are working late, “what’s going on with that building” and then this guy says, “oh all the lights are on”. “Expensive though” “ I’m paying for all this, It’s costing out of my pocket about hundred and forty dollars, compared to painting on canvas that’s pretty good value”. Shine on you crazy diamond, pink floyd, I’m crazy, I’m nuts. “6am and the artworks still shining, a work of art while the city sleeps, Jane Jennings, One network news.” 

So if I could just go back to the last image there, so what we’ve got here I don’t know if you can see this, it’s a Kodak sign on the top, so all of these became photographs, and what was fascinating about this building was it had three different lighting systems, your yellows your blues your slightly greens and because of the style of architecture you could look right into each office, working space you could see the photos of the family on the corporate desk, you know basically they were all corporate lawyers in that building, which is why it took two years to get, because the top floor refused to participate, even though that the building owner agreed, and that was a coup in itself, and that came down to some very skillful people writing a beautiful letter, that just had some real good charm about it, I didn’t write it.

Audience


Sorry, you were working as a cleaner?

Tao Wells


No, no I just lived in the area, I live just around the corner. Yeah I was very interested in the architecture, it became a black, 2001 obelisks, yeah monolith, then at night it would reveal these little scenes and I was studying photography at the time, and one of our original complaints was that the photography department was  operating from this incredibly old fashioned idea of photography. Everything had to be printed and mounted on paste board and things like that. And I was like What! 


Photography is drawing, you know it’s just another pencil, in you nap sack, why should we be treating it like some turn of the century salon painting, I don’t know. It was very strange. So I used this as a wedge to just remind them, that yes, this is photography it’s sculpture, it’s an event, it’s site specific, it’s political, it’s on budget night, it’s about massive art, it’s the largest sculpture in the southern hemisphere, there are all kinds of angles there, that were opening up doors, not trying to shut down and worry about, is it obeying the traditions of some certain old fashioned boring thing.  So I had this up my sleeve, I went back delivered it and I was out of there.

Audience

When you say you were “out of art school”, do you mean you graduated?

Tao Wells

Yeah, (laughs) yeah and then I went back, and did my masters,

Audience

Hang on

Tao Wells

This is undergrad, at Canterbury University

Audience

This is after you’ve been kicked out

Tao Wells

This is after I’ve been kicked out,  I’ve gone back, I call this the year I peaked, 1997. And in some ways it’s true. So you can see here, this is the shows I’ve had since. Quite a few galleries there, I’m quite happy to talk about anything, but if there’s anything anyone wants to see I can do that as well.

Audience

Do you think you specifically chose a very conservative art school. as a foil for your ideas, I mean if you’d chosen a fairly radical art school would your ideas have had any currency?

Tao Wells

yeah, what is a radical art school?

Audience

I don’t know.

Tao Wells

yeah.

Audience

Did you deliberately choose that with conservative values

Tao Wells

In a way, I knew that, well the way Canterbury was marketed to me as a high school student, was that it was a place where it had a kind of intellectual rigor, it had a tradition of debate and that’s something definitely that I was attracted to as oppose to Elam, supposedly more commercial. However I didn’t find that.  When I got there.

Audience

Right, right.

Tao Wells

I found that they didn’t want to debate and what it had were Masters, who would walk their departments, literally with a cane, you know if you step out of line, or if you didn’t buy the most expensive brush, that means  you didn’t care enough, bam!

Audience

(laughs) right

Tao Wells

I was shocked, because I thought art school, you know I busted my balls to get into art school. And put up with a lot of shit as you do at high school to get there. And then to arrive and be told not only that 30% of you are to be culled so trying to make friends, trying to hang out, then suddenly that friend becomes your enemy because you have to compete with them to get a place to stay in the school. Not only that, the atmosphere of “we’re all in this together, and lets question and experiment” was gone. It wasn’t that, it was about maintaining positions. And that was a real shock. And it’s still a shock today, I mean I’m like a one man band asking “what are art schools doing?” Saying it, is a great test first of all,  it’s that “how can you dare complain when it is so hard for them to exist at all”. And I’m saying, “well, you can”.

Audience

Do you think that has enriched your art practice, that combative, conservative...

Tao Wells

That’s why I wanted to bring up this, is that this combative part of my practice is just a part of what I do.

Audience

yeah

Tao Wells

It’s definitely the part that gets me riled up, but there’s a lot of meditative practice as well. For example, I’ll just jump into something here.  Quiet, contemplative, grand tradition of landscape. They are bed sheets. What amused me is that I organised to do this show on the same night, the same time as I did the Wells Group, which was you know, dirty nasty politics. 


That’s a flannel sheet, these were second hand sheets, sewn together professionally, this is four meters by two and a half meters,  this is flannel, this is like a polyester mix, this is stained, bits of fluff, so there’s a taught, tension to this surface that is to die for. I don’t know if you’ve had the privilege of having your bed made or when you go to a hotel and have a clean starched sheet, there’s a joy, there’s an immediate tactile, bodily sensation and intellectually you can relate to that taught surface. Then there’s the whole tradition of the vertical horizontal, Jackson Pollock etc etc the tradition of taking a horizontal and putting it on the vertical position of painting and the way that this has been written about is, is it painting or is it sculpture, or installation? 

For me it was simply Gambia was an artist co- op that I belonged to for a few years, and it was a very specific room, it was a very small room and what I thought was quite funny, was that these were so huge, that there was not enough room to hang them all so it was like I was storing in storage space and they were to wait in there. While at the same time I kind of played on this idea of these grand landscape paintings, I’ll show you some of the gesture versions. They were all landscape paintings of Mt Taranaki where I was living at the time, (laughs) and I actually did them plein air,  which means actually facing the mountain and..

Audience

(laughs)

Tao Wells

Yeah, If you go on to youtube, if you go on to gambia, there’s clips of me performing both the painting and the installation. There you can see the gestures, really they’re wild expressive paintings. I made. They were about not painting the top of the mountain as a mark of respect to Māori ideas of that this was sacred (pointing to the top of the painting). The idea of not depicting something, because you want that mystery, you need to not know, the top of the mountain. 


So I concentrated on the body, this floating mass of the body and you can see again here. And when I do paintings,  I always do them in a series of ten and I really like that idea of repeating something and trying to get it completely done. Try to get it all out within certain limits and then that’s it. When it’s not it, I still want to do another ten, but that’s alright I can do that (laughs), maybe I’ll do a green series or  something, but it’s a really nice limitation to give yourself, to give to myself. And they were great fun to do. And I painted them on this hill, over looking where I was living, and directly in front of the  mountain and the sea behind me,  and I’d always do it at sun set, and I’d have all the dog walkers walking by and their children, it was a great time. 

But the reason why I started doing them was, I did this painting, bored one day, I made a little movie about it, again it’s on youtube. And then with my partner, we were both starving on welfare, because when you are a couple you’re treated as one financial unit and we were suddenly receiving two hundred dollars less a week and a, you can’t eat on that. So she said look why don’t you go out into the public and start painting scenes and try and pop one off, do one of those a day.

Audience

(laughs)

Tao Wells

   And I was like that’s such a good idea, but I’d need rather larger balls or ovaries to do that, it’s very performative. So, by the time I actually whipped up enough guts to do it, I was (laughing) in this ridiculous scale and you know, I had all these intellectual pretensions about what it was all about, and I pretty much lost the audience at that stage,

Audience

(laughs)

Tao Wells

It wasn’t like cute little scenes of the city life, that would have probably been more...

Audience

Did it work? Did you manage to hock some off as you say.

Tao Wells

I sold this entire show on trademe.

Audience

(laughs)

Tao Wells

The name of the show was Humiliated, because again it was quite humiliating doing them in a way, it was that humble public performance, but also I knew that no one was going to understand (inaudible), and also at the same time, I knew the show was going to be at the same time as the Wells Group, where I knew I was going to get absolutely crucified for. So I knew, I put them on trademe and I’m not bought, I’m not bought by any collections, any institutions, any private collections (laughs), they have my work. They’re storing it, they just look after it. They don’t buy and they don’t commit, I’m not part of the infrastructure, I’m not part of the economics of New Zealand art, and that, that could either be my down fall, (laughs) or  I can actually use that some how. Because somehow my work is not about money. And that’s kind of interesting to me, that there is another kind of discourse going on here. Maybe it will be about money, but at the moment it’s not.

Audience

How come you put them on trademe, is that like a discourse...

Tao Wells

Well I put them on trademe, it was two things. One here I was making all this noise, normally that is a desirable thing for an artist but no one is buying my work. So lets have a look, here’s some real cool paintings, I think they’re amazing obviously, they fit into a lot of interesting ideas, let’s see what the market thinks, right, it’s an option. Four dollars. I sold all ten paintings for four dollars.

Audience

Four dollars each?

Tao Wells

No, four dollars that’s it.  So I was humiliated, however I fobbed them off. I finally sold something, so...

Audience

Do you know who bought them,

Tao Wells

yeah

Audience

and so do you know what their motivation was?

Tao Wells

Fairly noble actually, they were, they were fans.

Audience

right, ok

Tao Wells

They were stoked. 

Audience

(laughs) Did you have to pay for postage?

Tao Wells

Well that was the trick, that was why, one of the reasons why I had to do it all of a sudden and put it on trademe, because the gallery closed. I lived in New Plymouth I was broke, I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t get there. They were huge. One of the main things about these works is that they were actually sculptural, very sculptural. A lot of the work you could see through to the frame and the framing was insane, I had a skills saw and hundreds of dollars of wood that I had ‘stolen’ and I just crazily, well I did taper the edges, they had a slight proper painting frame, but they were rough and wobbly, and crooked but solid. They had a really physical theater back drop kind of do it yourself style...

Audience

If you sold them... 

Tao Wells

I couldn’t, I couldn’t  transport them. That was my problem. I was stuck. The gallery had shut down and what was I going to do.  And everyone had gone overseas and I was not in Auckland and I couldn’t get to Auckland so I had to.

Audience

Did they stay in Auckland?

Tao Wells

Yeah they’re in Auckland

Audience

Whereabouts?

Tao Wells

I dunno.

Audience

If you sold them for four dollars do you think the person who bought them bought them for the wood or the art ? (laughter)

Tao Wells

Yeah the wood is worth a lot more. Let alone the sheets.  All I know the guy that brought them is a friend of a guy who is bit of a fan of mine. It was his flatmate. So he knew about a lot of the discussions, that were being had. And... that’s enough for me. I mean it pisses me off, I am humiliated, this work to me, should be feeding me for a few years, but instead...

Audience

Is that the age old debate though, with paintings, that’s existed for hundred and hundreds of years, I should be getting fed but I’m not. And when I do I’m dead.

Tao Wells

It's not really a debate when it's your reality

Audience

In some ways you are feeding off the rejection, aren't you? (laughs) I mean that’s part of your position isn’t it.

Tao Wells

I think there’s an interesting idea there, that I’ve become a symbol and I maintain a symbol of rejection. I play out a role, of the court jester, that doesn’t have to be successful because they maintain the position in the mechanism,  of not being successful.

audience

So if someone paid a hundred thousand for them, you’d be eating mighty well, but your art career would be ruined.

Tao Wells

I don't agree. That’s the tragedy of what’s going on here, where people say well you don’t want to sell your work, I mean look how crappily you made it, 

Audience

(laughs)

Tao Wells

And I say, are you kidding me. I’m selling it, I’m selling this.
I fucking..

Audience

Do you  think, that if you had put a  hundred thousand dollars on it people would know ( inaudible) ..

Tao Wells

I do put a hundred thousand dollars on it

Audience

oh do you?

Tao Wells

yeah, it was priced P. O . A. And before this I had a drawing show with three thousand dollar drawings.

Audience

Were they selling

Tao Wells

Nah.

Audience

laughs ( inaudible)

Tao Wells

(inaudible) Here’s the thing I didn’t sell, and yet I’ve received government funding, I’m written about, I’ve got all this kudos,

Audience

yeah yeah

Tao Wells

But no one buys my work. Is that my fault, am I failing?

Audience

No

Tao Wells

Or what? I love, you can you detect this faint yellow glow, this gold glow of this stained sheet. I love that.

Audience

laughs

It’s kind of disappointing that you can have a show at Peter Mcleavey’s, but you can’t find someone to buy your work, actually.

Tao Wells

Yeah. Well I write about this. That’s a very good point, let’s have a look at that show. I can talk about that.

Audience

People bought your book

Tao Wells

I did sell a book. Here we are at Peter’s. Now this is this installation that we actually collaborated on. It was just going to be a book launch. It wasn’t going to be a proper show. But then we collaborated on this floor work, and then it turned into a proper show, he said that, now I sound like I am  worshiping at the alter of Peter but the problem is, the way that he works is so personal, he draws you in to this, he’s like the pope, you’re the cardinal wanting to take his position. So you have to love the guy, and I do I really respect his personal rapport with people, and he will, no matter who you are, he will make time for you and try and sell you some art.

Audience

laughs

Tao Wells

because this for him, art is a communion or something, it really is. It is something he knows, he needs. If he doesn’t have this he gets depressed, well he still gets depressed but his gallery is like a shrinks couch slash tomb of the (inaudible) saint, he lies on his couch and he’s like in his element where he is protected from the shit of the world. So it is a holy kind of thing for him art. I really appreciate that myself, if you go to my show at Rice and Beans, I’m not overtly saying but I am asking you to take your shoes off before you go into the space. I like that threshold of moving from just the everyday into a place where you are kind of tip toeing. 


So this is something he printed up, I didn’t. This is something he associates with me, I don’t know if anyone knows this movie, I highly recommend it.  Ok and what we ended up showing is this little book, and my friends bottle works, which I won’t get into right now. Now these books are, actually I probably have one I can pass around, their titled Art Aristocracy, they’re little pass port like books, and it is about this grand hypothesis that I am working on, about how aristocracy is actually the natural birth right of everybody. Ok.

Audience

laughs

Tao Wells

In a democracy we all have the ability to be

(end of tape) 






























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