Three Ways of Looking at Fiona Connor's Something Transparent (please go round the back) 1 & 2

by Lydia Chai

First published in Hue & Cry journal

You can't come in.

(1) At first it seems that the artist has made 14 replicas of the gallery's frontage and staggered them evenly within the gallery space. Meanwhile, viewers are refused access into the gallery and are told to go round the back.

(2) Actually, the installation comprises 14 replicas of the gallery's entrance, consisting mostly of glass panels and doors and therefore completely transparent: an installation that can be viewed at all hours, thus transforming the gallery into a public sculpture. It seems more like a commissioned performance than a ware to be sold. It is an artwork for the people and not really for the gallery owner.

But even this is not accurate.

(3) Actually, the artist has made the gallery itself into a larger-than-life kaleidoscope of sorts, therefore it is best peered into from the outside.

There it is. I knew it was more generous than it first seemed.

'Going round the back' has, for me, very specific New Zealand connotations of going directly to the back door when you visit your friends. I always thought of this as a reflection of the reserved nature of New Zealanders: only those in the know enter through the back, but once you're in, you are all in. In this way I feel that Connor's work does not restrict access at all – it opens its arms warmly, invitingly. She tells you the code straight up. Psst, go round the back.

Something translated.

A year after its inception, Connor's installation at Michael Lett, described above, was nominated for the Walters Prize and had to be reconstructed at the Auckland Art Gallery. Since the installation at Michael Lett was site-specific, there was nothing for it but to make a completely new work in order to capture the spirit of the original.

In Something Transparent… Part 2, gone is the glass and the kaleidoscopic infinity chamber of the original work. Connor's installation at the AAG does not have a 'back' or 'front' – it is more like a section cordoned off, creating cul-de-sacs in either direction around the gallery exhibition. Instead of doors, Connor has echoed the steel struts and girders above with wooden replicas of her own – complete with light fittings that illuminate the installation from below. Looking down upon the fake beams, one gets the feeling of being elevated above the room and shown a secret part of the gallery that only gallery assistants and electricians get to see. Remember when your dad used to carry you on his shoulders? You rose up to meet the world, and the world smiled at you.

Like its first incarnation, Something Transparent… Part 2 was a re-articulation of the architecture of the exhibition space and made the gallery itself the crux of the work, inviting viewers to stand back and regard, or to be more aware of the space around them.

(1) It is as if the Walters commission gave birth to a twin of the original.

(2) No, actually - the Walters commission elaborates on and complements the original.

Even this is not accurate. Let me begin again:

(3) The Walters commission is a portrait of a portrait. This is apt, given that the first version displayed at Michael Lett resembled mirror reflections of mirrors. Certain aspects of the original are accentuated in the later version: the deftly crafted replicas, the work's repetitive nature, and the see-through installation not to be immersed in.

The importance of dirt.

If the AAG version is a portrait of the Michael Lett version, then it is more Manet than Alice Neel. Artworks seem to clean themselves up a bit in large institutional spaces.

The Michael Lett version includes a broken panel that has been smashed into like an angry dream, the dangerous shards scattered but contained safely within the gallery enclosure. The mess gives it an edge, a comment on the privilege of access and its attendant frustrations. There is no such sense of disruption in the AAG version, however there is the cheeky gesture of making all the other struts and girders that are hanging above the works by other artists accomplices in Connor's own installation.

When Connor made the replicas of Michael Lett's gallery façade, she even copied the various paint smears left on the 'real' door handle and the scuff marks on the walls. Each mark varies slightly; in fact, each replica is approximate, as if the artist was practising perfecting a gesture. By contrast, Something Transparent… Part 2 looks cleaner, whiter. Pristine. Then one notices the sawdust sprinkled by the artist on the dummy rafters. The dirt makes it painterly, you see, and lends to the object a sense of time passing. Here, Connor emulates the slow accumulation of markings and makes a painting of time.

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Content (c) Lydia Chai