From A Ramp Magazine, Issue 4.
James Finlayson, moving image lecturer and contemporary art skeptic, interviews vanguard art teacher Tao Wells about his latest exhibition, Radio and Television – which was made specifically with a Hamilton audience in mind.
James Finlayson [describing exhibition into video recorder]: In the entrance foyer there are three pictures, a pair of which appear to be grey, indistinct blurry photographs. One of them looks like an open door with lots of people lying on the floor doing things, I think... Then there's a big pencil drawing, about 1.6m square. It's called Matter by the looks of things, and it appears to be painted with blood – one would have to assume it's the artist's blood, well I hope so. And it's got some pencil line drawings of plinths with people standing or standing on their heads or lying down on them.
Moving through into the main gallery the first thing I see is a three-dimensional monopoly game leaning against the wall. [...] The rest of the exhibition consists of a stack of four TVs in a kind of diamond shape, with planks of old wood in between them. Only one of the TVs is oriented the right way up, then one's standing on its right side, one's upside down and one's on its left side, so they kind of go around in a circle. And the video that's playing on the TVs is kind of a curve in a road, which goes in a loop around the four TVs like a weird disjointed circuit going round and around. Then there's another TV which is slung from rope. It's tied onto the rope with a kind of a net arrangement with lots of knots; that's suspended from the ceiling with another wooden contraption made of timber and rope and gang nails and gaffer tape. And that's playing a fuzzy TV image which seems to be picking up a broadcast channel (showing an African scene at the moment). This work has a sign that says it's is designed to gently be pulled sideways and then released, which is what I did a short time ago and it's now swinging pendulum style. It's suspended on about 3-4 metres of rope so it's got quite a space to swing. So that's a description of what we're seeing – now what does it all mean?Tao Wells: What's another question? (Laughs.) Do you want to break it down a bit?
JF: Not necessarily. I think what I'm interested in hearing is why you make this kind of work.
TW: Well, I have a living language that I've been pursuing, supporting and nurturing, which has a lot of different bodies of work within it. Certain situations arise that produce this kind of work. It's like a solution to a problem. Whether that problem is aesthetic or mental or philosophical depends on what's inspiring it. So it's basically a very easy way of working, I really like the idea that work shouldn't be too taxing,
JF: The thing I like about what you've done here is the way you've used the timber. Originally I'm a farm boy and I like making things out of wood and the stuff you find lying around under the shed: you get a drill and a bit of rope and you bind it together and you make something. And it kind of works and sometimes it's a bit shonky but as long as it does the job that doesn't matter.
TW: That's exactly what I'm trying to do. I mean, I want things to work and I'm not that interested in going beyond that point. As soon as it works I like to just stop. I think a lot of people will keep going because they're insecure about the craftsmanship and they want to make sure all the gaps are filled because they've got the sense that it's got to be 'complete', it's got to be 'finished', but sometimes I think finished work distracts from the point of what you were actually trying to get the work to do.
JF: Though I have to say, I've seen quite a bit of video installation work which suffers immensely because they've tried to make it well and they haven't, but it looks like it should be made well!
TW: I agree.
JF: It ends up looking just plain terrible and it's always really disappointing. So it's nice to see an exhibition – or at least an artwork – like this one, with broadcast TV. You haven't gone and created a contrived reflection on something. And the way it swings gently, it's quite hypnotic. And the pendulum reference, I suppose that's about time and everything. I'm searching for meaning now!
TW: Those readings are there, they're possible, yeah. Some of the motivating factors for me were that this was a format that was available, I hadn't seen it before, and the idea appealed of maybe un-stabilising the television, which is such a bedrock in any room. It's so grounded, it's such a part of the furniture and the architecture.
JF: At the same time though that pendulum is not actually unstable – it seems quite rock-steady in its motion. It's swaying beautifully...
TW: And there's a little bit of dislocation there between on the one hand your eyes and brain, looking at the image, and on the other hand your body, planted on the ground. There's a theme here to do with the physicality of gravity and the way our heads process information without really taking in gravity as a factor.
JF: Then there's this other work, to me it's kind of a sculpture: a pile of TVs arranged with reference to what's playing on them obviously.
TW: Yeah, in the imagery on-screen there's a picture of 'what's around the corner' – you know, we wonder 'what's around that bend?' – and just by physically shifting the screens you can create the illusion of completing that shape. I do like the way you can physically show something fitting together though it doesn't actually fit together, it all becomes the same picture (our heads misbehaving again). But really I just kinda like the pictures: they create the idea of a funny dimension with the water in the middle and the land on the edges. Together the TVs make a globe, a funny, Dantean, old-school picture of the world.
JF: Oh yeah, I can see that. So it makes the water look like a little tiny pond when it's actually the ocean. And although the original image is just on a corner of the screen it turns into a circle through the way you've stacked the TVs.
TW: That kind of relates to this drawing here. Again there are four sides, and you've got people on each side, with the plinths as well, and they fill up all the space – kinda messing with perspective.
JF: And what's with the blood?
TW: That's just an accident really, I was working with some glass and I cut myself and I had the big piece of paper up ready to do some drawings and I just kind of wiped the blood off onto the picture. I thought it would work really well with this particular image. I thought the idea of blood, or matter, and the idea of filling up space had a kind of resonance – not like a real heavy 'Hallelujah!' but there's a little bit of something going on there...
JF: You can guarantee people are going to be looking for something.
TW: It's like these other images, the blurry photographs – they are a bit abstract but they are two semi-real events as well. Photographs offer a little bit of a quote on the realness of participating in these events.
JF: They look like the installation art that guy did in the seventies – Jim Allen? – videoing a lot of people getting baked and rolling around on stuff.
TW: I really admire some of the bold innovations back then – and it was really hard; I don't know if it's really hard to do that now. I did a performance that involved lying down on the ground; this work is related to it thematically in terms of gravity. The pictures are of people who came into the performance and were lying down on the ground reading out stories. It was nice to see people doing that. Like – oh my god, I'm being 'arty', but god, they look like some cult. That's what I thought when I saw the photos.
JF: I definitely had that cult feeling, and then I thought, 'oh that looks like that kind of installation art where artists get their mates to come along and roll around on the floor...'
TW: For me, that's totally what a lot of my work has been about. It's about these kind of cult art teacher types who are trying to carve out work that's not protected by academia but is actually creating authentic relationships with people who dig a certain sound, a certain type of music, a certain type of performance art, a certain type of realness to the work, whatever that is. Even though it was a particular time and place I think you still get a bit of rock and roll today. It's not Bill Holly or whatever his name was...
TW: ...Buddy, that's it... But I think it's interesting to explore and it's difficult. You know it when you see it done really badly. I'm always thinking, 'any moment now I could be doing it really badly'. And I'm always just waiting for someone to say 'you can't do that, you haven't got the authority to do that.'
JF: Well, I think you've passed the test.
TW: Oh come on. That's too easy. There must be something you're skeptical of.
JF: I was a bit skeptical about the blood. I thought [makes groaning noise]...
TW: But you can still be skeptical about it – my explanation was ridiculous.
JF: Yeah, it was just an experiment and to me it's got pure gimmick value – also for the people who are striving to find meaning, of whom many will come and visit the show. They're all desperately trying to make associations with what it means and with the other drawings.
TW: For me that's the underlying theme of this whole thing: the cult-ness of making this type of work which is supposedly semi-critical or questioning things. The person who is doing the questioning becomes a subject, becomes the instigator and focus point. And the cult-ness of the images, the blood, the participants – this central focus where it's all moving around something – is all a bit frightening. So while I've got a story to tell I'm also attempting to destroy the story. Or maybe not destroy it, maybe I'm a little bit overwhelmed by the idea that just making work eventually puts you into the position of being that person who stands up as the cult figure in your work.
JF: I don't know. I like the way you've used the wood. Old wood. It doesn't seem self-conscious or anything, it all fits together. I really like the construction. It appeals to me from a farm boy point of view.
TW: I like that, it's a good quote. The farm boy says all good. But he questions the...?
JF: ...The integrity of an artist who uses such a cheap gimmick as blood. I think that about covers it. Is there anything else you want to say?
TW: Yeah. Beware of the cheesy gimmick – it's still a dangerous subject matter that'll work you over. It might be kitsch but it's still doing a number on you.