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Dreams of a future past
AKA Blade Runner Chic
Jade Townsend’s installation Shopping and Other Rituals draws on both the old and the new, bringing to mind the glitter and gold of fairytales (in which mirrors aren’t to be trusted, and gold is a curse as often as a reward) but also the highly polished surfaces and plastic geometry of the best sci-fi spaceship interiors. References to current and imagined technologies bubble up in my brain: the sharp-edged row of plinths and LED lights make the gallery feel like some futuristic computer server room, and the plinths share the cold severity of the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I’m also reminded of the ‘anomalies’ in the Strugatsky Brother’s Soviet novella Roadside Picnic, the debris left behind by an alien intelligence, beautiful and sometimes dangerous fragments whose true nature can only be guessed at. In this way Shopping and Other Rituals is literally a multi-dimensional work, accommodating alternate realities and timelines, as well as critiquing consumerism and desire in the present. To me, it seems to sit at the intersection of fantasy and technology – which is precisely where science fiction comes into being.
I notice, though, that if I’m using science fiction as an interpretive lens it’s not current science fiction that I’m making connections with – I’m not thinking about the future from the here-and-now but the future from the past. And what I think of more than anything else is Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Something about the lights, the colours, the surfaces of Jade’s work – all of it seems to find a relationship with this postmodern neo-noir. In Blade Runner the city of 2019 Los Angeles lurks beneath a polluted golden haze, inspired by what Ridley described as “Hong Kong on a very bad day”. The heavy folds of shadow, the glow and shine of wet plastic under neon lights, the crowds, the skyscraper-sized advertisements… the future is here and it’s dark, dirty, and hyper-capitalist. The extreme extension of this mega capitalism in the Blade Runner universe is the construction of artificial humans, or “replicants”, whose very being is defined by their existence as commodity. They are super-humans, the best product on the market, and made with a four year life-span (roughly the same as a smartphone). Containing their own built-in obsolescence, they are also implanted with other people’s memories, allowing these artificial beings to have dreams and desires of their own. The replicants challenge what we consider to be ‘authentic’, much like the designer fakes and luxury knock-offs that piqued Jade’s interest during her residency in Beijing.
The city of Los Angeles (Blade Runner)
Blade Runner’s future-imagined-from-the-80s hovers between the weirdly timeless, the sometimes dated, and occasionally prophetic. Above all, it’s the look of the film that appeals to me, the detail and density within each shot. It presents us with an overcrowded and cosmopolitan city, heavily influenced by Chinese culture, in which the common language is a form of Esperanto that mixes elements of Japanese, German and Spanish. It’s clear that Jade’s interest in text and translation finds an analogue in this world of illuminated information, with street signage that incorporates logograms (characters) alongside alphabetic scripts, advertising iconic and at times anachronistic brands. This neon overload cuts through the dark and rain-soaked environments, making them feel both familiar and strange. The movie’s production design is justly famous, and was executed on a relatively modest budget (although they did spend $100,000 on neon lights). An on-set ethos of recycling meant that a lot of set pieces and props were used again or in different ways, which mirrors part of Jade’s process in creating Shopping and Other Rituals, together with an exacting attention to detail.
I can see the surface-level points of contact between this piece of sci-fi cinema and Jade’s carefully constructed aesthetic, but it’s also in the air and under the skin. Retro-futurism sits just under the surface of the gleaming mirrors and it’s selling you a double pass to its own brand of nostalgia and potential. At its heart, retro-futurism is about the tensions inherent in technology, and between past and future. It allows us to focus in on moments of change, the ways in which things might have been different – or the prophecies that have now been fulfilled. Shopping and Other Rituals can be read as a shrine to retail, to the rituals of touch, sight, and smell; and to shopping as an embodied experience rather than one mediated through a screen. It’s a monument to the present moment and the passing of one kind of experiential interface with the world to another, while also critiquing a system that generates ‘luxury’ goods without value – objects which, like the replicants, are denied a value beyond their limited lifespans and then discarded without thought for the consequences.
At times Shopping and Other Rituals feels like it presents us with the dream-life of objects themselves, caught between their own alienation and potential. Jade’s use of the chocolate box liners to line the floor of the gallery, which she collected from recently closed department store Kirkcaldie and Stains (wonderfully and accidentally crunched by many of our visitors – that’s one way to bring embodiment into the work), preserves a fragment of history but also transmutes it into something beyond itself and its original purpose. This is retro-futurism at its best and most critical, rescuing and revealing the potential of things at the moment they become obsolete, rather than fetishising lost objects and pasts for their own sake.
Posted by Martha van Drunen
Artist Jade Townsend talks about here latest installation Shopping and Other Rituals, on at Pātaka until 15 May 2016.
Curated by Martha van Drunen.
Video by Karl Tiley, Porirua City Council.
PĀTAKA: Kia ora Sam, congratulations on your Pātaka Friends Art Award and residency, great to have you here. What impact do you think awards and residencies have on an artist’s practice?
SAM: For me, I think the biggest thing I’ve come away with is a bunch of exciting new relationships. It’s really wonderful to to have met so many new amazing people in my local art community. I actually feel more like I really am part of this community now, and the idea of working and showing my work is no longer so intimidating. I feel like, in my head at least, those doors (that I suppose were actually open all along) aren’t so scary to walk through now. And obviously a lovely boost in confidence, validation that the work I’m doing has something that others can respond to.
PĀTAKA: What’s your connection to Porirua?
SAM: I moved here around eight years ago, when I moved in with my partner. He already lived out here. We live in Titahi Bay with his two beautiful sons (half the time) and three silly chickens (all the time). I love it here.
PĀTAKA: What can you tell us a bit about the subject matter in the drawings you are currently working on? What made you choose this line of inquiry for your work?
SAM: I love bodies! I especially love the bits of bodies that aren’t so popular in our culture right now – the fleshy, dimply, soft, fat, wrinkly interesting bits. I’ve had to work quite hard to love my own body, and I think part of me quite enjoys the idea that the bodyparts I’ve been the most ashamed of are now big crazy artworks.
PĀTAKA: The drawings you’ve been working on look very labour intensive. Do you have a system or process that keeps you focussed and able to complete a work without causing yourself any permanent injury.
SAM: They are labour intensive… I do love a good challenge, and working for so long on one thing, especially because I’m never 100% sure how it’s going to turn out, is a great exercise in self-discipline and mindfulness for me. Which I must admit to struggling with at times. Maybe I have a funny little attachment to the archetypal tortured artist or something; I always seem to find myself undertaking work that relies heavily on those things that I most struggle with, like patience and mindfulness. Which isn’t always fun, but it’s satisfying afterward. I listen to audiobooks and/or music when I draw for the most part, but sometimes I really need to focus so I just work in silence. As far as my body goes, I’m slowly learning how to manage the drawing work so that I don’t repeat past injuries; I caused myself quite a lot of neck and back pain the last two years which took me months to recover from so I’ve hopefully learned my lession about when and how often to stop and when it’s time to go work on something else for a day or two. And I’ve taken up extreme yoga and learnt how to stretch properly and regularly.
PĀTAKA: Why pen and paper? OfficeMax must love you?
SAM: Yeah good question! I definitely have a love of craftsmanship, and also of art forms that have history and convention behind them. Is it too weird to say I’ve also always been a little obsessed with stationery? I think also I’ve been influenced by graphic novel art, the drama and intensity in comic book drawings is something that I think probably had a big part in this particular style of drawing and it seems to relate best on paper. Don’t tell OfficeMax, but I buy the pens off ebay because they’re more affordable and at this point in my career that’s something of an issue.
PĀTAKA: You’re currently working on your Masters and about to have your first solo exhibition at Toi Poneke in April, what challenges has this brought about?
SAM: Hmm – maybe ask me that again in April! I suppose regarding the show, I’m finding myself wondering a lot about what sort of thing, and how much, people might want to know about the work, and about me, and what might just be oversharing or off-putting to the public. Like how much is too much honesty. Doing Masters is a real challenge too, I’m having to constantly question my reasons behind what I’m doing, and then the reasons behind those reasons, and so on. An awful lot of navel gazing. Luckily I love my navel.
PĀTAKA: Your art practice encompasses other disciplines aside from drawing, can you tell us what these are and whether the subject differs from your drawings?
SAM: I also make short stop-motion videos – another art form that involves ridiculous amounts of patience and attention and drives me up the wall, but there’s just something about stop motion animation, I absolutely love it when I’m able to do it well. Lately I’ve been making looping gifs of hot monster ladies with too many feelings.
PĀTAKA: Lastly, one of those weekend supplement questions: If you could have any three people around for dinner and a natter, who would you choose and why?
SAM: Oh wow that’s a hard question. Um, David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister and Alan Rickman. Because I was influenced by all of them and they all just died so they’ve been on my mind and I’d be really interested to hear them compare stories of life and death.
PĀTAKA: Ka pai Sam and good luck with your future art endeavours!
SAM: Thank you Pātaka, I’ll gratefully accept your offer of good luck.
Nā Reuben Friend
Kua hinga anō he tōtara o te ao Māori. Aue te mamae e. He tohu whakamaumahara tēnei ma kōrua ngā tino rangatira o te ao Māori ko Colleen Waata Urlich kōrua ko Manos Nathan.
In te reo Māori we often refer to a person of great achievement as a lofty tree. In reaching great heights, their branches provide shelter for young saplings growing in their shadow. So it is with great sadness that we have lost two of our giant tōtara over the past fortnight. Today we pay tribute to two of the five fingers of the Kaihanga Uku, the National Māori ceramics collective, Colleen Waata Urlich and Manos Nathan.
Colleen’s passing exactly one week after the loss of Manos’ has come as a shock to many of us who have looked up to Colleen as the matriarch of Māori ceramics. The first time I meet Colleen and Manos was here at Pātaka art gallery during a ‘muddy’ wananga way back in 2002. So it seems surreal to once again be here at Pātaka, looking at their works in our gallery and seeing them in a different light. Pātaka Art + Museum toured the major Uku Rere survey exhibition around Aotearoa New Zealand over the past two years. The works have just returned back to the gallery and will be returning back up north in the coming weeks. I have always viewed your works as taonga, but now that you are both gone, it feels that part of you remains in your mahi – your skill, care, patience and style is imbued in your work. E kare ma, your legacy will live on through the taonga you left behind and the people that you inspired during your time upon te mata o te whenua.
Nō reira, kōrua, me haere tahi ai kōrua ki tērā whakaaturanga-nui kei runga i ngā rangitūhāhā. Kei reira e whakakatakata tahi ai. Ma te atua e manaaki, e tiaki. Haere, haere, haere atu ra.