9-5 Artwriting: Eight Hours Celebrating Courtenay Place with Richard Shepherd’s 'Romance'

Rhydian Thomas tries to connect to public art on Wellington’s booziest night

Rhydian Thomas tries to connect to public art on Wellington’s booziest night

9pm: Some rules to encourage a useful dialogue

It’s 9:30pm on Courtenay Place and I’m late. The first rule of this thing – this piece, this experiment, whatever this is – was surely to turn up on time.

Here’s the situation: tonight I’ve convinced myself that the only way to review Richard Shepherd’s Romance – the current photographic installation in Courtenay Place’s council-owned lightboxes – is to sit with the work onsite from nine to five, like a proper artwriter. I’m not a proper artwriter, so I figure it’s good to treat it like any other profession for the night. And so here we are, and here I am, parked beside the lightboxes on an impossibly cultured bench that rises from the terracotta tiles on a perversely weightless slant, like it’s been chiselled into the ground by a sculptor.

There are a few rules: I have to last the eight hours to 5am, and I have to stay in visible distance from the works. I cannot make shit up. I can’t just write about boredom, or myself. I have to talk to people, engage wholeheartedly, and try very hard not to get punched in the face. I’m probably going to break most of these self-set rules, so we’ll get to that later.

Oh, and it’s Sevens weekend: alcohol, costumes, fun etc.

10pm: I guess I should start with the work

ONE is a glorious scene: a man, hands outstretched in victory or defeat, sits atop another’s shoulders, his carrier’s face obscured Some green shade backlights their faces Maybe a field Maybe a park Might be the first dunes turning to beach Impossible to know for sure

TWO screams something but I don’t know what Charity? Decadence? A hand, fingers curling at the joints, is offering something to the viewer Or holding it back? Crystals, rocks, meteoroids? Either a still from a home shopping channel’s sale on rubies or the glorious confiscation of meth on police ten-seven Again, impossible to know Thanks, Richard

THREE is beautiful It’s the ocean The ocean is always beautiful Tonight it reminds me of a young man from Bristol I met on a ferry to Calais last year The guy had a Personal Brand and three key USPs and he knew them all off by heart We smoked a cigarette on the visitors’ deck and stared down into the ocean Same angle as this picture I wanted to push him in

FOUR isn’t trying to say much A chaos of saturated colours and glitched pixels compete for the frame Like a baby’s first glance of the wardroom after the redness of the womb Sounds vague but it’s a familiar frenzy Slap a band logo on there and it’s a shoegaze album cover

FIVE is a shrouded house atop a truck that’s winding its way around the bend in the road The house looks like a bach A second home on the move to somewhere better An ambitious rental property from Huntly investing into Auckland, maybe

SIX is too hard Sorry Hands linked and piping Yellow piping Arms Not sure about SIX

SEVEN sucks I’ve never been much of a fan of guns There’s a six-shooter and some mystery unravelling below it This one gets to me I hate it

11pm: Hi there I’m just wondering if I could borrow a few moments of your time to talk about Romance

Two men dressed as police offers are riding bikes in a lazy ellipse around a trio of Grecian women and a few loose friends who haven’t committed themselves to costume. One of the police offers has the sound of a siren loaded to his phone, and he blares it enthusiastically to the cheers of the toga-clad crew gathering beside him. People ask the pair of coppers if they are indeed real 5-0, and they chuckle. Maybe they are: they’re crowing something unintelligible about strip searches. I ask the taller, brasher ringleader for a moment of his time.
‘I’m on duty,’ he says. I point to FOUR behind him and ask if it does anything for him, whether it speaks to his cop heart. He pauses, the Grecian women hanging eagerly on his silence. The night has suddenly taken on an unwelcome seriousness.
‘They get in your way while you’re trying to get a taxi,’ he says.

After a third consecutive pair of Mario & Luigi pass with a premature stumble between them, a teenager in an Obey hat asks me for a smoke. ‘Sure,’ I say, ‘but can I talk to you about public art for a sec?’ He shrugs, and instantly there are another five of his friends fingering through the packet like sharks to a shoal of tuna.
‘I’d probably do something more about Wellington,’ says the Obey kid. ‘Like a map or something.’
‘Fuck that shit,’ says a young woman in a crimson hoodie. ‘Don’t need more white people shit up round here.’ She spots the small bottle of whiskey tucked into the pocket of my satchel and helps herself. She drops the bottle to her hip with a hiccup and bares her teeth at me. ‘Just put Westside up there. Fuck, my lips are on fire.’
Only a dribble of whiskey is left after they shake my hand and depart, shaking their heads in unified disbelief. The night just grew in length.

‘Fuck off cunt,’ says a bearded priest, crucifix dangling from his necklace.

A gang of priests linger too long beside ONE and THREE so I help myself to their thoughts. ‘Fuck off cunt,’ says a bearded priest, crucifix dangling from his necklace. ‘Nah, nah, he’s all good, look at him,’ says Mike, 29, looking at me. ‘We’re the windiest city in the world. They should use that. You know, like at the airport, those cubes, they move in the wind.’
‘Definitely needs more wind-based stuff,’ says Mark, 21, also a priest.
‘More vagina-based shit, I reckon,’ says the bearded guy. ‘Just put some porn up. Everyone’s happy.’

Brad from Hawke’s Bay has flown down for the Sevens dressed as a chicken and seems to be smoking the longest cigarette in the world. He’s limping or drunk, but the costume makes it too hard to tell which. Was he hanging out with a coop of chickens this evening or flying solo?, I ask. ‘Two of my mates got roots already so now I’m just walking around,’ he says. He tells me that he likes the work but isn’t sure what it’s trying to say. Regarding ONE, he thinks it’s strange that a guy is sitting on another guy’s shoulders. ‘Weird, that, because it doesn’t look like it’s his Dad, eh? It’s colourful though. And they look happy.’

Even though Caris, 20, is taking on a pie with a very visible concentration wrinkled into her brow, I ask her what she thinks of FIVE in front of her. ‘I saw it,’ she says, ‘but you know…’ I don’t, I say. ‘I mean, it’s ok to look at, don’t get me wrong. But the artist isn’t really present, you know? It just blends in.’ The last triangle of pie is rapidly cooling in her hand, and she’s holding it far from her body between clawed fingers and thumb like a gravy-mouthed sock puppet. ‘I suppose it reminds me of my childhood. Is that alright?’ I thank her and offer to leave her to it. ‘Look,’ she says, ‘all I can really say is that it’s there, isn’t it. It’s definitely there.’

12am: My ass is already sore but it’s really nothing compared to our childhoods

The night is in full swing now, and I don’t need to find people to interview any more – they come to me. They come looking for or doling out cigarettes, taking or offering drinks or joints, all with the swaggered step of possible sex ahead. Everyone is drunk: the fake cops (they’re still hanging around), the clan of kilts, the beatboxers, the gang of Oktoberfesters… even the cars, the four street guitarists competing for clean air, the hungry seagulls sucking pizza from discarded plates. The whole city is drunk tonight. I imagine that elsewhere, far from view, even the city councillors are drunk, licking clean the stems of wine glasses on decks and porches and plazas all around the sweetest suburbs of Wellington.

I conjure the work into being and trap them into the act of looking, which bums them out. In the freedom of their revelry, it’s like reminding them that they have to go to work on Monday; a disgraceful thing to do.

Someone shoulder-barges me and apprehension sets in. I think about texting Richard to tell him that he’s failed and I’m going home. No one is looking at the work: no one whatsoever. When I ask them about it, it’s a cruel moment. I conjure the work into being and trap them into the act of looking, which bums them out. In the freedom of their revelry, it’s like reminding them that they have to go to work on Monday; a disgraceful thing to do. And so they look, and they try to think of something to say, but there’s nothing to say tonight. They choose a feature they don’t like – the colour, the framing of the images, their placement – and tell me about why it doesn’t work, which almost always boils down to its relative innocuousness or physical inconvenience in the grander space of Courtenay Place. The lightboxes don’t give off enough light; the pictures are meh; they stand at weird angles; artists are wankers and so on.

Across the street next to Reading Cinemas, there’s a hidden karaoke bar somewhere upstairs and songs bleed out from a window: “Nothing Else Matters”, “Every Breath You Take”, and “Under the Bridge”; the song I lost my virginity to. (NB: I didn’t set out to lose my virginity to that song, it just happened to be playing. Please believe me.)

Already tiring, I decide to write down some grand statements about the nature of humanity: there are just two kinds of males in the world, for example. One is taut and gurning, singletted but slight, alternately taking off or putting on a collared shirt as he hits up mixed-gender groups in order to goad the men into fighting by assaulting their girlfriends. The other is a buff type with a twinkle in his eye – MDMA, probably – who walks up to you, grinning, a lone piece of a leaf in his hands, and he passes it to you, saying have a beautiful night, bro. It’s a nice night for sweeping statements that mean nothing.

Oh, and the chorus of voices all asking one thing, their eyes wry and furtive as they say it: ‘Come on… you’re Richard Shepherd, aren’t you?’ Artwriting is harder than I thought. I eat some pizza and take a walk to the toilets on Dixon Street, breaking my rule about proximity. That was a stupid idea anyway. The urinal drain is plugged with bloody tissues and a discarded RTD can, and some very yellow piss is pooling on the floor.

1am: Richard’s in love, I’m just saying

Romance is a damned dirty word and it makes people blush and stutter when they try to talk about it late at night on a public thoroughfare with a stoic 9-5 artwriter like me. This is not the street for romance (maybe that’s Cuba? Though I find Aro kind of slyly erotic), unless sex itself is inherently romantic, which I don’t believe is an accepted theory. I think back to earlier in the day, chatting with Richard in the kitchen while he scooped the chaff from a pan of poached eggs into the sink. He was vague but hopeful about the work and my plan for the night: something about the familiarity of these disembodied screenshots, their lack of context when tugged from the televised narrative, like arbitrarily selected preview screens for streaming videos on the internet. He spoke about projection, and the self so desperate to fill itself. In the basest artist dichotomy of definer v pluralist he’s leaning to the latter, though the idea is clearly what drives him.

Why romance, though, I asked, and he said he didn’t know or couldn’t remember. But I know. I told him I knew, too: you’re in love, Richard. Though the precise date of his love’s commencement doesn’t exactly co-align with the creation nor the naming of the work, I’m clinging to that theory; it’s a nice idea for the artwriting, right? Richard is in love, so that’s why it’s called Romance. Do you like that?

But the moment of conception – that thing that none of us can ever adequately name – is gone by the time the lens has clasped, and his capture is always secondary, the tailwind of the romance that caused it.

Somewhere near half past there’s a scuffle… the push and pull of a crowd engaging and separating, shoving and hugging to a grand conclusion of nothing, but I’ve missed most of it. I take a photo when the best second’s already passed, and there’s just a blur of grabbed blue and white shirt in the frame to foreground the dim backlight of NINE and TEN, which I’ll come to soon. It reminds me of Richard in his room, camera mounted to the tripod, viewfinder tracked to the screen. Maybe he’s sitting in his swivel chair, his gaze lazily laid on the news, the shopping channel, the rugby, as he browses the internet on his laptop… and in his peripheral vision there’s a sudden moment onscreen worth stealing, some arrangement of shapes that pleases him, so he lunges for the camera and snaps it. But the moment of conception – that thing that none of us can ever adequately name – is gone by the time the lens has clasped, and his capture is always secondary, the tailwind of the romance that caused it. We’re always going to be one beat – a half step, a skitter – behind that first gorgeous moment that thrills us.

And so anyway, Richard Is In Love So That’s Why It’s Called Romance doesn’t make for a true theory, or one based on real life facts/dates or causally verifiable details. Is that ok? It’s working for me tonight, though there’s three hours to go and something better might come along.

2am: Would a real artwriter describe them all or just his/her faves?

EIGHT is the rooster’s face More menacing in print Chickens are not very unsettling in person Too dorky His crown is smudged and the amber of his beak has greyed with the movement of the chicken or the frame I don’t know which happened first

NINE thinks you love it but you don’t The waving arm of a raver in a crowd People don’t want to see others having more fun than them, Richard It makes them jealous and though Courtenay Place is full of frivolity tonight there could still be more to enjoy in the world Better bars Better music Better lovers This just speaks of missed opportunities

TEN gives the fingers again, this time in a peace sign Angelic white, cherubic pink God or a protest march, I think Salvation or salutation I guess it’s lovely and I have to agree with Nicole, 23, who tells me tonight that art adds to an overall vibe and colours are key in that process

ELEVEN offers you two tragedies On the lower panel, a statue’s stare goes unrequited, eyes too focused on a heaven above On the upper, a monster truck has rolled and its wheels are spinning fruitlessly Is it a toy with no child’s hand to turn it or a real truck with traction issues? And does Richard believe in God? I’ve never asked him

TWELVE is hard to divine at first but it does come to you This goat, this reindeer, this calf or whatever The neck is stretched, head craned to a strange angle I add political to the mix when I make it a calf Always sad to be a calf in New Zealand It has horns Do calves have horns?

THIRTEEN is my favourite number but the one I’ve chosen here isn’t all that good Just a cityscape with a few white lights peering out Every inch of every picture is trapped in the honeycombed lattice of Richard’s television screen Every bit confined to a hex It creates order but also dread The cityscape could be anywhere

FOURTEEN might pause you but let’s get something straight Everyone ought to recognise Waihopai, the GCSB’s bloated bubble domes down there in Blenheim Cute white cottonballs that suck in your telephone calls One of them got stuck right in the Kevlar by some activists in 2008 and it deflated The case was thrown out on human rights grounds in 2010 The NZ Govt later sued the activists and won a symbolic $1.2 million in damages that they chose not to collect It was the principle of winning that was important

(In truth there are twenty-four individual images on sixteen panels but I got too tired and ran out of language after 3am.)

3am: You can try to slouch, lean or lie, but this bench will always beat you

So some councillor asked some architect or some industrial designer to make some sculpturally considerate public seating for this cute new corner on Courtney Place, and they were probably delighted to get the job at first. Hard to pick up freelance work making public seating. But that councillor probably saved the little details for later in the project when they’d broken the architect/designer in: that the benches had to be skateproofed, nap-resistant, hostile to the homeless, sentimentally brutalist, warmly utilitarian and underlit with multi-coloured lighting on a timer. What came out of their collaboration – what I’m sitting on – probably pleased neither the councillor nor the creator. They probably parted broken-hearted. And sure, I could definitely look up the details on why the benches look like this and who the guilty parties were, but I’m not going to. I just feel for the broken architect/designer and I’m suspicious of the motives of the councillor. Ok, I have a sore back and bad knees, and I’m trying to lay the blame somewhere.

I see one of my former students passing on the street with a surgery’s worth of faux-nurses and wonder if she was present for that especially rambling class about Richard Serra and his Tilted Arc. It was one of the few times I hadn’t done the readings in advance, but I somehow managed to spend fifty minutes talking to myself about nothing while the class nodded along. I decided that Serra must be a genius. Later I came to love talking about Serra and the Arc. My students always unanimously agreed that it was either great or terrible, and nowhere in between. And conveniently, the discussion always lead back to that one intractable debate – the essay topic – about whether public art should reflect some collective value or challenge it: in public, was it better to mime or masturbate?

If he’s reflecting collective value, he’s succeeded in capturing the indifference of consumption, in boring the wandering eye of the buyer. If he’s challenging a status quo, he has probably failed.

Serra’s line – “I’m not interested in the notion that art serves something” – resonated with me, but I’ve always been a bit of a showpony. If I were paid $13,500 by the council to enhance the aesthetic appeal of Courtenay Place, I’d do something lazy like put mirrors up. Richard (Shepherd) is subtler; tactful but assured in his vision: though the images here invite the viewer to share the weirdness of TV’s inherent déjà-vu, the formal elements of colour and motion are entirely his; nervously subjective and relentlessly personal. They were made in the solitude of a bedroom and then chucked out into the world like anonymous love letters dropped from a bridge.

The result of tonight might disappoint him. No one is looking at the work. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who’s passed out. If he’s reflecting collective value, he’s succeeded in capturing the indifference of consumption, in boring the wandering eye of the buyer. If he’s challenging a status quo, he has probably failed.

4am: Hiiiiii wasjustwondering if u mind speaking to me a moment about love or whatever

The priests are back and drunker on the blood of Christ. Tom, 27: ‘It’s ok. But if it’s worth heaps of money I’ll be pissed off. Someone recently sold a bit of metal in Tauranga for $200k.’

G-Breese, 23, works for the council. ‘I like it. I do. But at the same time these kinds of people need to get over themselves and their craft beer and being so aware of themselves all the time.’ His friend chips in: ‘Definitely. Sevens is destroying itself. I’ve been drinking 2.5% lager all night and no one told me.’

‘I JUST WANT TO GO BACK TO MERMAIDS!’ screams a pirate.

I’ve started to get more apprehensive about approaching women – they’re getting enough harassment on the benches already. But Briony and Anna, 25 and 26, are friendly and forthcoming with their thoughts. ‘Those two guys are refugees (ONE),’ says Anna, glancing along the line of visible panels. ‘I’m pretty sure they’re all about refugees, actually.’ Briony is sceptical but thinks the work might be better at lunchtime when she’s not drunk. ‘I didn’t know it was art. It should say that somewhere so you notice it more.’

I didn’t know it was art. It should say that somewhere so you notice it more.

With his comrade slumped and retching in front of ONE and THREE, Dylan, 23, is trying to cheer him up. ‘Look behind us, it’s fucking Will Arnett,’ he says, pointing at me. Dylan thinks that public art is usually pleasing on a shallow aesthetic level, but is a good thing in general. This work does nothing for him.

‘What… those bus shelter things?’ says everyone.

Wesley, 24, is a wonderful man who approaches looking for a lighter and hands me a cigarette in return. He’s sporting dia de los muertos face paint with a baseball uniform, which I think is from The Warriors. He talks at length about criminology and racism, sculptures seen on his OE in Italy, and whether public art should pop or simmer. ‘I’m not, like, an artsy guy, but my girlfriend would definitely be into this. In that ONE, I see two dudes having fun, being happy. But she would be like, oh this means that and that’s called a whatever. I just like to see shit that pops. I think you’re brought up to stand out in Wellington… and this doesn’t really stand out.’

A bearded Scandinavian man wrapped in a blanket is sitting cross-legged on a bench. I approach, and he’s friendly in declining: ‘I’m in a bad mood tonight. I don’t want to talk about art.’ I ask if there’s anything I can do to help, but he shakes his head gravely. ‘There’s nothing anyone can do now,’ he says. He sits for another hour or more, truly staring into space.

Two anonymous skateboarders, 16-20, are enthusiastic about the work. ‘I’ll tell you what it is: poverty. Political poverty, government poverty,’ says one. ‘I’d still prefer something useful though, like instructions on how to grow vegetables or something,’ says the other. ‘Good on you for getting out here and getting amongst it though, man.’

A pirate with a kebab walking in zig-zags. The fifth Mario & Luigi pairing. A ghoul drops her phone to the pavement and it breaks into three pieces, so the spectre beside her reassembles it. Phrases collide from all angles around me: ‘This is your town. But it’s my first day here’… ‘Always spinning.’… ‘She’s lying. Who eats porridge for lunch?’… ‘Is he gay? The other ones were all gay.’ It’d be nice if all things made sense but most simply don’t.

5am: Goodnight Mister Hotdog

I wait til quarter past to ensure that the job is truly done, but something in me wants to stay even longer. Perhaps it’s the curiosity emerging about what’s still to come on this corner when the clock hits six. The true transition to day will deliver its own set of interesting problems as the discarded remainder of last night is revealed to the trickle of early workers rising with the sunlight: pizza, puke and a sleeping teenage mutant ninja turtle.

Everything is easier when it’s stilled and framed without a context: the guy who’s a mobile kissing booth (pricelist and all) becomes a scamp and a bit of a lad rather than a sexual predator with the innocence of a costume to cloak him. All that pizza vomit and those phlegmy spitwads and the endless bellowing of men seem less like the symptoms of a nation hell-bent on drowning itself in the encircling seas and more like a fuckin’ sick Speights Great Mates Adventure that’s going just like the back of the can. I watch a Superman trying to talk a Wonderwoman into coming home with him; I watch their whole quarter-hour of chat and beg, selfie and shrug, clutch and tug. Superman’s best friend is a forlorn-looking hotdog whose arms are tucked glumly to the inside of the bun. He stands back as Superman gets to work on the rambling, the negging, the cajoling, the preening. Eventually Wonderwoman relents to Superman’s charm offensive and the hotdog wanders off, head down, frankfurter curling at the tip. He will not be part of the festivities.

Eventually Wonderwoman relents to Superman’s charm offensive and the hotdog wanders off, head down, frankfurter curling at the tip. He will not be part of the festivities.

Similarly, the hand offering the viewer those red shapes in TWO is sublime when it’s static; the items in the palm are surely jewels or ores that represent some mighty sacrifice given over rather than the shopfront window of a home shopping channel. FOURTEEN’s spying domes become futuristic living complexes, FIVE’s house changing its locale is full of exotic possibility rather than a documentable theft of property from the common lot.

Oh fuck, I’m tired and losing faith in this thing, this project. Does it matter if no one’s looking at the work? Or to put it another way, if that famous tree falls in the forest again and still doesn’t make a sound, would you really want to Instagram its busted stump to prove that something happened? I’m bored of my metaphors, in this tame act of stilling stuff. I want to be wrapped up in a blanket thinking about the past. I’ve been talking to Richard for hours.

I’ll leave this in the hands of Dave, 30, who I’ve just invented. ‘When you’re being ignored, it’s not usually worth responding proportionately. If a mosquito bites you on the wrist, you probably shouldn’t bend down and eat it.’

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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