All That Glitters is Gone
I walk into Enjoy Contemporary Art Space and am greeted by a satin-lined suitcase with a doll spinning in the middle. It’s Ming Ranginui’s holiday home, the first work I see in Bling Ring, the latest exhibition at Enjoy. Though the gallery is silent, I mentally fill it with the tune of one of those tinkly, wind-up musical contraptions. Upon closer inspection, I see that the doll is, in fact, a scantily clad anime girl, perpetually spinning in front of a small mirror. I catch my own reflection: amused and embarrassed, almost like I just caught myself in the act of a voyeur, or checking myself out. All the while Anime Girl listens to the music in her headphones and spins on her plush pink stage, basking in my attention.
Clementine Edwards’ Small Paintings series of little bejewelled rectangles are neatly lined on a silver shelf. Each painting features tiny remnants of receipts, catalogue junk mail, fringes of foil gathered from antidepressants and hay-fever meds. I sniff. Each of them is a delicate amalgamation of precious throwaways, what could be tiny collages of the contents of someone’s brain or the discontents of someone’s wallet. The first one features an H&M tag layered with a stripe from a Cherry Ripe packet that reads ‘THE BIG CHERRY TASTE’, like a commercial affirmation, layered on top of an upside-down tooth from an Elmex box. The crust of glitter that frames each painting stirs a sadness and nostalgia within me. It’s like the evidence of my existence is sparkling before my eyes, fossilised and framed.
At my kindergarten, we used to bring in recycled junk for the craft table. I remember the empty Yakult bottles we would contribute from our household. There was something special about them, the peculiar bottle shape, the milky plastic, the sparkly red and silver foil with a lick of glitter. My mum used to keep bottles of Yakult in the freezer, so when we took them out on a hot summer day we’d roll them between our palms and suckle them, trying to melt the drink with the friction of our palms and the hot thrust of our tongues. The plastic would crack if we were too aggressive. We weren’t so innocent – if we wanted something, we were impatient. Then when we were done, we’d bring them to kindy and turn them into sausage wheels for a cereal-box truck, or a minaret for a palace. Although we were engineers and architects, we were also capable of destroying.
In fabrics class at intermediate school, our pencil cases, aprons, purses and shoulder bags were made out of leftovers. Discarded fabrics, boxes of orphaned buttons, abandoned threads. I was terrible at fabrics. I never learned how to get the sewing machine working, always creating something ghastly covered in tangled thread tracks and trails of hot glue, at which the teacher would sigh and proceed to clean up the evidence of my craft.
Here, in Bling Ring, there is no shame. Nȃȃwié Tutugoro’s work consists of two pillows – the cases made of different fabrics, a blue Pāsifika pattern with thick stripes of a black floral pattern stitched across both pillows. Nȃȃwié recreates the accent marks from her name with towelling and fleece, in 90s-reminiscent primary colours. They populate the wall like deconstructed smiley faces.
On the opposite wall, another of Edwards’ works – a photo of a Shih Tzu in an earth-on-fire papier-mâché costume, next to a protest sign that says “The world is going to shitzu”. The photo is framed in an assemblage collection of PVC plastic items – odd charms, safety pins, and bits and bobs. Hanging from above are more small paintings, this time as a diorama of sorts, strung together in what looks like a fierce entanglement of thread and PVC plastic, frozen in suspension. Maybe my fabrics teacher wouldn’t approve, but I’d give them all gold stars because of the deliberation in the dribble of glue, the attention to collage and stitch.
Swiveling softly, I encounter Jenny Takahashi Palmer’s series of sharp and soft carved wood and silver hairpins. One has a little pig running through a forest of bamboo, another, a layer of silver, wave-like structures with a tiny green bauble dangling from its point. Jenny’s delicate carvings include etchings of waves, tiny shells and a lovely line of animals. Fish frolicking, frogs in a forest. I wonder if the Shih Tzu would like to be here, instead of stuck in a papier-mâché globe.
I would also like to be in this sparkly silver world, entombed in a flurry of sterling, steel and stories. I’m jealous of their freedom from this complex world, frozen in joy and beauty, and am suddenly aware of my own large, bumbling body. I clasp my hands behind my back, nodding and gasping at the figures, who stand on their tippy-toes. Completely precious. These mundane adornments transport me to buried memories. Moments like standing in front of my mother’s dressing table, my tiny hands picking up and putting down a claw clip bedazzled with a cherry-blossom branch. Who’s been touching my dresser? When you’re afraid of getting caught, or destroying what’s precious, you need to make yourself smaller than what's in front of you.
I’m startled by the sudden sound of crashing waves. My attention is drawn to the last work in this exhibition, Louis Zalk-Neale’s Mana tipu a tuku iho. The skillfully crafted weavings of tī kōuka leaves and fibre around pieces of driftwood, resembling flippers, are presented on a giant, black-painted circle on the wall. A film playing on a screen on the opposite wall shows the flippers in action, mermaid-like movements underwater. The sense of motion – crashing, weaving, swimming – paired with the stillness of the physical gallery makes the space feel mythical, but transformative. I feel the work inviting me, engulfing me. If someone walked in on me now, I imagine I would look like I was part of the exhibition, an imperfect angel, tī kōuka wings sprouting from my back.
Vanessa Mei Crofskey, the director of Enjoy and curator of this exhibition, uses the word ‘magpies’ to describe artists like those featured in Bling Ring – collectors of everything shiny, scrappy and small. I love this metaphor; I love thinking of artists as bird-like, frazzled, obsessive creatures. Around the block from my house is Newtown Park, where magpies like to loiter. One time, while standing beneath the tōtara trees, I saw one flying directly towards my head. I ducked, shrinking to the grass, preparing for my annihilation. But all that happened was my life, sparkling before my eyes.
Memories have a habit of feeling foggy and out of reach. But Bling Ring enshrines them all, the shiny ones, the mundane ones, even the ones we throw away. In the end this kind of summoning knocks the wind out of me, forces me to stand perfectly still, and hold my breath for as long as I can.
22 October – 11 December 2021
All images courtesy of Cheska Brown