A Life's Work: Darcy Lange in Retrospect
Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work
Reviewed by Lawrence McDonaldIt is unfortunate that we owe this exhibition to the untimely death of Darcy Lange in August 2005. Nevertheless in the intervening 12 months between that sad event and the opening of Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work (29 July – 24 September 2006), curator Mercedes Vicente and her assistants have done an excellent job in retrieving those parts of Lange’s scattered artistic oeuvre not already held by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and deposited in the New Zealand Film Archive. And various staff at The Film Archive have worked tirelessly and at speed to transfer Lange’s idiosyncratically labeled and deteriorating 3/4 inch U-matic tapes to exhibition standard DVDs.
The exhibition fashioned from this oeuvre is a comprehensive retrospective that brings together works from all periods of Lange’s career and includes examples of work in all the media he employed. At the Govett-Brewster, it occupied the entire gallery, except for the small downstairs area, and each space was programmed thematically, using various installation strategies.
Inscribed within the exhibition is a multiplicity of journey narratives:
1. A circular geographical journey from South to North and back again. Specifically, the northward journey of a young man raised on a Taranaki farm, first to Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts (1964-1967), thence to London’s Royal College of Art (1968-1971) and thereafter to various locations in Northern England, Scotland, and Spain; followed by a return home.
2. An artistic journey from beginnings within the relatively enclosed parameters of late-modernist abstractionist sculpture, through to a transitional period of figurative sculptural installation, and on to experiments with camera-based studies; finally settling on video as the medium most suitable for the task at hand.
3. An historical journey from an era imbued with the utopian possibilities of artistic experiment and political transformation to the grim constraints of a post-Thatcher, post-Douglas/Richardson era when leaps and bounds were replaced by running on the spot just to retain the ground already occupied.
One of the major achievements of the exhibition is that, at last, it assembles enough material to make it possible to address the question of Lange’s place within New Zealand art history. Previously, Lange has occupied an uncertain place within that history. His early sculpture, although part of various institutional collections, has been exhibited rarely. The transitional work made at the Royal College of Art is now available only in the form of slides. The bulk of the 1970s film, photography and video work was made outside New Zealand and for this reason, perhaps, has been difficult to programme in local exhibitions. And hitherto it has not been possible to screen the Maori activist material made in the late 1970s and early1980s because of various embargos and difficulties of access.
One of the paradoxes of Lange’s career is that his artistic profile remains much higher in Europe and the United States than it does in New Zealand. His early video studies were exhibited frequently in the UK and received a large number of enthusiastic reviews from important critics. Prominent amongst Lange’s champions in the USA is the major conceptual artist Dan Graham. In contrast, Lange’s work has received very little local critical response or commentary. Revealingly, the only major study is the artist’s own memoir, Video Art, published by the University of Auckland’s Department of Film, Television and Media Studies in 2001. Perhaps part of the problem is that Lange left New Zealand just prior to the rise of post-object art in this country and only returned here on a continuous basis after it had begun to recede as an artistic force. Of course, this point raises the key question of what relationship Lange’s work has to conceptual or post-object art, or whether it belongs in a different category altogether, for instance social documentary.
Lange’s early geometric, hard-edged metal sculptures - along with those of other near contemporaries such as John Panting and Steve Furlonger, who also left New Zealand to study at the Royal College of Art - are clear examples of the kind of late modernist practice that conforms to strict formalist criteria of medium specificity. The exhibition contained two examples of this early work, both amongst the first acquisitions of the Govett-Brewster’s collection. The first – laid out on the floor – consists of basic geometric shapes (square, triangle, and circle) arranged in a vertical line. The second, Extended Formality (1969), takes the basic building blocks of the earlier work and extends them up and across into the exhibition space.
At the Royal College, Lange’s sculptural practice began to shift into the making of elaborate multi-media installations, which he documented in the form of colour slides. A set of these was projected in a continuous loop on a wall beside the two sculptural works. These works have an experimental, transitional quality to them and demonstrate within the field of sculpture the problems Jeff Wall has identified in photographic experimentation of the period: “… this blending of photography with other things, like painting, printmaking, or three-dimensional art forms, almost immediately led to the unconvincing hybrids that are so sadly characteristic of art since then.”
By the time of Lange’s final work at the Royal College, the 1971 “sculptural reconstruction” Irish Roadworkers in Oxford Street (London), it’s almost as if Gustave Courbet has replaced David Smith as the touchstone of his sculptural practice. The work resembles nothing so much as an updated three-dimensional rendering of Courbet’s painting The Stone Breakers (1849). Realism, representation and a nascent socio-political consciousness became Lange’s goals and, vis-à-vis the Courbet reference, it’s interesting to note that around this time Marxist art historian T. J. Clark was writing his book on Courbet and its related volume on artists and politics in France.
It appears that the experience of making this work, coupled with his informal introduction to camera technology at the Royal College, made clear to Lange that the social world would be better approached through film and video rather than laborious sculptural representations. So he simply embarked on the first of the moving image projects that would define his profile as an artist for the rest of his life. And even though there would be periods when he was artistically inactive (particularly from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s), his output as a video artist was prodigious.A problem facing any curator of Lange’s oeuvre is not simply what to exhibit but how to exhibit it. It seems that he moved from project to project with little consideration of how the work would eventually be exhibited. For the work to achieve maximum or, indeed, minimum coherence for an audience, it needs to be placed within curatorial frameworks that enable viewers to tap into Lange’s mode of video making. In this regard, curator Mercedes Vicente has done an excellent job of assembling and organizing a huge selection of work in such a manner that it can be accessed in discrete chunks and entered at any point. But a fuller appreciation of this body of work does require considerable investments of viewer attention because it is fundamentally about mapping the unfolding of process and performance through time.
From the moment he ceased to make sculpture and multi-media sculptural installations and embraced camera technology (film, photography, and video), Lange’s work became strongly project based within clearly defined thematic frameworks. Mercedes Vicente has wisely chosen to display the English and New Zealand work mostly as a set of specific projects, in order to respect the thematic unities of each one. In the case of the Calverton and Pleasley Coalmining Studies (1973), positioned to the left of the sculptures in the back of the top gallery, 16 mm film, video projection, a set of photographs, and transcripts of audio interviews were grouped in a space dominated by an extraordinary film installation reconstructed from the plans used in an earlier Lange exhibition at the Govett-Brewster. This installation, consisting of two 16mm projectors with filmstrips reaching up to the ceiling, successfully mimicked the structure of a colliery winch set-up and served as a striking reminder of Lange’s sculptural background. In the front section of the top gallery, a similar arrangement of video (playing on a very large screen), photographs and timetabled projections of 16mm colour film delivered Lange’s studies of Bradford Working Life (1974).
Also on the top floor, situated in a space between the sculptural gallery and the Bradford work studies, there was an arrangement of monitors (with headphones) devoted to displaying Lange’s Maori Land Project (1977-1981) videotapes and a long table covered with a considerable amount of printed and photocopied material (newspaper clippings, documentation, and catalogues) that provided historical background to the making of these tapes. One of the monitors in this space showed Lange’s video Lack of Hope (1986), a related project that tried to engage with the increasingly high levels of unemployment that began to engulf this country throughout the 1980s. The printed support material accompanying this work consists of Lange’s funding application to the QE II Arts Council of New Zealand and documents relating to his unemployment benefit, both of which point to the difficulties he faced in continuing to make work and a living in the 1980s. It is not surprising, therefore, that the remaining works in the exhibition, contained within a compact space midway between the top and ground floors, were made more than a decade after Lack of Hope. These are the Artists and Musicians at Work series (1998-2000) and represent Lange’s last sustained body of work. The archival nature of his videography is here at its most pronounced. Adjacent to the workstation where viewers could select DVDs on particular New Zealand artists, another monitor displayed documentation of Lange himself performing as the accomplished flamenco guitarist he was; a fitting way to round off what is a very comprehensive exhibition.
Although Lange regarded himself primarily as a videographer, he always made photographs of the people involved in his projects and many of them were included in the exhibition. At a forum on Lange, organized by the Adam Art Gallery when the exhibition was on show there, Gavin Hipkins dismissed these photographs on the grounds that they resemble pictures from The Family of Man (1955). I cannot agree with this assessment for a number of reasons, only a few of which I’ll rehearse here. First of all, I doubt that Lange regarded himself as either a conventional art or documentary photographer but rather, like many conceptual artists, as simply a user of the camera. Lange’s photographs are merely adjuncts to larger projects, and these projects are very time, place and class specific. The photographs taken in mines and factories in the north of England are far closer to those that appear in Nick Hedges’s book with Huw Beynon, Born to Work- arguably the outstanding photo-textual study of working (class) life in1970s England - than anything in The Family of Man. The charge might more accurately be leveled at the photographs that accompany the multi-national work studies exhibited on small monitors. Yet I would argue that this impression is more an effect of the understandable curatorial decision to group these photographs together rather beside their companion videos.
The key point to note about these photographs is not their alleged resemblance to that standard Post modern target, The Family of Man, but the fact that like Lange’s sculptures they’re not time-based. Many of those exhibited tend towards humanist-centred portraiture whereas the video studies work to decentre or displace the human presence of any particular performer in favour of the registration of the dynamics of performance and process itself as the overarching subject. The people or performers in Lange’s videos, whether in factory or classroom, are required to work to rule along disciplinary lines that both E.P. Thompson and Michel Foucault would have understood in their different ways.
Earlier in this review I referred to the crucial question of whether Lange’s work is best seen primarily as, on the one hand, a contribution to social documentary or, on the other, to conceptual art. This structuring question governed much of the comment and discussion at the Adam Art Gallery Forum mentioned above. I don’t have the space in a review such as this to discuss or resolve this issue. However, one comment from a documentary film historian and practitioner will serve to clarify important features of Lange’s practice as a moving image-maker. Asked to comment on the video studies from the point of view of documentary film, Russell Campbell stated that Lange “didn’t have an editing bone in his body”. This statement is literally true in that the videotapes consist of very long takes, often from a fixed position, rarely interrupted by shot transitions of any kind. A corollary of this is the complete absence of narrative structuring devices and voice over commentary in these studies. Thus, although they have something in common with Direct Cinema films – for example those of Frederick Wiseman – they don’t normally revolve around the character and event identification points of those films. Various critics in the UK and the USA have compared Lange’s video art to the work of a wide range of documentary and avant-garde filmmakers. After some reflection upon the extensive list of names cited by Dan Grahamas useful reference points for Lange’s work, I would single out Andy Warhol. At first sight, Warhol’s (early) work would appear to be very far removed from Lange’s and this is true in terms of subject matter. However, in terms of their approach to moving image making they are quite close. A similar eschewal of narrative, interest in duration and the unfolding of the present tense, focus on the performative, absence of titles or credits, lack of interest in standard industry production values, not to mention an unwavering commitment to art as work, mark both these otherwise disparate bodies of work.
In one of the few local critical responses to Lange’s work prior to this exhibition, Roger Horrocks concluded thus: “… by the end of the 1970s his relentless real-time approach had lost its novelty and the world of video art had become more interested in complex manipulations of the image.”This statement is certainly true of much of the video art made in the 1990s (the time when it was written) and even more so in relation to the digital video art of the new millennium, although certain forms of recent digital feature and documentary filmmaking have affinities with Lange’s work. What it might suggest, though, is that the demands on the concentration spans of current audiences made by this exhibition and the absence within it of the high resolution visual pleasure they’re accustomed to receiving, might have been too big an ask. Yet rewards were there for various kinds of viewer if they were willing to put the time into finding them. For instance, while I was in the Gallery, I found myself standing near a group of former Taranaki freezing workers who were animatedly discussing the work in front of them. I later spoke to a man who had played rugby with Lange and was interested in looking at what he’d done subsequent to that.
Later still, in a very different vein, I witnessed a reconstruction of a performance art piece by its maker Jim Allen, originally presented during the 1970s, the period when Lange made many of his most important videos. The audience for the series this work was part of, presumably interested in issues of performance and conceptual art, would have had the opportunity to make comparisons with Lange’s work. What these different examples indicate is that Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work is an important exhibition for the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery because it simultaneously addresses issues of local and international significance through the work of an artist who was very much a young man from Taranaki and, at least for a relatively brief period, also a member of the international avant-garde.
1. Jeff Wall, “Frames of Reference”, Artforum, September 2003, p.190.
2. T.J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, and The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848 – 1851, both London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.
3. Nick Hedges and Huw Benyon, Born to Work, London: Pluto Press, 1982.
4. In specific reference to the work studies, see E.P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”, Past and Present, No.38, December 1967. And for its general implications for factory and school studies, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Trans. Alan Sheridan, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
5. Dan Graham, “Introduction: Darcy Lange, Work and Music”, in Darcy Lange, Video Art, Auckland: The Department of Film, Television & Media Studies, University of Auckland, 2001, p.1.
6. Roger Horrocks, “Alternatives: Experimental Film Making in New Zealand”, in Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Eds), Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992, p.64