Walters Prize 2014 Finalists announced

Established in 2002, the biennial Walters Prize is New Zealand’s most significant contemporary art prize, setting out to put contemporary art in the public spotlight and to make it a more urgent and widely debated feature of New Zealand’s cultural life.
All You Need Is Data

This year the four finalists—Simon Denny, Maddie Leach, Luke Willis Thompson and Kalisolaite ’Uhila—are particularly interesting as, with the exception of Simon Denny, their focus is on performance, collaboration and intervention, including a ride in a taxi to an undisclosed destination, which turns out to be an empty house in one work, and an artist choosing to live homeless on the streets of Auckland in another.

The selection process of the four finalists is shared among leading New Zealand curators and this year’s jurors were: Christina Barton, Director of the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University of Wellington; Anna-Marie White, Curator of the Suter Art Gallery, Nelson; Peter Robinson, artist and Associate Professor at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland; Caterina Riva, Curator and the Director of Artspace, Auckland.

Named after the late New Zealand artist Gordon Walters, the Prize offers the winning artist a $50,000 cash prize, a fully funded trip to New York and the opportunity to exhibit at Saatchi & Saatchi’s world headquarters. Each shortlisted artist receives $5000 and an international judge will select the winner in September. The four finalists’ works, which were produced and exhibited within the last two years, will feature in the Walters Prize Exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery from 12 July to 12 October, 2014.

As Director Rhana Devenport says: “The reconfiguration of the works within the context of the gallery will hold surprises for us all. Importantly, these works will offer us an immediate view into some of the most intriguing explorations of New Zealand art practice occurring today.”

We speak to the four finalists below. 

Simon Denny

Simon Denny

Why did you decide to follow a career in art?

At university I found that the things that I was interested in—business, entertainment, culture—were all perfectly situated within art. I felt very comfortable at art school, so continuing after my degree seemed to make sense.

Please tell us about your first solo exhibition?

I was working with the artist Tahi Moore when I started exhibiting. Our first ‘solo show’ was in 2003 at the George Fraser Gallery. It was called Die Duie Die (which was basically nonsense). It was a busy installation including a half-made corner of a construction site, a messy bedroom, many altered advertisements featuring Milla Jovovich, some internet porn, a tar-filled booth, movie mash-ups and all the books on or by Adam Smith (the economist) that the University held in its library system.

Which artists or other creative people inspire you?

Of course there are many. Artist peers like trend-forecasters K-Hole, Daniel Keller, Yngve Holen, Aleksandra Dominovic, Jogging Tumblr and many others. And older artists like TVTV (Michael Shamberg), Isa Genksen, Raindance Corporation, Judith Barry, Group Material and Mike Kelley … many people.

All You Need Is Data

What project are you working on at present?

I’m working on many things at the same time. I’ll have an exhibition called New Management at the Portikus in Frankfurt, opening at the same time as the Walters’ Prize. It’s a kind of unofficial history of Samsung—an in-depth look at a turning point that happened in the company in Frankfurt in 1993. My project The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, which toured from the MUMOK in Vienna and Firstsite Colchester, will open at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery in October. I’m also working on the New Zealand Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, opening next May; we’ve nearly secured our venue.

Can you tell us about the ideas behind your Walters-nominated project, and how they may have changed or developed as the work came to fruition?

I conceived the piece as a sculptural compression of a tech conference in Munich in 2012 called DLD (Digital Life Design), a kind of exhibition documentary. It’s an elite conference where industry leaders from Facebook, Google, Twitter, Tumblr, Wikipedia etc gather to talk about the state of the industry and the world. It developed in conversation with Burda Media who own the conference—and I eventually decided on expanding their extensive video coverage of the event into a giant printed walk-through timeline—with one graphic canvas panel representing each talk in the three-day event. I organised the panels in a stanchion-like maze at the Munich Kunstverein, and the show opened on the same day as the conference’s 2013 edition—so it was like a very short history of the event. The timeline format is a very important tool for web 2.0 and has a great history in exhibitions and art making—so it was a great fit. The graphic language I used for this tried to marry the extremes of the then-prevalent graphic language of Apple’s skeuomorphic mobile interface with the design/branding of the conference. So I made graphic, screen-like versions of the stages and overlaid images and text in a style inspired by iOS6. This is an attempt to describe the conversation of a community within a visual language that is perfectly suited to that community.

The Walters Prize is meant to provoke and advance discussions about the nature of art at this time. In what way do you see your chosen project as provocative or transgressive?

I don’t predict my piece to be transgressive or provocative, but I hope it generates discussion. It uses a conventional art language to describe a subject that I feel is pertinent to the moment. The balance of money and power has shifted towards Silicon Valley and those companies are suddenly hugely influential around the globe. I think we should all be paying close attention to what they say and the value systems around them. The culture that comes from there will become more important as time passes.

What is the biggest challenge you face as an artist engaged in communicating with an audience?

Creating cohesive presentations that are at once rich with information and ideas, but also simple and concise. I like to use lots of information and visual styles in my exhibitions and putting them all together in a way that makes a clear, enjoyable yet complex presentation is always the hardest challenge. The way the viewer interacts with exhibitions, how much information to give and how much to hold back—these are things I spend a lot of time thinking about.

poster strip

Jurors’ commentIn the two years since Simon Denny was a finalist in the last Walters Prize, he has undertaken a string of substantial exhibitions that prove his original contribution to what has come to be known as ‘post-internet aesthetics’. Denny’s All You Need Is Data – The DLD 2012 Conference REDUX, which was presented in Munich and New York in 2013, is a clever visualisation and subtle critique of the hyped-up promises offered by the tech gurus of our digital future. Re-using the aesthetics of the Digital Life Design (DLD) media conference, Denny creates a walk-through sculptural installation that proves just how ‘thin’ a sound byte actually is.

Maddie Leach

Maddie Leach

What made you decide to follow a career in art?

One of the most defining moments for me was not being accepted into the BFA programme by Elam at the University of Auckland. In the late 1980s there were really only two choices—Auckland (Elam) or Canterbury (Ilam). So the choice was made for me and I moved to Christchurch in 1989, initially planning to study photography, but then gravitated to the sculpture department.

Tell us about your first solo exhibition.

It was at the High Street Project in 1993 and was part of a series of shows celebrating the centenary of Women’s Suffrage. I can’t remember what I titled the work, but it was an installation of dented and misshapen column-like forms made of steel reinforcing mesh wrapped with metres of tawny-coloured synthetic rope.

If you find the good oil

Which artists or other creative people inspire you?

I’m interested in Jorge Heiser and Jan Verwoert’s writing around the term ‘Romantic Conceptualism’. I really admire Walter de Maria’s Vertical Earth Kilometer; I’m interested in Roni Horn’s infused minimalism and her writing; Tacita Dean’s film projects; Simon Starling, Sean Lynch and Michael Stevenson’s idiosyncratic narrative explorations. Walid Raad’s work at Documenta in 2012 and also his work as The Atlas Group impress me. I admire the work of curators Mercedes Vicente, Tina Barton, Claire Doherty and Zara Stanhope for their ability to pose questions and challenge a project as it develops. I’ve worked closely with designer Warren Olds for many years and the particular nuance his thinking brings to any discussion, and his incredible patience, remain very important to my practice.

Can you tell us about the ideas behind your Walters-nominated project, and how they may have changed or developed as the work came to fruition?

When I first got to New Plymouth, as the Taranaki Artist in Residence, I tried to avoid the literalism of making a project about oil in an ‘oil town’. The year before I’d become the custodian of 70 litres of 1960s ‘whale oil’ that had been stored in a ‘quenching tank’ in Massey University’s School of Engineering workshop. The project started with that material substance, and If you find the good oil let us knowsubsequently became a project about belief, mystery, transformation, custodianship, storytelling, expectation, failure and release. It also became a project about the people who inhabited the journey and the narrative that evolved over two years—retired whalers, museum workers, scientists, cement men, shipping companies, council officers, oil executives and sea captains. I invited writers to help imagine the work as it evolved—“companions” to the project. Their thoughts appeared in the Letters to the Editor section of the Taranaki Daily News, provoking local readers to respond. Both sets of letters appear in the project book.

The Walters Prize is meant to provoke and advance discussions about the nature of art at this time. In what way do you see your project as provocative or transgressive?

I think there is provocation (if not transgression) in the way the project variously delights and frustrates its audiences. Those audiences differ within the terms of the project and each will have experienced different parts of the work. I’m probably the person who comes closest to observing the work unfold in its entirety, but I didn’t witness the oil being burned in the kilns at Westport or the batch of cement being produced and shipped to New Plymouth. The project requests a lot from its audiences in terms of an insistence on imaginative engagement with an unseen process (oil becoming cement), an action (a block being dropped in the sea) and a haunting preoccupation with a whale that’s not a whale.

Readers of the letters in the TDN were also irritated by what they perceived as wordiness, “elitism” and “bullshit”. Many age-old accusations towards the Govett-Brewster surfaced, including use of taxpayers’ money and a perceived “wastefulness” and lack of value within contemporary art. For me, this made the project vibrant and active in a way that was far removed from elitism. I also loved how a letter from a “companion” sat on the page alongside an advertisement for broccoli, beef roasts and televisions. It’s been a project where I’ve had to convey the narrative in different ways and contexts, including the many people (mostly men) I encountered and convinced to assist in one way or another.

What project are you working on at present?

I’m currently in Mandurah in Western Australia taking part in a two-month artist residency for Spaced 2: Future Recall. Spaced is an organisation that places artists in communities around Western Australia, providing them with the opportunity to research and develop a new project.

Whale Oil

Jurors’ commentMaddie Leach’s intensive but dispersed project, If you find the good oil, let us know, commissioned by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery as its last artist-residency before the gallery closed for major renovations, has slowly unravelled over the full two years of the 2014 Walters’ Prize period. Her work follows an idiosyncratic thread that started with a substance Leach thought might be real whale oil and ended with the relocation of a cube of cement made from recycled mineral oil to the seabed several kilometres off the coast. Through this lengthy peregrination Leach managed to draw in scientists, cement workers, sailors, oil-industry executives, the editor of the local paper, staff of the gallery, a dispersed group of writers, and the people of New Plymouth. This is typical of the artist’s practice, which arises out of a particular circumstance and is shaped by a lengthy process of embedded enquiry and social interaction.

Kalisolaite ‘Uhila

Kalisolaite ’Uhila

What made you decide to follow a career in art?

One defining moment was back in 2006 when I went to seek help from Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi and he asked me if I had a family and my answer was “yes” to which he straight away replied: “You’re in the wrong field”. That answer killed me and almost ended my dream of being an artist, but I’m thankful because it also set me up for this industry. To this day I still get the push and prod from Filipe Tohi—my first mentor and good friend.

Also my wife and her beliefs have a lot to do with it. My wife has never stopped encouraging me to follow my passion, even when people told us that art is not a career.

Please tell us about your first solo exhibition.

My first solo performance after I left art school was Pigs in the Yard, which I performed at Mangere Arts Centre in 2011. Here I reversed the relationship of people and animals, so the pigs ran free and the audience and I were behind the fence watching them.

Which artists or other creative people inspire you?

In my teens I put myself in tough situations, and through Bob Marley’s songs of righteousness and freedom, I began to express my emotions and voicelessness by drawing. My two mentors, Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi and James Pinker, inspire me because they’re always there for me when I need to talk, and they continue to encourage me to keep going with art when things get tough. That kind of support is rare for me, and to know where they’ve been and how far they’ve come, is very inspiring and makes me appreciate them a lot.

What project are you working on at present?

Currently I’m living back in Tonga, back to my roots, absorbing the life here.

Can you tell us about the ideas behind your Walters-nominated project, and how they may have changed or developed as the work came to fruition?

I spent a few nights in the city as research and preparation for this performance piece, so I thought I was pretty much prepared going into the first day of living homeless at Te Tuhi. What stuck in my head was ‘survival’ as this was the longest endurance performance I was setting out to do. After a few days, and not having talked to or seen my family, I was really forced into the reality of homelessness.

To survive during the long days I would draw chalk drawings on the outside of the Te Tuhi building—these were markings of myself and traces of my presence to the public of the reality that was once my real life but which now felt like a dream.

I was spat at many times. People swore at me and looked at me in disgust, but one time I arrived at my hut and found a McDonalds combo that was still warm. Another day there was a bag of feijoas, which I shared with the kids at the kindergarten next door. Receiving those things made everything better and affirmed that there are people out there who care. One major thing that surprised me was how much attention I received from the local community—I didn’t get that much attention when I went into the city. How innocent the children were! They would come to me and hand me their lunch, talk to me, and during the carnival day at Te Tuhi, they sat with me and drew while the adults were complaining and asking the staff to kick me out of the galle—although I must admit, I wasn’t pretty to look at.

Near the end of the two weeks, during which I’d had no contact with my family, my wife and daughter came to see me. My daughter ran up to me yelling “Daaaad!” and gave me a big hug while my wife stood looking from afar. I guess she was in shock—she wasn’t prepared to see me looking the way I was. That was something beautiful and heartwarming—the innocence of a child who can see one’s humanness through one’s exterior.

two-week performance at Te Tuhi

Throughout the two weeks of living homeless I was completely committed to why I was there, and no setback could have sent me home. It was a privilege to be a voice for the voiceless and to express this through my passion for art, and at the same time to experience life in a situation that I wouldn’t normally put myself in.

Another thing that kept me going was art friends and family who came to visit me at night, some of them staying out with me until daylight. That made the days sweeter and I’d like to thank Marlaina Key and Simon Ashforth for being such a great support team, and also the staff at Te Tuhi, (the ones who did know) for their generosity and help.

What is the biggest challenge you face as an artist engaged in communicating with an audience?

The challenge is having endurance and being able to complete what I set out to do. I put my whole self into the performance and that’s what sustains me.


Jurors’ Comment: In March 2012, Kalisolaite ’Uhila lived homeless for a two-week period in the vicinity of Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Pakuranga. The artist intended this as a consciousness-raising exercise drawing attention to the state of homelessness. He was successful in his ambition and the artwork was the subject of intense scrutiny by locals, police, and national news media. Undertaken at the start of the Walters’ Prize period, this subject has only grown in importance, as homelessness, amongst Polynesian men in particular, has emerged as a pressing issue in Auckland and other urban centres. As a Tongan-born artist, ’Uhila is broadly concerned with the idealisation of Aotearoa New Zealand as a land of opportunity compared with a reality of minimum-wage factory and seasonal labour. His body of endurance performance artworks undermines these utopian values and holds New Zealand to account for attracting Pacific migrants to support a low-wage, manual-labour strata of the economy. His work speaks vividly to the vulnerable conditions of life for a social underclass in this country.

Luke Willis Thompson

Can you tell us about the ideas behind your Walters-nominated project, and how they may have changed or developed as the work came to fruition?

Inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam was my first foray into a gallery network and I saw it in many ways as my first solo show. I had done a show the year prior at RM. but I was treating my invitation by Sarah Hopkinson as my first chance to make something that could matter beyond the audience I was already making work for, and something that could act as a prototype for my future actions as an artist. I was at the time very interested in asking what exactly constituted a work of art. Rather than take this as an assumption, I became fixated on testing the parameters and limits of this. Think, if the gallery helps makes a work, how far and for how long does that power extend? Do above or below the gallery count, for example. Moreover I had been criticised for making work that had reified negative histories, so I was initially very wary of presenting further objects. I knew almost immediately I didn’t want to do anything that could be easily dismissed because of its proximity to a market.

At the same time as I was thinking of these more experimental questions, I had recently moved into my first home of my own and in many ways the house that is at one end of inthisholeonthisislandwhereiamkept returning to me as a kind of absent image. There had been a death in my family the year prior and because the intricate links we have between inheritance and land were on my mind, I became increasingly focused on what could happen to this house in the future. As a response to this, I began to wonder whether there was anything that art could do in the preservation of this site. Could the epistemological values of art discover a novel solution, so that it could never be developed or sold? Whether the work answers such questions or not, by this point, I had already began to fantasise about transporting audiences around the city.

Hélène Cixous says there are three levels one must climb in order to write well, but I think it applies to art making as well. The first is the school of death, and the second the school of dreams. The last level is called the school of roots, and that is the level that I hope inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam exists on. The work returns my audience to the point where my biography begins, and in doing so hopefully provides an experimental and critical format for art as I understand it. At this level, whether the house reflects my biography or others, or presents itself as either disturbing or comfortable, is irrelevant. The work operates axiomatically, no amount of ‘difference’ is explained or accounted for—what you get as an audience to the work is nothing more than a material testimony. To return to the question, the work changed dramatically between its inception and its enacting—It will change radically again in the Walters presentation as I’m further from home now than ever.


Jurors’ commentLuke Willis Thompson’s bold project for Hopkinson Cundy (now Hopkinson Mossman) deeply shook the set parameters of how art is traditionally experienced and challenged any passive notion of spectatorship. To find the artwork, visitors had to take a taxi stationed at the empty gallery and, with a palpable sense of unease, set off to an unknown destination, with only the tentative conversation with the driver to break the tense sense of expectation. Arriving at a suburban house, visitors were invited to enter and wander around but not to enter into the bedrooms. With no people inside, yet signs of habitation everywhere, visitors only gradually came to realise—through closer inspection of school projects, books, and photographs—this was the artist’s family home. In such an audacious situation, the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion, intimacy and voyeurism were completely blurred; the project demanded we consider anew concepts of intentionality, the location of art and how to ascribe meaning or determine value.

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