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March 30, 2009 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

We are unsuitable for framing

We are unsuitable for framing seems like a strange and contradictory title for an exhibition. The act of placing these works within an exhibition space is, in a sense, a method of framing. Nonetheless the works currently on display at Te Papa in this enticing exhibition don’t seem to mind, rather they seem to relish this strange paradox they have found themselves displayed in.

It seems only fair to frame this exhibition using the work after which it is titled (one wonders whether this work willingly offered its title for the exhibition or if the title was forcibly appropriated given the nature of the works collected). Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (We are unsuitable for framing) (1985) is a neat entry point to the collected works as it undeniably does one thing well; it doesn’t let you get away with just looking at it. Kruger, along with many other artists in the exhibition (who are all female but I’d take care not to use the ‘F’ word), have created works that very much look back at you rather than simply taking your gaze passively.

What is collected here is not some ridiculous Scooby-Doo style portraits, whose eyes follow you as you pass by. These works challenge you by returning something of your gaze back. Kruger’s work does so by clearly refusing to be viewed when you attempt to. In a small room not to far away from Kruger’s work, Toki returns the gaze and invites viewers with a little light flirtation in Hye Rim Lee’s Lash (2005).

This exhibition set out to do more than challenge your behaviour around art (because yes, that artwork is in fact flirting with you) by also seeking to challenge how we represent ourselves through the exploration of fundamentally human themes. Identity, gender, sexuality, mythology, public face and persona are all themes that you can be confronted with as you make your way through the exhibition.

But as should be expected, these works don’t simply express these themes, they militarise them into weapons of engagement. The few works displayed from Christine Webster’s 1993 Black Carnival series doesn’t just explore ideas about public face and persona in itself, it challenges you as the viewer to think about your own public face and what personas you may put on to hide yourself.

It’s when you walk away from this exhibition that you truly begin to appreciate it. Because you are no longer distracted by the retuning gaze nor confronted by heavy themes. Instead you find yourself not remembering the works of the exhibition per se, but yourself within each work. Herein lies the power and the enticing quality of this exhibition: its ability to inspire us to consider our own self in a new way.


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