Spring 2010 Profile

Dancing in the halls

Fiona Jack’s latest exhibition is tender, illuminating and radical. It looks at a particular moment in history – this time the birth of the idea to build living memorials. Virginia Were reports.

Talking to Auckland artist Fiona Jack about her long-running project and exhibition Living Halls, which opened at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in June, it doesn’t take long to realise there are certain things that make her heart beat faster. Making lists, mapping, architecture, graphic design and typography – but perhaps most importantly – collaborating with groups and communities to examine and reveal hidden indexes of social and political power and the physical and symbolic spaces in which they’re played out.

One of the best examples of how these elements and concerns manifest in her practice is her book Missing Peoples, made while she was studying for her Masters at CalArts in Los Angeles from 2003 to 2005. At this art school, which is famous as an incubator for conceptual art in the 1960s, she assisted artists Sam Durant and Andrea Bowers.

“My interest in politics strengthened when I went to CalArts, and being under the Bush regime there was a lot to fight against,” says Jack. “I started investigating a lot of things to do with inherent prejudices that were locked into different systems in the United States that I found alarming. I was working a lot with issues around the United States involvement in Palestine and one day I went to the library, to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, to see what its definition of a Palestinian was, and I found that Palestinian wasn’t in the dictionary but Israeli was. I looked for a few other names and noticed some irregularities. So I ended up cross-checking the United Nations list of nationalities with those listed in the dictionary. I realised there are extraordinary inconsistencies and I made this list into a book, which almost took the form of a poem to the missing peoples or nationalities of the world. In the back of the book I published a map showing where these missing nationalities lived, and the map included the entire South American continent, most of Africa and large areas in the Middle East. It is one of those structures of power that reveals the inherent prejudices that lie beneath.

“So it’s about being rigorous at every level of research,” she says. “Once I had the list I asked myself, Well, what can I do with it? I have to turn it into something, then I began the process of experimentation, of working out what form it should take in order to give it the most relevance to its originating idea. I love that process, and I think it’s because that’s how I learn; I don’t learn things as well when they’re simply in word form. I absorb things when I start thinking about them as either images or objects.”

Given her love of history and research – for the last two years she’s been trawling though the National Archives where all the documentation relating to the 400 or so War Memorial Halls scattered throughout New Zealand are stored – wouldn’t she be happier being a historian rather than a visual artist? I ask. This makes her smile and it’s obviously a question she’s heard before. She explains that the massive amount of research, which her projects often involve, doesn’t become thrilling to her until she begins thinking about how she will turn it into something – in the case of Living Halls, an exhibition that takes over three galleries in the Govett-Brewster.

Last summer Jack took time out from her ‘day job’ as a lecturer at Elam, working on the Living Halls project for three months in Taranaki as the Govett-Brewster’s 2009/2010 New Zealand Artist in Residence.

Throughout New Zealand, in almost every small town and in many larger ones, War Memorial Halls are so ubiquitous and unremarkable, most of us don’t give them a second thought, so why, I ask Jack, did she decide to make them the focus of her impressive Govett-Brewster exhibition?

“I’ve always been fascinated with memorial halls. I think that an empty building as a memorial to a horrendous war is a bizarre idea, but it’s also a magnificent idea,” she replies.

Her biggest project to date – and she is an artist who has exhibited in the United Kingdom, Europe, Chile, Australia, the United States and New Zealand – Living Halls is a collaborative archival endeavour in which Jack has worked closely with hundreds of people across Aotearoa whose warmth and generosity in embracing and being part of the project is remarkable.

Jack sees the first Labour Government’s decision to follow the American lead and build utilitarian war memorials to the dead of the Second World War as radical. She believes the decision to offer a pound for pound subsidy to any community who wrote to the Department of Internal Affairs, expressing a desire for a community hall was both illuminating and remarkable. It embodied the growing pragmatism and democratic ideals of New Zealand’s post-war society, and it expressed a particular moment in our history that is beautifully and tenderly highlighted in Jack’s project.

“If you ask people what a memorial is, they’ll usually think of an obelisk or a cenotaph, but there was this moment of time in New Zealand when an idea of social connectedness was more important than anything fixed and stable like a piece of marble or concrete. If you think that at one time collectively as a nation we decided to build over 400 monuments to war that were social halls for dancing in – it is a pretty amazing idea.”

The first gallery is filled with drawings of memorial halls Jack has made: exact copies of the original drawings she found in files in the National Archives, where all the information relating to the establishment of the halls is stored. These drawings, often little more than amateur sketches made by locals to indicate what they wanted ‘their’ hall to look like, were sometimes attached to the original letters requesting a hall to “honour our boys”.

Charmingly, many of these drawings are simply based on a local shearing shed or a picture in a book. Very few of them are architecturally sophisticated, and Jack comments, “I could have photographed the drawings but I really wanted to engage with them in a close way. It’s such a beautiful process for me because I feel I’m getting closer to the aspirations of the community to really work hard to make these halls happen. In most cases the scratchy little visual that was sent in with the original letter to the Department of Internal Affairs was very close to what was eventually built.”

“Often in small places, there was an incredible immediacy… someone made a drawing and submitted it, then everyone got together to raise the money for the pound to pound subsidy, then, in some cases, they felled the trees from a neighbouring forest, milled them and built the hall. In a lot of cases, the people who started looking after the halls in the 1950s are still looking after them.”

The project comes at a time when the country’s War Memorial Halls are vulnerable – many of the people who run them are retiring, the last of the Second World War veterans are dying, and some halls, facing council audits, are in danger of being sold or knocked down because the land they’re on has become so valuable.

By faithfully copying these drawings in minute detail, and even replicating the paper on which they were originally made, Jack has honoured the vision and effort of the communities who toiled over many years to fund, design, build and maintain their halls.

In the second gallery are 50 paintings made by local painters around the country who were invited by Jack to depict their hall. Their brief was left open other than stipulating a size for each painting and the resulting wonderfully diverse group of paintings has real affection and warmth. Some artists focused on a detail of the building, others on the garden surrounding it.

In the third gallery are the roll of honour boards that Jack has fabricated. But instead of the names of dead soldiers, her boards list the names of all the War Memorial Halls in New Zealand, noting with an asterisk those that have gone, moved or are no longer considered a War Memorial. Unlike traditional honour boards, Jack’s are rough and unvarnished, reflecting the vitality and impermanence at the heart of a ‘living’ memorial. She has meticulously hand-lettered them with gold paint, acknowledging the love and dedication that has gone into establishing and maintaining these community spaces over the last 60 years.

Interestingly, for a conceptual artist whose work often examines latent social or political structures and significant moments in history – Jack also loves to paint. In two projects installed at Auckland gallery Two Rooms in 2007, she continued her investigations into the ideas of the early Situationists, an international movement of the 1950s and 1960s whose ideas were rooted in Marxism and the 20th-century European artistic avante gardes.

Titled After The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle Commodity Economy – Jack’s exhibition looked at two areas in Los Angeles. One was the city of Watts – a predominantly African American and Puerto Rican community, famous for the riots that occurred there in 1965. The walls and floor of the gallery were painted with abstract patterns, which formed a psycho-geographic map of the city of Watts. The other project was a series of drawings about KB Home tract housing developments in The Inland Empire – the large area east of Los Angeles. The controversial property developer KB Home was involved in the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market, an early factor that precipitated the recent global financial crisis.

While talking to her I wonder out loud whether she grew up in a political family?

“Not necessarily,” she replies, but then qualifies this, saying, “My parents are both very articulate and engaged in the world and we grew up listening to National Radio all the time, but neither of them are politically active, though my mother did once vote for the McGillicuddy Serious party as a protest vote, which at the time was really inspiring to me.”

Fiona Jack: Living Halls is at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth until 5 September, and at Two Rooms, Auckland, from 15 October to 13 November, 2010.

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