Cool hunter predictions: Luke Willis Thompson - Art Collector

Issue 63, January - March 2013

This profile appeared in the Cool hunter predictions feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2013.

Luke Willis Thompson, Sucu Mate, 2012, detail, two reels of 16mm microfilm (approx 1500 images total) on microfilm scanner. Courtesy: the artist and Hopkinson Cundy, Auckland

Held in March 2012, people are still talking about 24-year-old Luke Willis Thompson’s first dealer show inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam. Such was the impact that Clémentine Deliss, director of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main, who experienced the exhibition while in New Zealand, offered Willis Thompson his first residency in January and February this year. Other invitations followed, including a new solo project at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Auckland (until 10 February 2013); a touring group exhibition at St Pauls St Gallery in Auckland; and new work for the 2013 Octopus group exhibition, curated by Glenn Barkley, at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces in Melbourne. “Things are moving fast,” as the artist quietly says.

Why did his first dealer exhibition have such an impact? The experience began at an empty Hopkinson Cundy Gallery, just off Auckland’s Karangahape Road, where a waiting taxi took people, who knew nothing of their destination, to an old colonial villa in the upmarket suburb of Epsom. No-one was home at the time but objects in the house referenced a Pacific family connection. Some picked up on a sense of foreboding about the piles of abandoned papers, photographs, scattered clothes, stacked newspapers and boxes. And the house, inside and out, was in a dilapidated state – all the more noticeable amid some of Auckland’s finest real estate. Afterwards at the gallery, after the taxi had shuttled people back, the questions began and haven’t really stopped, something that is surely a sign of a good work. Just what are we looking at? What is the artwork? And who lives here?

Like punters at an open home inspection, visitors inadvertently became “forensic investigators,” as critic Tim Walker put it. Drawing on the intensity of viewers’ reactions, the artist was able to engage directly with questions about the often invisible rifts of class and race in New Zealand.

His dealer Sarah Hopkinson comments: “Luke managed to do this confrontational work right in the art world’s backyard – the consequences of which only slowly unravelled for the largely white middle class art audience. We knew how potent it could be but couldn’t anticipate the reach that it had.” The house was effectively a readymade cultural artefact but one that could clearly not be read as exotic and romantic. With the house being presented with no explanation, the project generated prolific enquiry and searches for meaning as each viewer had to read the work solely through their own frames of reference. People were quite literally jolted out of the comfort of the art context.

This unnerving experience was amplified when Willis Thompson presented an extension to the project in
Made Active: The Chartwell Show at the Auckland Art Gallery a few months later. This time, the taxi (which in my mind is taking on its own identity as a time travelling machine) took participants from the gallery to a panelbeaters workshop to view a film the artist had made documenting his Fijian father’s funeral. This work was like the missing puzzle piece – slowly you realised that the house previously visited was the artist’s family home – still occupied but left in an unresolved state, a sort of limbo, after the death of the father. Viewers at the screening then recognised the setting of the film. People were sitting in the very space the funeral was held – the funeral home used to be in the building now occupied by the panelbeaters. By using existing sites and relocating, or rather dislocating, the audience, the artist had orchestrated two astonishing experiences. It was an extreme example of an artist’s biography laid bare.

Sue Gardiner

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