Finding Neitherland, or, the fine art of not giving a shit.
You must travel at random, like the first Mayans; you risk getting lost in the thickets, but that is the only way to make art.
I was killing time in a local bookstore recently, skimming through the art and design magazines, when a magazine that I would ordinarily pass over caught my eye. Although I’m not the target demographic for FRANKIE, which appears to focus on contemporary craft, DIY fashion, and Indie music, aimed at the 20+ shabby-chic and thriftily inclined home crafter, I nevertheless flicked through the pages and found myself stopping at an article that posed the big question: What is Cool? The question piqued my interest. After all, in an age of planking, avatars and nano-second attention spans, how can one possibly define what is cool today, tomorrow, or next week for that matter?
The article opens with an image of the indifferent but oh so cool James Dean and a categorical capitalised statement by one of the four contributing writers: ‘YOU KNOW WHAT REALLY DEFINES COOL? FOUR WORDS: NOT GIVING A SHIT.’ Indeed. The remainder of the article doesn’t really live up to the promise of the heading, but it did succeed in getting me thinking that somehow this no nonsense mantra could be useful as a methodological framework for defining one’s image, lifestyle or chosen profession. I mean, doesn’t everyone want to be cool, especially artists?
As an adolescent, coolness for me was embodied in TV and movie characters like the Fonze, Bodie and Doyle, and Han Solo. Throughout my teenage years, coolness was defined by the music we listened to, and you couldn’t go wrong with Bob Marley, Debbie Harry, or Talking Heads. Artists I thought were cool during my undergrad years at Unitec were Julian Schnabel and David Salle. It’s hard for me to distinguish now whether I thought the works were cool, or the artists; probably both, though many would argue that the sun no longer shines on either of them. Who cares – I’m sure they don’t.
Perhaps being cool has something to do with being casual, in that ‘w-h-a-t-e-v-e-r, I don’t give a shit’ sort of way. A new casualness for a new dawn perhaps? Not exactly a new idea, but one that I think deserves more scrutiny. The idea of casualness in artistic practice, specifically painting, was discussed in a conversation between Bernhard Mendes Bürgi and Thierry de Duve which was published in the book Painting on the Move (2002). Bürgi proposed casualness as a panacea for painting’s ailment in the wake of modernism: ‘Painting has had to free itself of all its ideological superstructures’ he argued, and also ‘of its pathos of the absolute; it has had to find a new casualness, obviously by risking a triviality which includes no obligations, no commitment.’
In Bürgi’s view the ideological dimension of painting, those qualities that are regarded by many to give the work of art meaning, substance, and value, is secondary to the aesthetic impetus for its creation:
The best painters don’t let their ideas, their ideals, their political or metaphysical beliefs, interfere with their practice. Brush in hand, a good painter wants to be a painter and nothing else, even if he feels flattered in his sense of self-pride by the mission of saving the world that the surrounding culture lends to him. The ethic of the artist resides in respect for his medium, and the decisions he takes are aesthetic and technical. When you see the ideological decision taking the upper hand in a work over the aesthetic decision, the work is almost always mediocre.
Bürgi’s words struck a chord with me because when I look back at my own practice, as an artist of dual Samoan and European heritage, the works I have created until recently have largely been located within a post-colonial discourse, and imbued with ‘messages’ of social disharmony and cultural marginalisation. With hindsight, I have discovered that at times ‘ideological’ decisions have overtaken ‘aesthetic’ decision-making in my practice as a painter. It isn’t that I regret that this is so (life’s too short for such regrets), or that I no longer stand behind my earlier paintings, but that I now recognise that the act of mark making itself must take precedence over the ‘content’ of the marks.
When I was invited to curate the fourth annual tertiary exhibition of the Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, showcasing the work of Pacific artists selected from five Auckland tertiary institutions, I thought long and hard about what exhibition framework would best suit the diverse group of exhibitors. What curatorial concept would, on the one hand, acknowledge that these are emergent artists of Pacific descent, but on the other hand, not force them to take an ideological position in relation to their cultural background?
Firstly, I wanted to find a framework in which the artists might take up Bürgi’s challenge to ‘find a new casualness’ by dispensing with any notion of ‘trying to save the world’ with a brush, camera, hammer, scissors, video recorder, etc. in hand. Certainly, there’s no disputing Bürgi’s point that every artist wants to be the best at what they do. The difficulty, it seems, is how to achieve that by cultivating casualness in our art.
Fortunately, de Duve suggests a couple of historical precedents to give us some idea about how we might go about it. Picasso’s casualness, he contends, could be characterised by his total absence of remorse. Matisse’s casualness was of a different sort, de Duve continues, whereby a finished painting must seem absolutely effortless and spontaneous, appearing fully formed at first attempt, even when, in reality, it was the result of extensive retouching.
Robert Ryman, in conversation with Robert Storr, revealed that he is another adherent of cultivated casualness in painting: ‘The one quality that I look for and I think is in all good painting, is that it has to look as if no struggle was involved. It has to look as if it was the most natural thing – it just happened and you don’t have to think about how it happened.’
We should assume, of course, that casualness extends to art forms beyond the sable stick, and if we extrapolate further, could we not consider casualness more generally as a personality trait, or even a lifestyle choice? Would it be too great a leap to argue that Pacific peoples, myself included, mightn’t already make a virtue out of manifesting casualness? I mean, how did the term ‘PI time’ come about!? If there is any truth to this stereotype, then Pacific artists should be able to manufacture casualness by the kava-bowl load!
The primary objective in encouraging the pursuit of casualness in the work of this group of emergent artists, however, was not to trade on an old stereotype; it was the hope that it would allow the artists to foreground their work on its own terms. In short, I wanted to devise an exhibition framework that would showcase the work of a group of Pacific Island artists while temporarily disrupting the post-colonial superstructure. The aim was to encourage the participants to construct their own Utopia free of remorse or struggle. After a good deal of thought, I arrived at the idea of a concept space called ‘Neitherland’.
This curatorial position that attempts to negotiate the balancing act between aesthetics and ideology is indebted to Roland Barthes concept, ‘Neither-Norism,’ from his collection of essays, Mythologies (1957). Barthes coined the term to explain a mythological figure through which two opposites are balanced, one against the other, in order to reject them both:
It is on the whole a bourgeois figure, for it relates to a modern form of liberalism. We find again here the figure of the scales: reality is first reduced to analogues; then it is weighed; finally, equality having been ascertained, it is got rid of. Here also there is magical behaviour: both parties are dismissed because it is embarrassing to choose between them; one flees from an intolerable reality, reducing it to two opposites which balance each other only inasmuch as they are purely formal, relieved of all their specific weight… one no longer needs to choose, but only to endorse.
The application of Barthes ‘neither-nor’ theory does, for all intents and purposes, release ones practice from ideological superstructures—whether socially, politically, or culturally encoded. Needless to say, this strategy doesn’t preclude ideological matters out of hand if an artist’s ideological position is embedded in his or her art and is clearly the product of a logical progression. That being said, however, in issuing the artist’s with my curatorial brief I am mindful of Bürgi’s warning that the liberation of the artist from an ideological context carries with it the risk of triviality.
I am, nonetheless, proposing that these young Pacific Island artists negotiate this exhibition at AUT’s St Paul St Gallery as a concept space that is neither here nor there, but should be thought of as a mythological place of unlimited scope and potential. Finding Neitherland is about the act of discovering something within the terrain of neither-norism. What that ‘something’ is, I have left to the artists to discern for themselves. I can hear now echoes of Jameson’s lament against historical deafness and random cannibalisation. Too bad. My curatorial directive is clear: go Mayan and ‘get lost in the thickets’, manifest ‘casualness’ and ‘don’t give a shit’ because, rest assured, everyone else will be doing it for you soon enough.
Graham Fletcher is a painter who has exhibited extensively in both New Zealand and abroad and whose works are held in significant private and public collections. He has a Doctor of Fine Arts degree from The University of Auckland and is a Board member of Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust. He lives and works in Auckland.
 Robert Smithson, “Incident of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” Jack Flam, ed. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, (Los Angeles: University of California Press) 119.
 Marieke Hardy, “What Is “Cool”?” Frankie, March/April 2011. 77.
 “A Century of Contemporary Painting: A conversation between Bernhard Mendes Bürgi and Thierry de Duve”, B. M. Bürgi and P. Pakesch, Painting on the Move (Basel: Kunstmuseum Basel, 2002) 38.
 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972) 153.