1Tom Morton, “Three or Four Types of Intimacy,” in Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism, ed. Jeff Khonsary and Melanie O’Bien (Vancouver: Fillip, 2010), 33.
2Morton, “Types of Intimacy,” 34.
3Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide For Interpreting Life Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 1.
4Robert Leonard, “Nostalgia for Intimacy,” accessed November 12, 2018, http://robertleonard.org/nostalgia-for-intimacy/.
5Leonard, “Nostalgia for Intimacy.”
6“Autobiographics” is a term used by Leigh Gilmore in her feminist critique of the autobiography genre to describe a mode of self-representation and a reading of practice. The different I’s of autobiographics are always in flux, ebbing and flowing, and sometimes contradictory. Leigh Gilmore, “Autobiographics,” in Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 184.
7Smith and Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory, 1. Subsequent references in text refer to this edition.
8Many of the editors of national platforms, such as The Pantograph Punch, as well as regular commentators on Aotearoa’s art scene, also work as curators.
9Lee-Anne Duncan, “Anthony Byrt and the Conversation of Art,” This NZ Life, accessed November 12, 2018, https://thisnzlife.co.nz/anthony-byrt
10Anthony Byrt, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2016), dust jacket. Subsequent references in text refer to this edition.
11“Why Contemporary Art Matters in a Model World,” NZ Herald, October 1, 2016, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/
12Anthony Byrt, “Interview with Anthony Byrt” by Louise Rutledge, Enjoy Public Art Gallery blog, October 25, 2016, http://enjoy.org.nz/blog/2016/10/interview-with-
13Nancy K. Miller, Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,1996), 123.
Closeness and writing the self of an art critic
In his essay “Three or Four Types of Intimacy” (2012), writer and curator Tom Morton describes criticism as “an endeavour that turns on a set of intimacies: between the writer and the work, the writer and the artist, the writer and the reader, and the writer and him- or herself.”1 He asks how it could it be possible to avoid talking about oneself in art, as “we have nothing but our better or worse selves through which to process the world.”2 In Greek, autos denotes “self,” bios “life,” and graphe “writing.”3 Taken as a literal translation they can be read as “self-life writing.” Autobiography, a style that weaves together narrative and identity, has been increasingly used in art criticism at the same time as the authoritative voice of traditional media and institutions has declined. The shift to more intimate and embedded critical framing has been facilitated by developments, such as blogs and social media, reflecting our increasingly globalised world, which prioritises immediacy and connection. Although this method of writing might be autobiographical, it is not necessarily autobiography. It is an autobiographical practice.
Much has been said about the way Aotearoa New Zealand’s global distance has shaped its art world. The descriptors of “distance, isolation, and smallness” have entrenched themselves throughout our creative culture and the ways we have talked about it.4 Robert Leonard has argued that the use of the term “intimacy” to describe our national art scene has historically implied a closed, inward focus. He explains that this closeness can be both productive and inhibitive, “a matter of rancour, but it can also be the realm of sloppy kisses you don’t want and didn’t ask for.” Despite the drastic changes in the art world in Aotearoa, from inward and intimate to “porous, outward-looking,” Leonard concludes that “on an immediate and individual level, intimacy will never go away.”5 This can make the contemporary art scene feel like an impenetrable insider’s club, which chatters amongst itself. But the proliferation of social media and our increasingly digital lives, allows us to interact more with global social and political issues. The shift in online media forms has changed the dissemination of critical thinking and the way we consume information. It has allowed for immediacy and connection but also increased a demand for genuine and meaningful encounters. What does it mean, then, to embed oneself into art writing by using autobiographical elements?
and the many I’s
The relationship between the personal and the political, between the personal and textual, discussions about the fragmentary self and the importance of reading personal narratives has permeated feminist and postmodern theory. The act of autobiography may appear simple: people writing about what they know best, their own lives. However, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, in Reading Autobiography, explain that this is the point in which the unity of “I” “disintegrates.” Through the act of writing, the writer becomes split, being both “the observing subject and the object of investigation, reembrace, and contemplation.”7
Smith and Watson argue that there are four layers of the autobiographical “I.” The first layer is real or historical. It is the person writing the autobiographical “I” but not actually present in the text and therefore not accessible to the reader. This “I” can be thought of as the self outside of the writing; it is the name signed to the text but not in the text. While the historical “I” exists outside the text, the other three layers identified by Smith and Watson are purely textual. The narrating “I,” available to readers, is the one who tells the autobiographical narrative. This is not a unified or stable entity but is “split, fragmented, provisional, multiple, a subject always in the process of coming together and of dispersing” (60). Next is the narrated or the object “I,” “the protagonist of the narrative, the version of the self that the narrating ‘I’ chooses to constitute through recollection for the reader” (61). The final category is the ideological “I,” which is “the concept of personhood culturally available to the narrator when she/he tells her/his story” (62). Each autobiographical narrator is contextually placed within a cultural and historical frame, and is therefore a product of their particular time. As it is influenced by surrounding society and its values, the foundation of the ideological “I” “is only apparently stable and the possibilities for tension, adjustment, refixing, and unfixing are ever present” (62).
The many I’s of
Anthony Byrt is a journalist and art critic based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. He occupies a unique position in New Zealand’s contemporary art community, embodying the role of art critic in what could be considered a more “traditional” way. Rather than being affiliated to an institution or expanding his practice to include curating or editing, as a number of other art writers do, he is independently a critic and journalist.8 Aside from periodic teaching, writing is his full-time profession and he writes regular art reviews and general journalism for local publications like Metro and Paperboy as well as contributing to international art media.9 Byrt operates within both the local and global art scene. He is a mobile critic, travelling and living overseas and is a regular attendee of the global art biennale circuit. Autobiographics and Smith and Watson’s concept of the multi-layered “I” are useful tools for reading texts that incorporate autobiographical fragments and can be applied to Byrt’s art writing. These frameworks act as an aid in the study of self-representation and the social and cultural influences that are present in life writing and personal narrative.
Byrt’s book, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art (2016) begins in Berlin during the 2015 Gallery Weekend, an annual event organised by dealer galleries in the city, which brings together artists, collectors, curators and others from the contemporary art world. Byrt is there on his way to see Secret Power, an exhibition by Simon Denny at the 56th Venice Biennale. From here, Byrt recalls his move to Berlin with his wife Kyra in 2010, then their subsequent and somewhat reluctant return to Auckland following the traumatic birth of their son, James. This is the catalyst for a re-encounter with the country of his birth, allowing the reader to ride alongside as he “travels to the edge of contemporary art” while grappling with the social and political contexts he sees affecting the art world. The multiple Byrts—narrator, critic and character—are present throughout the text, as is his closeness with the artists profiled in the book and their national and international contexts, expanding and waning, as they pass through the narrator’s lens.
We are introduced to the narrative of return in the blurb for the book printed on the inside cover. In this iteration, it is presented in the third person; the disembodied narrator sets the scene:
In April 2011, Anthony Byrt was living in Berlin and building a career as a critic writing about contemporary art for magazines like frieze and Artforum International. Then one day, Byrt, his wife and their newborn son suddenly found themselves booked on a one-way trip home to New Zealand.10
This creates a sense of objectivity and omniscience as the protagonist Byrt—the narrated “I”—is presented to us, but not by the narrator. It also sets a playful tone and uses generic storytelling language. From the outset, the book is explicit that this is a tale being told; while it might be grounded in the real world, it follows a constructed character and is reliant on the retelling through the lens of a narrative. We are told it is a “riveting, first-person account of contemporary New Zealand art and the global world it inhabits.” This disengaged and somewhat upbeat reference to the narrative negates the later telling of the story by the narrator and the effect on the narrated Byrt. The birth of their son, James, “had been about as bad as things can get without losing either mother or child” (5). The narrating Byrt is honest that the memories around his return to Aotearoa and move to Tāmaki Makaurau are foggy. There are fragments and snippets of events, like when the narrated Byrt tried to watch the Rugby World Cup final but “completely [lost it] after drinking too much whiskey when James wouldn’t stop crying”; or rolling his ankle; or when he carried James on his back down to White’s Beach and thought “it was probably the closest thing I’d ever experience to standing on the moon” (7). The narrator carries the narrated Byrt through the events of the story but still with distance and in a matter-of-fact retelling. We are given small details and small intimacies: the narrator reveals personal truths while keeping us at arm’s length.
The book is built around a series of long studio conversations with prominent New Zealand artists—Yvonne Todd, Shane Cotton, Billy Apple, Peter Robinson and Judy Millar—interspersed with shorter texts on individual works by Luke Willis Thompson, Fiona Pardington, Steve Carr, Shannon Te Ao and Ruth Buchanan. The narrated Byrt spends time with these artists in multiple conversations and over periods of time. The encounters are informal—drinking cups of tea, eating sushi, visiting each in their studios throughout the country—and are captured by photographer Becky Nunes. For the narrator, these encounters between the narrated Byrt and the artists are “built on intimacy—a growing closeness, over many meetings, with the artists and the ideas behind their work” (10). By describing these encounters, the narrating Byrt hopes to build a picture of the art scene he has encountered in Aotearoa since his return, one that “far from being isolated and distant, has an extremely mature and sophisticated engagement with the wider art world” (11).
Throughout each of Byrt’s encounters with the artists and his responses to their work, he grapples with wider social and political contexts. The narrating Byrt recognises a pattern in their practices: “the way almost every one of the artists tackles questions about the efficacy, and legacies, of late capitalism … with an awareness that they operate within an art world that is itself a product of that same economic system” (13). A tension between closeness and distance runs throughout the text as Byrt navigates the two settings—the global and the local. This manifests in the ideological “I,” which explores the issues he sees within and beyond the art world and recognises that the artists are also wrestling with these concepts. The ideological Byrt is caught between these two settings, and— like the artists—is trying to make sense of how this relationship works. Talking about the relationship between New Zealand artists and the global environment, Byrt reflects “traffic between ‘here’ and ‘there’ had increased dramatically,” artists and curators were moving overseas “and were doing well,” taking up senior positions in international institutions, winning scholarships and residencies (8).
The ideas held by the ideological Byrt manifest most prominently in the final chapter, which is a “long encounter” with Simon Denny’s Secret Power at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Byrt opens the chapter on Denny by describing the stationing of New Zealand forces at the Hotel Danieli, highlighting Aotearoa’s early contributions to global affairs. He draws links between historical events and the increasing pace of media representations of these events, and how that influences our personal recollections of historic moments. The narrator recalls when the Berlin Wall came down: “I was ten. I remember sitting on the floor and watching it on the television news: seeing young Germans pulling each other up onto it, dancing, drinking beer.” This is complicated by the next sentence, where he admits that this could in fact be a false memory, influenced by the “power and pervasiveness of that footage ever since” (196). The narrator can’t be sure of his own recollections but by drawing attention to the act of remembering self-reflexively acknowledges the subjectivity of recalling events.
Television has shaped the ideological Byrt’s awareness of major news events, especially when he was a child. This crossed over into recalling personal moments; for example, the day his grandmother died, five-year-old Byrt “was crouched in front of the television watching Top Cat,” and as a twelve-year-old he learnt of his family links to Croatia while he and his father watched the ancient city of Dubrovnik burn on the screen (196–97). The narrator explains that Denny made him reconsider the significance of personal memories linked to historical moments and his representation of a “generational mode of seeing.” Byrt then intimately places himself and Denny within their cultural and historical contexts; there are only three years between them and their lives were shaped by the same historical events played out on television. Their formative years were bookended by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11 terrorist attacks, and in between were influenced by “the quickest technological revolution in human history” (197).
The authorial Byrt is self-reflective on the process of using a life narrative in the book and his approach to writing it. In an interview with the NZ Herald he explains that from the beginning his goal was to “bring together the different modes of writing I’m engaged in—feature writing, interviews, criticism, travel writing—and see what happens when they all co-exist on the same page.” The “glue” that brought these elements and styles together was Byrt’s own personal story.11 In another interview reflecting on his approach to writing the book, Byrt explained, “one of the things I thought a lot about while writing was the idea of how I could embody critic, narrator and character all at the same time. What is it to use ‘I’ on the page and how does it work?”12 He is also aware and transparent about his embeddedness in the arts scene. Byrt, the critic, holds a unique position as both an outsider and insider. He is returning to Aotearoa having been overseas for some years; he is also an independent critic. However, on his return to Aotearoa he becomes intimately embedded within the scene, he spends several months at Judy Millar’s house in Anawhata, on the west coast of Tāmaki Makaurau. Rather than shy away from this close relationship, he explores it: Millar, who also travels between Aotearoa and Berlin, is the subject of one of Byrt’s longer chapters in the book: Parallel Worlds.
Autobiography is seldom “a story separate from the significant others—parents, lovers—with whom we continually make and remake ourselves.”13 The different layers of “I” in Byrt’s work emerge through his writing and in his relationships with people: his son, his wife, his grandmother and her death, Millar, Denny and the other artists he interviews. Although he carefully controls his own self-exposure, Byrt reciprocates the openness of the artists he is in conversation with by being present and vulnerable on the page. Through reading the different layers of the autobiographical “I” we are drawn into the multi-layered elements of life: the personal, the narrated, the cultural and the social.
Autobiographics is far more complex than simply writing about oneself. It is a technique that allows the author to explore the many discourses that shape and define a writer. The process of writing the “I” will never end with a complete whole, but rather a shifting and changing entity. Anthony Byrt explores this potential in This Model World, and while by the end of the book we have not discovered a “real” Byrt, we have been presented with multiple identities and the overlapping truths of the critic, narrator and protagonist—these are the self’s many layers and reveal the writer’s constant state of flux and becoming. By writing in an autobiographical mode, Byrt conveys his own intimate and relationship-based approach to thinking about art and creates an opening for his readers to think about art in a similar way. Sometimes contradictory, not always fully formed, but evolving and messy, his autobiographical approach gives credence to our own personal experiences with art.