Emil Dryburgh – 26 May, 2014
Upon confirmation of the $10 admission fee, and selection from the Personal Hero menu, clients are led through the single door set amongst Popovic's seductive reception. Behind the closed door, a solitary cross-trainer sits in a near pitch-black room. Its contours, barely visible in the dark environment, describe a Silicon Valley utopia, alluring, efficient, and commercial.
16 May - 1 June 2014
“One of the ways in which the Conceptual project in art has been most successful is in the claiming of new territory for art practice. It’s a tendency that’s been almost too successful: today it seems that most of the work in the international art system positions itself as Conceptual to some degree, yielding the “Conceptual painter”, the “DJ and Conceptual artist”, or the “Conceptual web-artist”.(1)
This extract taken from Seth Price’s now seminal text ‘Dispersion’, outlines the ever-expanding territory of Conceptual art practice. In New Zealand, few artists embody this model as clearly as Biljana Popovic, whose practice resembles that of a “Conceptual entrepreneur”. Popovic’s latest business model, Personal Hero at PLAZA conflates the services of a private day spa, with aspirations of self-actualisation.
Walking the dull-grey runway up-to PLAZA, we take the role of Derek Zoolander approaching Mugatu’s urban day-spa getaway. The filmic references shift as we cross the galleries threshold, from Ben Stiller’s ‘Zoolander’, to the pristine futurism of Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’. Prospective clients (read viewers) find themselves in the ‘Personal Hero’ reception area, an immersive landscape of primary yellows watched over by a receptionist. Our thinking is slowly coaxed into new patterns by Popovic’s curved walls, glowing orbs and a single, perplexing door ahead of us. The materials are those of light industry, a recurring motif in Popovic’s work. The receptionist among this utopian landscape is attentive and engaged, a far cry from the usual gallery-minder patiently whittling their day away.
Upon confirmation of the $10 admission fee, and selection from the Personal Hero menu (myself choosing ‘Good Things Happen To Good People,’ featuring white sandy beaches and the music of Phillip Glass, A$AP Rocky and FKA twigs), clients are led through the single door set amongst Popovic’s seductive reception. Behind the closed door, a solitary cross-trainer sits in a near pitch-black room. Its contours, barely visible in the dark environment, describe a Silicon Valley utopia, alluring, efficient, and commercial. The receptionist departs, and clients take their presumed position atop the cross-trainer. After a few suspenseful moments, the lightless room awakes into a cinema initiated by the dutiful receptionist. With adrenaline beginning to pump, and natural vistas now screened ahead of us, we are left alone to our individualised pursuit.
The effect is not so much therapeutic (as the day spa veneer may suggest), rather it’s galvanising. Left in blackened isolation, clients are invited to become the hero of Popovic’s spatial narrative for the duration of their 15-minute session. And once our time has ended, we return to the yellow landscape, centred, freshly conscious of ourselves.
Mid-way through my session I was reminded of a phrase imprinted within Popovic’s recent Michael Lett (Ben Clement curated) installation:
every time I flush the toilet the sound I hear is applause
Here again, Popovic is inducing a feeling of positive empowerment, something akin to the infomercial philosophy of Tony Robbins. A metaphorical ‘thumbs-up’ that never hides its commercial mechanisms.
For all its visual and sensory pleasure, what is being queried in Personal Hero is the economic packaging of art practice. Artist today lack viable economic pathways, and struggle to survive - let alone thrive - in “the world’s most liveable city”. Clear impetus exists for artists to pursue alternative market-models, and Popovic’s Personal Hero is an innovative attempt to court the market.
And yet, the isolated location of PLAZA - as well as the relatively small Auckland arts community - questions whether Personal Hero can make good on its attempt to locate a new economically viable model. The works commercial and experiential quality offers a populist appeal that’s incongruous with an industrial back-lot in Kingsland. While this is hardly the fault of PLAZA - a space that has had a dazzling 6 months - it does seem indicative of the challenges participatory strategies face within the context of a gallery.
Popovic is combating a pattern of hard distinctions drawn between supposedly different spheres of cultural consumption. Personal Hero is a hybrid, not particularly interested in being identified as one thing or another. It exists in a polarity between affirming and critical experience, it saddles the space between commerce and art.
* Personal Hero is open for bookings until the 1st of June.
Sessions can be booked via email: <firstname.lastname@example.org>, by phone: 021 189 7531, or in person at PLAZA gallery.
(1) Price, S. (2002). Dispersion, Distributed History, pp. 1-19. http://www.distributedhistory.com/Dispersion08.pdf
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