Whale Oil of a Different Kind


Here you go, caller. Have some fine art.


Let me try to explain this modern art lark.

You’ve got the day off work.  It’s sunny.  All you want to do is something different.  You’re tired of politics and rugby.  You’re sick of Soho and delivered pizza.

You’re tired of thinking Ponsonby might have something to offer you as an individual.  You decide to try the Gallery because you’ve heard the overhaul went well, and that there’s art in frames on walls, just like in Europe.

You enter and begin your search for oils in earnest.  A nice Madonna flanked by Saints,  a classical nude, an allegorical tale.  You will surely find them, but first – you are going to have to deal with Modern Art.

Of course, it’s now been reframed as Contemporary Art because the implication is that it is recent art, not just 20th Century fin de siecle modernism; Picasso, Braque et al.

And one of the major exhibitions on show (free) is the Walters Prize 2014.

Based on the Turner Prize (Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George), it is New Zealand’s premier art prize.  They chopper in an international judge who selects the winner from four works.  Everyone gets outraged in the Weekend Herald at the expense and the justification of awarding a big cash dump to…an artwork that no one can find, as is the case for one of the entries this year.

It’s true.  I’ve talked about this in previous posts, and now it’s time to deal with the Clayton’s art piece of the show, by Maddie Leach.

As I write this, Dirty Politics is at its height, and I came to this post with the intention of giving myself and my one reader a break from it all.

Reader, I am sorry.  By the laws of insanity and attraction this bastard isn’t going anywhere soon.

Leach’s entry is called  ‘If you find the good oil let us know’ (also pictured at the top, top right)


Testing the validity of the whale oil at ESR.

It’s an intensely involved project but this is not to say it should exclude a layperson.  In a nutshell, it harks back to Leach’s discovery of what she thought was 70 litres of whale oil (I know…) and the process she went through to decide how to treat it.

What would you do?  Given how we feel about whales, harpooning and our environmental position in New Zealand, what would you do with it?  Leach decided to return it to the sea.


The oil, it turned out, was plain mineral oil.  Mineral oil can be burned and used as a source of energy, thus Leach used the oil to fire a kiln and create a 2.4 tonne block of concrete.  This block was subsequently dropped into the sea off the coast of Taranaki, and photographed during the process.


You do not need an art history qualification to see some of the issues.  And yes, the people of Taranaki had issues.  So many in fact, that the bulk of them, mostly letters to the Taranaki Daily News, have been collated into a book which forms part of this exhibition.

Can you see the block?  No, but it’s there, permanently.  There’s a million conversations to be had about this piece.  It’s fucking clever.

Oil off the coast of Taranaki?  Energy sources.  Treasuring an almost extinct creature.  Photography.  Outrage. Discourse about art, right across the demographics of New Zealand.

A previous winner of the Walters Prize 2010, Dan Arps, told me that part of contemporary art and these awards is the debate and vitriol around what’s fit for art.  It is not a stand alone discussion.  Leach shows us the discovery of this process by allowing debate and derision form part of her contemporary art practice.

I love this artwork.  What it requires is heavy social discourse, something we are getting worse at.


Mr Companion recovering from the Walters.

And for you, our earnest oil painting seeker, this:

There are rooms of oil paintings stacked up the walls, Salon style, for your viewing pleasure.



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