“With the best will in the world…” is of course the swooping beginning to the title of Martin Kippenberger’s iconoclastic work attacking the prohibition against the reproduction of the swastika in West-Germany, making it problematic, less for its iteration of identity politics, but rather for its hypocritical aversion to history. Kippenberger took much the same attitude to the Berlin wall arguing for its preservation not so much as merely cultural artefact, as it was for its sheer imposing bulk, so that history had to be navigated on a daily basis. Both responses are the kinds of position play Kippenberger exceled at, always reconvening the problematic as a productive axis on which work might be made. Which is long way from the defensive relativism Jenny Harper mounted in her very public defence for her retention of the Peter Robinson work, Pākehā have rights too! (1996), perhaps more so because that particular trafficking of cultural tropes jumps so quickly to the perceived sleights of the disenfranchised lumpenprole of a Pākehā underclass. After all it’s hard not to read that work without an ear for Robinson’s Ashburton heritage, a trope being contemporaneously flexed by his one-time studio peer, Tony De Lautour whose work of that period so actively thickened that body-politic, deepening the resonance of what is quite a tongue and cheek work by Robinson.
And yet the point of all that isn’t some sort of historical revisionism of mid-90s Canterbury art, particularly as we might read it as a sort of Pākehā backlash to the ready acceptance of a new generation of indigenous practitioners complicating the complacency of presumably bicultural nationalism. No, what I have in mind is a kind of preamble about the ways we might read the swastika form, particularly as it is so often deployed in the work of another Canterbury artist Paul Johns. For if you talk to the artist he pointedly “disavows any German reference” which is stupefying in the extreme until you realise that really Johns is deeply immersed in the symbol not as a western cultural apparatus, a semiotic of contested bio-politics but as a divisible structure, a meditative aid that backs onto a compassionate, beatifically contemplative worldview he takes personally from his involvement with the Indian Jainism movement of whom the Nazis so pejoratively appropriated this symbol. So yes the swastika, or what we might better call the Jainism cross, for want of a better term, is a recurrent image in Johns’ work and yet it takes on and traffics in wholly other terms than we have been so accustomed to see it. Indeed, realising that Johns isn’t so much interested in the contested semiotic of a racist lexicology, nor its redemption as a Jainism artefact is half the struggle, but once we are past that (which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t forgive its deployment in racist discourse) that we can begin to see some of the more oblique or customised edges through which Johns is able to do something new with it. We can see this clearly in a number of Johns’ latest works, notably, Infinite Expansion (2007) and 1980/2018 (1980/2018).
It is easiest to see these possibilities in the work Infinite Expansion in which we see the Jainism cross multiplied and placed off-centre so that it forms a kind of repeating box motif, so that like Kippenberger’s painting we no longer see the swastika form, the more we infer its presence. And yet unlike Kippenberger’s painting the subject isn’t this absent content, but rather the connective tissue of the cross, its contiguous form which is of course the subject of Johns 1980/2018 which further accentuates these possibilities. Indeed by flattening the cross and multiplying its repetition what we get is a repeating grid work. If you talk to the artist you get a kind of riposte on the golden ratio, a visual principle rorted by the likes of Billy Apple into a kind of mathematical formula (which of course it is, but why it needs to be so deadened) for late modernisms’ ideation of a “well-lit space.” But in Johns’ hands we start to glimpse something different, something of a periodisation, in which the multiplication of the grid, doesn’t just give us the proportions of something well designed, but of each individual box becoming somehow actively apportioned, not rent asunder, not made stationary, but activated by what comes next. In Johns’ hands the ratio seems to become contemplative not for what it creates but for how it manages this organisation, its parts, its componentry moving complimentary, like a slow moving aggregation that doesn’t simply churn out the next box but builds patiently upon it.
This periodisation is more obviously present in a series of newspaper works Johns most recently showed at Ilam’s School of Fine Arts gallery. There Johns took archived newspapers commemorating the first moon landing and overlaid them with printed text that pointed to other kinds of historical flares, notably ones taken from our cultural fixation with the iconography of and infatuation with popular music. This concatenation, this periodisation, is a kind of sandwiching but it’s not just another version of that infamous “cultural laminate” that Ian Wedde made so popular as the index of our composite cosmopolitism. Rather, in Johns’ hands it is becomes instead again a meditative device, one that flexes the flow of history, breaking it up into its agreeable points, its mixing of history with the subjective flux through which we experience the flow of time. Which seems to be the point of his more recent deployment of the Jainism cross, so that its elongated shape, its connective tissue points to these kinds of overlap, this overflow of the subjective experience of time, granting Johns’ work a deeply compassionate tone. This is after all an artist who devoted a whole show at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery to his mother, not simply as the maternal response we all owe but as a similarly contemplative periodisation of life as daily lived, something beautifully evinced by the looped soundtrack of tap dancing, of which his mother excelled. That kind of punctum, literally a tearing of the historical artefact, so that we meet not just the social context but the more redemptive and deeply subjective experience of the individual is precisely where we encounter the compassionate sensibility of Johns, something we could have equally pointed to in his two previous shows at Christchurch’s The Physics Room which centred around the exploitive and manipulative history of whaling in Aotearoa and Japan. And yet, we don’t always need these very real social contexts in which to meet this compassionate overtone, nor to learn from it as we can tell from his grid work 1980/2018 where the very casuistry of work’s mechanism sets up this contemplative vexation, posing something we can always so often very nearly feel.
There is of course also a cinematic overtone to this grid work, something reiterated in Johns’ other large work for the show, a large white canvas with the invective words, “look at the crowd in swimming” printed so simply upon it. We need not know that these are the words his mother so laconically jumbled together to realise the contemplative possibilities of the work, something reinforced by the small stool Johns places alongside it. Sure we glimpse, much like the title of Nathan Pohio’s documenta works similarly invoke, a sort of cinematic proposition, so that like Pohio’s claim to have made the shortest film, we have a kind of departure point, a conjuring of a possibility we leave the gallery with, but one we also experience there. Like the negative images that always enabled the camera lens to bring stories to life, this directive leaves a residual image, an image of crowds mingling on the white expanse of the canvas, of a contiguous body, like the grid work, flexing and performing not according to a script or a formula but each to their own subjective vices, mingling, co-mingling, habiting amongst the thickened stream of our times.