A show for everybody and nobody

Disorienting and puzzling works by Zac Langdon-Pole are on display in Containing Multitudes at City Gallery Wellington. Federico Magrin takes a look around.


Zac Langdon-Pole: Containing Multitudes. City Gallery Wellington 2020. Installation view.

Containing Multitudes, City Gallery Wellington’s first-floor exhibition by the New Zealand-born artist Zac Langdon-Pole, left me with an impression of grandeur.


Its curator, Robert Leonard, invited me to consider the exhibition as an experience that prompts us to think about the work and the show outside the human frame of reference, or the limitations that humans encounter.” Leonard put the show in the context of contemporary ontological philosophy.


He defines Langdon-Pole’s art as “good aboutism”, in the sense that it illustrates an idea; it adds conceptual complication to the aesthetic impact of a piece, something that mere aboutism doesn’t necessarily do. “These days, a lot of art conjures with knowledge. It's often research based and bookish. I call that ‘aboutism’. However, the best of this work – such as Langdon-Pole’s – transcends its subject matter, to explore the space between what’s represented and how it’s represented. His works don't simply inform us, they prompt us to think about interpretation – to question our mindset,” Robert explained as he chaperoned me through the exhibition.


Zac Langdon-Pole, Pollinations, recombined puzzles, ‘Tower of Babel’ Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1563); ‘Still Life of Flowers in a Vase’ Jan Frans van Dael (1792), 750 x 980mm x 20mm

Langdon-Pole’s works are puzzling. In an interview with Lachlan Taylor ahead of the exhibition, he described art as “something that’s capable of holding open innumerable meanings”. In his work there is indeed an openness, uncertainty, and multiple interpretations.


Leonard says Langdon-Pole “juxtaposes objects associated with different contexts, disciplines, and time frames – a royalist tiara and a grimy calf weaner, an octopus shell from the ocean depths and a meteorite from deep space.”


The series Passport (Argonauta) – where carved iron meteorite fragments are inserted into the mouths of empty paper-nautilus shells (argonauta) – plays on oppositions, on contrasts. Boundaries are blurred. Two different objects seem to be fused into one. The works force you to think about limits – about the end of one object and the start of another.

Zac Langdon-Pole, "Passport (Argonauta) (vii)", 2018. Sculpture paper nautilus shell, Uruaçu meteorite (iron; coarse octahedrite, landsite: Goiás, Brazil)

By thus questioning the boundaries, the material limits of objects, and assimilating outrageously different objects, perhaps Langdon-Pole even questions the limits of the being, of identity and altering.


Leonard observes that Langdon-Pole also interrogates conceptual boundaries, as well as physical ones. “His works play with categories,” he says. “They juxtapose instances of nature and culture, Western and non-Western, local and exotic, human and non-human, finite and infinite, host and parasite. They are always geared to difference.”


Langdon-Pole’s art needs to be considered at length. The concept behind his artwork is apparent before its beauty. And time and thought are necessary to explore and interpret the concept. As Leonard puts it, “Langdon-Pole’s works implicate incommensurate frameworks, throwing us into an interpretative quandary.” The curious viewer is made to think hard about the foundational concepts operating here.


Langdon-Pole’s art resists and exceeds closure, suggesting new frontiers. The poet Gregory Kan, commenting on Langdon-Pole’s work for ARS VIVA 2018 in The Uncertain Act of Observing, says that “it is never clear where something begins or ends, and the center is simply a vanishing point.” By challenging categorisation Langdon-Pole’s art eludes distinctions and dualistic thinking


Zac Langdon-Pole, "Tomb(e)", 2016-20. City Gallery Wellington. Installation view.

In Tomb(e), Langdon-Pole places a dead “bird of paradise” in an old iron safe. In the sixteenth century, Papuans traded the preserved birds with Europeans. As they always removed the birds’ legs, Europeans assumed the birds were legless and therefore perpetually airborne. Langdon-Pole plays on this error, which occurred at an interface between cultures, and between culture and nature. Leonard sees the artist as attracted to the poetry of errors. “A heavenly bird that only falls to Earth when it dies may be a mistake, but it's a beautiful one”.


Langdon-Pole construes and deconstructs, interpolates and extrapolates. The very essence of a thing is depicted as doubtful and questionable.


Can history set boundaries? Can an individual artist remove them? Once removed, do those old boundaries become part of history, forging an inescapable vicious circle? Removing old boundaries, does an agent set new boundaries? What is the role of the object in the artistic and subjective (re)production processes of art?


If you are willing to explore these questions, I would strongly suggest taking a stroll through City Gallery Wellington and experiencing Containing Multitudes for yourself.

Zac Langdon-Pole, Sleight of Hand (i), recombined puzzles, ‘Birds Studied and Photographed from Life’ William Lovell Finley (1907); ‘Hubble Ultra Deep Field’ NASA, ESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team (2006), 980 x 750 x 20mm

Containing Multitudes is at City Gallery Wellington until Sunday 7 March.


Images courtesy of the artist, Michael Lett Auckland, and City Gallery Wellington.

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