Is an exhibition space a place that gives you something, or is it somewhere to leave your baggage? Is it a temple for philosophers, or a cave for fools to dance in? Maybe it’s a playground where magicians spin illusions and play practical jokes to make children laugh.
Glen Hayward, in conversation with Dan Poynton
Left: Glen Hayward, Sunlight bottle, 2009 Right: Glen Hayward, Two Paint Pails, 2008
Wish You Were Here at City Gallery Wellington is all those things. It’s also a stunning display of virtuosity – all manner of scenes and materials are conjured into being with paint and wood, as if a Kiwi handyman had teamed up with an early Flemish master. And finally, it’s a place of subversion.
Artist Glen Hayward knows the hope that looking at art will confer “some altered state” or “experience of the sublime”. But he suggests that “the best work takes away a presumption I might have or decentres me from my knowing what’s going on in
Even when visiting “famous Meccas of the art world”, Glen often finds himself subversively distracted. “You stand in front of the artwork, but what am I exactly supposed to be getting? I know it’s something, but which bit? Is it walking through the corridor and coming across the fire extinguisher?” He recalls going to see a Jackson Pollock, and “photographing the light switch on the wall instead.”
And some of these photographed fixtures have infiltrated Wish You Were Here, such as a drinking fountain at the Guggenheim, recreated garnished with cigarette butts. “I imagined it was outside of hours. Maybe a security guard gets to spend all night with these artworks in a relationship to them of boredom. But is there a chance he might get caught unawares and see this artwork in a different way?”
Glen is living back in his hometown, Whanganui, after his recent Tylee Residency for the Sarjeant Gallery. His parents worked in the clothing industry, and their thwarted creative ambitions would help to turn them cold to Glen’s wish to be a sculptor. “Mum’s desire to be a therapist and Dad’s to be an openly gay man and fashion designer were not possible due to legal, economic and class restrictions. And these repressed desires probably fed mine.”
Glen didn’t know he was going to be a sculptor until he was at high school on Auckland’s North Shore, where his art teacher was “different.” “He had cowboy boots, an earring, and bright shirts. He said, ‘Glen, you see things in three dimensions.’ This is just the kind of mystical prophecy a young person will live out and make true. That was it from then on, because I’d never imagined I could be an artist.”
And the next year the gods smiled on him again. “On the first day of my seventh form sculpture class, there was a guy on his first day teaching on his first job, and it’s Michael Parekōwhai.” He was to eventually work as an assistant on Parekōwhai’s first solo exhibition. “What I cut my teeth on and how I came to understand the world was through conversations with Michael and his way of working and thinking. I had no ideas of my own, they were all stolen.”
It’s hard to tell if he’s joking, but he continues: “I have nothing new to offer – it's just a remix – but we choose what we’re going to mix together.” Glen stresses the need to acknowledge your sources; this seems central to the way he lives his art, and maybe his life. “We’re all taught this idea that we’re independent, but we’re so interwoven. I think it takes other people telling us who we are rather than ourselves figuring it out.” He speaks of “outsourcing” his understanding of the world – “having conversations with people about their experience of it, and how thought moves. I think those are more interesting questions than ‘Who am I?’"
After his apprenticeship with Parekōwhai, there was no holding Glen back. He left home for Elam at 18, staying there for nine years. “I loved being at art school. I only did my doctorate because I was desperate to stay. I didn't want to grow up and leave.” But then he spent 10 years deep in the Hokianga, “making sculpture, and doing self-sufficiency and things like that. I’d put my sculpture in the ute and drive four hours to Auckland to show my work.”
Wish You Were Here is a retrospective representing about 15 years of practice. Wandering around the exhibition, there is so much devilish trompe l’oeil that you start to look at everything in the gallery suspiciously. Is that fixture real? Is that fire escape a false door? The irresistible temptation to find out might get you told off for touching, as I was. Exploring the illusions in this exhibition might be the ideal entertainment for your children during the holidays.
In Dendrochronology, Glen frames a childhood memory of playing inside an upside-down Toyota Corolla in a paddock. “A child might use that space as a spaceship. But there’s an awareness that maybe teenagers have been in there drinking beer and getting up to no good, so as well as play there’s an element of danger.” Though these installations seem fixed, Glen likes the idea that they can change. At the Sarjeant Gallery he snuck fake eggs into the car during the exhibition, but “everyone got distressed” for fear they might be real. “I’d just imagined a chicken coming in and using it.”
Glen says he’s more interested in articulating space than the material used. “As a carver, what’s left over is where I haven’t been. I’ve been everywhere around the form, but I’ve never been inside it in a sense. I’m trying to articulate the space that contains the object.” In this show he is “not just looking at discrete objects in space, but how they’re framed.”
Glen sees Wish You Were Here as a vulnerable postcard from the artist. “All artists are calling for viewers – they’re wishing you were here.” But then again, “When you're here I’m kinda like I wish you’d leave now,” he laughs. “And maybe it’s like a wishing-well, where the audience can pay for the privilege of getting rid of their wish.”
Glen seems keenly sensitive to the feelings of his viewers, on whose charity and generosity the artist relies. “Maybe the work could be mistaken for readymades”, he concedes, “but I’m trying to operate in good faith.” This is borne out, for example, in a duo of works in the exhibition that “look like I’ve popped down to the Warehouse and bought a couple of cheap canvases. You look at it and think it’s just another one of those white works.” But each object has over 600,000 threads individually painted on to make the wood look like canvas. “It’s not ‘Haha I got you’, but what does it mean to invest this time and energy in a project? Is there something meditative about it, or pathological? And the absurdity of how someone would invest all that in a joke.”
Glen likes to think of his artworks as parables. “Parables have space in them to return to and figure something out, especially because there are unexpected twists in them.” And, as with parables, Glen seems to want something almost didactic from them for each viewer. “I’m hoping they’re experiencing themselves there too. I like the idea that the artist and the viewer are two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, just like in that line from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.”
Although “profoundly secular”, Glen tends to orbit around the religious. “It feels as though as a secular society we have jettisoned theological language but not the problems that it was attempting to solve.” He sees potential in the idea of conversion, “not to something but from something, as in being open to something happening, rather than converting others.” Being open means accepting perplexity, it seems: “Convert to my perplexedness,” he laughs. “Come and join the cult of the perplexed. It means I don't have to have an opinion; I let other people have opinions maybe.”
Glen’s works are cunningly camouflaged, so people often miss them. “I’ve had a call from a gallery six months later telling me one of my fire extinguishers has been on the wall through two other shows.” Glen sees profound implications in this regarding creeping mass surveillance. In the City Gallery, he has installed fake hidden security cameras, which he calls Little Brother, as a reminder that we are being watched. “You look up in a supermarket and there are loads of them on the ceiling. And it feels like you’re not allowed to look back because of that sense of internalising Big Brother. But the idea is that you can look back at Little Brother – that’s what an art object is for.”
In further subversion, Glen’s Little Brother cameras have been installed simultaneously in the Adam Art Gallery, the Dowse, the NZ Portrait Gallery, Toi Pōneke, and Whirinaki Whare Taonga. “So I’m having a show at all of these places at the same time which is really cool. The idea with Wish You Were Here is that here is kind of everywhere.”
First published in Art Zone #91