Jon Bywater: et al.

Full article published in the New Zealand Herald (,
20 September 2004.

How long you have been interested in the work of the et al. collective?

I’ve followed their work for over a decade now, and I have written about it in a number of reviews, for an exhibition curated from work in the Chartwell collection, and in an essay commissioned by Artspace for a catalogue to accompany et al’s exhibition there in 2001.

Any comment regarding the issue of anonymity, which seems to have offended some people?

It’s not at all unusual for artists to make some version of the “no comment“ comment.

With work like et al’s, work that doesn’t make sense according to established conventions, like paintings that picture recognisable things, this presents a Catch 22 for the artist.

If they offer some kind of “this is what this is about“ story, people can latch on to it as the full story or the real story about the work and be left wondering what all the art is for. Whereas, on the other hand, if they don’t tell that kind of story, people wonder if there is anything at all going on in the work.

For me, if you’re trying to communicate with people through giving them something to experience in more than just verbal ways, by looking, hearing, and being amongst some stuff, it makes sense to sometimes let all that experience speak for itself.

As for the pseudonyms, the namelessness and the looseness of who may or may not be involved with et al, this is certainly a more unusual spin on the “no comment“ attitude. All the same, one of the granddaddys of contemporary art, Marcel Duchamp, played around with his name in a similar way nearly a century ago.

One way to understand et al’s non-name is to recognise that it goes back many years, through a range of pseudonyms and things. So, for some of the audience, it’s a familiar kind of move, that they won’t dwell on.

Having the whole list of these names, though, or finding out who the artist “really is“, is not the way to understand what’s going on. And it would be a pretty weak attempt to fool people if it were one!

It is more interesting to note the need to attach a name to any art, how hard it is to relax and accept the artist’s choice to not identify themselves in the everyday way. The move seems to be bound up in a concern about the way that all kinds of public figures, from musicians to politicians, are pigeonholed.

It’s clear that most of the time if you’re a straight pakeha guy, you can be just a musician. But if you’re a woman, you play in a “girl rock band“, in the same way you might always be referred to as a Maori artist or a gay politician or whatever.

How do you rate the work of et al. in the context of New Zealand contemporary art and in the international arena?

I love et al’s work. Perhaps because it deals with noise, disorder, fragments and things, people sometimes seem to rush past the fact there is a tremendous amount of beauty in it, a convincing signature aesthetic even, a consistent look and feel for the way its elements are handled honed by years of making that might be, ironically, just the kind of consistency you’re looking for if you want a name to peg the work with. It’s very careful work.

What do you know of the et al work that will be in the Walters exhibition?

A useful word for describing et al’s abnormal mass delusions? in New Plymouth was “baggage“. For one thing, the show was full of old gear, old furniture, old video monitors, old speakers, some of it stacked as if stored, behind wire fences, like some kind of slightly derelict institutional storage space.

The age of these things gives them a kind of historical baggage. In this more general way that people talk about baggage, like you might talk about “emotional baggage“ that someone carries around, et al also works with big general “cultural“ baggage, with ways whole cultural traditions think and organise things.

I’d emphasise again, though, that the work gets at these kinds of ideas first of all in art ways, by presenting a look and a feel. It’s work to see, before it’s work to read about.

© New Zealand Herald