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Accelerated Geographies, Alex Monteith Accelerated Geographies, Alex Monteith
courtesy the artist

Monteith has put the audio back in audio-visual, and long before you have sighted the full spectrum of multi-screen video installations, your eardrums have become acquainted with their soundtracks, blending subtly, and not so subtly, into a sonic whole that makes the gallery pulsate.

Works are numbered but there is no need for sequential viewing. There is no ‘narrative’ and in a sense all Monteith’s works do the same thing differently, riffing off each other as different angles or points of view trained on the same territory. And territory is one of the things Monteith’s work is all about.

It’s tempting to ascribe the artist’s fascination with the politics of place to the fact that she grew up in Northern Ireland, which perhaps also offers a clue as to why military vehicles (helicopters and airplanes) figure so prominently in her landscapes. It might also explain her deep sympathies with the Maori sovereignty movement, in which issues of land, ownership and occupation remain barely healed wounds.

But there’s another, more immediate aspect to Monteith’s practice which both augments and destabilises her politics; her love of danger and the throbbing machine. Not since the Italian Futurist Marinetti eulogised speed as the only beauty worth celebrating and the motorcar as its ultimate incarnation, has an artist derived such thrills from where the rubber meets the road. Apart from the surfing video Red Session #2, 2009 (Monteith was herself a surf champion), the entire exhibition can be read as a love letter to the internal combustion engine. Unlike Marinetti’s impassioned manifesto, however, Monteith’s digital love letter comes post-peak oil, where the future of excess consumption is uncertain at best. But Monteith’s political persuasions are the polar opposite of the proto-Fascist Marinetti, which makes her 21st century reworking of his macho-machinist lexicon all the more confounding.

But therein also lies the key to her success—for Monteith the petrol-head, the adrenaline junkie is deeply engaged in the communities of pilots, surfers, activists and motorcyclists she portrays. This isn’t some relational art junket where the artist travels the globe forcing dictatorial outcomes upon people she’ll never see again. Alex Monteith is committed to the sports she portrays; whether surfing or motorcycling, she’s just as likely to be in shot as out of it. When this attention is transferred to another community of expertise, for example the Royal New Zealand Air Force, her up-close and personal experiences with the technicalities of risk and speed allow her access to worlds that remain closed to most of us. Speaking a kind of universal language of controlled acceleration, she is, in effect, one of the blokes. Yet her non-bloke status gives the works a subtle nuance, another level in the discourse around insider/outsider, another perspective on territory and community.

The first work the viewer is confronted with is also the most recent, Composition with RNZAF No. 3 Squadron Exercise Blackbird For Three-Channel Video Installation, 2010 (Monteith’s titles are all very Kosuthian in their ‘what you read is what you get’ logic). Three Air Force Iroquois helicopters take off from the South Island’s Leese Valley, tussock grass billowing like tousled fur. I use the furry metaphor deliberately, because for a show all about machinery, there’s a strangely animalistic evocation in the gallery, a growling presence. Perhaps it’s the wildness within that we designate as animal because it scares us? The helicopters are plenty scary as they hover, black and brutish, over misty mountain peaks, the sublime natural landscape matching the magnificence of the war machines. The US Military named the majority of their helicopter models after Native American tribes, and ‘Iroquois’ graced the machine that is forever linked to the Vietnam War, a bitterly ironic label given its use in the attempted subjugation of an indigenous population.

The flipside to military might occurs in a quiet room, where Red Session #2 laps away along four screens, while two protest videos play back to back on a diagonal screen. These aren’t images of people marching or shouting, rather, in keeping with Monteith’s predilection for the motor, and in the era of the shopping mall and the drive-thru, they are vehicular. One features two red Land Rovers flying Tino Rangatiratanga (Maori sovereignty) flags in the Taranaki region, while the other depicts a small phalanx of vehicles, similarly decked out, being escorted by police over the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day 2008 (subsequently, the government decided to allow the flying of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag from the bridge on our national day). Monteith has dedicated Red Session #2 and the Taranaki protest work to the late Te Miringa Hohaia, who was a bridge between Maori and Pakeha activist and artist communities. Hohaia put Parihaka back on the map as the legendary Taranaki site where Maori prophets Te Whiti and Tohu gave birth to passive resistance while Gandhi was still a boy. Parihaka, as much as the Govett-Brewster, has brought artists of a political persuasion to Taranaki, particularly the collective Local Time, of which Monteith is part.

In all this talk of communities, however, let’s not forget the art community, to whom Monteith pays homage with the intense rigour and formalism she brings to each project. The video screen can be likened to an abstract picture plane, and nowhere is this more apparent than Ascents and Descents in Real Time, V1 and V2, 2008, in which motocross riders traverse a sand dune, carving brushstrokes across a great golden canvas. In Composition with RNZAF Red Checkers for Five-Channel Video Installation, 2009, the five yellow tail wings maintain a central verticality while the landscape tilts, other planes loop and veer, and contrails billow across the blue sky. And in Looping Manoeuvre with Shaun Harris and Onboard Dual-Cams for Two-Channel Video Installation, 2008, the motorcycle champion creates lurching diagonals, which are either mesmerising or sick-making, depending on your constitution. It’s a kind of Stargate Sequence for would-be racers, an opportunity for voyeuristic thrills. But what differentiates Monteith is that she is not a voyeur, but a participant. Her work is about delivering her audience that coveted point-of-view shot, so that they, too, can be up close and personal with the action. Her work does not describe these worlds, it lives these worlds, presenting them to us with palpable integrity.

Alex Monteith, Accelerated Geographies, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand, Sept 25-Nov 28;

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 41

© Tessa Laird; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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