The Walters Prize: clever work if you can find it

Walters Prize Auckland Art Gallery

Until October 12

It’s often said that artists take their audiences on a journey – a path to discovering aspects of their world, self discovery or the meaning of life. The four artists in the Walters Prize this year all take the viewers on journeys, physically, psychologically, emotionally and metaphorically.

The prize is intended to expand the discussion around contemporary art. Some years it has managed to achieve this, at other times not. This year the four works are all pushing the boundaries of art in ways which are both accessible, entertaining and bewildering. As well as inaccessible.

Three of the works are really not in the gallery and require much more of the audience than most art works. This means that some of the works are available to an exclusive audience highlighting the gap between the egalitarianism and the elitist aspects of the works.

While the show features an example of traditional completed art work, most of them are concerned with the process of art whereby the viewer brings together various threads to create their own art experience. Anand, the Discount Taxi driver, is probably the one Aucklander who knows what the real story about the Walters Prize and the four artists is than anybody else. His role is to drive viewers from the Auckland Art Gallery across town to a suburban house, which you get to stroll around before returning you to the gallery. This is the work of Luke Willis Thompson, called "inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam."

It’s a work which is not clearly defined. It probably starts when a gallery attendant asks you if you want to go on the trip and then at an allocated time you are ferried by Ananad via a roundabout route to the house. It could be the walk around the house, presumably his family home, filled with layers of history, rubbish and promises. It could be the discussion afterwards in the taxi of three or four people talking what they have encountered (there is not much talking in the house – it's too much like being in a gallery or a sacred site. This is where Anand picks up the words of wisdom as the cab customers discuss Luke’s work and the other artists. He is almost the artist’s alter ego, trawling the gallery for people’s responses.

Being in the house brings back memories of other similar projects like that of Gregor Schneider who recreates his family home within other gallery spaces, the occupants apparently only recently departed. This being present in the artist's environment links to the practice of preserving artists' homes and studios such as Cezanne and McCahon, as though being in the artist's environment will give some insights into the artist's mind by a process of osmosis. One aspect of Thompson's work is the way it both accepts and denies the ideas of elitism. While the Walters Prize is a free exhibition and open to all, there is only a select group (less than 2000 people) who can actually experience the work. There are about five taxi rides a day over the 100 days of the show with no more than four people in the cab.

The most direst and comprehensible of the exhibitions is the installation by Simon Denny. For him to win would fit nicely with his development and profile being the artist chosen to represent New Zealand at next year's Venice Biennale. His work consists of about 100 large billboards or signs, which spread through the gallery space – a combination of airport security queue and fairground maze. Each of the panels consists of details of presentations made at a conference on the digital age that Denny attended in 2012. The various presentations had titles such as Epidemic Intelligence Social Media Commerce Need Speed and Greed, Inattentional Blindness Extra-Sensory Reception.

However, rather than be a summary of the key points of each presentation the artist has extracted some of the more tedious, trite, internet buzz words such as; “Imagination is the ultimate renewable resource Our future is cosmic – but also earth centred I never look in the rear view mirror The demand for mobile is going up exponentially – 35 timers a year.

This combination of the comic, the wise, the pretentious and new age naval gazing is overwhelming, promising so much and delivering so little. The works are both a song of rapture for the digital age and an elaborate joke.

The work by Maddie Leach is one of two works that will be difficult to find. In fact hers is impossible, as the outcome of her project is a lump of concrete lying off the Taranaki coast.

At one level her project follows a very primitive approach to art. She is like an alchemist attempting to change one element into another. The idea of transformation is something all artists deal with but she has done so on a grand scale. The work consists of the documentation of the way she has taken a drum of oil and, with a combination of alchemy, industrial process and sleight of hand, changed it into a block of cement, which she has deposited in the sea.

Imagining the drum to be full of rare whale oil, she see her process as using the valuable commodity taken from the sea as being returned, repeating ideas about the notions of long-term recycling and entropy in which energy and resources are transformed from one state to another.

The other work / artist which is difficult to locate is that of Kalisolaite ‘Uhila. His work Mo’ui tukuhausia (no home) straddles performance, installation and social experiment. For the period of the exhibition he has become a homeless person inhabiting the gallery during the day and its environs at night where he dosses down with other homeless people, in a sense providing us with a form of theatre which we can watch whether he is present or not. The problem with the work is that nobody really knows where he is. It took me three attempts to locate him.

There were clues – his clothes scattered in one gallery, his bike in another. He was found eventually sandwiched between the exterior roofs of the gallery. It raises questions about whether the artist needs to be seen to appreciate the work or whether the concept of someone drawing attention to the plight of the homeless is enough. Does his appearance have an impact on our perception of how the homeless live or does it devalue their position in society by making a spectacle of them.

What his work does do is expand the role of the artist/ performer as an agent of change, that he is confronting a social issue in much the same way that the other artists in the Walters prize draw attention to social, environmental and political issues.