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The Artist and the Emperor

“Art writers are among the least interesting people I’ve ever met”

Some things are just expected of us. For instance, if you happen to be an Auckland-based art writer, then forming an opinion of Billy Apple’s The Artist Has To Live Like Everyone Else is among the expected duties. It’s not as bad as it sounds. If you call the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and let them know your coming, the media liaison will offer to meet you at the door. Still, no one likes that looming feeling of something your meant to do.

In the week leading up to the exhibition, a slue of articles, interviews, and press releases commended the Artist’s practice, a timely reminder of why we ought to care. The New Zealand media tended to highlight Billy Apple’s association with David Hockney and Andy Warhol (Kiwi’s are always worried about being relevant on the world stage). It’s an old colonial neurosis, and the regularity with which it was mentioned was telling. I got the impression that Billy had done his time; nearly sixty years of continuous practice is nothing to be sniffed at. The clock was ticking, and unless Billy’s efforts to clone himself came to an unexpected fruition, a retrospective was in order, nay! A retrospective was expected of us.

I decided not to call the media-liaison, better to behave like a regular punter. Upon entering the Auckland Art Gallery, a receptionist handed me an exhibition catalogue and directed me upstairs toward the Billy Apple Retrospective. On the front cover of the catalogue there was a nice mug-shot of the artist (turns out he was a bit of a dish in 1963). Flipping through the pages of exhibitions and programmes, I eventually made it to the back cover, a full-page spread of Napoleon Bonaparte. Struck with a thought, I spread the publication on its spine, laying the front and back covers side by side. The improvised diptych of Billy and Bonaparte held my attention. Though the men lived two hundred years apart, I was struck by how much they had in common. The Gallery’s conceptual gesture of aligning the two was inspired, and completely high-jacked any intention I may have had of writing a serious review.

A Desperation to get to England

Bonaparte could peer over at Dover on a clear day, but he never did make it to England. Billy had an easier time, catching the big ferry ‘Home’, and shrugging-off his colonial past in the process.

A New Name

The transformation from Barrie Bates to Billy Apple seems pretty innocuous when compared to the name that Napoleon chose for himself: Emperor of the French Republic (and King of Italy to boot). 

Abandoned America

Napoleon famously abandoned the American Continent with the signing of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Billy’s 1975 retirement from the New York art scene, saw the Artist similarly consolidate his efforts back home.

Obsessed with Geometry and Correct Ratio

If your lucky, you’ll catch Billy patrolling the exhibition with a ruler, measuring the distance between his products art. Supposedly, the exhibition largely adheres to the Artist’s favored ‘Golden Ratio’. Bonaparte the artillery officer would have appreciated the mathematical rigor and attention to detail.


By my estimation, Billy measures a modest 5’7 (the Artist hangs his portraits precisely at his own head-height). Bonaparte’s stiletto’s couldn’t hide the fact that at 5”6, he was one of the shortest statesmen of his day.

A Late Revival

Each of the men enjoyed a late resurgence in their home country. Let’s hope that Billy’s retrospective goes better than Bonaparte’s last-dance at The Battle of Waterloo.

Predilection for Legal Codes

The Napoleonic Code remains one of Bonaparte’s defining legacies. Taking out new copy-rights on his name remains one of Billy’s favorite past-times.

Settled (Exiled) on an Island

The North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) and St Helena are the last parallels of Billy and Bonaparte. Both went out into the world, and not quite achieving what they set out to do, settled on an Island.

I have been having a recurring dream about Billy Apple. The dream begins with the Artist and I sharing an elevator, it’s a ply-board interior (so probably the Auckland Art Gallery). At first, Billy treats me sweetly, patting me on the back and calming me with casual kiwi-isms. Then, the Artist’s jovial manner suddenly becomes abusive. The pats become smacks, and his aging grin gives way to a sinister grimace. The dream ends with me in a huddle on the floor of the elevator, Billy’s fists bearing me deeper into the Gallery’s marble floor.

Dreams such as these should be left to the psychoanalysts, and reviews to those with more scholarly decorum. It’s a bit embarrassing how many art reviews end up being about the writer… still, we’re living in an age of enlivened subjectivities (Instagram and all that), and it’s hard to fight against the grain.

Sally Moffat

This entry was posted in: Reviews

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