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Game of Two Halves: Simon Denny

This is part three of a series that investigates Simon Denny’s Secret Power, the project representing New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale. The exhibition addresses the intersection of knowledge and geography in a post-Snowden world, and is split between two sites: the Marco Polo Airport, and the Marciana Library.

Venice is strange.

I looked across the canal to see the newest addition to the Biennale headquarters, the Australian Pavilion. The steel clad structure loomed on the water’s edge like a dark modernist beast, and the iron ore surface left no illusions about where they’d got the money for the eleven million dollar pavilion. Amidst plenty of pomp, Cate Blanchet cut the ribbon for the venues inaugural exhibition. Accurately titled ‘Wrong Way Time’, Australia takes the prize for big money flop of the 56th Venice Biennale.

Perhaps strangest of all, the New Zealand representative at Venice has a German accent. In this fairground where nationalism is the binding oil, New Zealand backed a Berliner. Good call I reckon. The strongest pavilions at Venice are those that play with latent nationalism; and Simon Denny – with the assistance of investigative journalist Nicky Hager – cut against the usually conciliatory tone of Venice pavilions. Quantifying success in the arts might be a bit tricky, but Secret Power is as near to a consensus “smash hit” as the art world can provide.

In art’s professional era, Denny is the best on offer. Meticulously researched, impeccably presented, and extremely well connected; Denny is a master of his craft. An arts equivalent to a Silicon Valley Executive, Denny’s latest Christie’s video profile is a performance of product-orientated transcendence. It seems that Denny’s 2012 profile of the tech industry wasn’t simply an artistic conceit, but a statement of belonging.

Robert Leonard, the curator of Secret Power, offered up a provocative bit of hype in the build up to Venice, describing Denny’s recent work as a “break-through moment”:

“I think of Manet’s Olympia, or Duchamp’s Fountain. Denny is doing something similar.”

While the comment belongs to the rhetoric of ascendance, I confess to having felt the same way about Denny during the 2014 Walter’s Prize.  At the time I was working at the Auckland Art Gallery, convincing unsuspecting visitors to take a ride in Luke Willis Thompson’s taxi, and guarding the winding alleys of Denny’s DLD installation. It is very hard to maintain a gallery-minders interest over four-months, but Denny’s group portrait of the Munich tech conference got under my skin. Dense and textual, and yet charged with immediacy, this was an artwork operating on uncommon terms. Denny’s installations can be read like road maps, guiding you to the correct, contextual understanding of the subject. The trail of fictitious memorabilia wants you to come along for the ride; it’s a guided tour without the docent.

While it may be fun to tease Denny about his German accent, let’s be mindful of the tall-poppy mentality lurking in our society. New Zealanders often conflate international success with abandonment, and smile, sure in the knowledge that like Billy Apple, they’ll be back, they always come back. Denny might one day come home and attend Parnell openings as an elder statesmen, trading secrets of Berlin in the naughties for another glass of chardonnay. Perhaps snubbing Denny twice for the Walters Prize was our way of telling him that home can always make you feel like shit. I hope he gets nominated again, and again, until out of pure resignation Denny is sent the damn cheque.

Emil Dryburgh

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