Artist Andy Leleisi’uao’s: A puzzling visionary
An essay, written by a papa’aa1 (European)who knows neither Aoteroa nor Pacific art nor Samoan Va, must be treated with care. Nevertheless, in all abstraction it can be argued that art essentially arises from the objective appropriation and subsequent subjective concretisation of a metaphysical worldview. Intentionally or unconsciously, an artist uses or comments on existing concepts, forms, colours and images and relates his worldview to how he/she experiences, man-made or found visual culture in nature, reality. Although Andy Leleisi'uao's sense of life2 is certainly incorporated in his canvases, the artist looks to the future. In doing so, he observes, engages and interprets processes of living and project it into the spiritual building of an alternative world full of existential (de)connectivity and profound harmony. In fact, with his new series, A Diasporic pulse of Faith and Patience, paintings made while on a residency in New York, Leleisi’uao lets even go of a conditioned sociocultural identity and delivers an intellectual expression of choices and conflicts rhythmically reflecting the industry of living in (de)constructed netherworlds. The mind’s eye is aspirated into enigma’s and secrets which ontologically thematize notions of being(s), so universal that they transcend culture, gender, race and ideology. Before the New Zealand artist presumed to speak for a lost generation but now, the Zen-master with Samoan roots cultivates his own graphic language and overloads our sense of sight with universal fantasies about compassion, integration, participation and unification.
Zig-zagging the spectator plunges into an ambivalent rubsicube that, with every 180° turn, inspires hope for a new utopia. On a metaphysical level, the James Wallace Paramount Award winner work’ questions how our material reality is constructed and unconsciously relates to our in-between position namely the constant flux of going somewhere and nowhere. Leleisi’uao geometrically scattered compositions, his formal choices, humouristic accidents, which are essentially visual dialogues between representation and void, figure and space, solid and fluid, bear this metaphysical dimension. The formal set-up, reminiscent of Tapa designs, passes through a dualism namely the Dionysic and Apollonic. The ever-returning lines, grids, (dis)figured figures and objects, which are full of physical and spiritual movement, are an expression of the search for a balance between these opposing forces.3
Although one could have argued that his earlier work is late 80’s neo-expressionistic art remixed with some neo-figurative and neo-realistic traits while sporadically borrowing from the pan- Polynesian/ Pacific iconography, a person can declare that the series, for the first time exhibited in their entirety at the Bergman Gallery (Rarotonga), defies every structural categorization. Andy has proudly made from his iconography his personal and individual creation and the resulting aesthetic experience is one of hybridity, even one of de-aestheticization. The artist replaces the appearance of order with the appearance of predominantly black-white controlled chaos.4 Hence maintaining a platonic faith in the mystical contest between form and formless, between color and non-color while at the same time rejecting the classical formulas by which “tasteful art” is produced.
His sophisticated shape of disorder, the marked zones of contrasting, continuously changing geometric compositions, are analyzable into a part-to-whole relationship. However, since all the spaces in the painting(s) are connected with each other, the artist is also representing temporal and spatial nuances of the indefinable Samoan concept of Va. In his work the Va is embodied as a dynamic “in between” space where the human condition can be explored in terms of relationships. The interconnection is attained by use of graphic black grids, a tool to give his worldview and its inhabitants timeless activities a continuous structure without relying on chronological order. In that sense, Leleisi’uao is providing the road maps along which viewers can travel in parallel worlds and discover (a)rhythmic stories of us floating in the ever-evolving space “between all things which defines us and makes us part of the unity that is all”.5 The use of this illusionary pictorial space, holding entities and things together in this self-referencing unity, continue with a random sequence or simultaneity that makes it possible to experience the whole exhibit different at different times.
One shadowed shape, symbolically wiped out with his fingers, of a being is balanced, modified or stimulated by the formal differentiation of the context and these in turn are played off against or with the whole canvas. The flowing anthropomorphic movements, all interconnected, derived from the rich surface slowly neutralizes one another and cool off. But not everything is anthropomorphic: machines imitate animals and insects, people imitate animals, airplanes could be birds, submarines could be fish, people could be statues, etc. There is no certainty in this theatrical spectacle awakening all senses. The only certainty is that a hammer, spray can, Corona bottle, violin, cloak together with Origami papers, chess pieces and jellyfish are cheeky chameleons waiting to be discovered. A Diasporic Pulse formally reverses the traditional relationship between biology and technology and accentuates that time and space are lived rather than recorded. After the visual storm, a calmer stasis results, balanced and sublime, in which narrative spaces operate not only at a physical and relational level but also metaphorically to describe the frenzy of the human spirit. White spaces become warped positives, their black edges are seen as abysses, other worlds, phases, dropping far behind the white planes of possibility, while the hues of red, orange, blue and brown accentuate the allusions, hallucinations, limitations, expansions and contradictions of the artist own mind grasping multiple times, places and spaces.
The never ending play between space(s) and time makes the series as open and fluid as the shapes and meanings of our everyday experiences. A timeless illustration in which each visual grid, each figure, each object has a redolent poetry of his own speaking about a shared genealogy, social sacrifice, transcendence and the uncertain visual identity of art and life. By overloading beings and magical markings with a sense of geometrical framing, by hosting “dark” memories of the past and by welcoming “readymade” accidents as flashbacks to the present, the talented artist is trying to shape the time-space continuum. In rephrasing the form of the formlessness Andy is swiftly moving back through the past to the visions of an imagined and hoped for future while capturing presents of the present.
Andy’s work and play make Plato stay
The viewer must filter through these multiple realms in order gain a comprehensible, yet always unsatisfactory, understanding of the series’ complex entirety. Aesthetically experiencing the paintings is one thing. But his real interest is less in what the images display than in how they function: drawing viewers in, entrapping them and awakening particular responses. So intellectually confronting yourself with the paintings’ layered questions makes it possible to connect far-fetched philosophical constructs to the paintings’ far-beyond reaching representational field. The interchangeability of form and content gives rise to a new pictorial space. A cosmic space, an articulated form of Va as a reality that is apparently transient yet increasingly tangible the more one knows and sees, that can be further conceptualized through Plato's theory of ideas and forms. Plato believed that reality is not a matter of matter, but of mind. The philosopher considered the sensory reality as a false illusion, a bad reproduction of the (spiritual) world of ideas.
Leleisi'uao's sketched reality as a mental imprint makes this division clear. On the one hand there are the identifiable beings that arise and disappear and therefore subject to the laws of time and space, on the other hand there is the soul, in many hidden appearances, timeless and imperishable. The majority of beings want to collectively penetrate the actual reality, the world of ideas. Here the va, as a conceptual space in between, helps us to enter the future world. This entry is total anarchy visually manifesting itself in playing with objects, deranging material, conscious and unconscious figures rambling, building, going, looking and thinking and in the criss-cross movement of subjective expressions and attitudes whereby Andy essentially is relating to the actualization process, as outlined in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, that beings can experience on their way to an “ideal state”. The daring journey7 from the perceptible world to the reality of ideas is constantly going on. The world of beings within time and space, depicted as beings carrying out activities with identifiable objects, live "in the cave". The echoes of the more abstract entities on the other side of the wall, the black demarcated grids, can be seen as temporary variants of the beings. About the process of liberation, escaping from the cave to ascend to the world of abstractions, some beings think long and hard. The sun, the bright red sphere present in some of the spaces in between, corresponds with our mind with which we can see the true insights.
The beings' right to exist is like an ironic game with significations, significations found in imitations of a world continuously imitating itself. Some beings are frozen in time, some explore everyday contingencies, some are deeply thinking, some are recreating knowledge lost in migration, some are looking up, some are looking into the void and others are mimicking each others movements and social patterns. We read one another through what we believe, through the mirrors of who and what we are. Andy is alternatively expressing the spirits urge to self-understanding. These objects and beings render the freedom of this new spirit, externalized in a new world, visible to an audience. But his aim is not to imitate nature, decorate our surroundings, prompt us to engage in moral or political action or simply shock us. In contrast, Andy allows us to contemplate and enjoy created images of our own spiritual freedom projected upon a imaginary world negotiating with its own utopian construction. In this revelation of the true spirit of humanity, one can ask whether we are so free, in individualistic terms, and whether this is ideal at all? As a virtuoso he makes it possible to bring to mind the truth about ourselves and so to become more aware of who we truly are and why we are here or anywhere. These paintings are cosmic templates which acknowledge with humorous subjectivity the confusion of reality, existence and love. The visual artist is sacrificing himself by subcutaneously freeing the spectator from a preconditioned mind, based on a misleading idea of reality, and to raise him/her to a transcendental realm where he/she is in a state of pure unconscious perception of the world as representation, based on mental images and ideas. Fortunately there are no practicalities, competition, money, politics and other sobering considerations getting into the way.
Faith in the cross-passing of time
The multitudes of figures seem more like curious builders and investigators of a new world rather than “habitués” of the secular world. Andy goes into the places of social exchange, beyond the actions of his figures into a shared amoral environment where every act, whether conscious or incidental, seem pointless. But that is exactly the point: beings seemingly offering themselves up for each other. And if you see clearly, really clearly, you’ve got to laugh because beings accomplish nothing. But the seeming triviality of the survival of these subjects and their sacred objects afford precisely the supreme idea of depth. The depths and heights of the living heart as such, beings in their joys, love and sorrows, their strivings, deeds and fates.
In a certain sense, beings are aware of their own historicity because they notice that they take their 8 place somewhere in the chain, and herein the objects act as temporal points of contact. Ancient mythological knowledge exist side by side with rituals that continue to be observed today. One might think that his sense of time is linear, that in other words there is a goal and result, with a starting point and an end point. Andy's symphonic dialogue with the future can prophetically herald the culmination of our historicity. It shows to future extraterrestrial visitors the world we could have, but choose to ignore. In linear thinking, his new works are as Kubrickian monoliths shaping a Leleisi’uaon Odyssey.
However, the repetitive group-oriented events in the artworks, dangling between primitivism, modernism and post-apocalypticism, point more to a belief in a cyclical sense of time. His paintings form the birth of something new. His repetitions make growth, “flowering”, dying and rest possible. Given the group's central position, it also provides social forms of common experience more depth and gives, considering the leaving9 of their previous “homeland”, an emotionally satisfying sense of integration and fulfillment. The vicissitudes of life are naturally accepted by his beings. Everything is full of sense and meaning, even if it has no purpose, even if there is no visible end result. In Andy's visual genesis there is no beginning, middle or end. Love and life simply exist in the forms that we know and do not know. Therefore in Andy’s creative process the word art ceases to refer to specific things or human events and becomes a device for getting the attention of people, who should realize that the world is a work of art we should treasure and share amongst others.
The Zen-master’s near biblical surges of passion
We already know that Andy crisscrossingly paints the ultimate order of existence/ nature, all entrapped in a cave of shadows, as imprinted on his consciousness. In these paintings, he plays this processional order of existence in a sacred play, in and through, which he actualizes anew or recreates the events represented. Hence maintaining the cosmic order of beings moving around, poetically fighting boredom together without hurting each other. These beings cross psychological boundaries between the self and others and in these implicit social conflicts value emerges. The resulting value has an apparent religious side and gives us a clairvoyant spiritual insight.
In this urge to survive in an alternative world, a lot of attention is paid to erecting memorials, leaving emblems that worship the confrontation with emptiness and celebrate the beauty of connectedness. These signs, without directly depicting holiness, acquire an almost religious meaning because they represent something larger than the beings themselves, something that immortalises their faith in alliance. The whole series reads itself as an ever-moving procession, an organised ceremony in which beings look for meaningful connections without manifestations of power, wealth or supernatural beings. In short, one long religious act: transcendent, absurd and absolute. Andy's religion is painting. His religion unfolds as a way to control reality by inventing a perfect world. The ancient struggle between reason and madness, between heaven and hell seem irrelevant to the experience of his utopian world.10 On the contrary, “real” solidarity stands central. In Andy's painted world, you can't achieve anything on your own. The combination of extreme collectivity and selflessness, embodied as social progress and total tolerance for all groups of beings, makes the work radiate potency and acceptance.
But there is in his series a spiritual force at work that transcends the merely religious. There is a grandeur in his vision of a new world, appropriating Darwin’s awe at nature’s creation of endless forms most wonderfully weird. In Leleisi’uao newly shaped world, the spectator uncovers a divine presence, a visible and invisible otherness. But it is also the uncovering of something very human, a celebration of our ability to find the poetic and the transcendent, not through expressing the divine, but paradoxically by exploring what it means to be human. Not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality but in a more transcendental sense. The artist recognizes that our being human is invested not simply in our existence as individuals or as physical beings but also in our collective existence as social beings. Our ability, as social beings, to rise above our individual physical selves and to see ourselves as part of a larger project, to project onto the world, and onto human life, a meaning or purpose that exists only because we as human beings create it. In this sense, he is formulating a critique that we have largely given up on spirituality in a craving for freedom that all too often places individual desires above the common search for meaning.
In those new works Andy has not only externalized an invisible, spiritual presence but the artist has also given life to a new artistic persona, in which he merges passive contemplation with active experimentation. Andy has become the Leleisi’uao Zen Master who mistrusts dogma’s and encourages education, seeks spiritual enlightenment but avoids formalist logic, accepts the body as well as the mind and embraces self-discipline but relinquishes ego-centered self-control. His art intends our thoughts to be directed to a transcendent, superior state of being. Andy pushes for an internally consistent, self-declaring monologue. A monologue between personal ideals that constantly reaches peaks and valleys and a conviction that the universe has no design.
As critic I remain confused, as a curator I am amused and for a spectator its messages are ever diffused. The series’ allegorical storytelling, a species constantly searching, making social gestures, moving, thinking and constructing, reveals in all mysterious grotesqueness that the final part of this jigsaw puzzle called life is self-evident: have love for oneself and show some love for the other. From scale to umbrella, from mechanical to magical powers, from the material to the spiritual, this is a visual plea to take care of (y)our existence, for everything that lives and moves. Therefore a Diasporic pulse, for me forever immortalized as one enormous painting, answers Andy’s call to spirituality and expresses an idiosyncratic world view as complex as Dante, Bosch and Breughel. By suggestively expressing a parallel reality metaphorically, his paintings are transcending time and place. These clusters of interconnected visual diagrams are of all times and of no time at all, of all places and no place at all. His continuous artistic experimentation, culminating in his own original artistic language, reflects a belief that both art and (sur)reality cannot be summarized in a single image, place or time.
Through the prophetic undertones, the imagination seems to precede reality, so that his works always remain one step ahead of us, their completion eternally pending. In this way the paintings also provide us with an epistemological question: what can a classic medium like painting still teach us about perception, space and truth? Andy Leleisi’uao resembles in this regard a visionary poet expanding familiar symbols and creating new ones. While making us spectators think and sweat, the artist subtly delivers a mesmerizing and confronting synthesis of everyone’s self- negotiated in-between position. Be optimistic, be patient and have faith because everything will eventually fall into place. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1 * Essay written by Arthur Buerms, visiting curator from Belgium for a month long residency at the Bergman Gallery (Rarotonga). A special thanks to the Bergman Gallery’s managing director, Ben Bergman, and Andy Leleisi’uao, the artist. 2 Philosophical term, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence, conceived by Rand, A. (1969) The Romantic Manifesto, New American Library, p. 1-199 3 The opposing forces, part of of philosophical concept, are part of a dichotomy based on Greek mythology (The story of Zeus' are two sons, Apollo en Dionysus). Apollo, lighter and more structured, appeals to logic and purity while Dionysus, morbid and more chaotic,, appeal to our emotions and instincts. The going together of these forces seek to affirm life whether in pain, pleasure, suffering or joy. For Nietsche the concept was the underlying essence, a metaphysical connection with the heart of creation, of all “good” art. 4 a formalist with anti-formalistic characteristics (or vice versa)
5 Va’ai S. (1999)., Literary Representations in Western Polynesia: Colonialism and Indigenity, The National University of Samoa, Apia, p. 46
6 a mental diaspora
7 Beings assimilate the phenomena of vegetation and animal life, then some conceive the idea of time and space (display of ancient “Polynesian” navigation techniques, world map, the dots indicating the moon or sun, spaceship, banal objects,...) and eventually some beings contemplate existence, in other words they are intellectually aware of life itself (emblems, playing chess and other “puzzled” activities) 8 whether or not forced
9 A dialogue with morality cannot be derived directly from his work.