The power of one: The rise of Simon Denny
Simon Denny's installation Secret Power, with facts verified by Nicky Hager, will represent New Zealand at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Denny can't say too much about it yet, because he's still at the research stage, and he's presently occupied with his Adam Art Gallery installation, The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom.
Denny is hardly known in New Zealand outside fervent art circles, largely because he departed his birthplace soon after graduating from art school - "and never came home". He shot through Elam in Auckland and on to the Staatliche Hochschule fur Bidende Kunste in Frankfurt am Main in Germany and was catapulted, on luck and talent, to international recognition as an artist.
The fresh-faced, 31-year-old Denny has already exhibited at the innovative but august Biennale last year, as the first New Zealander selected for the central, curated, international show. He's shown his work in major galleries in Germany, London and Paris and, in 2013, was one of four nominees for Germany's top prize for young artists. The installation he showed for that, at Munich, New York and Berlin, was All You Need is Data: The DLD 2012 Conference Redux. Versions of The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom have been shown in Vienna and Britain.
Where did it all begin, this rise and rise that has seen him, not least, named Auckland University's Young Alumnus of the Year last year? Then, the head of Elam called him, admiringly, one of Elam's most successful graduates of the past decade.
Denny's artistic incubation was in Auckland where his parents, he says "had children well. They were generous with their time. As parents raising children, they took it very seriously".
His mother was a professor at Auckland University of Technology and his father, originally a primary school teacher, started a handcraft printing business "and was involved in the art scene. Julian Dashper, I met him through dad. There were books and classical music at home, a household of cultural values.
"I went to Auckland Grammar, and because I was not so into sports, art provided a haven. I played cello in the orchestra and studied painting, which I really got into, though I did a lot of subjects. When I left, I knew I wanted to go to art school."
He entered Elam with the idea of being a painter "and learned lots of ways of making art, and made my first video". As a graduate, making ends meet, he worked in the university library and did exhibitions. One was at Wellington gallery Enjoy, a collaborative exhibition. He made "a piece about a Shaker replica bed. Hard to say what it was about. I was young, you know. It was a lot of fun". He soon met, by happenstance, a German curator on a lecture tour in New Zealand.
"He saw works of mine in an exhibition in New Plymouth, in a group show. I told him I was interested in studying overseas and he put me in a group show in Cologne, where I met my would-be professor, who was into it and let me into the school. So I never went home."
Denny uses a multitude of skills to make his installations, which always begin with copious research but don't, he says, make him a conceptual artist. That label "brings up an association with a particular historical period in the 1960s, the beginning and labelling of conceptual artists". Basically, he says, he doesn't know what it means - "ideas as well as images? It's a bit loose. Artist is fine".
The copious research stage - "much longer than the making" - is where he's at with Secret Power, named after the book of his now adviser, Hager. He intends the work to "address the intersection of geography and power, and the ownership of knowledge".
Making the exhibition is still a fluid process, he says, and he's "not used to so much advanced media interest. I'd love to talk to you about it when it's done".
He does know where the work will be displayed, in the Biblioteca Marchiana (Library of St Mark), a Renaissance building designed by Jacopo Sansovini "as an allegory for the benefits of acquiring knowledge". It holds paintings by famous Venetian artists such as Titian and Tintoretto and houses Renaissance maps and globes, some radical for their time.
"I was able to look at a lot of different venues and this played into my topic. This pioneering library will provide an enriching and highly relevant context for the work."
Hager has said the work will reveal no new information and is unlikely to be controversial. Denny says he's not interested in revelation, he's interested in the cultural context and history of the material "rather than an expose of shocking material. There's a lot of work to do for an artist contextualising this material". At the time his Adam Art Gallery exhibition was being installed, he hadn't met Hager, who will part of the New Zealand team to Venice next year.
"I've spoken to him a couple of times. I often look to people for advice and he was suggested as an intelligent and a good person to talk to, a world- renowned investigative journalist respected for his topic. I've asked him about factual things."
Denny's Dotcom exhibition recreates or alludes to the mass of material confiscated from Dotcom's mansion by police. There's a life-size Predator alien, similar to one Dotcom had and was borrowed from a Rotorua tattoo parlour. A graffiti mural on the wall of Dotcom's gaming room - not confiscated - has been recreated by the original Auckland artists. Fifteen Mercedes and assorted other flash cars, piles of cash and a collection of giant televisions and monitors are also represented.
Denny's intention is to question ideas of ownership and the internet, and other conundrums. He's never met Dotcom. "My interest in him is more as a magnet for issues rather than the man himself."
Berlin, where he lives with his Italian partner, "is pretty much home".
"I work in a lot of countries. I have a nice place there and friends. Germany is very international and I feel very at home there. It's a really amazing place to live.
"I've been extremely lucky," he says, "I'd say a relatively easy path to doing the things I love doing.
"Sometimes things work out."
Simon Denny - The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, is at Wellington's Adam Art Gallery from Saturday until December 19.
The Dominion Post