Biennale artist follows his love
Simon Denny is stand-up straight and neat. Well-pressed. Good skin, tidy hair. He could work in accounts.
It's a surprise when he grabs the ladder we borrowed for the photo shoot, snaps it shut with practised prowess, and lugs it out of the public's way.
"I wasn't always an artist with a budget," he says.
Next year, Denny will represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale: $700,000 in public funds has been committed to sending his show Secret Power to the six-month international contemporary art event that will feature artists from more than 50 countries.
Meet the artist on the eve of the Auckland Art Gallery's $50,000 Walters Prize announcement. He's one of four finalists. The gallery café is closed. Is he OK, perched on a tall stool at a bench in an out-of-the-way corridor?
"You are the architect of this experience," he says.
First impressions: Polite. Obliging.
Denny is a conceptual artist - ideas before objects. His Walters work (he didn't win) was a claustrophobia-inducing record of a visual technology conference. Wellington's Adam Art Gallery is currently showing The Complete Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, in which Denny replicates or represents every item (the cars! the boats! the bank accounts!) confiscated in the police raid of the German millionaire's mansion.
He's reluctant to reveal much about the Biennale exhibition, but its title comes from an early book by investigative journalist Nicky Hager, detailing this country's involvement in signals intelligence and the international spy network - commonly referred to, in a post-Edward Snowden whistle-blowing world, as the "Five Eyes".
"It's still an evolving thing," says Denny. "I'm trying to keep my creative space open, because it's a very important gig and I want to do a great job. Giving away too much information only puts me in the double bind of having to say it's changed next time I talk to the media."
Some thoughts on the world he makes art in: "I think we're at an unprecedented moment, where technology plays a really large part in our lives. And it becomes increasingly visible how much power is concentrated in the hands of those who define that technology . . . technology, now particularly, seems to be kind of a good window to look at where the concentration of power and wealth is in the world."
At certain times of the day, says the artist-as-neutral-observer, "this worries me". "At other times of the day, it just fascinates me."
"I am a huge early adopter. I try to buy the latest phone, I love to read tech blogs and I'm really excited on the one hand, and really annoyed on the other, to answer emails 24/7 and always be online.
"I am post-Snowden and more aware of what the communication means and who's looking and who's thinking. I think that's something no-one can avoid thinking about these days."
The last time New Zealand sent a conceptual artist to Venice, there was a public outcry. Et Al, the mysterious "collective" whose most infamous previous work had been popularly described as a portaloo that brayed like a donkey, was pilloried by media who were refused interviews. Creative New Zealand responded to the backlash with a contractual requirement on future Biennale artists to front up.
By phone and Skype from his home base in Berlin, and back here for the Wellington show and the Walters Prize, Denny has met the press.
"In presenting a commission from the state," he tells the Listener, "I thought it was important to look at government and nations."
In a Metro article, he says: "I'm an acceptor of the world as it is. I'm not out to change the world, I'm out to figure out what it is."
Who is Simon Denny? Aged 31, and the son of John and Heather, he attended Auckland Grammar before embarking on an Elam School of Fine Arts degree.
"I think I've got a pretty good work ethic, my parents instilled that in me.
"They're from a classical music background, so I was a cello player, with an hour or so of practice before school from when I was pretty young. I think, yeah, those things tend to teach you how to work above and beyond the normal schedule."
He was good, but began painting instead in high school. "And I just knew that was something that I enjoyed very much. I didn't know if I could count on it to be something I could support myself with at that stage, but I knew I had a lot of energy for it."
Elam, he says, was a "big jump".
"I went from Grammar, where I was a little bit of a misfit, to Elam where I was straight down the middle, exactly in the right place. I was trying out a lot of things - that's what art school is for - I made my first videos, and I did my first sculptures. Socially, I felt very comfortable - like everything was tailor-made to my interests, finally.
"My parents were very encouraging," he says. "They were like, 'follow what you love, and you'll find a way to make it pay'. Later on, after graduating, I was a little bit suspect of that advice . . ."
A German curator suggested further study at Frankfurt's Staedelschule HFBK, which accepts just 12 students a year. At least three Kiwis have since followed Denny.
"I think the fact that it happened to me a little earlier, in such an intense way, was just timing. It was just pure timing. Luck of the moment, when things were opening up."
That's his story. Take a closer look at his curriculum vitae - it lists 36 solo and 63 group shows since 2005.
Auckland lawyer Harry Cundy is one of Denny's oldest friends. They've known each other since primary school. Denny, he says, "has always been incredibly hard-working . . . even when we were at high school, he was working on the Mobil forecourt in Manukau Rd".
They both attended Auckland Grammar; both performed in the school orchestra, Denny on cello, Cundy on French horn, and shared an appreciation for Bob Dylan and being "the two least cool people in our social group". "Then we started a folk band. The White Collar Holler. We played covers of folk songs Bob Dylan had covered . . . would you believe that did nothing to improve our social standing either? Simon played the guitar sometimes. He also had a piano accordion. We thought it was pretty great."
They flatted together in Auckland's Eden Terrace and worked as part-time waiters at the Anglesea Grill (now Chapel Bar) on Ponsonby Rd. By then, Denny had co-founded the artist-run gallery Gambia Castle, had a job at the Auckland University library and was preparing for his first show with Michael Lett Gallery.
Cundy remembers a brutal schedule - librarian by day; artist by night - as Denny got ready for that exhibition.
"He was always immersed in the business of the art world . . . he has a certain charm and a charisma and confidence, he's always known what he wanted to do, and he's always been very driven to do it."
There's a pay-off now, says Cundy. "But I can only imagine how daunting it would have been to turn up at that art school in Frankfurt; you'd be that 'young art student' again. I can remember him having doubts and expressing concerns.
"At one point, he was living in his studio, not a furnished apartment, just living in his studio, without some of the basic amenities I couldn't live without, in order that he could stay in Europe and do what he wanted to do."
Denny's first experience of the business of art came via Michael Lett, who took the young artist to Liste, companion fair to the influential Art Basel in Switzerland. Six years later, the pair went back to Basel where Denny won the highly competitive Baloise Art Prize. His name may not be mainstream in his own country, but Denny is, says New Zealand's Venice Biennale commissioner Heather Galbraith, "the most high-profile New Zealand artist in the international art world today".
Stack that claim up with a look at an exhibition history that traverses New York to Rome, Copenhagen to Sydney. Next year, he will show at New York museum MoMA PS1, which recently purchased five of his works.
"I think New Zealand is very focused on the proud achievements of its residents let's say, if not its citizens," says Denny. "I think activity here is rightfully celebrated, and activity further away is less under everybody's nose. It's kind of natural I haven't been followed here so much."
If he wasn't an artist, he might have been a lawyer. "My grandfather was a judge, my uncle's also a judge . . . "
He thinks of himself "a little bit" as a documentary maker.
"I make quite content-heavy presentations and it's always a challenge to make that content on the one hand, rich enough, and on the other hand, accessible. These are the things I try to balance . . . I'm kind of a craftsman, and the exhibition is my medium."
He frequently seeks expert input. Nicky Hager is on the team that will go to Venice. His official title is "content advisor".
Hager is being paid a set fee by Creative New Zealand but says he would have worked for free.
"The people he was working with in New Zealand thought it would be a good idea for him to work with someone who knew the detail of those issues," says Hager.
"I think they were partially managing risk, and they also wanted to support him."
Art, Hager agrees, doesn't have to be factual. But, "he's climbing into a subject that is not just a New Zealand subject . . . he's a serious person and he works very hard and he doesn't just want to skim over the surface with a couple of newspaper articles.
"What you can say with Simon is he's not slapping something up. He's thinking about every texture, every material. He's dug into ideas in a really deep way. He's not tricking the public. He's really working at it, he's really creating."
It's hot in this hallway, on these high stools where Denny is perched, trying to explain himself to yet another journalist. He doesn't complain. Art is work; he works hard.
"Founders of companies are expected to be a personification of their brand, and so are artists. They're expected to carry their message through in the way they behave. This means you're always on, and you're never off and this is where we're going, I guess. I don't feel trapped in it, there isn't really another way. I think there is really no choice anymore, if you want to participate in the mainstream art dialogue.
"The more I grow as a person, the better art I make, the older I get, the more informed I get. I met my partner through art, and most of my friends. I travelled first through art."
There were, he says, "some pretty empty bank account moments where I did ask, 'where is this all heading?'
"The more that comes in, the more I'm able to risk what goes out. If I have more money sitting in my bank account for a brief moment, I can upscale my production, the help I have, the research I have access to. But risk is an ongoing bedfellow. It's never without risk. That's life."
And then, charmingly, he puts that life in perspective. "I have an older sister who just had a first child. I just met my nephew a couple of days ago. Honestly, it blew my mind. It was a very moving experience. What can you say? It's kind of a non-verbal experience. Suddenly I was walking down the road with this young life strapped to me and my father by my side and it was three generations of Denny. That was pretty profound. I honestly will remember that till the day I die."