5 Sep 2015

Simon Denny: Power, secrets and art

12:31 pm on 5 September 2015

Te Papa has acquired four pieces from contemporary artist Simon Denny's 'Secret Power' exhibition for $750,000, saying they are his "most ambitious works to date".

The Berlin-based New Zealand artist's exhibition is based on Edward Snowden's US National Security Agency (NSA) leaks, and addresses contemporary issues of privacy, mass surveillance, national identity and international security. It has been on display at the historic Marciana Library in Venice as part of this year's Venice Biennale.

Te Papa said the four pieces would come into the museum's collection after the exhibition closed in November, and were likely to be exhibited at Te Papa next year.

'Secret Power' has been widely acclaimed and there was a high level of interest from international institutions and private collectors in acquiring the works, the museum said.

Simon Denny

Simon Denny (pictured in Venice) spoke today with Kim Hill about his work, and pushing the boundaries of permission. Photo: Nick Ash

The contemporary artist's four works are displayed on server-racks, normally used for holding computer servers. Content released in the NSA leaks takes shape among the cabinets in the form of documents, slides and images.

"I made a monumental display of some selections of [the NSA slides] to make sense of what imagery is drawn on and what kind of genres are present in the way that these surveillance programmes are emerging," Mr Denny told Radio New Zealand's Kim Hill.

"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 a good window to look at where the concentration of power and wealth is in the world.''

His work, named after Nicky Hager's 1996 book about New Zealand's involvement in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence network, aims to link the world of computing and internet with the images and language used to describe it.

"Linking material and linking content is one of the great things the internet has let us to do... I've tried to be reflective of that also in my exhibition-making in general and particularly in this exhibition, so I tried to look at things and bring them together and make some kind of sense between lots of pieces of content."

Testing the boundaries of permission

Part of the exhibition includes content taken without permission from former NSA designer and creative director of defence Intelligence David Darchicourt.

"Because he kind of defined some of the imagery and the look of that institution, I thought it was appropriate to take his work, not his person, but the images he made."

He said he used the images to underline issues raised by the Snowden releases - what people do with material others put online, including images of themselves, and whether those people are comfortable with the results.

"By doing that without permission, I really got into a space where viewers looking at this material that knew it was done without permission would feel those issues really strongly."

One of the server racks used in 'Secret Power' in Venice.

One of the server racks used in 'Secret Power' in Venice. Photo: Nick Ash

Mr Denny said the $750,000 payment from Te Papa would help to cover some of the costs involved in creating the project and transporting it to Venice.

The artist, who has previously created art based on Kim Dotcom's seized assets, has also had work purchased by major international institutions, including New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

Te Papa chief executive Rick Ellis said the purchase formed part of the museum's responsibility to build a collection of "national importance for future generations".

"We have seized the opportunity to acquire these major works by a New Zealand artist with a formidable international reputation."

Te Papa senior curator Sarah Farrar said the works would provoke debate and discussion about issues of importance to New Zealanders.

"These works allow us to address issues of global importance from a local perspective," she said.

"They are Denny's most ambitious works to date, and have a strong connection with New Zealand."

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