Is he a natural clown or the nation’s greatest conceptual artist?
By Lyndon Hood
“Untitled Employment Policy #7”, John Key, 2008-2011 (collection of the artist)
In a move that has already provoked controversy, John Key has been awarded the 2011 Walters Prize for his work “Prime Minister of New Zealand”.
Political performance art is usually frowned on by the establishment and some have claimed the award was based solely on public popularity.
Walters jury member Helen Highwater has already publicly disassociated herself from the result. “[The prize] recognises an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to contemporary art in New Zealand in the two years prior,” she said. “John Key isn’t an artist, he’s a politician.”
Judge Allen Huge-Glasses called this “an understandable mistake” and went on to defend the quality of Key’s work. “Good art should provoke, and shake our preconceptions,” he said, “As a society we assume Prime Ministers should have some – well, any – dignity. Mr Key makes us ask the question: what if, instead, the Prime Minister was a clown? A loveable clown, with all the gravitas of a helium balloon. A comic vacuum cleaner salesman hawking policies door to door. John Key’s ‘Prime Minister of New Zealand’ lets us experience the answer to that question in all its glory and its horror.”
The secret of clowns, Huge-Glasses explained, is they make fools of themselves in public, but feel no shame. “Yes, an ordinary clown might have minced down a runway platform or chatted about the ladies with the country’s most prominent perpetrator of domestic violence. Mr Key’s genius recontextualises these actions, performing them in the persona of leader of an actual country, and carries that gormless idiocy fully into the political realm.”
“Look at the state asset sales. It’s supposed to be horribly unpopular, and not one of his reasons stack up. He won’t understand the problem with talking to Tony Veitch, even though his justice policy seems entirely based on never forgiving criminals. He just keeps on going, like Mr Bean trying to pack a suitcase. And we love him for it.”
“You can make this stuff up, but it takes a heroic effort and that deserves to be recognised.”
Despite some extreme views, this year’s award has been unique in receiving no editorial criticism from the media. Commentators as diverse as the Herald editorial and Garth George have described the jury’s decision as “far-sighted”, “bold” and “a death blow to namby-pamby PC political correctness”.
Members of the public spoken to by Werewolf described the news that the Prime Minister had won the award as “nice”.
John Key – a persona adopted by flamboyant Czech émigré Jan Klíč in 1992 – spoke about the win at his weekly press conference. High public office is an unusual base for political parody but Mr Key said it wasn’t as much work as he had expected: “Basically I just let my Ministers do whatever they want and I can devote my energy to The Work.”
Key announced that he will be taking a new commission titled “Welfare Reform” to represent New Zealand at the Venice Bienalle.
He was also questioned further on his radio conversations with Tony Veitch. When asked if saying that women “should be thrilled” to be on his ‘hot list’ was compounding sexual objectification, he responded, “that’s a big word, missy.”
Opposition leader Phil Goff responded quickly to the prize announcement, saying “I’m performance art too. Look!” He then began to construct an invisible wall using mime. Onlookers were impressed by Mr Goff’s technique, and said they could practically tell what the wall was made of.
The Walters Prize announcement would normally take place in 2012. It was brought forward to avoid a conflict with the Rugby World Cup.