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Review: Showing her cards

Melissa Anderson Scott tells arts editor Linda Herrick her latest show was inspired by thoughts on gambling.

In a perverse kind of way, SkyCity Casino is the inspiration for artist Melissa Anderson Scott’s latest exhibition, the Personal Greed Series. Perverse, in the sense that the casino and the issue of gambling deeply depress Anderson Scott.

But her concern has had a creative outcome. She eventually had to confront her own feelings about greed and gratification; and those sometimes painful thoughts have found expression in the series – of which a large component is painted on art cards cut in the same shape as SkyCity playing cards. Real casino cards are also grouped alongside Catholic religious cards, and an igloo installation is made entirely of SkyCity cards.

“The igloo is called Shelter for the Homeless and it’s based on my objections to having a casino and my feelings about global culture,” explains Chicago-born Anderson Scott, a former newspaper artist who moved to New Zealand in 1975 with her Kiwi husband.

“Growing up in the United States I was aware of the gambling problem there, especially the casinos on the Indian reservations. I have always thought it was a huge mistake to bring casinos into this culture; they feed off poverty and desperation. That’s why I made the card house – they symbolize rapid achievement and inevitable disappointment. They always fall down.”

Anderson Scott’s revulsion included self-examination. “I started wondering, ‘What’s my real problem?” I could easily gamble, I’m easily seduced by the idea of something for nothing. I realised I felt I deserved more than I have. So instead of looking outwards at society and criticizing the casino, I had to look at myself and say I’m a sucker for the special purchase, the treat.”

Anderson Scott has been exhibiting in solo shows for 10 years, with acclaimed series such as The Dinner Party; Diary of a Social Life; Norman Laughs Again; Cracking the Code and Thread of Narrative. Some elements of this show link back to those, but Personal Greed extends her attraction to “interactive art”, in the sense the cards in many of the installations can be moved around to suit the viewer. Her titles, as always, reflect Anderson Scott’s introspective process.

“I Was Fast, I Was Quick, I Was Sure is a memory piece,” she says. “It’s about being young when you’re sure you know what you want. Later you will come to doubt that you knew what you were doing.

“I Just Want What I Had Before is an impossible, greedy longing, with images of relatives of mine. They represent my family in America. Queens (religious cards groups with playing cards) is about when I went straight from the casino to the Catholic cathedral; to me the casino has become the modern cathedral.”

Anderson Scott says work, for her, is often “really torture … This show was the most difficult one I’ve ever put together. The theory was very complicated and visually it was very hard to combine so many ideas into a coherent strategy.

“And a lot of it brought up a feeling of sadness and wistfulness. There’s a lot of introspection when you’re working alone, so it’s not a lot of fun sometimes.”

Anderson Scott agrees that although she’s lived in New Zealand long enough to call it home, she still gets homesick. She’s also looking around her adopted home with a more critical eye … because she cares.

“I have a sense of dislocation because even though I’ve lived here a long time, my memories are of another place. I’m at a stage when I seem to be looking back a lot but I’m also looking at the society around me in a more perceptive way.

“The first years I was in New Zealand I was fitting in; now I’m starting to say some things here aren’t right, not good enough, we can do better. That means myself as well.”

The largest piece in the exhibition is Trap, an elongated steel wire fishing net suspended from the ceiling, with playing cards floating within. “In the casino,” says Anderson Scott, “people can buy underpants in the lobby, tooth brushes, deodorant, whatever they need so they don’t have to leave. They can’t leave.”

She laughs at the trap she set in the media kitsets. Enclosed was a beautifully wrapped little gold box, with a tissue-wrapped object inside. A present? For nothing? Exciting! Strip away the tissue and you’re left holding … a playing card.

Linda Herrick
NZ Herald, Arts on Monday, May 27, 2002: Showing Her Cards
Scan of original review: Showing her cards (220kb)