Peter Hill’s Superfictions

In Issue 46, Judith Pugh discusses Peter Hill's elusive 'Superfictions', which exist in the gap between installation art and literary fiction.

‘The New Yorker’ account by Ernesto Malley of the first Paintforum International held in Melbourne in March 2018 revealed a city, indeed, a community, so committed to the visual arts that every public and private gallery and exhibition space, even the vast railway stations, were replete with work from the most visible and utterly unheard-of artists. A conference staged by four universities was advertised on every tram and train station, Lear Jets bearing bidders and buyers crowded Melbourne Airport, and a million-dollar painting prize was awarded. The host city of the to-be-annual event promised to become the epicentre of the international art market.

Except … readers familiar with Australian twentieth-century cultural history would spot the ‘Ernesto Malley’ reference. In 1944 Max Harris published a set of free-verse poems in his modernist magazine, Angry Penguins. They were a hoax, composed by poets James McAuley and Douglas Stewart, using the pseudonym ‘Ern Malley’, and once the hoax was revealed embarrassment followed for Harris and his supporters.

The 2018 reprise in New Yorker, Ernetso Malley’s Paintforum International, is a festival of the imagination and yet another of Peter Hill’s ‘Superfictions’.

His first Superfiction-style exhibition was in Edinburgh at WASPS Studio Gallery in 1988 and was called ‘Faking It’. Then, in 1989, the advertising for Glasgow Cultural City of Europe went not to Peter’s Glasgow art magazine, ALBA, but to Saatchi and Saatchi. Initially dismayed, Peter looked on the art world, the art market, its manipulations and its irrelevance to the work of artists, with a cold eye, understanding that a lively local scene is peripheral to the forces of the international market.

He found a brilliant response. It was inexpensive, independent of deadlines, entirely controlled on his own terms, and very very funny. The ironic, subtle concept opened infinite possibilities, providing the means simultaneously to participate in the international art scene and to comment on its pretensions and constraints.

He produced his grand Superfiction, the lavish New York Museum of Contemporary Ideas (MoCI), appointing himself Press Officer. MoCI’s address was Riverside Drive, and its letterhead featured a deliberately faded map of Dundee, with that city’s Riverside Drive barely visible. Peter faxed regular press releases describing events at the museum to journals, institutions and newspapers. The MoCI took booths at art fairs. The project placed him at the centre of the international art world, travelling from art fair to art fair. These posh momentary trade shows allowed him to observe the highest level of that art world, inhabited by directors of major institutions, corporate and wealthy collectors, while meeting artists and visiting galleries, studios and art museums in cities across the globe.

The concept offered a solution to an issue that Peter had confronted when a student. The market requires an artist to produce consistent work, each piece a recognisable ‘brand’; any change in style or subject, whether gradual or abrupt, ascribed to something having its own selling ‘hook’,
be it a trip, a trauma or perhaps a celebrity link. The change must be supported by curatorial authority.

Now he could exhibit whatever he wanted and write about it. His show arrived in my new premises in Melbourne’s Gertrude Street precinct as a travelling group exhibition from the MoCI. Each piece was by Peter, under a different name. Escalating the concept, the catalogue described at least one picture as the work of a collective, The After Sex Cigarette. The second Melbourne Art Fair was happening concurrently in the Exhibition Building at the top of the street, and I expected anyone strolling down to see the scene would come to us first. It was naïve of me: the proximity of the art fair meant people were less, not more, likely to explore the scene. Which is the point Peter continues to make; that the art world itself is a system that has become antithetical to the creativity, the imagination, of artists.

Peter coined the word Superfictions for the MoCI and its myriad offshoots. His deep concentration and commitment, his objectivity, keep the irony focused. The funny, extravagantly detailed concept meets the art world materially through exhibitions, providing a way for him to comment on that world and the wider social systems in which we are all embroiled. During all this he is making his own paintings, prints and films, living freely as an artist, working in any genre he chooses, and having fun.

Peter’s PhD explored the Superfiction notion. He has reviewed and critiqued for a number of prestigious journals, and his performance lecture venues have included The Sorbonne, London’s Royal College of Art, The London Institute, California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, the Glasgow School of Art, Dublin’s National College of Art and Design, Shanghai Normal University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

Peter’s memoir of lighthouse-keeping, Stargazing, won a Saltire Society Literary Award, and he also produced the ‘Art Fair Murders’ in which fictitious denizens of the art fair circuit were despatched by a serial killer.

His material Superfictions have been exhibited in the Sydney Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art (Oxford), the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Auckland City Gallery, the Cité International des Arts in Paris, and with Hubert Winter Gallery in Vienna. To critique, participate in, and live from the art world, he has added digital tools to his repertoire. This virtual capacity adds to the possibilities, further blurring reality.

This is freedom, won with remarkable energy and steely determination. He’s the Stephen Fry of the art world, a polymath responding to every nuance of politics, an anthropologist recording minute details of local and international art speak, art fashion, and theorising the while. And there he is, online
– at superfictions.org/videos (with cameo appearances by Edmond Capon, Leon Paroissien, and Nick Waterlow) – apparently adding to, perhaps painting over one of his paintings, which he can make on his own terms, selling being not the main game.

Peter always reflects on economics and official operations in the art world. When public galleries began opening restaurants, the MoCI followed suit, installing a restaurant, Plato’s Cave, in the basement. Its motto: Linking Drinking with Thinking.

He reveals that he has come to understand that the ironic humour of his work masked the trauma of being in Guildford when the IRA blew up pubs frequented by British soldiers. It was ghastly for everyone there, but the security forces then arrested some innocent Irish people, charged them, and conspired with the prosecutors and the judge to have them gaoled. This was a Superfiction of a different sort. Peter recently met one of the convicted innocents, Paddy Armstrong, and says he is planning to make a film, interleaving his own story of lighthouse keeping with that of the Guildford bombings.

Presenting an unreal world in a material world requires constant alertness, and absolute discipline: to be energetic, but not frenetic. Peter’s good manners underpin his interactions, he is never distracted in conversation. There are moments of hilarity, but always delivered in a quiet, considered manner. Discussing his response when he was told that his press release about a show in the MoCI was published in Germany’s Wolkenkratzer magazine and almost led to a meeting to consider a similar Museum of Ideas in Frankfurt. ‘Apply for a job: Publicity Officer … or even Director.’

At present he’s proposing work for the 2019 Venice Biennale. Curator Ralph Rugoff is focusing on responses to current politics, including fake news, as part of his ‘May you Live in Interesting Times’ theme. But maybe Superfictions make curators uneasy … Peter may take a room near the Arsenale and show his work there. Either way, whether or not he is included officially, Peter can’t lose.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 46, 2019
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