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Thomas, Barry - Photos of 'The Party'

 Fonds — Container: 2022-016
Identifier: thob

Content Description


A happening 20 August 1977

Music Room

Hunter Building

Victoria University

For the 1977 New Zealand Arts Festival Barry Thomas created “The Party” as the opening event for the Festival. Working with Festival organizers Thomas secured the Music Room of the Hunter Building at Victoria University then purchased some large, semi see-through plastic sheeting which he secured to the floor, walls and ceiling of the room. It formed a relatively seamless barrier to entry for the invited guests.

In his letter to the organizers Thomas initially describes two “actors” as per the invitation Rune imagery, but in the final event only he acts out his role on the other side of the plastic. Behind the new “wall” was placed a table full of food and drinks which the invited audience was expecting to consume together to celebrate the start of the festival.

When they arrived, the audience was kept waiting outside till they were ushered in all together to find themselves in the empty side of the room with Barry Thomas alone nibbling the food and drinking behind the plastic wall. Nothing was said. A full three minute plus ticked by until Graeme Stradling, Nick Spill, Andrew Drummond and two others came together in their own un-orchestrated and unrehearsed performance of a “rugby scrum” linking arms and then barging down the barrier to get to the promised offerings.

Testing of the audience as a “happening” work of art was distinctly rare and still new to New Zealand conceptual art modus in 1977. Thomas started making happenings in 1976 while still at art school at Ilam in Christchurch. His logic revolved around extending Marcel Duchamp’s contention that “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act,”

“This play is about people’s reaction to a predicament, denied expectations, instinctual reactions… “ (See letter in Library archive 1977)

Thomas later termed this challenging act “Jetter le gant” – throwing down the glove of challenge to the audience by focussing on their and the artist’s expectations, offering up and re-framing the expectations and in so doing making the audience central to the work – handing over the paint brush and delivering a new reflection, a new set of understandings. A joining. “With every work of art both the artist and the audience bring their expectations – so by highlighting and altering the expectations, making the expectations the subject, the relationship between artist and audience is renewed, refreshed. Both artist and audience effectively join hands”

This concept was central to Thomas’s most well-known work “Vacant lot of cabbages” 1978 where after he deliberately chose to plant 180 Cabbage seedlings illegally in the shape of the word “CABBAGE” in the CBD of the capital city, then, via the press, he literally walked away – challenging the citizens (audience) to care for the vulnerable vege garden – which they did. This was followed by his “Wasting time performance in 1978 at the Artists Co-op where he sang the words and title of his two chord song “Wasting Time” over and over for c. 45 minutes – to deliberately test and bore the audience. Akin to John Cage’s 4′33″ of 1947/8 – “Wasting Time” tested the very nature and purpose of entertainment bringing in zen like meditative repetitions. Also Thomas used the concept of using the very thing “spending time” as subject of the piece – and challenged the audience’s notion of valuing how time was being “spent”.

Thomas and flatmates later in 1978 tied up the entire Claremont grove with string going through windows doors, bed and bathrooms to encircle it tying all the dwellings together and each end of the string was finally tied into a knot during the party/ hangi to celebrate the coming together of the people of the street and where each attending resident received the “Claremont Grove street directory which notes the string work. Thomas did two further string works in Wellington with children he was teaching at the YMCA in upper Willis street – a reprise of this work was also attempted at the 3rd Sydney Biennale 1979/80 (David Naulls QE11’s Action issue 12 magazine Dec/Jan 1979/80) . The latest iteration of his string works, which follow his interest in the audience/artist relationship, was in 2017 during Dunedin art school’s “Art and Revolution symposium” ( which Thomas was an invited guest speaker and exhibitor at. (

Note… the following photographic images were commissioned by Barry Thomas for “The Party” and as such are his copyright which he shares with the commons. The negatives are lost.


  • 20 August 1977


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Condition Description

20 black and white photos on paper provided by Barry Thomas.

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Repository Details

Part of the J C Beaglehole Room, Victoria University of Wellington Library Repository

P O Box 3438
Wellington 6140 New Zealand
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