Thursday, May 19, 2011


Brian Brake, Damian Skinner & David Eggleton

Here we have an artist doing a project, an art historian giving a context to this aspect of the artist’s work, then a critic questioning the validity of that context. Three guys with things to say. Will throwing a net into this turbulent sea catch anything worthwhile? Peter was once described in The Good Book as “a fisher of men”, so here goes….

Brake’s employment as a photographer of Maori artifacts had, as anything does, a peculiar and particular intersection with the prevailing beliefs, political ambitions and artistic practices of the time. As, indeed, do Skinner and Eggleton later as writers. Dr W B Sutch, a pivotal figure in New Zealand culture from the later 1930s til the early 1970s, first conceived of a project that would, internationally, foreground the cultural production of tangata whenua as art rather than “merely” ethnology, an inspiration that lead directly to the Te Maori phenomenon a decade later. When chairman of the then QEII Arts Council, now – sort of – Creative New Zealand, Sutch initiated a publication attempting to fulfill this aim that later appeared in 1979 when Hamish Keith was chairman: Art of the Pacific. A very handsome book, published jointly by QEII and Oxford University Press, the rich and dramatic illustrations came by the hand of New Zealand’s most famous photographer, Brian Brake. For such an important publication –signalling both a shift in perception and a positioning of a small nation globally - who else to employ? Brake had earned his chips professionally, particularly with his spectacular recording of ancient Egyptian culture for Life magazine around 1966, and he was clearly the man for the job.

What did Life want and why did they want it? Before the “other” became a pet concept of Postmodernism, the vaguer notion of the exotic has held sway since the great Western colonising movements of the 18th century. Different = interesting. The US, being the major post-war imperial power, was fascinated by earlier manifestations of the condition: hey, the temples at Thebes bore an uncanny resemblance to the Presidential memorials along the Mall in Washington DC, with the gigantic statues of former rulers within serving pretty much the same function. Power’s handmaiden is awe, and in photographing these Egyptian ancient monuments so dramatically at night, Brake more than succeeded in meeting the magazine’s requirements for an equivalence that partially legitimized a 20th century cultural empire. All done with the best of intentions of course, the overt project being “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge” as the National Geographic’s charter has it, for instance.

The subtler logistics of the colonising project remove the cultural productions of colonized cultures from the realm of everyday use to the catergorising realm of science. However well-intentioned, it’s nonetheless a process of anaesthetising. One which the practice of museums continues in their collecting, storage and exhibiting. It’s often said that Te Maori marked a fundamental change in this, but the show didn’t propose a different screen for viewing, it just slightly enlarged the existing one. Te Papa’s current E Tu Ake exhibition is no different: while one of the two conceptual pillars of the show is the notion of whakapapa – connectedness – the objects and images included remain isolated, unconnected, their sense of estrangement not at all lessened by the screeds of texts attempting to glue them together.

Old photographs of museum displays show the objects piled up together, arranged more like a school photo than anything respecting their individual and collective whakapapa. If Te Maori signaled anything it was a change from regarding these objects as merely illustrative of the “other” to displaying them as works of art in their own right. In the quarter century since that landmark show it’s been assumed that this was a positive development. But this upgrade in status was founded on another Eurocentric assumption, that the category of art was more important than the category of ethnology. The greater prominence the art category now gives these objects (and the political purposes to which they’re now put) has tended to mask the failure to ask a more fundamental question: does this apparent change mean anything of real significance for these taonga in terms of connectedness anywhere outside of current museum culture? In other words, is the anaesthetic wearing off?

One of the ways to avoid answering this question is to employ the diversionary tactic of dressing the objects up. Hey, they look better, so it must be all good, right? Well, Goya put paid to that one in his 1799 Los Caprichos etchings which sharply relate the perils of relying on appearances. However, when Brian Brake was brought in to do the photography for Art of the Pacific he was, as usual, up to date with the latest ways of making objects look sexy. He was the consummate professional who knew how to keep ahead of the game.

His approach to the task of depicting tribal objects was informed by the same impulse that lead the Cubists and other early European Modernists at the beginning of the 20th century to collect and quote from African and Oceanic objects. It was part of a rejection of both the “realistic” and materialistic values of the 19th century and to a large extent was based on the notion of “natural man” promulgated by Rousseau in the 18th. This is the whakapapa of the images in the book. Tribal images indeed, but a thoroughly Eurocentric context. Compelling in their placement, looming out of a blackness redolent of prehistory, mystery and the sacred, the lighting bestowing honour and calling forth admiration for the workmanship, the objects are suspended in a contemplative space totally separated from anything site specific, hint of use or human association. The style of separation continued with the illustrations in the Te Maori catalogue, but with two important differences: firstly, throughout the book there are several images giving the objects a context: a contemporary carver at work, the exteriors and interiors of wharenui, some historical sites as well as some significant geographic locations. Secondly, most of the objects have been photographed – by Athol McCredie – in more natural light with backgrounds a range of lighter, neutral colours, the loss of visual drama more than compensated for by a sense of familiarity and approachability.

Te Papa moved towards putting a large Brian Brake exhibition together from the early 2000s, the project taking definite form in 2008. Having acquired the photographer’s extensive archive it was in a position to take a thorough look at his work, and, more importantly, enough time had elapsed since the photographer’s unexpected death in 1988 to allow for a more dispassionate view of his oeuvre within the context of the time it was made. In his lifetime Brake had accrued the title of “New Zealand’s most famous photographer”, which some enthusiasts - especially since his death – had evolved into “New Zealand’s greatest photographer”. It was time to examine the evidence. Our national museum has often been criticised for marketer-driven shows that defer to perceived popular taste, and it would have been easy, in this instance, to produce an exhibition and catalogue simply deferring to popular perceptions surrounding this famous photographer. To its credit, the museum grasped the nettle and risked bruising or even upsetting those perceptions by pursuing the show’s critical examination of Brake’s achievement.

The book/catalogue accompanying the exhibition Lens on the World contains six essays by different writers looking at aspects of Brake’s work. One of them, Object Photography: 1966-1988 by Damian Skinner, traces the evolution of Brake’s approach to photographing cultural material, how he dealt with taonga, and what the wider implications might be for a culture in transition such as ours. (It should be stated here that this writer contributed one of the other essays, but at no point has he ever discussed Skinner’s essay with its author.) With a scholar’s patient determination to examine the evidence, and proven record of skillfully negotiating material at the cultural interface, Skinner outlines the history, makes a case and draws his conclusions. As stated here at the beginning of the second paragraph, artists and writers are creatures of their times, and whatever one may bring to their reading of Skinner’s essay, no one could deny that the points made are supported by evidence and that the writer’s conclusions are, at the very least, stimulating contributions to the - of necessity – ongoing debate about, for instance, how taonga should be exhibited and illustrated, and who should be allowed a voice in this process.

Fast forward to the New Zealand Listener of 21 May 2011 where regular contributor David Eggleton reviews the new edition of Maori Art: the photography of Brian Brake, with foreword by Witi Ihimaera and introduction by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, originally published in 2003. Eggleton is an experienced photography critic and is also author of Into the Light, 2006, so far the most substantial history of New Zealand photography.

He uses, legitimately, the review to question the argument proposed by Skinner in Te Papa’s Brake book. Once known as “the mad kiwi ranter”, it’s perhaps no great surprise that Eggleton tends to overstate his case, and in language surprisingly intemperate. At one point he describes Skinner as “Fulminating like a pulpit preacher”, overlooking, in his passion, that he himself may well be looking into a mirror here. No one reading Skinner’s essay sitting down could possibly hear the sound of a raised voice. Compare Skinner’s tone to that, say, evident in Into the Light’s chapter ostensibly about Pictorialism entitled Fuzzygraphs. Here the preacher would indeed be fulminating in a pulpit, but only if he could get off his high horse to enter it. This chapter constitutes a gross misrepresentation of an, admittedly, little understood historical movement, the history-telling an exercise in sustained gratuitous sneering and a confident display of an ignorance that only an unreconstructable Modernist could muster. Go on, read it. The chapter isn’t history, it’s exhibitionism. Any historian has a primary responsibility to submit personal prejudice to the light of evidence in the interests of historical fairness, but in Fuzzygraphs Eggleton has blindly resisted going into that light.

In his Listener review Eggleton stitches together a list of phrases from Skinner’s essay with the air-brushing ease of a Soviet prosecutor, making a case more for misrepresentation than a case against Skinner’s argument. For instance, unless you’d read Skinner’s essay carefully you could easily gain the impression from the review that he’d described Brake as ‘a “suspect” photographer of things Maori’. Not only does he nowhere claim this, it’s hard to believe him even thinking it. Also, there’s a reference in the review to “Skinner’s revisionist essay”. “Revisionist” is one of those words, like “elitist”, which tend to describe the attitude of the person using it rather than describing any real state existing in the real world. It was applied widely to James Belich’s 1985 New Zealand Wars at the time of publication, but now a quarter of a century later the book’s accepted, for the moment, as the standard history. Skinner proposed an argument: Eggleton demonstrates a position. He’s clearly extremely vexed by Skinner’s approach, and while there’s a great deal of sound and fury in his response, there’s little actually resembling a contrary argument. For instance, he accuses Skinner of “self-contradiction” but nowhere gives an instance of it. He doesn’t like what Skinner wrote, and that’s OK, it’s a free world. But within that context of freedom any critical writer has an obligation to at least get the facts right and at least attempt a degree of fairness. Neither of these requirements is a feature of this Listener review.

Further in the review Eggleton addresses the book under consideration and refers approvingly to Te Awekotuku’s bringing “a measured voice to the debate about representation of traditional things Maori…”. (Take that, Damian Skinner!) The reviewer goes on to suggest that she sees Brake as ‘a pioneering photographer in presenting Pacific and Maori artifacts as “art”, as opposed to the “factual description” and literalism that any number of strictly ethnographic photographers had previously provided’. But neither Te Awekotuku nor Eggleton seems aware that this view may simply represent an unquestioned acceptance of the very Eurocentric hierarchy whereby “art” is higher than “ethnography”. The “upgrading” of taonga to “art” that Te Maori symbolised was essentially a political shift of advantage to both Maori and Pakeha - but for very different reasons - that few have acknowledged and that no one has publicly debated. It’s not just about black backgrounds and raking light, fellas.

Eggleton skirts the minefield of who decides what kind of representation by somewhat coyly separating major opinion into two opposing camps: “…although there is a school of thought that declares by painting with light Brake has merely beautified and romanticised carved sticks and stones, another school argues he has succeeded in making mysterious objects expressive and poetic…”, carefully avoiding having to state that the former school tends to be Pakeha and the latter school Maori. If - and it’s a big if - you accept that the “beautified and romanticised” description fairly represents Skinner’s argument, the “expressive and poetic” description, posed as the opposite option, isn’t shared so much, these days, by a younger generation of Maori museum professionals whose scope encompasses photography and contemporary developments more than their own time allowed for both Ihimaera and Te Awekotuku. Besides, it’s only a few decades since an authority such as Hirini Moko Mead declared that there could be no such thing as contemporary Maori art. Te ao marama - the world of light, modernity - is indeed very interesting terrain.

For once, the national museum’s Brake exhibition initative has provoked a series of real debates about things that matter: history, fame, photography, exhibition culture, and the representation of traditional and contemporary “things Maori”. Te Papa’s first CEO used to say “We welcome debate”, while keeping her grip firmly on the remote, as Chris Knox once so amusingly depicted in a Listener cartoon. Brian Brake: Lens on the World may be a sign that the grip is loosening and that Te Papa may become more genuinely involved in actual debate and release some real Awesome Forces at "Our Place". Bring it on.

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