Sunday, February 19, 2012


Two exhibitions in Wellington over the summer independently illustrated an interesting development in the concerns of contemporary artists: Siren Deluxe's photographic show at Photospace and Israel Tangaroa Birch's sculptural installation in the Deane Gallery, a space dedicated to Maori and Pacific Art at Wellington's City Gallery. Their subject matter and means of expression may have been radically different (although a well-known image of Fiona Pardington's provides a fascinating link, of which more later), but both bodies of work posed a common question - even if their respective answers had little more in common than a general investigation of parallel cultural mythologies.

Over the past decade Deluxe has staged a number of exhibitions in the Capital, and they've traced a gradual move towards photography as her preferred medium. Her work at the Whanganui art school prior to that was determinedly multi-media, part of her often theatrical tendency to avoid at all costs (one of them often being coherence) anything smacking of the conventional: conventions of imagery, media or approach. Indeed, the very evolution of her name is a sub-plot of this history. Sexuality was her frequent subject, and there was a strong sense that her ambitions were more often satisfied by shocking her viewers than by any subtle seduction of them. She was a fiercely committed artist and one longed for her to grow up.

Owing to family circumstances she was exposed at an impressionable age to one of the narrower, more puritanical forms of Christianity and, somewhat predictably, she rebelled in the only way she could: highlighting the other end of the spectrum, where the origins of that religion were shrouded in and sometimes indistinguishable from practices and mythologies generally identified as pagan. Ancient equivalents of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, those Dionysian impulses that have mocked the spectre of a death lacking the sure and certain knowledge of any resurrection.

Those readers not having seen Deluxe's productions from this earlier period are best left to imagine their material forms. Think Liz Maw on speed and steroids and you'll begin to get an idea. Given the sort of coolness encouraged by current art world events such as the City Gallery's Prospect shows, her high-octane work had an exhilarating kamikaze quality that certainly kept more hardened gallery-goers looking, as one solo show followed another. Persistence has its own rewards, as they say, and even though her website still warns "contains nudity and sexual themes" the desire to shock has subsided into what is a more thoughtful and occasionally penetrating investigation into the structure and histories of sustaining mythologies.

Yeah, yeah, but what does this high-fallutin, abstract stuff mean? For a start, it's instructive to compare the content of her two most recent shows: New Zealand Bound (2009) is overtly "about" bondage whereas An Exercise in Futility (2011) is less sensational, but more telling in that the images, initially seeming more disparate, are all ways into a wider range of human experience of which, say, bondage is merely a peripheral part. The very singular objects forming the subject matter have very general titles such as Vanitas, Salvation, Decadence, Godliness, Hedonism, Loss, Love and Motherhood. All of them sustaining mythologies with their own histories. Deluxe's successful trick is to find, and sometimes construct, material things that, with simple precision, carry the weight of those myths, and - more significantly - offering reinterpretations of them that refresh their meaning and reposition their relevance in a secular and increasingly virtual world. Scale-less, all these objects float in a black space highlighting their fetish status and isolating their connection to the "real" world.

Salvation depicts frontally an ordinary seven-day plastic pill container, each compartment bearing the capital letter of the days of the week. The image's much larger-than-life scale is initially disconcerting, but even that "larger-than-life" takes on its own significance once the nature of the object becomes clear. Debates may continue about what happens when we die, but for now, salvation's located in that austere little plastic box.

Love depicts a half-length rabbit soft toy which, as they say, has seen better days, its battered, repaired and grubby state aligning it to a history of loving as closely as it simultaneously rebukes the dangerously shiny surfaces of the notion of romantic love. There's almost a pairing of Love with Memento, another small animal figure but one definitely not a soft toy but instead encrusted with shells, a la Andrea du Chatenier. Love calcified? Who needs a Hell to go to later?

The imagery of a further work involves a pair of animal forms: Loss. In a nod to Jeff Koons, this photograph features a maniacally staring brown ceramic bear holding the limp corpse of what could be an embryonic puppy in the crook of its right paw. War memorials everywhere have struggled to encapsulate in material form the loss sustained by a culture of those young males whose sperm and muscle are so crucial to its future. Wisely, sculpted grieving figures have given way to stoic Greek orders and bleak scrolls of names. There are losses and losses, of course, but Deluxe's image is weirdly, unforgettably about loss period. No valour to commemorate or resurrections to hope for here.

These appropriations and constructions are, of course, all part of standard Postmodern practice, so much so that we no longer notice them happening. But something else is occurring here in these shows too. One of the more conspicuous elements of earlier Postmodern practice was an ironic stance that sometimes was mere sarcasm but most times a kind of studied boredom, as if it all had been seen, depicted and described before and that it was smarter to admit this than to strive any longer for the passe originality of Modernism. As in the eighteenth-century, there was often enough a point to real irony. Their need to mock social forms was as genuine as ours to knock originality off its skyscraping pedestal.

Pointing and giggling can be a lotta fun, but after a while it's just tiresome: as analysis it doesn't run very deep. So perhaps this posturing phase of Postmodernism is over and there's a rediscovery of the sort of mythologies being investigated by Deluxe, Tangaroa Birch and, yes, Michael Parekowhai's magisterial On Looking into Chapman's Homer.

Another Deluxe image, cannily entitled Godliness (as in "cleanliness next to") depicts a very diminished cake of ordinary soap, freshly used, the surface festooned with half-spheres of transparent bubbles. This little hymn to matter lyrically suggests the physical principle whereby nothing is created or destroyed but simply transformed, and that after the Big Bang does theology matter more than, say, the environmentally efficient disposal of waste-water? The hereafter in her work is more here than after.

Whatever. It's time for Fiona Pardington to make her brief but promised appearance. Devotees of photography will readily recall her 1996 double image Taniwha, a photograph of the classic New Zealand soap that cleaned up at the 1997 Visa Gold Art Awards and signalled the beginning of the photographer's investigation of her own whakapapa mythology that continues to the present day.

The taniwha is perhaps the most potent myth in contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand. No single aspect of "the Maori world view" can be so guaranteed to stir up such a hornets' nest of doubt, debate and despair when it collides with the Pakeha world view, be that anywhere from the pub to the Supreme Court. For Pakeha, it's probably the hardest concept to get their heads around and the easiest with which to saddle doubts about Maori sincerity and motives. The taniwha's a powerful symbol anyway, but when positioned at this junction of biculturalism it can become a very stroppy presence indeed.

Maori artist Israel Tangaroa Birch's installation Ara-i-te-Uru at Wellington's City Gallery addressed this business of taniwha with all of Deluxe's visual seduction but with an added dose of physical discombobulation that suited the circumstances entirely. In the dark with mirrors reflecting the work's glinting, angled surfaces on walls and ceiling keeping your bearings was something of a challenge.

In his catalogue essay Deane Gallery curator Reuben Friend made a connection with the 1991 collaboration between Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert entitled Aramoana - Pathway to the Sea, where a long line of Culbert's signature florescent lights lying on the floor is paralleled by a line of convex paua shells with an incision the exact width of the floros revealing the turquoise and purples of the paua underneath, mimicking the adjacent "pathway" of light. This famous work may have been an inspiration to Birch, but his own installation has an individual intensity and mystery quite apart from it.

Let Friend continue with the talking: "Ara-i-te-Uru, like Aramoana - Pathway to the Sea, is set in a dark space with a brilliant column of light running down the centre of the gallery. Birch's installation however utilises form, shape, colour and reflection to recreate these columns of light, and ... it incorporates a large floor-based installation of concertina shaped sheets of spray-lacquered steel. ... Birch ... likes to relate this interplay between light and darkness to a story passed down to him from his, and Hotere's, Ngapuhi tupuna (ancestors) from the Hokianga harbour who were guided to Aotearoa by the light of two very special stars - Ara-i-te-Uru (also known as Araiteuru) and Niua (also known as Niwa or Niniwa). These two stars were key navigational beacons used by the crew of the waka Mamari and Nga-toki-mata-whao-rua to orient a south-west coordinate from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. Each night as the moon and stars emerged out of the darkening firmament, the crew of these waka would see columns of light appearing across the ocean's surface. Bobbing up and down alongside them in the water, these now water-born celestial bodies were personified in oral traditions as supernatural sea-creatures known as taniwha. Beckoning them on through the aria (veil) of te uru (the west), the crews eventually arrived at the headlands of the Hokianga harbour where they, and their taniwha, still reside to this day - Ara-i-te-uru in the southern headland and Niua in the north."

As they say too, you had to be there, but being there was an unforgettable experience, and while the artist's re-creative installation, of course, made no doomed attempt to explain the inexplicable, the force of Birch's art shifted one's head several degrees to the left, leaving little doubt as to the mystery and power of this particular myth and, as well, more disposed to accept Friend's contention that "... taniwha, while existing in metaphysical space, have not only historically shaped the characteristics and social dynamics of Maori communities, but they continue to do so today". The Deane Gallery on this occasion was anything but a metaphysical space. it wasn't so much the result of an artist abstractly interrogating a myth as a human being weaving pure magic without any dependence on sleights of hand.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your posts, I would be waiting for similar interesting posts in future.

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