East 2018: A study of the curator’s themes

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Until 11 November, Hastings City Art Gallery
By Rosheen FitzGerald

A forest in Utah spans over a hundred acres but is just one tree, sharing a single genetic code. Its root system is complex and expansive, and has been alive for around 80,000 years, counting it among the world’s oldest living organisms. When life above ground was threatened – by fire or ice – Pando (Latin for I Spread Out) retreated below the surface, existing in the soil until it was safe to send shoots up and recolonise the land once more. This type of creeping rootstock, known as a rhizome, inspired philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to apply the rhizomatic process of botanical reproduction to ideas, to culture, to art.

EAST 2018 curator, Bruce E. Phillips alludes to the rhizomatic nature of art in his introductory essay.  Twenty-three artists exhibit in a range of media – paint, photo, collage and film; quilting and weaving; metal and plastic; wood and clay. Their approaches and inspiration are as varied as they are, yet they all share the same rootstock, tap into the same wellspring of collective consciousness, teased out by curatorship.

Phillips takes as his jumping off point an oft-cited whakatauki, and adds a couplet of his own–

Whatu-ngarongaro he tangata, toitū he kāinga

 

People pass away, but places still remain

Order controls limits, but chaos unleashes infinity

Cities eventually collapse, but forests forever rise

For a show that consciously comments on the region, the importance of whenua and whakapapa, people and place, is paramount. And yet, in all but a few, the physical form is conspicuous by its absence. Where human bodies and faces do appear they are transmuted, infused with a meaning which threatens to crush them under its weight.

Lara Lindsay-Parker’s dual channel video piece, Sad at the Beach, shows an intimately familiar, misty grey Hawke’s Bay pebble shore. To the left, a pasty girl in a pastel pink two-piece sits staring at the horizon, the waves lapping her legs. On the right hand feed, she has been replaced by an analogue video player. Water flows rhythmically into the tape slot, conspicuously ruining it for use by the relentless tide of nature. By substituting VHS for person, we are drawn to ponder humanity as obsolete technology, incompatible with continued life on this planet.

Peter Madden’s deeply unsettling photo collages draw on this incompatibility, juxtaposing person and place by replacing the face – our primary means of communicating emotion – with images from nature – snow-capped mountains, the night sky. In doing so he dehumanises his subjects, purloined from found photographs and old copies of National Geographic, revealing their impermanent nature.

Rangituhia Hollis’ Self-portrait takes Madden’s sentiments and turns the objective to the subjective, in this poignant, personal piece. He uses photographic chiaroscuro and digital techniques to give his bastardisation of the ubiquitous selfie a shattered, ceramic quality. Edges blur and fade to black, while his eyes are the focal point – arresting the viewer, evoking the pain and tension of the fragmented self.

John Brown explores his multifaceted identity in four paintings. The Battle for Tuber shows tuna and snake entwined, a bulbous kumara suspended between the two. Here he expresses visually the tension of a bicultural heritage, wherein each side fights for the right to sustenance, yet each elongated body ends in a foot – a pair of legs facing the same direction, requiring symbiotic collaboration in order to move forward in tandem. The effect is heightened by the quasi-reality of their surroundings, at once familiar and alien, creating a texture and disjointedness that bemuses the eye, inducing sea-sickness that mimics the experience of holding conflicting realities inside a single person.

On the opposite wall, Ayesha Green deals with whakapapa in a very different style, yet internal conflicts still bubble beneath the surface. Nana and Grandad 1994 depicts Green’s grandparents after her nana, Katie Portas, won gold at the Commonwealth Games – her visual impairment offset by her grandad’s aid. It ostensibly records a moment of triumph for whanau, national pride in the broader setting of the Commonwealth, achievement through mutual support. On returning home, Katie’s success was used as a morale booster for a community in crisis – the Tomoana Freezing Works was to close, knocking out the economic cornerstone of their lives. Behind the smiles, the celebration of sporting prowess fulfilled the same function as the Commonwealth itself – to paper over the cracks of a system that thrives on inequality and exploitation.

Kauri Hawkins exposes and challenges this system in The Strong Silent Type, in which he highlights the paradoxical invisibility of people of colour – dressed in high vis so that they can dirty their hands executing a vision of urban colonisation that is anathema to indigenous kaupapa. The consumables – beers, smokes, energy drinks – that, for better or worse, both sustain and erode the health and income of manual labourers, are used as chess pieces, conflating high and low art, questioning how and what we create, how we judge the creators, and what we sacrifice – socially, culturally, physically – to reshape our environment.

Ben Pearce and Vanessa Arthur too play in the space between art and function. Pearce’s Apollo – a stovetop coffee pot, perforated by his signature lunar craters – depicts the vehicle for our collective addiction to caffeine – arbitrarily exempt from the judgement that Hawkins’ commodities attract by virtue of social class. By rendering his subject functionally useless, he elevates it from kitchen bench to gallery pedestal posing questions of creation and destruction, elevation and denigration. Similarly, Arthur’s Happy Hour Afterglow – a charm bracelet formed from construction detritus – nods to function but then, by its framing as an object of art, strips it of it. The work pastiches consumerism, prodding our need to own, to retain, to assign value.

George Nuku’s striking collaborative community piece both repurposes rubbish and questions consumption. A lament to the Ngaruroro, Bottled River is a Perspex stream floating in mid-air, milk bottles littering its surface. Beneath flow fish, a nod to a once abundant, now depleted native species; above, birds fly in counter flow. All have bodies made of plastic bottles, as are the stream of jellyfish that obscure one window. An etched sign, designed by Darryl Thomson, hangs over ominously – a tombstone calling out the multinational corporations that would exploit our waterways – the lifeblood of our region – for short term material gain.

That the plastic, with which Nuku works, will remain long after the profits of industry have been expended, has not been lost on David Trubridge. Now and Then, highlights how, often in enjoying and engaging with nature, we inadvertently contribute to its destruction. Himself a windsurfing enthusiast and environmentalist, Trubridge was perplexed by the sport’s reliance on unsustainable materials. He reimagined the windsurfer using sustainable materials and indigenous techniques, partnering with weaver, Ani McGuire. There is a peculiar tension between this piece, made to be displayed behind a rope in an art gallery, but yet whose materials will eventually be worn down by the elements and return to earth; while the real thing is at once disposable but its parts enduring, to the detriment of the planet.

Terri Ripeka Crawford’s photograph series is balm in a sea of distressing truths. Illustrating the evolution of dawn goddess, Hinetītama, they show dancer, Bianca Hyslop, floating in a rock pool surrounded by kelp that bridges the gap between human and nature. The horizon lowers as the series progresses, charting the course of our emergence from the ocean to the land. Connections are made at once both to the legendary deity and to our shared ancient history in the primordial soup, in a way that is aspirational and reassuring. We once lived in harmony with nature and may do so again.

Across exhibits and back again themes and ideas flow – order and chaos, explored in the works of Martin Poppelwell, Tim Thatcher, Annette Bull and Michael Hawksworth – environmental decay, in works by Clare Plug, Natalie Robertson and Sonya Lacey – the persistence of nature, in Bruce and Estelle Martin’s pottery and Joyce Campbells tryptic video projection – the importance of education in shaping our environment, evoked by Jenny Gillam and Ann Shelton. In creating their works, each artist pushes up a shoot that grows and evolves, reaching for the sun. But they all draw from the same well below the surface, the well that nourishes and shapes us all. In expressing themselves thus, they give voice to that which we already know, allowing it to resonate within us and between us.

 

 

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