Roads of National Significance
Mark Amery considers the precarious place of art in the marking of the First World War centenary.
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On the outside wall of Thistle Hall, a community gallery and centre in Te Aro Wellington are neatly painted words from a 1927 letter from the hall manager to the City Engineer. “(We are) looking to the future,” it reads, “with progressive ideals”.
It's there for the reading of those who drive this recent stretch of inner city roading, cutting through a historic area of Wellington between motorway and the new Arras tunnel, passing under the nearby newly opened Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.
Growing up as a teenager in the 1980s I had the impression of New Zealand as a country shaped by progressive ideals. That this was something we had come to recognise as making us distinctive. From the recognition of the treaty, to the environment to numerous issues of social justice and human rights I gathered this was a country prepared to make some clear stands.
One of those was that not fighting was worth fighting for. And it is in this regard the way we are marking the centenary of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War troubles me.
It is not the commemoration of terrible loss that is troubling - it is that we seem to remember to forget. There is a lack of high profile public discussion around the loss: its wider social history, the real outcomes of war, and what our commitment to peace is today. Few now believe World War One was a fight for freedom rather than an imperial dogfight. In not questioning what it was all about, we are led into silent servitude. Are we, like that hall manager, looking to the future?
This is where art can and should open things up. I have written previously on John Foster’s painting ‘Requiem for the Victims of War’ at Mahara Gallery, Waikanae and briefly Enjoy Gallery’s programme ‘The Leveling of Pukeahu’. Last year City Gallery Wellington presented French artist Chris Marker’s ‘Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men’, a rather dull offering from this master.
Generally, however New Zealand public art galleries have, in terms of considered curation around the themes, been conspicuous in their silence. It is as if our artists, historically and currently, have been considered to have little to contribute on the opening out of the themes. The very people who in exploring the complexity of experience suggest alternative roads of national significance.
I don't mean tub-thumping 'war is over if you want it' displays, or even exhibitions on the theme of war, but rather grunty group exhibitions at this time that explore widely the diversity of what we believe in, and how it is tested. Exhibitions that ask us what really defines us. Art creates space for us to come to our own understandings. We need it now more than ever.
I’ve kept being reminded of two works. Firstly, the dynamIc dance of Auckland artist A. Lois White’s celebrated 1938 painting ‘The Warmakers’, a work in the Auckland Art Gallery collection. And secondly the slogan Neil Roberts’ spraypainted before blowing himself up in an attack of the Wanganui Computer Centre in 1982, as rewritten with a sparkler by Anne Shelton for an artwork organised with the Govett Brewster New Plymouth and Sarjeant Gallery Whanganui in 2013: “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity’
Ko Wai Koe - Mihihea Rua
In Wellington we have not one but two large exhibitions - at Te Papa and the old Dominion Museum on the First World War and Gallipoli respectively, created with the help of Sir Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop. They are set, like the great war itself to last four years. All rather over the top – energy and funding difficult to reconcile with the lack of attention given to The New Zealand Wars at home. They feel like a way of avoiding, rather than asking what really defines us.
I have yet to make The Great War exhibition. I’m not encouraged. One friend noted on Facebook: ”I came out feeling like I'd just been through a time-warp, feeling foreign in my own country and wondering where New Zealand culture really fit into it all.”
I did join the queues for Gallipoli at Te Papa. Here the focus is firmly on the story of the fought campaign itself. It’s an impressive, sobering experience, but with minimal social historical context to assist in thinking through our relationship to the campaign today. I gained little sense of what meaning the war really had for New Zealanders.
The exhibition is centred around a series of enormous, heroic-sized figures, each given their own chambers. Incredible in their life-like detail (like Ron Mueck’s hyper-real figures), they remember specific people, but as massive figurines from a war-gamers set. Amongst the soldiers is a nurse, her body bent over, head almost touching the ceiling, tears wet on her face, as if her sorrow is too big for the room. These are like three dimensional film stills, the melodrama amped up. I’m reminded of the larger than life social realist sculpture that was sanctioned as glorification by the Soviet State.
Tame Iti's installation GHI/170/23, GHI 13' from Disrupting the Narrative.
Back to Thistle Hall. A call out for proposals in 2014 has resulted in two exhibitions and a series of events spanning the fortnight of which Anzac weekend was the middle, Remember the Peacemakers.
The title of the first exhibition Disrupting the Narrative had the unfortunate effect of making it sound like an academic paper. It proved far more engaging, if uneven in quality. Like the seminal City Gallery Parihaka exhibition of 2001, this was a well curated and presented mix of historical information, artefacts, contemporary artwork and events programme.
Organised by a collective of artists and activists named Art Not War, the exhibition was about challenging ideas about New Zealand in World War 1 and - through the art - how imperialism, racism and colonialism remain in different forms today.
A series of very readable, well-designed information panels tackled a diverse range of themes, from Maori resistance and conscientious objection, to our movement into the Pacific and the impact of disease. I expected angry polemic, but instead got better understanding of large slices of history rarely discussed.
On the windows outside hung a strong poster series by illustrator Marama Mayrick and Ryan Bodman, celebrating the contribution to peace in their opposition to conscription of Archibald Baxter, Te Puea Herangi, Harry Urquhart and the United Federation of Labour. One of Bob Kerr’s eloquent paintings of Baxter receiving Field Punishment for refusing to fight on the Western Front (not something likely to be scaled up large by Weta Workshop) featured in the exhibition.
Tuhoe had a strong presence - looking back to both the invasion of Rua Kenana’s community during the First World War in 1916 and the police raids of 2007. Clunky and simple in their visual effect, were works by Ati Teepa - plastic toy soldiers - and Tame Iti, a teasing installation of bush guerilla accoutrements as court evidence - from camo helmet complete with peace sign, to dried food and a copy of SAS soldier Andy McNab’s ‘Immediate Action’
Provided its own darkened room, Brett Graham’s ‘Absolution’ was made in response to the raids back in 2008. It is one of many works he has made in recent years dealing through sculpture and video with the cross-cultural complexities of the war on terror as it relates to Maori. A carved giant wooden bowl (reminiscent to me of an ink well) of a design of well to be found in a mosque courtyard, filled with oil rather than the expected water, features the reflection of a projection of a child wielding in fluid gentle movements a te whatewha (club). The boy is dressed as the 18th century Tahitian Omai, as portrayed by Engish painter Joshua Reynolds. As absolution refers to the cleansing of sins - this work quietly, powerfully suggests that past injustices always live on in new generations and cannot be absolved by anything other than peace.
In the Lightbox outside, facing the traffic is a work by Mihirea Rua, Rua Kenana’s great-granddaughter. It rather unsubtly overlays a white Union Jack dripping in red blood over a black and white photograph of the crossroads marking the Ruatoki Confiscation Line (where Tuhoe land was taken from them in the 1860s).
Speaking also to roading of national significance, the Mata Aho Collective’s ‘Kaokao’ is a large elegant wallwork made up of disused reflective roadsigns. Deceptively simple in material, the design is in fact quite complex, with interweaving references to tukutuku, a warrior’s stance and the military chevron found on soldier’s sleeves. What were once arrows guiding us around corners, now present a roadblock of sorts at one end of a gallery asking us to consider our own perspectives on history.
Ideal Life - Raewyn Turner
Second exhibition Making Peace was well presented with great spirit but actually proved too diverse. There was too little conversation between its parts, and it was lower in quality - reflective of being an open non-curated exhibition, bringing together all the other individual proposals received by Thistle Hall.
The standout was Asumi Mizuo’s ‘When I Was When I Was’, a simple re-presentation of a copy of the Evening Post newspaper from Thursday the 29th of April 1915, with easy chair and table. In one window a notice from the paper was posted offering the “Imperial governments’” congratulations on New Zealand’s “splendid gallantry and magnificent achievement” in The Dardanelles. It is so out of sync with our current understanding, it reads at first as a joke.
In the other window was a copy of the Evening Post’s front page. Full of the hustle and bustle of ads for plumbers, child-minders and coal for winter heating, the war is barely mentioned. You become aware of how similar the everyday needs of life were to ours now.
Sitting down with the newspaper inside the gallery it isn’t until you get to page seven that news from the front appears, shorn of all the dramatic illustrations and human-interest stories you’d expect today. 100 years ago in a time of terrible tragedy the newspaper kept the peace by careful control of information. Yet it also reflected that life went on, without uniformity, with a great many different individual experiences and stories.