Visible traces

John Vea, 29.09.09 tribute to Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga


 An intriguing contradiction is embedded within the term ‘hoi polloi’. Originally denoting the general populace, the phrase has at times been misconstrued — particularly in spoken conversation — to convey the opposite: the elite, the affluent, the few.

The omission of general workers from the meaning of hoi polloi parallels the disregard for their presence in many spheres. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell describes the general perception of coal as “black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it”.[i] Orwell’s observation that coalminers’ labour exists below the threshold of notice could apply equally to the human labour that sustains the production of many quotidian commodities and most infrastructure we use today.

Driving Auckland artist John Vea is a desire to bring labour — as well as the conditions under which it is performed — into visibility. In the three works comprising Homage to Hoi Polloi, which span live performance, documented performance and installation, Vea enacts narratives that he has gleaned first hand through everyday interactions with workers, both in his community and abroad.

Though physical labour is often ignored, an ongoing need for it is not. Recently, New Zealand launched the Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) scheme to redress a significant labour shortage. This policy allows migrant workers – with priority given to those from specific Pacific Islands[ii] — temporary entry to plant, harvest and pack crops. Over the past few years, Vea has responded to this scheme by making several performance-based and installation works that employ ‘urban taros’. Cast in plaster from roadside cones, these stylised taro forms allude to the presence of Pacific workers in both agriculture and construction industries.[iii]

During a live performance named Cultivate (2013), Vea, along with fellow artists from the H.E.P.T. collective, planted Vea’s ‘urban taros’ outside Papakura Art Gallery in rows suggestive of an island plantation. The work partially references a recent study attesting that South American sweet potato appeared in Polynesia pre-European arrival.[iv] Early Polynesian seafarers, researchers hypothesise, may therefore have travelled to South America and returned with the vegetable.[v] In a similar traceable manner, Vea’s ‘urban taro’ give visibility to migratory movements: ghostly impressions of white residue marked the performers’ brief occupation of the external gallery space.

Traces of a temporary presence also appear in Vea’s video installation Finished this week off, and that’s it! (2009 and 2013). Five versions of the artist dressed in construction garb each grip a large rock above his head. Gradually, but regularly, the figures disappear from view. Only the rocks remain.

The taxing task of holding rocks for extended periods calls to mind a similar menial task performed by six unemployed refugees in Santiago Sierra’s 3 cubes of 100cm on each side moved 700cm (2002). The work of both Vea and Sierra highlight the power disparities resulting from scarce income opportunities. However, in significant contrast to Sierra, Vea carried out the gruelling labour himself. In doing so, he protects the identities of those whose experiences inform his artworks and avoids the sensationalist production of what one critic dubbed “poornography”.[vi]

Vea’s humanising of conditions often associated with a depersonalised mass is perhaps most evident in his filmed performance 29.09.2009 Tribute to Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga (2013), which was his personal response to the September 2009 tsunami. The work, shot on video at Piha Beach on Auckland’s west coast, documented the artist’s attempts to erect a wall in the waves using cinderblocks and allegorised ongoing reconstruction efforts in the tsunami-affected countries. Both the location of the performance and the materials were chosen with careful consideration. Piha beach shares the Pacific Ocean with Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. Similarly, the cinderblocks were sourced from the company that provides them to contractors in the Pacific. Geographical distances converged again when the same cinderblocks were stacked and repurposed as an impermeable projection screen in the gallery space. In forging these connections through his work, Vea triggers a renewed empathy for people who have receded from our consciousness. His effort stands in for villagers’ struggles; his despair is an echo of theirs.

Eventually, the wall stands strong. Vea leaves the frame and as time passes the structure becomes a memento, a stand-in for, Vea’s actions – much like the rocks left behind by construction workers and the impressions left on the land by the urban taros. Together, these three works complicate the perception of the traces of human effort as “stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere”.[vii] By presenting glimpses into the lives behind these vestiges, Vea creates an opportunity for their presence to imprint themselves on the viewers too.

 October 2013

Published for John Vea’s solo exhibition Homage to the hoi polloi at Papakura Art Gallery, Auckland, 26 October – 7 December 2013.


[i] George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1958, New York: Harcourt, Brace, p. 34.

[ii] The RSE scheme is currently open to migrant workers from Islands Forum member nations, which are: Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, The Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu

[iii] In a previous work, Import, Export (2008), these taros were packed and displayed in three large pallets, pointing to both the mobility and the commoditisation of migrant labour.

[iv]Bob Yirka, ‘Sweet potato DNA indicates early Polynesians travelled to South America’, January 22 2013 ,, accessed 18 August 2013

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Tirdad Zolghadr, ‘Them and Us’ in Jennifer Higgie and Jörg Heiser (eds.) Frieze, January-February 2006, pp. 31-33.

[vii] Orwell, p. 30. In this article, Zolghadr uses the term ‘poornography’ to describe the exploitation of misery in contemporary art.

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