Making Visible

8 November 2014 – 17 January 2015 The New Zealand Steel Gallery Franklin Arts Centre, Pukekohe  Artists: Lonnie Hutchinson | Toa Tahi Taihia | Janet Lilo | John Vea | Talia Smith | Salome Tanuvasa  

“Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible”.[i]                                   – Paul Klee

Making Visible brings together a selection of work from six contemporary visual artists who each consider how art can document, represent or suggest the presence of people who are often overlooked or unseen. The very notion of ‘making visible’ implies that there are certain blind spots or unacknowledged realities in our lives that need to be redressed. In this exhibition, the impulse to draw attention to the little noticed reflects a strong sympathy for migrant and Pacific workers whose labour often goes unacknowledged. Toa Tahi Taihia’s series of hand sanded and polished steel blades, entitled Buried at Sea (2014), draws upon the little known history of Niue’s involvement in WWI. Taihia’s use of blades as material alludes to the role of the Niue soldiers as a labour force to dig trenches. On the front of the blades, a variety of traditional hiapo patterns have been sanded, while on the back, images relating to places the Niue soldiers travelled to, stand out in ghostly relief. For Taihia, a renewed consideration for the Niue soldiers in New Zealand’s history bears an important parallel with contemporary Pacific labourers who similarly work with spades. “During the war”, Taihia has observed, “digging trenches was about survival; now such work is about economic survival. These spades show solidarity with the Niue men and with the many men of Pacific heritage who continue to be paid low wages for digging ditches to install infrastructure in our cities”.

A concern for Pacific workers is also evident in John Vea’s Import/Export (2008) — specifically for those employed in the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme. Launched in 2007, this scheme allows migrants temporary residence in New Zealand to plant, harvest and pack crops, with priority given to workers from Pacific Island states. A contractual obligation to work only for their recruiting company means that these workers are unable to circulate the job market, effectively creating a captive labour force. Because of these restrictive conditions, migrant workers sometimes occupy a blind spot in our understanding of the local economy. Vea’s ‘urban taros’ are a metaphor for imported Pacific labour. Cast in plaster from construction cones, these simplified taro forms evoke two industries that frequently employ Pacific Islanders: agriculture and construction. In Import/Export, these urban taro are packed and displayed in three large pallets, signifying the commoditisation of Pacific labour.

Salome Tanuvasa’s video work, Expensive Movements (2012), takes viewers behind the closed doors of a local hotel and DB factory. Workers toil to wash laundry, change bedsheets and work on factory lines producing quotidian goods. By focusing on the labour that goes into these end products, Tanuvasa aims to create an acknowledgement for the workers whose toil is often overlooked by the time of consumption.

Lonnie Hutchinson explores the suggestive potential of photography in her work, Can you see me? (2014). In 1988, Hutchinson undertook a provocative performance of the same name that questioned the visibility of Pacific Island people in Auckland. During the sixty-minute performance, Hutchinson lay down in Auckland’s QEII Square, completely covered in brown packing tape with only small slits around her nose to allow her to breath. The two photographs exhibited in Making Visible were taken during her performance and are reprinted for this exhibition. Though they act as a record of a highly political work, they nonetheless present only a partial experience of the original act. Hutchinson observes, “the image is really only suggestive of possibilities: performance happens in performance time”. Although some of the works focus on the social benefits that might come from ‘making visible’, the limits of art’s ability to represent the ephemerality of human existence also emerges as an area of interest.

Talia Smith’s photographic series, This must be the place (2012), explores the marks, traces and memories left on the land and space by human interaction. The project took her across Auckland, photographing everyday spaces that once had a purpose but are now redundant. For Smith, each place is treated as potentially a valuable archive of past-presence, acknowledging the human history of spaces that often exist right in front of us.

An interest in observational distance is also at play in Janet Lilo’s drawing installation, Little Text (2014). Her practice often utilizes documenting and drawing things in tandem or multiples. The work exhibited here — a direct response to the curatorial notion of ‘making visible’ — explores the relationship between each fragment; spilling and folding observations, a conversation about a moment and place in time is formed. The work comprises fragmented images derived from a controversial photo shoot with Walters Prize nominee, whose practice is closely aligned with the concept of this exhibition. These fragments are combined with internet conversation history, spur of the moment video, popular musical references, image and text. Viewed together, the works by the six exhibiting artists in Making Visible suggest that Paul Klee’s notion of using art to make visible holds as much interest — and complexity — for contemporary artists today as it did for him in 1920

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