Author: Ioana Gordon-Smith
Jasmine Togo-Brisby: If these walls could talk, they’d tell you my name
Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s If these walls could talk, they’d tell you my name responds to two concurrent events; the artist’s recent discovery of records confirming her great-great-grandparents’ existence as house slaves, acquired in 1899 by the Sydney-based Wunderlich family, and the current restoration of the Wunderlich ceiling panels in Wellington’s Town Hall.
The photographic series continues Togo-Brisby’s interest in histories of the Pacific Slave Trade embedded within contemporary material culture. Wunderlich ceiling panels, distinctive for their ornate pressed designs, can be found across many buildings across Australia and Aotearoa and are now carefully preserved as heritage materials. The overly visible family legacy bears remarkable contrast to paucity of historical records available for South Sea Islanders. Across Togo-Brisby’s photographs, inter-generational portraits force a consideration of who is and isn’t visible within the archives and narratives of history.
Courtenay Place Park Lightboxes
16 December 2019 – 8 March 2020
More membrane than wall; challenging boundaries in the work of Christopher Ulutupu
“Postcolonialism is not a subject I have chosen to explore, rather, it is a reality that I have been born into.” – Christopher Ulutupu
In his influential text The Pacific Island Race, the late curator and artist Jim Viviaere described Pacific Art in Aotearoa as both a novelty and a handicap; consistently subject to being either excluded or fetishized for its point of difference. That context places an almost unavoidable burden on artists to either perform culture within their work, or reject it entirely. The impossibility of the situation feels particularly obvious for those who situate themselves within a diasporic community. As a Samoan Niuean New Zealander, artist Christopher Ulutupu has many forms of attachment or reference; his Sāmoan ancestry and the worldviews that come with that; a history of living in Aotearoa – indeed, many versions of Aotearoa; his engagement with contemporary art as a global enterprise. There are more fragments that remain unknown. What music does he like? Is he a coke or Pepsi fan? The continual position of a brown artist as ‘other’ not only erases complex, multiple selves, it is in fact reliant upon the erasure.
In Ulutupu’s work, performance and video art is used to refuse binary singularities. Trained as an art director, Ulutupu balances a broad interest in the possibilities of image production with a critique of the colonial gaze. For the past few years, he’s turned his attention to postcards from the 1900s, looking at the tropes within tourist imagery as they relate to people and places. It’s an uncanny coincidence that Christopher’s other name is Tulisi; Sāmoan for tourist.
For More than all of the ocean between us, Ulutupu presents two works from two separate bodies of work. The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies, 2016, keeps the viewer steadily gazing at a group of Pākehā women lounging on a riverbed at the bottom of a rocky cliff. The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies can be read as a counter-strike to the fetishising of brown bodies. To exoticise Pākehā bodies is to subject them – quite literally – to a reversal of the colonial gaze. But The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies comprises more than bodies; it also depicts landscape. While the history of photography and film has often projected a symbiotic relationship between Indigenous people and nature, the relationship between Pākehā and the environment is more equivocal. Māori filmmaker Merata Mita traced a “White Neurotic [film] Industry” in which Pākehā are portrayed as at odds with their environment. As Ulutupu writes, The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies seems almost a “study of disenfranchised urbanites making a feeble attempt to reconnect with nature”.
Watching an unidentified cliff loom large over the figures though, I’m reminded more of the history of landscape in painting than in photography. In particular, I think of Sublime painting and the positioning of Mother Nature as an overwhelming force. A friend of mine describes it as the (secular) Pākehā spiritual. The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies evokes a long history of romanticised landscape that spans both tourist imagery of Moana places as well as European painting traditions. Yet these are not taken too seriously. Watching the film, I also can’t get Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe out of my mind. The absurdity of a nude woman picnicking next to fully dressed men on a public lawn seems eerily close to the ridiculousness of sunbathing in a bikini on rocks.
The absurd is in fact a tool Ulutupu uses again and again to disorient expectations. He notes that “[a]uthenticity of place or experience” has never been a key aspect of his practice. Instead, incongruous juxtapositions act almost as a magician’s reveal of their tricks, hinting at an artificiality that underpins all imagery Indigene. He’s filmed Sāmoans in winterscapes, written performances about life after death, placed urbanites on a beach. Read alongside these works, The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies becomes a caution against any natural or assumed relationship between any given entity and place. In his later works, Ulutupu goes even further. He begins to use absurdity not only to expose the incredulity of colonising stereotypes, but more significantly to open out a space for multiple aspects of himself to exist.
3 Songs, 2019, has its roots in a real childhood memory of Ulutupu listening to his parents’ Sāmoan music. Based in inherited cultural reference, three Sāmoan love songs provide the video’s timespan and premise. And yet the work announces its fiction immediately. The video begins with three, 1970s-styled brown women, lip-syncing and swaying to the first track. The styling, though deliberately costume, might make sense given the songs are from the 1970s. Except the performers are also superimposed against partial views of the Earth from space. The screen-saver-style backdrops don’t stop there. Over the course of the video, the figures lip-sync over a rocky seaside to a star-studded galaxy through to the more romantic green-screen backdrops of a sunset and a rose blooming. In additional to more obviously generic landscapes, the performances in 3 Songs are similarly more self-conscious than The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies. As a solo lip-syncer giggles nervously in 3 Songs, I’m endeared – I too can imagine myself nervous lip-syncing to a camera. What’s more, both the performer and myself-as-viewer know the camera is there. Unlike the pseudo-documentary framing of The Romantic Picturesque: Ladies, 3 Songs’ deliberate fourth-wall breaches and kitsch aesthetics shout its own construction.
Both collage and fiction play an important role here. Collage and digital technology have been used by artists and the wider populace alike to rework existing images that seem overly contrived; think of feminist collage-interventions in magazines, for example, or online reaction photoshops of obviously staged photos. More fundamentally though, collage and digital manipulation have opened up space to imagine content that doesn’t yet exist. 3 Songs almost feels like a homage to such free-roaming imagination. I tried to read some cultural context into the imagery, but it eventually becomes tenuous. The work’s lasting effect remains a mash up of various timespans and fantasies, the relationship between them simply one that reiterates collage itself. The slippage between the daydreaming escapism of song, the dress-up performance and googled-images feels less like a statement on identity politics, and more like an embrace of a multifaceted way of being in the world.
It’s tempting when addressing imposed postcolonial politics to create a parallel false binary between artwork and viewer, each occupying assumed racial positions. In these works, Ulutupu’s critique of essentialising imagery is clear. As Ulutupu refuses to settle his own autobiography for the sake of contemporary arts appetites, he also more fundamentally embraces an individual freedom to pick and choose, splice and collate from a wide range of references. As the camera has so often been turned on and against Indigenous bodies, Ulutupu’s work continues a long tradition of artists using the camera to look back. But the coloniser-Indigene relationship is one in constant co-production; to fix one is to also fix the other. As his work progresses, Ulutupu increasingly redirects to imagine him not through contradistinction, but a whole being on his own terms.
Modernism, a slippery 20th century trajectory to describe, could most simply be understood as a path away from representation. As a series of at times contradictory and polemic philosophical positions, modernism could also be thought of as a deliberate break with the immediate past in order to herald in new ideas and disrupt entrenched hierarchies. The modernist then had one eye trained on the past in order to articulate a utopian vision of the future. But if the past was evoked throughout modernism primarily to reject it, what does it mean when artists are quoting modernism now?
Pocket Histories — developed in collaboration between curator Ioana Gordon-Smith and artist Imogen Taylor as the latter’s McCahon House post-residency exhibition — considers the sampling of modernism in the work of three artists. Together, these works show a clear interest in formal geometric play; the push, pull and fit of volume, shapes, curves, colour. Modernism might be understood then as providing for these artists a series of compositional opportunities.
Spanning the applied and fine arts, there is also a clear desire in these works to reevaluate our understandings of ‘high’ or ‘good’ art, as well as its proper place. Fittingly, the legacy of modernism is often recalled alongside other references — regionalism, craft histories, permaculture — to wilfully ignore artistic boundaries. These artists neither reject modernisms’ forms and ideals, nor are they fully beholden to them. Instead, these works suggest that the contrarian spirit of modernism can be mined, combined, and deployed to fuel a fervent engagement in each artist’s practice.
Pocket Histories is a collaboration between curator Ioana Gordon-Smith and artist Imogen Taylor as the latter’s McCahon House post-residency exhibition. It has been developed and toured by Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery and is supported by McCahon House Trust, Dulux and Sue Hillery.
Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, Auckland, 10 February – 13 May 2018
The Dowse Art Museum, Wellington, 8 Sep 2018 – 6 Jan 2019
Chloe Rose Taylor: SuperValue
Published on the occasion of Chloe Rose Taylor’s solo exhibition SuperValue at The National, Christchurch, 2017
Chloe Rose Taylor’s installations often look like they could belong in an editorial photoshoot. Keenly aware yet gently mocking of current trends across visual culture, objects are placed in fully-realised, often fantastic environments. In these (re)imagined worlds, things can bypass the constraints of many conventions, including, in many instances, taste.
Taylor often shows an affinity for the overlooked or ugly object. In 2015, for example, she submitted a twinkie for inclusion on the Auckland Art Fair’s trade table. The table is an ongoing relational art project, where people barter for items according to what the organiser feels is a fair trade. Somewhat surprisingly, then, Taylor’s submission of the twinkie was rejected — condemned as an object that held no value for a potential trade.
The twinkie is resurrected in Taylor’s new body of work, SuperValue. Un-opened and now framed, it follows in the ready-made tradition, a mode of art made infamous by Marcel Duchamp. Employed to re-dignify the everyday object, Duchamp stated that the ready-made was “based on a reaction of visual indifference, with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste.”
Taylor’s work isn’t indifferent, but it certainly suggests that every bit of glam needs a bit (if not more) of ugly. Using resin almost like a glue, each work fuses together elements that might otherwise seem poles apart. There is a cheap novelty brooch that has been adorned with gold, diamonds and an emerald; an oval (potato-shaped) brooch displaying a fake ‘Louis Vuitton’ logo; freshwater pearls studded onto a phallic form; another brooch boasting two-minute noodles. The combinations unsettle a whole set of value distinctions. The cheap is married to the luxurious; the ordinary riveted to the ornamental; the crude paired with the heirloom. In fact, it’s worth noting the gold and diamond are taken from Taylor’s family rings, which only seemed to destine them for bricolage that much more.
That conflation of meanings is also at play in the exhibition title, SuperValue. As an amplifier, the prefix ‘super’ implies something of heightened value. Conversely, it can also imply getting a good deal, a bargain. It’s no coincidence that SuperValue is the name of a supermarket chain across Aotearoa. SuperValue, the exhibition, might be considered then as a re-appraisal. Some materials have been elevated, like the twinkie, and others seemingly devalued, like the gold and gems. Taylor creates a lurch in how we would expect those materials to be treated. In the gap, we confront how – and why – we valued those materials beforehand.
It would be wrong to say though that the works are just exercises in provocation. There is an obvious glee in making art that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a clear interest is amplifying form and texture. Just think of the carefully casted and molded dollop of poo on the floor.
Bringing everything together is the dominant table upon which everything sits. The top could have come straight out of Flintstone’s Bedrock – a huge slab of foam and concrete that out-sizes everything else. For Taylor, the table is a reminder of conversations over food, where so many of our views are instilled. More formally, it literally offers a level playing field for the various objects that sit upon it. In SuperValue, all types of historical, monetary and sentimental systems of value have come to the table. Time for us to sit, and negotiate.
Published on the occasion of SOCIAL MATTER, curated by Louisa Afoa
It often feels like contemporary art sits ‘above’ everyday life: concerns about finances, families, friends, are all simply secondary to the intellectual activity that is thinking about and making art. But we all know that’s false. Making comes out of and is supported by a number of relationships and communities. Some of these are obvious, like the collegial support of other art-minded friends to the social networks that help disseminate work and secure reputations. Other interactions are too rooted for us to identify.
Despite the importance of social contexts to the production, reception and circulation of contemporary art, it’s only rarely that they are acknowledged as a pre-existing set of conditions, even if it has become trendy to talk about social engagement as an outcome of a project. When the social sphere is directly acknowledged in artist’s practice, it’s often sidelined as being ‘community’ art, or cliquey, or earnest. And nothing kills the perception of being critical like the stigma of being earnest.
Social Matter, curated by Louisa Afoa, is governed by a belief that far from being unremarkable or twee, everyday social interactions are central to how we place ourselves in the world. Afoa is careful to sidestep existing social practice discourse and walk directly into the social life that both precedes and informs art making. Her questions then are much more fundamental: what social spheres do artists encounter; how do these act upon us; how might the social manifest as the subject of a work?
Across the exhibition, the internet emerges as a dominant site of social activity. Janet Lilo’s Untitled (2016) suggests that the internet is where the individual and the collective are in a constant cycle of influencing each other, a dynamic forgotten perhaps in the normalisation of social media. This has been an ongoing concern in her practice. An earlier Lilo work, Top 16 (2006), featured images taken from strangers’ accounts on the now defunct social media site Bebo. The resulting montage — in addition to disconcertedly emphasising how private images become public property — identified the prevalence of selfie tropes: the car selfie, the duck pout). 10 years later, Untitled (2016) employs the same strategy of collecting together images taken from the internet. It marks something of a turn since Top 16, with social media no longer a novelty and user responses more predictable. As a result, an app like Snapchat features (and is even popularised by) filters targeted specifically at selfie behaviour.
Sione Monu’s images are similarly taken from the internet, but unlike Lilo, he is also the uploader. #BlanketCouture (2016) originally featured on Monu’s Instagram account. Born out of play, the images together read like the visual diary of an economical artist who is always practising, pulling upon nearby materials to make and construct dramatic gowns. They also subversively read as a celebration of economic, culturally-marked materials. The mink blanket is, for me at least, an icon of the Pacific Island home. Uploading these images then has the potential effect to not only create practise as practise, but to distribute a pride in cultural identity and the elegance possible in the domestic space where family value and cultures are practiced loudest.
Lana Lopesi is interested in spaces that act as archives, including both the internet and physical sites. Seki (2016) draws inspiration from the popular Facebook page ‘Tasty’, which shares video recipes of Western foods. Lopesi borrows the format to create video recipes of typical Samoan food, suggesting the potential of both food as a mode of talanoa and the internet as a site of exchange. Working in a different vein, Social Reader (2016 – ongoing) is a compilation of social practice in Aotearoa New Zealand. Each project has been graded on a spectrum of successful social engagement.
Moving away from the internet altogether, artist collective Public Share and artist Valasi Leota-Seiuli both look at physical spaces that act as containers of social activity. Leota-Seiuli’s Vala au mai si ou Tina (2016) features images of houses transferred onto plaster casts reminiscent of tombstones. Four depict houses the artist’s father lived in that were subjected to dawn raids in the 1970s, while a fifth depicts the home Leota-Seuiuli’s father consequently moved to in Dunedin. For this iteration of Social Matter, Leota-Seuiuli has also added a sixth image of the house she now lives in with her parents.
For Social Matter, Public Share have converted the rm archive room into a workers club space, replete with pool table, dart board, card table and fridge. The project continues the collective’s interest in reinstating time for “a rest and a break”, which has slowly been eroded in recent regulation legislation. In the past, the making of ‘break time-related objects — mugs, cups, stirrers — has offered a way in which to engage a range of people in taking ‘time out’, from those who helped source clay to the collective’s own times together making to those who were eventually invited to take away the objects and use them functionally to make tea or coffee. This project places a greater focus on the importance of space in encouraging breaks, and moreover, the collectivity, education and politicisation that can come with it.
Together, the works in this exhibition point to a multitude of different social experiences, ranging from the domestic to the workplace, the digital to the physical, the personal to the public. If what social interactions seem difficult to contain, ‘matter’ is as equally broad and open. Significantly though, ‘matter’ denotes a tangible substance. By extension, the term ‘Social Matter’ implies that we could think of ‘social’ as having a physicality; of having weight. Though disparate, each of these works asserts the importance of social lives in the formation of well being and the understanding of one’s place within society. It’s no coincidence that it feels like there’s an unspoken ‘s’ at the end of the exhibition title: Social Matters.
Colluding as curating
“I fall in love with all my artists.”
– Ema Tavola, first AUT Curatorial Symposium
Paraphrased from memory
When I took up my first job as curator — my first job in the arts full stop — I had to move cities. Though it’s just an hours flight away, I was immediately out of touch. Ponsonby is a world away from Porirua. My main way of settling into a new home was through getting to know the people working opposite Objectspace, where I working part time, at Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, and through them, artists, writers and students who were part of a larger contemporary Pacific arts community. The people I’ve met through Tautai have become some of my closest friends and most regular collaborators. This was all prompted when the manager, Christina, had asked me to curate a series of performances to accompany an exhibition being planned for the Gus Fisher Gallery. One of Christina’s motivation to help me find paid curatorial work. Her bigger motivation was to help me find friends.
Those implied relationships between friendship and curating, community and collaboration, have been on my mind a lot recently. Most of my 2016 has gone into working with artist Janet Lilo on her solo exhibition at Te Uru. We’ve been working together for perhaps a year and a half on the project. There’s definitely a blur between our friend-friend relationship and artist-curator relationship. In between install tasks, I would at times drop her to her midwife appointment or catch up to talk about other life developments. Similarly, I’ve become part of her work, appearing a number of times in her polaroid images and being mentioned in passing in her story in a light box work that was presented in the exhibition. The project was been something I’ve been excited about, and the easiest soundbite to give people when they ask what I’m up to at work. A couple of months before the exhibition opening, for instance, I told a visiting curator about how closely I’ve been working with Janet. “Be careful”, she told me. “You can’t be friends with artists. You’ll end up using them.”
The words cut. I don’t have a lot of friends, and Janet has become a good one. The warning though found resonance with something I’ve always been conscious of: the role of curator is one of power. I have the ability to determine, to a large extent, who is and isn’t chosen to show work in the gallery. Our contracts safeguard the final editorial control I have in the presentation of an exhibition. My power is also financial. Not only do I determine which artist do (and don’t) get a paid gig, which artists do (and don’t) get visibility, which artist do (and don’t) get validation, I enjoy also the privilege of being paid for my work, free from the burden of hustling. The implication, the curator was telling me, is that our role is one of exploitation.
As a curator working outside of a collection, I’ve always felt there were two parallel dynamics between artist and curator, which together creates a co-dependency. On the one hand, a curator has a good deal of power over what can be exhibited, how, when, for how long. Concurrently, a curator is dependent on the artist for content. Too often though, that reciprocity gets out of whack. Of course, I’m not the first to have wondered what the implications of the growth of curatorial power are for artists. Since the 1990s, there’s been the growing cult around the curator as the author of exhibitions premises which are then illustrated by artists work, sparking in turn concerns that an artist’s own understanding or research is becoming subservient to curatorial grandstanding.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about friendship as a possible model for the curator-artist relationship. This approach, for the most part, has been demonised as cliquey, a-critical or exclusive to those outside the social circle. These are some legitimate concerns. Cronyism is rife in much exhibition (and publication) making, and it gives credence to the idea of artists being selecting for shows simply based on who they know. It’s problematic too when an artist is given carte-blanche to do anything; what purpose does the curator or writer serve then except as a redundant sycophant?
But I think there’s something in the idea of friendship that’s worth recovering before we throw out the concept altogether. Perhaps the most important thing for me is that building a longer relationship with an artist acts as an important preventative measure against flattening their work. That intimacy does allow for a certain shorthand and development of trust that offers better insight into intent and how that intent might become manifest in an experience of work within a gallery space. I think spending so much time with Janet, for example, has given me a more complex understanding of her processes, her politics and her intentions. Making isn’t something that turns on and off for a lot of artist. It spills over into other conversations the way. Art filters into having coffee, dissecting tv shows. Within those discussions are tidbits that you unconsciously squirrel away or even deliberately note down. Lots of my catalogue essay came from ideas I’d texted myself mid-conversation with Janet. At a more basic level, it’s a lot harder to be a shit to someone when you’ve built a relationship with them.
What interests me most though about the metaphor of friendship though is the idea of reciprocity, which posits friendship not as a precondition or an outcome, but a process that deepens an understanding of a practice, for both the curator and the artist. Perhaps the best tests of the idea of friendship as a process have occurred when working with artists I haven’t previously known. In late 2015, I working with painter James Cousins on a solo survey exhibition of his work. Amazingly to me, this would be his first solo exhibition in a public gallery. Often called ‘a painter’s painter’, it was clear that Te Uru would be receiving and presenting work that was rigorous, the result of an long practice that had consistently engaged with what it meant to make a painting. As someone who hasn’t curated a lot of painting shows, James was a source (among more traditional text-based sources) I sponged from: I was quickly catching up contemporary concerns in painting. I’m not sure if I totally achieved it, but in that situation, I knew that what the institution and I could offer is a better understanding for him about how his work was positioned within a broader field and for a wider audience.
Almost a year on from Status Update, I’m not sure I’ve resolved much more how friendship, as a working tool, can offer in terms of thinking about the curator-artist relationship. I do feel like a curator’s investment in an artist beyond the obligatory is fundamental – for a more thorough understanding of an artist’s practice, and for a better fulfilment of a curator’s social responsibility. But perhaps the in order to reciprocate, to properly collude, a curator’s relationship with an artist needs to extend beyond the timeframe of an exhibition. There’s a certain Jerry Maguire manifesto in here, that idea of working more fully with fewer artists. Less is more. Because more time in needed.
Localise was a temporary newspaper publication produced for the Whau Arts Festival 2015, a weekend festival of music, visual art, theatre and performance. Run by Ioana Gordon-Smith and Lana Lopesi, each issue focuses on the subject of community art, exploring how art, and even the newspaper itself, can meaningfully engage with local residents. Localise was published daily from Thursday 15 – Monday 19 October, with 250 copies available for free each morning. Localise was made possible in partnership with Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery and Whau The People.
Editor: Ioana Gordon-Smith
Designer: Lana Lopesi
Advertising designer: James Anderson
Resident comic: Jose Barbosa
Whau The People: Bronwyn Bent, Janet Lilo, Jody McMillan, Sam Morrison, Leilani Tamu
Cover Artists: Edith Amituanai, Bepen Bhana, Fiona Jack, Salome Tanuvasa, WHAU THE PEOPLE, Max White
Feature Writers: Louisa Afoa, Mark Amery, Local Time (Danny Butt, Jon Bywater, Alex Monteith & Natalie Robertson), Balamohan Shingade, Ema Tavola
Contributors: Alice TBM, Aniwaniwa, Artwest, Avondale Koha Shed, Avondale Optometrists, Bronwyn Bent, Charlotte Museum Trust, Janet Charman, Doris Evans, Flair Design For Print, Alexandria George, Green Bay Community House, Green Bay Writers, Hoopla, Christina Houghton, Janet McAllister, Jody McMillan, Ascia Maybury, Mayceys Confectionery, Nina Patel, Puppets for Poppets, A.D. Schierning, Silvia Spieksma, Lisa Truttman, Marcus Williams, Melanie Wittwer, Te Pou Theatre, Timespanner, Uniform, Jason Valentine-Burt, Kathy Waghorn, Western Subrubs Radio Club, Whau Community Arts Broker
Jibber Jabber: Leni Aho, Jaclyn Bonnici, Audrey Boyle, Llannys Burgess, Jacob Collins, Tim Danko, Emmeline Hawthorne, Sanji Karu, Don Medly, Nina patel, Kishor Prajapati, Nate Savill, Liz Takai, Manu Timai, Natasha Urale
Key supporters: Whau the people volunteers, Te Uru
Voids and Veils
A few years ago, Hutchinson began drafting an outline for her Master’s thesis, now indefinitely on hold. As a way of introducing her approach to art making, she wrote:
“Intrinsic to each series within my art practice, I honour tribal whakapapa or genealogy. In doing so, I move more freely between the genealogy of past, present and future to produce works that are linked to memories of recent and ancient past, that are intangible and tangible … I make works that talk about these spiritual spaces.”(1)
Looking over Hutchinson’s creative output over the last couple of decades reveals that seeking out ‘spiritual spaces’ where time and space collapse is indeed an on-going interest in her practice. Her early experiences with spirituality were the subject of a catalogue entry for the 2nd Auckland Triennial, PUBLIC/PRIVATE: Tumatanui/Tumataiti in 2004 (2), in which curator Fuli Pereira interviewed the artist. Hutchinson suggested that her investigation into ideas that reach beyond the physical realm has also been heavily influenced by her mixed ancestry, particularly around non-Western notions of the transitional overlap between this space that we currently inhabit and other less-easily definable spaces. In seeking to make works that connect the past and present, as well as the material and the spiritual, Hutchinson draws upon understandings of social and spatial relations that are specific to her Samoan/Māori background.
One of these concepts is the Samoan notion of vā, which refers to the relational space between two places, things or people. It is also used to articulate a belief in connections across time. Samoa’s Head of State, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, has said Samoans “live not as individuated beings but as beings integrally linked to their cosmos, sharing divinity with ancestors, land, seas and skies”.(3) There is a sense then of reciprocal relationships that span a vast totality, not only between people in the material world, but even further beyond into a spiritual plane where ancestors and spirits reside.
There is an interesting correlation here with a term used by Māori called wā, which references similar understandings of space and time as a moving and interchangeable continuum. Wā can be directly linked to other terms such as wheiao that attempt to describe the way in which time is not considered a strictly sequential concept but is a series of overlapping layers that exist simultaneously yet are inherently interrelated.
A cognisance with these ideas of space and time led Hutchinson to visit the numerous stone platforms of Samoa in 2002 and again in 2012, both times travelling with fellow artists Lily Aitui Laita and Nicki Hastings-McFall, who as a trio formed the artist collective Vahine. Called tia seu lupe (pigeon-catching mounds) in Samoan, these platforms have been the subject of recent archaeological digs, and are now widely believed to have been used for the chiefly sport and ritual of pigeon snaring.(4) Spiritually, the tia seu lupe held great importance. It was thought that the higher the ground one stood on, the closer one was to the heavens. As sites of high elevation, the stone mounds were seen as an interface between the people and gods, and divination rituals used to predict the outcome of different wars would often take place on them.
Today, many tia seu lupe are shrouded by the weeds of unkempt plantations and protected behind legal and cultural boundary lines. For Hutchinson, however, tia seu lupe remain an ever-tangible link to spaces once used to connect the material and astral worlds. References to stone mounds recur in her practice as conduits to this pre-Christian belief system. Her work Cinco (2002), for instance, utilises 16 paper cut-outs to create a star-formation, the most recognisable stone platform shape. Hutchinson returned to this form again the following year with Carbon (2003). This newer work utilised the same structure as Cinco; one central piece surrounded by multiple cut-outs decreasing in size and colour saturation as they move outwards, which together made up the five arms or rays of a star. Carbon differs significantly from Cinco, however, in that it features not cut-out patterns, but various drawings, ranging from the central circle of saturated black through to outlines of winged-female figures, at times tethered to a branch. The imagery draws upon the special significance pigeons have in Samoan mythology as “intermediaries between the gods and humanity”. (5)
Over the course of Hutchinson’s practice, her work has shifted from 2-dimensional responses to more immersive manifestations that visitors can walk through or occupy bodily including architectural interventions and large scale public sculptures. At this moment, Hutchinson is working on a new approach to the tia seu lupe for headland Sculpture on the Gulf, taking her explorations of the star mounds into a 3-dimensional realm. In some ways, this move to create her own star mound redefines the purpose and function of these ancient and culturally-specific forms. Developed for a public site on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf, this work takes on a new set of parameters that are quite distinct from, yet still relevant to, the tia seu lupe in Samoa. The star mound becomes a portal, of sorts, for any who wish to access it. It is a place to shift focus, with the potential to lift the veil between parallel spaces, times and in this case cultures. Hutchinson is making connections here with the various strands of her own Samoan, Māori and European whakapapa, drawing on their interrelated traditions of ritual and spirituality. Notably, Hutchinson will be working with a Tongan stonemason on this project, deliberately recalling the history of star mounds built in Samoa during Tongan occupation while also positioning the work in a contemporary Aotearoa context.
The physical portal is also present in a number of Hutchinson’s other public artworks. These include a commission for the re-opening of the Auckland Art Gallery in 2011, for which she designed twelve laser-cut panels that indicate the thresholds or connections between the gallery spaces and the whenua (land). In Hamilton, Hutchinson created Te Waharoa ki te Ao Maarama (2013), which functions as a gateway into a public recreational space. The work offers a physical and spiritual entry point to the diverse histories of the site for all those that visit it.
Lonnie Hutchinson, Before Sunrise
Inviting visitors to step across a veil, however, was perhaps most eloquently put forward in Hutchinson’s Before Sunrise (2010). The seven works in this installation represented the stars of Matariki (pleiades), commonly referred to as the Māori New Year, but more traditionally a time for wananga – a chance to broaden ones understanding of spiritual matters when the connections between these realms were strongest. Visitors to Before Sunrise were given the option to cross a line of red chalk on the floor dividing the gallery in order to move closer to the seven large paper cut-outs mounted on the far wall. Beyond the simple act of stepping over this demarcation, visitors were also being invited to make a transcendental shift.
Hutchinson pays close attention to the symbolism of different materials in referencing that threshold. In the essay that accompanied Before Sunrise, Megan Tamati-Quennell noted that the red chalk is suggestive of kōkōwai, the red ochre often used by Māori to render things sacred.(8) The black builders paper Hutchinson used in the seven cut-outs also reference a common weather-proofing material that is inserted in the walls or in roofs, providing a layer of separation between cladding. In Hutchinson’s hands, the function of the black builder’s paper as an in-between material is reiterated two-fold; the paper becomes the concertina folds that define space while the uncut black acts as the border between the cut-out patterns in the voids.
Hutchinson’s prevalent use of black could be misinterpreted as a negative statement and read only in terms of the dark unknown put forward by Christian ideologies. Again, this reading expands once non-Western ideas are attributed. In his essays, Rev. Māori Marsden suggests that “time is a continuous stream”, (6) and that it is simultaneously fragmentary, paradoxical and incomplete. He talks about the physical and spiritual realm as being interchangeable and not confined to the sometimes prescriptive laws of Western science. Marsden writes that “Māori had a three-world view, of potential being symbolised by Te Korekore, the world of becoming portrayed by Te Pō, and the world of being, Te Ao Mārama.” (7) As he points out, Te Korekore (the nothingness) and Te Pō (the night) are not voids of fear or forsakenness they are simply the spaces where notions arise and transition from one form into another. There’s a parallel here with Samoan ideas of ‘po’ (also translating as ‘the night’), which is often considered a time when aitu, or spirits, are best poised to penetrate the human realm and when things as we know them might shift their shapes.
Of course, ‘blackness’ also has strong contemporary political connotations, of which Hutchinson is well aware. Her on-going use of black as a motif, alongside the employment of a now outmoded building material, seems to inadvertently reference an earlier time when race politics in Aotearoa included issues such as immigrant labour, treaty claims and social injustice and where the Black Panthers and Black Power were symbols of activation and a reclaiming of identity. Now, they have been replaced with issues of extreme poverty and homelessness, particularly for Māori and Pacific Island communities and the notion of ‘blackness’ has morphed into a complicated morass of cultural stereotyping. Hutchinson’s exhibition Black As (2007) at Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch touched on many of these ideas. Featuring a motley collection of works from her oeuvre, this exhibition addressed some of the ways in which meaning can be interpreted beyond a superficial reading of colour and form:
“Black is the absence of colour, the colour of peace and reflection. Yet it carries the vocal tones of street resistance, hip-hop and youth culture. While also speaking of vitality, beauty and the stories encoded in the dual relationships of negative and positive space, of presence and absence.”(9)
In an interesting twist, the black bitumen saturated building paper — which has become such a recognisable element of Hutchinson’s art making — is quickly being replaced by new materials and technologies. Though Hutchinson has explored the territory of overlapping time and space in a number of works, she has done so most significantly in her virtual environments Untitled (Garden) (2006), Beat the Feet (2008) and Shangri La (2012). Beat the Feet articulates the concept of corresponding points and spaces in time most succinctly, particularly when considering that it was created as a site-specific work for the now severely damaged Christchurch Cathedral. The work was a virtual re-imagining of the land that the Cathedral occupies. It visualised a time before colonisation when the area was primarily a floodplain used by Hutchinson’s Ngāi Tahu ancestors. In the work harakeke (flax) and tī kōuka (cabbage trees) grew from the stone floors between the impressively solid and steadfast pillars of the Cathedral while birds flew about the vaulted nave. This simultaneous coming together of the past and the present suggests a blurring of time and space that is both complementary and somewhat provocative. Viewers of Beat the Feet were left to make up their own minds about the works intent. Did it reference the imposition of cultural traditions by the European colonists, the coming together of spiritual histories and understandings or was it about the loss of a landscape that may never be seen again?
Shangri La, which takes Chews Lane in Wellington as its departure point, functions in a similar way. Now a busy side street bustling with cafes and bars, the lane was once on the lip of the seabed and shoreline, surrounded by native bush and specifically tōtara trees. Through a binocular station, visitors are able to view an animation that overlays references to the area’s history on top of its current physical architecture. The stories she has incorporated from local iwi suggest that something has been subsumed by the urbanisation of Wellington central. The two taniwha that playfully skip through the existing lane complex in her virtual world give the impression that in fact the essence of these ancestors still reside in the place now occupied by towering buildings and concrete walkways.
It is interesting to note that the Shangri La animation begins with ribbons of cut out birds, specifically stylised pigeons, twirling towards the viewer, heralding the ancestral figures to come. Pigeons reappear in a number of Hutchinson’s works, often simply to signify a spiritual or other wordly presence. Pigeon Tarot (2003), for instance, is a series of drawings that directly imagines the magical rituals that might take place on the mounds, where pigeons, as spirits, might come into direct contact, and indeed merge with the human world. Hutchinson morphs each of the Major Arcana Tarot card figures into a bird that is then re-contextualised into a Samoan landscape: the magician becomes a human-bird hybrid sporting a pe’a while the high-priestess transforms into a beaked-woman sitting cross-legged in front of a tapa between two palm trees. The work, Pigeon Tarot, also forges a connection between an ancestral form of divination with a contemporary counterpart, while also connecting Hutchinson’s visit to Samoa with her on-going personal interest in Tarot readings.
Hutchinson made another bird-related work after her 2012 visit to Samoa called Waiting for le Ma’oma’o (2012), working in a panoramic orientation, a distinct shift from her more customary vertical cut outs. The horizontal positioning of this work is a curious spatial rethink for the artist that again invites the viewer to change his or her own approach and experience of her work. Influenced by the night photography Hutchinson became engrossed in while in Samoa, Waiting for le Ma’oma’o suggests yet another iteration of her interest in the spaces where the realms converge and overlap. There is a rhythmic quality to the work reflecting both the physical and spiritual worlds – the sound of a waterfall, the song of the manumea or the black honey-eater, le ma’oma’o, or whispered voices from the other side of the veil.
Hutchinson’s continued reference to birds as spiritual, in-between beings very much links back to the tia seu lupe. During a recent studio visit, Hutchinson recalled a preoccupation during her trips to Samoa with the following incantation, which was reportedly invoked by traditional healers from the top of the stone platforms:
Oso I totonu i le vā
Jump into the gap;
I’m going to transfix you) (10)
Mo’omo’o is an umbrella term for illness, often associated with ill-intentioned spirits. In this incantation, the healer invokes the ‘vā’ or ‘gap’ as a space between material and magical realms that holds transformative powers. Within this space-between, a spirit can be transfixed and a person released. Significantly, the gap referred to in this incantation is a specific architectural feature, as it is thought to relate to the negative spaces between each of a star mound’s projections.(11) Across a number of works, it seems as if Hutchinson is continually looking at similar physical or spatial features that might recall or indeed even function as a type of ‘gap’; a space where realms and time overlap, and which could trigger some inner change once traversed.
Though the possibility of moving between the past and the present feels like a much desired magical, and in Hutchinson’s practice, an often-technological feat, her motives are just as political as they are mystical. The transitional spaces between the ‘voids and veils’ engage with traditional knowledge related to the artist’s diverse genealogy, and specifically her Samoan and Māori cultural heritage. Her works not only allow her to move more freely between the genealogy of past, present and future, but also importantly make present ancestral belief systems about the nature of time that were once prevalent but, like the star mounds, often become overgrown with outside influences. It is from this strong cultural grounding that Hutchinson offers an opportunity to jump into gap, into the unknown black, rich with all its connotations. In this space, perhaps we too might be transfixed.
Karl Chitham and Ioana Gordon-Smith
First published in the publication Lonnie Hutchinson: Black Bird, 2014
(1) Lonnie Hutchinson, Black birds and deaf ears, artist talk, Elam School of Fine Arts, 2012
(2) Public/Private: Tumataui/Tumataiti was curated by Ngahiraka Mason and Ewen McDonald and was shown at various Auckland venues including Auckland Art Gallery.
(3) Tina Engels-Swartzpaul, Restless Containers: Thinking interior space – across cultures, Interstices 12, 2010, p 17
(4) Stephanie Oberg, This Show Is What I Do, IMA, 2006
(6) ed. Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, The Woven Universe: Selected Writings of Rev. Māori Marsden, The Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden, 2003, p 22
(7) Ibid, p 20
(8) Megan Tamati-Quennell, Black Star, Artstation, 2010
(10) Lonnie Hutchinson, interview with the artist, Auckland, 1 December 2014
(11) David J. Herdrick, Towards an understanding of Samoan star mounds, The Journal of Polynesian Society 100(4), 1991, p 398
Cut + Paste with keyboard shortcuts
The first photo Janet took of me was at an exhibition opening. We were at Auckland Art Gallery for the mega-affair that was the 5th Auckland Triennial: If you were to live here . . . As we left the gallery, a group of us attempted to sober our sloppy smiles and pose for the camera at a friend’s request. Later that night on Facebook, I found Janet had taken a photo of the photo being taken. Her version, however, featured a characteristic J. Lilo twist: Photoshopped in front of the foyer’s revolving doors was a crocodile, nonchalantly photobombing our careful poses. Janet created something similar from the next opening we were at together, this time replacing one face in that obligatory group photo with a chicken mask and another with the ‘Ghostface’ mask made famous through the Scream horror film franchise and subsequent Scary Movie parodies. In fact, many social events that Janet has attended have been followed with a photo that she has humorously improved. One of my favourites comes from a colleague’s leaving drinks, where all the cans of beer have been replaced with cans of Wattie’s baked beans.
These Facebook images are just a small example of Janet’s obsession with all things image-related. Part of what makes Janet’s documentation practice so distinctive is that she truly thinks of it as practice: she’s rarely seen without her camera and is constantly editing, which makes her highly adept with the different ways an image can be manipulated. Cropping, inserting, utilising colour saturation, applying filters, lassoing, cloning and layering are just a few of the techniques she regularly uses. The resulting images exist in both private and professional spaces. When she was still active on social media, many of these digitally collaged works were uploaded on Facebook – Janet now often attaches them to personal emails. Other images are presented more formally as artworks, though still in sites as diverse as YouTube, outdoor venues and gallery spaces. Image manipulation is such an integral part of Janet’s modus operandi that we were originally going to call her survey exhibition ‘Cut and Paste’, until we learned that title was already taken by an upcoming exhibition at The Dowse.
Janet’s editing fixation stems, in part, from the desire to master the possibilities and understand the implications of making images in a digital age. Because a digital image is essentially a data file, comprised of bits of information, rather than imprinted on film, it can be edited with relative ease and speed using software, radicalising how we construct images. Though this media revolution is fairly recent, its uptake has been both rapid and universal. Retouched photos and CGI are normalised influences in the media we consume. More significantly, editing functions have quickly become embedded in even the most basic devices – no longer do you need to be a Photoshop pro to make use of image manipulation tools. With cameras now standard on nearly every digital device, easy-to-use, in-built editing functions can be found on most phones and computers. There is a multitude of websites that allow you to edit photos online: you can create virtual makeovers, animated gifs, dubbed videos and more. Janet’s current practice exists within an image culture in which a Keanu Reeves photo can spawn an infinite number of memes in just hours, and knowing how to turn out a flattering selfie is pretty much a given.
With constant upgrades to digital devices and software, it seems that many of us are occupied less with understanding the capacities of each new tool and more with simply trying to keep up and avoid our own obsolescence. The result, media theorist Douglas Ruskoff argues, is that ‘we have embraced the new technologies and literacies of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us’.[i] He continues: ‘only an elite – sometimes a new elite, but an elite nonetheless – gains the ability to fully exploit the new medium on offer. The rest learn to be satisfied with gaining the ability offered by the last new medium . . . As a result, most of society remains one full dimensional leap of awareness and capability behind the few who manage to monopolize access to the real power of any media age’.[ii]
Rushkoff points his readers towards a certain power imbalance embedded within digital technology, the effect being that we, as users, are unwittingly complicit with the biases entrenched in various software and devices; tools that very few of us understand from a programming perspective. Indeed, there’s an unacknowledged tension that comes with digital imaging: it has ushered in a new way of making images that is both incredibly accessible yet almost entirely pre-determined. There are certain editing functions – such as drawing or writing text on top of an image in Snapchat or changing the colouration of an image using a filter in Instagram – that have become popular precisely because they are pre-provided options. As Janet notes: ‘we use these options because they seemingly improve the image through a digital process, but ultimately you do it because you are given the license.’[iii]
Janet adamantly resists being programmed. Apparent across much of her practice is a desire to be an alert user of all things digital. Many of her works are underpinned by an investigation into how newly introduced technologies work and work on us: how do they impact our aesthetic impulses and in what ways do they shape the type of images we make and the way in which we make them? These questions often necessitate working in an experimental manner, a characteristic that defines Janet’s practice. Cry Me A River (2004), for example, is an early work that employed the then newly introduced digital camcorder. Though it seems a given now, camcorders introduced a viewing screen, or viewfinder, to the video camera, so that the documenter was no longer limited to just looking through the lens. More significantly, the viewfinder could be flipped 180 degrees, allowing the person being documented to see him- or herself in the frame as he or she was being recorded.
Cry Me a River (a split screen video of one woman singing and another lip-syncing to Justin Timberlake’s track of that name) experimented with the new self-awareness a viewfinder offered subjects. Both performers ham it up for the camera as they simultaneously view the self-image they project to the unknown viewer. The work could even be considered a moving-image selfie: a precursor to the fascination with capturing our own image that would explode with the introduction of the front-facing camera.
The digital technology that Janet utilises and investigates most often, however, is Photoshop. Top Model (2011) is a series of 16 images made during a three-week residency in Noumea. The works were made by taking selfies using Photo Booth software and a webcam on a Mac laptop, then superimposing these captured poses over the faces of every Top Model winner across 16 seasons (or ‘cycles’, as host Tyra calls them). These collages were then (again) superimposed onto billboards Janet had photographed in situ in Noumea. The series in part functions as play: a test of how successfully Janet can pull off the trompe l’œil effect of turning herself into a top model. It also serves as practice: on her website, Janet notes that she was still becoming accustomed to using Photoshop software, so the images provided an opportunity to try ‘to get it right’.[iv]
Top Model also, perhaps unintentionally, highlights the role of Photoshop in changing the status of existing images. With the increased editing capacity that software introduces, any and all existing images become potential raw material for new creations. Limor Shifman, a communications lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, calls images made by reworking an existing one ‘Reaction Photoshops.’[v] She argues that people are particularly likely to rework existing images if the originals seem overly contrived, using humorous amendments to foreground the constructed or staged nature of the original image.[vi] Janet’s Top Model could be seen to fit within this framework: using Photoshop to destabilise the certainty (and sanctity) of popular images, specifically in Top Model as they relate to normalised beauty aspirations and ideals.[vii] Notably, Janet’s aesthetics often foreground the constructed nature of her digital manipulations. Mirroring, colour saturation, silhouetting and cropping are all unabashed evidence of editing that even the most stubborn Luddite can recognise from widely used programmes such as Photo Booth. Though a greater accessibility to the means to digitally amend images carries the potential to better recognise local realities (Janet’s version of Top Model inserts a brown face into fictional billboards located in a Pacific nation where most billboards feature white models), a conscious and visible recognition of the role of digital editing drives both the intent and the aesthetic of Janet’s works.
Despite, or perhaps rather because of its far-reaching influences, Janet has recently shied away from digital software and returned to using analogue processes. In 2014, she walked the entire 80-kilometre distance between the French cities of Le Havre and Rouen as research for the group exhibition, Pacifique(s) contemporain (2015). Along the way, Janet selected two objects as points of departure for a new body of work: a high-vis fluoro vest and a mesh cylinder used to surround newly planted trees. These two items of protection were the starting points for an elaborate drawing series undertaken back home in Avondale, Auckland. During a recent studio visit, Janet pulled out page after page of drawings at A5, A4 and A3 sizes that teased out different ways that these two objects could be drawn. The drawings differ by small permutations. One image uses duct tape, the next uses duct tape with one strip placed at a slightly different angle. Two other images are distinguishable only by the different density of the cross-hatching. The effect acknowledges, mirrors and dissects the speed and ease with which we create different versions of an image on our screens, all with the speed of a mouse click. As Janet explained, ‘If I could make the digital quickly, it’s relevant to challenge myself to do that in analogue too.’[viii]
Though critical of digital imaging’s largely unquestioned impact, Janet’s approach isn’t to vilify. In a time when almost everyone has the power to capture, distort and distribute images, Janet has pressed pause. Like her interview works in which her voice can be heard questioning the people we see on screen, her images deliberately evidence the digital hand of Janet as editor, gleefully refusing any naturalisation of digital influences. To return to Koskoff: ‘[w]hat is called for now is a human response to the evolution of these technologies all around us.’[ix] In Janet’s hands, the digital is re-humanised: it is programmed technology used by a conscious mind. Her practice teases out and exploits the possibilities of an all-encompassing technological revolution, while warning of the danger of not being exploited in return.
[i] Douglas Rushkoff, Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, New York: OR Books, 2010, p. 13.
[iii] Janet Lilo, interview with the artist, Avondale, Auckland, 23 February 2016.
[iv] Janet Lilo, http://janetliloart.com/2012/10/05/brothers/, accessed on 2 March 2016.
[v] Limor Shifman, ‘The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres’, Journal of Visual Culture, 13(3), 2014, pp. 340–58.
[vii] In an episode of Fresh (accessible on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4FbucU6gxI), Janet notes that Top Model was in part influenced by becoming a first-time mother who was coming to terms with her new body, mind and lifestyle, and who found humour in the idea that any body could be a ‘Top Model’.
[viii] Janet Lilo, interview with the artist, Avondale, Auckland, 23 February 2016.
[ix] Rushkoff, p. 13.