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Artists in the South pacific
Seariders: from left to right, Jason O'Hara, Phil Dadson, Fiona Hall, John Pule, John Reynolds, Marcus Lush, Bronwen Golder, Robin White, Elizabeth Thomson, Bruce Foster and Gregory O'Brien.
Unlike Antarctica and New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, the Kermadec Islands haven’t figured in our country’s visual art, and they hardly feature in our literature (apart from Elsie Morton’s 1957 Crusoes of Sunday Island). That said, I’m certain the forthcoming ‘Kermadec’ exhibition—which opens in Tauranga in late November—will change all that. 2011 is set to be an important year for the Kermadecs, on many levels.
The artists involved in the ‘Kermadec’ project convened at Devonport Naval Base early on 11 May. Accompanied by Bronwen Golder, of the Pew Environment Group, we boarded the HMZNS Otago, destined for Tonga via Raoul Island. The group comprised Niuean-born painter-poet John Pule, sculptor and sound-artist Phil Dadson, painter-printmaker Robin White (Te Atiawa), painter John Reynolds, Wellington-based sculptor Elizabeth Thomson, and the photographers Bruce Foster and Jason O’Hara. I was wearing various hats as artist, writer and art curator—and we were joined by the celebrated Australian sculptor/installation-artist Fiona Hall. Other ‘seariders’ (non-naval personnel) on the boat included the Minister of Conservation, Kate Wilkinson, Gavin Rodley and Pieter Tuinder from the Department of Conservation, and broadcaster Marcus Lush.
As we sailed north, we were allowed access to all areas of the ship. On the bridge, the officers reminded us that the waters above the Kermadec Ridge (which extends from the Bay of Plenty as far as Tonga) are still largely unsurveyed—hence the need for constant vigilance. Known seamounts (underwater volcanoes) are given a wide berth and the threat of barely-submerged, uncharted seamounts is taken seriously. Remarkably, in a world of high technology and global positioning systems, some of the most accurate chartings of these waters are those made during Captain Cook’s voyages over two centuries ago—and these are still in use today. However, now as it was then, uncertainty is a precondition of voyaging in these parts.
At the same time we were heading for Raoul Island, a scientific party, on the vessel Braveheart, sponsored by Auckland Museum, was ploughing adjacent waters. Their discoveries have been swiftly acknowledged as a major step forward in the surveying and understanding of the Kermadec region. While scientists process their discoveries almost immediately (one of their finds, an adorable little spotty known as a ‘trigger fish’, has already made the national news), the art-making process tends to be slower and harder to track.
During the week we spent on the HMNZS Otago, there was much note-taking, photographing and a lot of staring at the horizon. Without any co-ordinates, landmarks or familiar objects, the artists found themselves cast adrift in a new kind of space—one that was at once overwhelming and full of imaginative potentialities. My own investigations amounted to a great many notes for poems and drawings, inspired variously by the omnipresent sea, the charts and electronic gadgetry on the ship’s bridge, and such daily occurences as a pod of dolphins sighted off Little Barrier Island, a flying fish landing on deck, a succession of extraordinary dawns and sunsets and, on our last afternoon at sea, a mid-ocean swim for ratings, officers and seariders alike when we reached the Tropic of Capricorn.
Having returned from the Kermadecs, the members of the artistic crew are now getting down to the next phase of the project. Adelaide-based Fiona Hall returned home via Wellington, where she continued working on the massive tapa cloth she had begun in Tonga. This work-in-progress brings together visual elements from the voyage, scientific subjects from the Kermadecs and some apposite political slogans. With Elizabeth Thomson, Fiona visited the NIWA base, at Greta Point, Wellington, where she studied and photographed numerous Kermadec life-forms. John Pule’s time spent on the Raoul island headland has inspired a 12 part poem (complete with prologue and epilogue) titled ‘Polynesian Station Pointer’, which begins on a suitably operatic note:
On my first morning on Rangitahua
I listen to Orpheus sing the sun up...
Some large, freshly-primed canvases await John Pule in an adjacent room of his studio-house. Phil Dadson has only just returned from Tonga—he stayed on up there to make further underwater sound recordings and video. In my Wellington studio, my mind keeps returning to the vividness of what we encountered and the elemental presence of sea, sky and the volcanic earth:
We rolled the pebble beach
miles out to sea. Then, having leapt
from the last remaining rock, we
uplifted that solitary rock too
and sent it skimming northwards, star-wards
then we followed it back to the known world.
For the purposes of art-making, you could say, the nine artists will remain submerged in the depths of the Kermadecs a while longer —and the exhibition, when it opens in Tauranga, will be the point at which we reach the surface again.
In hindsight, the voyage was certainly exhilarating, inspiring and challenging, if at times a little perplexing and disorientating. We all went somewhere we could never have imagined; and we returned with a newfound awareness of Pacific space, the inscrutable surface of the ocean and the myriad life-forms beneath its surface. For all the artists involved, the shape of New Zealand has been altered forever, and our awareness of our place in the world has been enhanced and enriched. We were humbled by the energy and devotion of the Department of Conservation workers on Raoul Island; we enjoyed the good company of the officers and ratings on HMNZS Otago, and the flow of ideas and energy within the artistic group was a rare and valuable thing.
By the time we arrived at Nuku’alofa, the possibility of the entire Kermadec region becoming a marine reserve was something we all believed passionately in—bearing in mind that the objective is not to keep humanity out of the region (how could we deny others the privilege we ourselves had just been granted?), but rather to offer a respectful, responsible set of parameters within which human beings can function as custodians for the future rather than exploiters of the present.