For a long time, New Zealand’s artists and writers have predominantly engaged with the Pacific through stories of migration, shared myths and colonialism and its after-effects. But as the Asia-Pacific region keeps being smacked around by natural disasters, and some of its islands face the prospect of disappearing back into the sea, it also seems urgent that our creative practitioners begin to reflect on the “nature” of our relationship with this place and on the precarious geological realities of our Pacific existence. The exhibition Kermadec, which opens at Tauranga Art Gallery next weekend, is likely to be a good start.
The show brings together the work of nine artists who in May travelled to Raoul Island in the Kermadecs and then on to Tonga onboard HMNZS Otago. The expedition was organised by the Pew Environment Group, which wants to create a 620,000sq km marine reserve around the Kermadecs. In its literature, Pew puts a pretty convincing case. The area’s ecological significance is unquestionable, with a third of New Zealand’s known fish species originating in the Kermadec Trench. It’s also an important migratory route for whales, turtles and seabirds. There aren’t many economic hurdles for the sanctuary to overcome, either; very little commercial fishing currently happens in the proposed protection zone, and as it has some of the deepest water on the planet, any meaningful mineral exploitation is likely to be too challenging and expensive.
But leaving the cause’s merits aside, artists can easily become unstuck by this sort of venture, running the risk of making didactic or corny work as they try to “respond” appropriately. So it was a smart move by Pew to take a hands-off approach, leaving the choice of artists to Wellington curator, writer and artist Gregory O’Brien.
“I asked people who I knew would have an innate curiosity about or an attachment to or a passion for the ocean,” says O’Brien. “For someone like John Pule, for example, the Kermadecs are halfway home to Niue. The same for Robin White, who was born in the Bay of Plenty but lived for nearly two decades in Kiribati before returning to New Zealand, from where she continues to collaborate with a number of indigenous Pacific women.”
Artist Elizabeth Thomson confirms the group didn’t feel the need to bang particular drums. “I think my work has always been about those issues anyway,” she says, “about taking elements from the natural environment and re-presenting them hypothetically. But there was no pressure to think in a particular way.”
Thomson is also a good example of the eclecticism of the collective: her exploration of the overlaps between art and science is very different from the elegant Pasifika fusion of White and Pule.
Other artists on the trip are even farther out on a conceptual limb: inter-media and sound artist Phil Dadson, for example, and painter and installation artist John Reynolds, who spent a fair bit of his time on Raoul Island dressed as a swamp creature, scrawling numbers on beach rocks.
“They were people who had reasons for being involved which lay well beyond formal or theoretical concerns,” suggests O’Brien, “reasons that in some ways were quite existential: about their lives, their identities.”
It’s clear, too, that the shared experience of being at sea for several days was a unifying factor. The ship followed the line of the Kermadec Ridge, a submerged stretch of volcanic land that runs like a vapour trail from the Bay of Plenty right up to Tonga. It was an arduous voyage that involved long periods out of sight of land, nasty swells and plenty of vomiting.
“It was pretty rough,” says O’Brien. “But afterwards a couple of the artists said to me that they thought being violently seasick was part of the whole visceral, slowly evolving nature of the journey. You were aware of the conditions of being – particularly when you’re on a battleship with no windows. It does really affect you, but it’s something that’s very hard to articulate.”
O’Brien says the Navy’s role in the Pacific was a revelation to the group; one far more custodial than defensive or militaristic and one that, in its own way, has similar goals to that of Pew, the Department of Conservation and even the artists themselves.
Plenty of work in Kermadec will tap into the fantastical aspect of the expedition: being lost at sea, then cast ashore on an uninhabited volcanic island. But just as much will deal with more mundane matters: flora and fauna encountered, new sounds heard, ecological questions raised, perhaps even puking endured.
The project could also be that rare thing: a thematic exhibition that says something intelligent about the place it’s in and the place it imagines. Because as Tauranga watches a gloopy container ship break up on its reefs and Christchurch continues its painful recovery, we’re confronted with a stark fact: we live on volcanoes in the middle of a giant angry ocean. And while that’s no easy thing, it’s also a force with immense creative potential.
KERMADEC, Tauranga Art Gallery, November 19-February 5.