Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, Masterton, November 2016
Reviewed by David Famularo
Probably the most affective book on New Zealand art I have ever read is “In Search of Paradise: Artists and Writers in the Colonial South Pacific” by Graeme Lay.
Copies of this richly illustrated and well-written book were sitting in a pile at Paper Plus Masterton for $10 each. After buying one and starting to read it, I went back and bought a couple more to give as gifts.
In Search of Paradise permanently changed my inner sense of geography. I started thinking of myself as living on an island in the Pacific after a whole lifetime of knowing this fact but not really feeling it.
The book gave the sense of how new arrivals to New Zealand saw this country and the other islands of the South Pacific as alien environments upon which to imprint their ideals and imaginations of social, political and sexual utopias.
There are occassional echoes of In Search of Paradise in the journey of nine leading New Zealand artists – Phil Dadson, Bruce Foster, Fiona Hall, Gregory O’Brien, Jason O’Hara, John Pule, John Reynolds, Elizabeth Thomson and Robin White – on the HMNZS Otago from Auckland, northward through the Kermadec region, towards the Kingdom of Tonga.
The Kermadec Islands are a subtropical island arc in the South Pacific Ocean, around 1000 kilometres northeast of New Zealand, uninhabited, except for the permanently manned Raoul Island Station, the northernmost outpost of New Zealand.
The Kermadec Trench is one of Earth’s deepest oceanic trenches, reaching a depth of 10,047 metres. The New Zealand government’s attempt to create a 620,000 square kilometre Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary has ground to a halt, at least for the moment, after opposition from Maori Iwi who were not consulted as required by the Treaty of Waitangi.
In Search of Paradise explored “the magnetic attraction of the South Pacific for artists, writer and others who chronicled the European discovery of the islands of New Zealand,” according to its publicity.
In a similar fashion, the promotional material for “Kermadec – Lines in the Ocean” says it “celebrates the artists’ journey and shines a spotlight on the extraordinary and special features that define the Kermadec region and connect us to the Pacific.”
Even now, the search for an untainted paradise in the Pacific seems to be as strong as ever. But the reality is that we are now living on a planet where people have to fight to save the last remnants of nature from exploitative destruction.
So it comes as no surprise that the Kermadecs are under the same sort of pressure as other parts of the world.
This journey was in fact initiated by the Kermadec Initiative of the Pew Environment Group to promote the establishment of a sanctuary.
I doubt that any of the 11 artists on board the Otago was so naive as to expect an unspoiled paradise. Never-the-less Bruce Foster was compelled to photograph the litter he found in just one 25 metre stretch of beach on Raul Island after a cyclone.
Fiona Hall highlighted the forces of exploitation above and below the water – those wanting to fish it, mine, or militarise it.
The journey doesn’t appear to have led to any radical change in the nature of each artist’s work, but there is a wide range of media presented thanks to their diversity.
Elizabeth Thomson displays her typical light oriented abstraction, while Robin White opts to use tapa design to tell the story of the Bell Family who lived on Sunday Island (as Raoul Island used to be known) for 35 years from 1878.
I particularly enjoyed the high standard of draughtmanship, especially in the etchings by a number of the artists, and the two abstract two tone paintings by John Reynolds (pictured above) of the wake of the Otago.
Most of the journey is spent at sea. I like the tale Greg Obrien tells of John Pule, whom he was already collaborating with before the journey, sitting on the deck of the ship for hours.
“Maybe the great lesson I learned from him was not to learn from nature or evoke it, but to place yourself in the midst of it.”
Never-the-less most of the artworks are preoccupied with the only landmass the artists visited.
Jason O’Hara’s experience of Raoul Island which is a semi-active volcano (its last eruption in 2006 killed a Department of Conservation officer) reminds me of how I felt during my visit to Stromboli, an active volcano off Sicily.
“I am haunted by the memory of Raoul. It invades my every day thoughts, summoning me to return. it hasn’t finished with me yet. I could feel it watching as we explored. A great visitor from the depths that has risen to our world, tolerating our presence as it has so many others. But at any moment it could flick us off when we cease to amuse.”
Elizabeth Thomson had been familiar with Raoul since the 1970s through an ornithologist friend who had spent time there.
“I was struck with the contrast between the vastness of the setting and the intimacy of what was in front of the lense – mosses, lichens, fungi, and also the petrels nesting deep inside burrows.”
According to John Reynolds, “our role is to point at something and we do this by making art work,” which neatly sums up the purpose of the trip.
The effectiveness of sending artists off remote South Pacific Islands or the Antarctic is debatable, given the limited audience the visual arts have in New Zealand.
But every little bit helps, especially when it is being put to a good cause like raising awareness of the value of the Kermadecs.
Top photo: Elizabeth Thomson, left, John Pule, right