Kermadec is a touring exhibition, which has already been exhibited at Tauranga and Auckland. It is now showing at the City Gallery Wellington. The nine established artists featured were invited by the Pew Environment Group to travel to the Kermadecs on board the NZ Navy ship Otago. The exhibition was designed to give the Kermadecs the sort of publicity that artists’ trips to Antarctica have given that region. Pew advocates setting up a marine reserve in the area because of its unique location, submarine geography and diversity of species. Essentially this is an exhibition of ‘political’ art work designed to increase our awareness of the area with the hoped-for result that a marine reserve be established.
Art has always had a unique role in political debate through its ability to change public perception about issues. In the text of the exhibition catalogue, one of the artists – John Reynolds – suggests that the role of the artist is simply to ‘vigorously point towards a particular corner of existence and the work articulates…some essence…of what is worthy of our attention’. There is a lot of descriptive pointing in the exhibition but it fails to be persuasive other than as an attractive description of a beautiful and wild part of our territory.
One way some artists tried to impress the audience was with sheer size. Size in visual art is comparable to volume in music or oratory. Sometimes it is an attempt to dominate the viewer to create an impression of significance without contributing to the argument. It can be seen as an intimidating tactic of persuasion akin to the use of force.
The true value of artistic political expression lies in its ability to seduce the viewer into new and unexpected ways of looking which result in a new awareness. This exhibition does that minimally at best. While the seduction of colour, pattern and sumptuous presentation is present, the shameful desecration of the region is often referred to through sloganeering like Fiona Hall’s ‘On your watch Mr Key: which side are you on?’ or John Reynold’s repeated motif ‘wakey wakey’ which is also a reference to the Otago’s reveille call. The images themselves include references to drift net fishing (Fiona Hall) and various problems of pollution and invasion by exotic species (Jason O’Hara, Philip Dadson and Bruce Foster). The instruction to feel or think in a particular way is not often a very successful argument.
The contribution from Wairarapa’s Robin White is not an attempt to persuade. Instead she fulfils another requirement in locating the subject matter as the legitimate concern of the audience. She uses traditional tapa printing techniques and materials in her work as opposed to Hall’s painting on tapa . Her tapa work is also the result of collaboration with a group of Tongan village women and locates their traditions as viable and alive within contemporary art practice. Robin’s imagery uses motifs recalling historical and cultural connections with New Zealand that remind us that this is our territory and our responsibility. Repeated images of tea (‘Bell’ after one of the early Raoul Island settler families), cups and saucers, teapots, the Tongan rugby emblem, canned beef, and fish and a reminder that our NZ eel spawn in Tonga, all serve to make a direct and personal New Zealand connection with the Kermadecs.
The problem with the direct instruction or sloganeering is that it fails to take full advantage of the special receptivity that the viewer chooses to adopt by visiting the contemplative space of the gallery. A gallery is like a book, by going through the doors or opening the cover, the viewer / reader commits to attend closely to what is being said or displayed. A good novel changes the reader by giving them an experience they could not have on their own. Visual art can do the same.
Although the exhibition is not effective at a political level, there is a lot of beautiful, informative and engaging material presented. One way to evaluate it, is to compare it with Aratoi’s Wairarapa Moana of last year. Although that was a simple documentary with a far smaller budget, Wairarapa Moana changed my thinking far more than Kermadec.