Turning a page, starting a chapter
The title Turning a page, starting a chapter implies a sense of halfway-ness, ignored chasms between the ending of one paragraph and the beginning of the next. It implies turning a new leaf, laid down with certainty of the hand but with the force of psychic anticipation. What shifts do we encounter in that tightly bound margin?
I actually don’t like that feeling of anticipation—beginning a new year, moving cities, trying a new breakfast cereal. I thrive on routine. I skip through the scary bits on TV shows. I read plot summaries on Wikipedia before going to the movies. I prefer to remain in that in-betweenness and cross bridges only when I must. Butterflies in my stomach whisper “Why find out for sure when you can imagine what it could be like?” Perhaps we place our bookmark at this point, for we are tired and need rest. We fold the corner of the page as an act of remembrance. Maybe we plan the journey ahead, squinting our weary eyes to read into some future—for now… now, is our time of becoming.
Turning a page, starting a chapter could be described as a navigation of transformation, commissioning indigenous Moana Pacific artists from across Aotearoa. The artists in this exhibition turn away from the fear of the unknown, instead imagining what it looks, sounds and feels like.
Jade Townsend’s Neke, neke. You are free. (2022) stands unhindered in its cloistered gallery space, accompanied by a soundscape inspired by the Ship’s Bell held at Te Papa. Sun passing through leadlight windows, the tolling of a distant bell and the rustling of the veil like dried harakeke on piupiu create a certain viscous ambience. I feel like I’m back in church again—head cocked involuntarily to the side, eyes closed, hands clasped together around the navel, waiting in line for Communion. I find myself once again re-enacting a gestural reverence for the Last Supper. Townsend is well aware of the power places of worship have in engaging their audiences; the mental state one enters into when stepping into sacred limits and the relaxing of shoulders when you’re out.
The veil itself is held in delicate suspension by a rimu frame, unwoven strips cascading down from the remaining upper rows that keep them bound together. Lilac and golden hues give it an aura of faint optimism, grazing my head and shoulders as I pass through. Slowly weaving themselves back together before dispersing again, the strands are moved around by a mounted fan. They have a tendency to behave the way they did before. Each fibre carries the indentations of its past form, each strand the residue of an unwoven mat.
In her own words, Townsend is always “translating the residual.” Here, she wonders what is to become of those gestures, rituals and thoughts that belong to a religion that is no longer relevant? What is one to do with shame? Guilt? The artist makes a “monument” to those feelings, letting shame exist as you pass through the threshold and see what other grit percolates with it to the surface. Encouraging her viewers to walk through the veil, like pulling back the curtain during confession (now fittingly called “Reconciliation”).
Collaborating with jazz composer and percussionist Riki Gooch, the bell creating the soundscape is an imagining of how the first bell in Aotearoa would have sounded. Though the bell reverberates—residue of colonial (and Christian) terror—the artist’s research says Māori were found using this same bell to cook potatoes. A colonial relic repurposed as a method for replenishment of the body and perhaps now the soul. By leaning into whakamā (shame), what possibilities does it present when you make it to the other side?
Sitting beneath the gallery’s glass dome, enclosed in a black box are Sione’s audiovisual works Ongo Ongo (2022) and Tolu Katea (2021). In both works, Faletau extracts the audio wave spectrum from recordings to create moving digital kupesi (patterns). The first features a recording of ambient noise from the gallery, while the second uses a hymn sung by Tupou College Choir in Toloa, Tonga.
In Ongo Ongo we encounter an immediate neon intensity. The kupesi cast colourful shadows on my skin, a quasi-physicality that sound and vision can have on the body. As the projection is eventually flooded with pulsating pinks, greens and yellows, the gap between viewer and the visual slowly closes in an intimate symmetry between body and sound. Tolu Katea features the hymn Himi 114: ‘Eiki Ko e ‘Ofa ‘A’au, which sings of the deep and cleansing love of God, an ocean in which all our sins get lost. Tolu Katea references three canoes that keep each other afloat.
Lines vibrate and they appear to breathe like lungs. They expand into one another and then contract as if retreating. A telescopic vā that moves the vitality that can only come from lifeforce. Slowly but surely, they multiply in never-ending expansion; symmetries opening and closing as though the marks themselves create this network of voices that meld and intensify. When sound waves are extracted, it seems as though it is not simply the numerical data that is released, but also an unquantifiable aspect, a living essence that lurks between discrete points. I am not sure whether it is the appeal of the moving marks that invite me to crane my neck closer or this lurking transformative essence. I prefer to think it is the latter.
I’m reminded of Faletau talking about not just mark making but sonic mark making, the geometric structures that frequencies construct when unleashed into the ether. These shapes or marks, Faletau says, are each a kind of aural entity that bind body, mind and spirit, echoing the words the boys are singing; “When my body is weak, my soul too is weak.” He was, of course, also aware of the previous life of the gallery as the home of Radio 1YA broadcasting studios and the former home of TVNZ. Maybe there are still entities that roam the gallery from its broadcasting days.
In talking to Faletau, we chat about videos we’ve seen on YouTube with titles like 417Hz Frequency of love brings positive transformation, or 396Hz Let go of anxiety and subconscious fear. It is interesting then, that when immersed in the work, a strange thing happens to my insides, a bodily response perhaps triggered by the senses or by the soul. I tend to believe this is not solely a phenomenological reaction, to do so would be to misplace all the aspects of Faletau’s creation that is not seen.
Finally, in Gallery One, we find Ana Iti’s Roharoha (2022). It feels pensive and personal, like observing the artist’s own processes and relationship with creativity. While Iti usually responds to site, in this work she makes her subject the kahukura, a red admiral butterfly native to Aotearoa.
Iti’s installation weaves together both sculptural and audiovisual strands of her practice, creating an experience realised through the life cycle of the little kahukura. Stepping into the gallery, we pass through another threshold. This time, it is an entering into a different comprehension of time, metered by the metamorphosis of an idea. The space itself forms a dark void lit only by the light coming from Iti’s video work. Deeper into this blackness is a book-like structure whose scale renders my body the same size as the kahukura. The structure sits upright and open. Projected on either side is footage of the kahukura. The up-close video is like getting to know these creatures as we are taken through their little homes in the ongaonga where larvae rest.
This sequence is followed by rapid flashing of colours; the flicking through of a book and the reordering of cells. Referencing its own book-like form, the video transitions to the image of a threaded needle passing through a leaf of paper reminiscent of the binding of pages or the spinning of a cocoon. We see the needle from both points of view; piercing the page and entering the space below. Back and forth goes the thread, growing the spine to cradle all that the pages will hold. Books, even if already written, edited and published can still be a chrysalis for reimagined futures. Then the closing of the book; rest for the kahukura. When the kahukura one day rises, they will perish to decompose into Papatūānuku; a seed of iterations to come.
Roharoha promises multiple existences and timelines. The time it takes to bind a book, for larvae to hatch, for the kahukura to sleep—each taking place in the interim. Even in one lifetime, the kahukura spawns multiple generations of offspring, each of whom will experience the stop and start of transformations. Much like the kahukura, creativity never offers the security of linearity. Ideas indeed often arise from bizarre circumstances too; the ongaonga nettle that houses the larvae and sustains the kahukura is toxic for most other creatures. Yet the precarity of the larvae, living on the knife edge of a needle somehow comes to thrive on that same uncertainty. The free floating-ness of the butterfly becomes a symbol of the unpredictable shape processes take.
Turning a page, starting a chapter removes the tension of in-betweenness. The artists choose to work in the gap between knowing and imagining. To lean into liminalities and place one’s clammy fingers on a blank page is to find security in untraversed terrains. Though transitions may not always be comfortable, it is this time of becoming that elicits faith in indigenous futurisms and strength in its malleability.
This essay response was commissioned by Gus Fisher Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition Turning a page, starting a chapter, 2022.
Gus Fisher Gallery
74 Shortland Street
Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Central 1010
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