Friday, July 04, 2014

Ozymandias on the Great South Road: three notes about Brett Graham's redoubts

[I wrote this review for Hashtag500words, the forum for art criticism recently set up by the impressive young Auckland artist-critic-curators Louisa Afoa and Lana Lopesi. Louisa works at Papakura Art Gallery, and I met her when I exhibited work there with Paul Janman and Ian Powell. We both grew up in and around Papakura, and were soon swapping fragments of local lore.

As its name suggests, Louisa and Lana's site is designed to carry texts of no more than five hundred words. When Louisa suggested I write something for the site I happily agreed, forgetting how difficult I find it to say anything at all in less than about five thousand words. This text is short by my standards, but still far too long for Hashtag500words. I intend it, nevertheless, in a spirit of solidarity with Louisa and Lana's site. Pay them a visit and, if you're less tiresomely long-winded than me, write something for them!]

Ozymandias on the Great South Road: three notes on Brett Graham's redoubts

1. Brett Graham has made a fool of me. Over the past couple of years I've been intermittently researching the history of the Great South Road, rifling archives, turning the complaining pages of colonial newspapers, and talking my way onto farms where battles were fought and graves dug. I've studied the uniforms of the British soldiers who marched down the Great South Road into the Waikato Kingdom, read telegrams from George Grey and letters from Wiremu Tamihana, and held a small, cold musket ball dug out of the mud of Rangiriri in my trembling hand. As the staff at an art gallery looked on dubiously, I recently filled a long table with documents and artefacts gathered during my research. I've assumed that accumulation equals insight. Brett Graham knows otherwise. 

While I have been hoarding details, Graham has been sculpting a series of simple patterns on limestone, that softest and most articulate of minerals. Graham's sculptures, which were recently exhibited at Bartleby and Company under the name Plot 150, reproduce the outlines of six of the scores of redoubts raised along or near the Great South Road before, during, and just after the Waikato War. Together, they trace the path of the British Army and its local allies from the southern outskirts of Auckland, across the aukati, or border, that King Tawhiao had proclaimed near present-day Mercer, through the coveted plains of the Waikato to Pirongia, at the mountainous southern edge of the region.

Graham's show has coincided with the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the conquest of the Waikato, and it says as much about the meaning of that event as a table-load of wordy documents and weighty artefacts. 

2. When Brett Graham sculpts our redoubts, he is depicting much more than a few temporary military fortifications. Empires expand by dividing smaller societies into pieces, and consuming each piece in turn. As they marched south from their Auckland citadel a century and a half ago, Britain's imperialists established islands of control and familiarity amidst an alien, autochthonous landscape of forests and swamps and thatched kainga. 

Behind the high earth and wood walls of a redoubt, the Union Jack could be safely raised, wells could be sunk, grain and mutton could be hoarded, and theodolites and rifles could be aimed. Coaches escorted by cavalrymen moved like ferries through the invaders' archipelago, keeping one island fortress in touch with the next. 

Redoubts were filled with reminders of the colonial homeland. Drury's redoubt, which is today covered by a service station, featured a library of English literature. When he excavated the Queen's Redoubt in Pokeno, which held six thousand men in the tense weeks before the invasion of the nearby Waikato Kingdom, Nigel Prickett found hundreds of broken brandy bottles. 

The redoubts were eventually abandoned, as the peace of the conqueror spread south from Auckland and other colonial strongholds, but the method they represented persisted. The late nineteenth century system of country inns connected by coaches and trains allowed property speculators and traders to island hop their way through a still-alien Te Ika a Maui. The gated communities of twenty-first century Auckland have substituted security cameras for the sentries of the redoubts, and the comforts of the six bedroom home for the comforts of the inn. 

3. Brett Graham's sculptures show us the redoubts along the Great South Road from a point high in the air, from which only their barest outlines are visible.

Aviation is, we must remember, an ancient invention. The Nazca lines that run for kilometres through the Peruvian desert, the giants that pursue herds of deer across English hillsides, and the Polynesian vision of the North Island as an enormous fish are all the works of conceptual aviators, who were able to imagine what their world looked like from the heavens. The mechanical achievement of flight at the beginning of the twentieth century seems almost anti-climactic, beside the adventures of these ancient aviators. 

From very high in the sky, human civilisation looks both monumental, because it has been reduced to a few bold shapes, and fragile, because it has inevitably been juxtaposed with the vast areas of unregenerate nature - oceans, forests, deserts, mountains - that still cover our planet.

Brett Graham gazes down at the redoubts of the Great South Road and sees a few fragile white lines on fields of white. He might be looking at the ruins of ancient Babylon, surrounded and sterilised by sand, or at Himalayan monasteries overrun by avalanches. The British Empire, with its determination to expand across the globe and its claim to divine blessing, seems as absurd, from the perspective of these sculptures, as the doomed kingdom of Ozymandias. These redoubts, and the empire that made them, are simply another quixotic attempt to impose order on space and time.

In his 2008 exhibition Campaign Rooms, Graham protested the United States-led War on Terror, which involved unprovoked, imperialistic invasions of places as distant and different as Iraq and the Ureweras, by covering symbols of American militarism - the ugly and sinister Stealth bomber, for example - with Maori decorative motifs like the koru. 

The sculptures in Campaign Rooms were big and aggressive, the weapons of an artist angrily preoccupied with the injustices of his era. The manner of the sculptures collected in Plot 150 is distant and ironic, rather than direct and impassioned, but Brett Graham's staunchly anti-imperialist message remains. Look at his works, ye mighty, and despair. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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BG has the earlier RTM essay about his work on his site

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