Friday, November 21, 2014

Towards the ancient future: three notes on Brett Graham's Uru

[This post is part of an ongoing series of pieces about Brett Graham - earlier installments can be found here and here.]

A dark pool

Titirangi's new art gallery has big windows filled with trees and sea. The gallery is called Te Uru, or the West, and its inaugural exhibition includes a sculpture by Brett Graham named Uru. Graham has turned a dark, ovate piece of beechwood - a warrior's shield, or a kava bowl, or the shell of a particularly large turtle - on its side, and attached it to a whitewashed wall. When we step close to the work, we notice the dozens of grooves that run to its smooth edges.

At the centre of Uru, where the cuts Graham has made converge, is a smudged circle of grey light. Sometimes the circle swells and brightens, so that Uru seems for a moment like a dark pool in which a spectral face is emerging.

Brett Graham's father Fred is famous for his attempts to introduce the high modernist minimalism of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth to Maori art. In the 1960s and '70s, Graham snr erased many of the traditional decorative motifs from his sculptures, as he searched for the simplified 'essential forms' that Moore insisted were the true stuff of art.

The young Brett Graham rebelled against his father. He rediscovered the motifs Fred had eschewed, and left them in strange places. In his 2008 exhibition Campaign Rooms, Graham fantasised about a secret Maori weapons factory, and showed a stealth bomber with Tainui markings on its wings. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, Graham explained works like this by arguing that his father had thrown away 'the baby with the bathwater' when he forsook the 'surface patterning' so important to classical Maori carving. The old patterns had to reemerge.
For his 2013 show Plot 150 Graham traced the bleakly geometric outlines of the series of redoubts British soldiers raised during their conquest of the Waikato Kingdom in the 1860s. Graham seemed to enjoy depicting these eroding, almost forgotten monuments of the British empire using the modernist style that was once so confidently exported from Europe to cultural colonies like New Zealand by men like Moore.

Lines and journeys

Uru, which was first shown in 2012, is another minimalist work, but its style belongs to the Pacific rather than to Europe. With its fluid, abstract, almost undifferentiated lines, the sculpture looks beyond the baroque patterning and careful symbolism of classical Maori carving to some of the earliest artworks made in Aotearoa.

The complexity and scale of the carvings we see on great waka and wharenui only became possible once humans had established large, permanent settlements in Aotearoa. Fed by big kumara gardens and patronised by chiefs, a caste of full-time carvers could prosper.

In the centuries before the creation of great centres of culture like Tamaki Makaurau and the middle Waikato, though, the ancestors of the Maori obsessively explored the eastern and southern regions of the Pacific, sailing from island to island and catching their meals in the sea and in forests. For these pioneers, social hierarchy and specialised labour were luxuries. Gaps between chiefs and commoners, and artists and non-artists, closed.

When they arrived here about a thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Maori quickly built villages along the coasts of both large islands, and dispatched expeditions to even remoter and colder parts of the Pacific, like the Chatham and Auckland islands. Some of them were stranded on the Chathams, and became Moriori.

The mobile, improvisatory people who discovered and settled Aotearoa left us artworks that are formally simple but astonishingly graceful. The lines of Uru recall the fluent paintings that early travellers made in the caves of Te Wai Pounamu, and the dancing figures on the trunks of the wind-bent kopi trees of the Chathams.
The simple forms of the ancient art of Aotearoa have always lingered, deep inside the elaborate carvings on pouwhenua and waka, in the same way that the simple meters of medieval English poets like Langland and Gower have always sounded behind the complex rhythms of Shakespeare. In the work of some contemporary Maori artists, the ancient forms irrupt into prominence. In Emare Karaka's massive, magnificent 1983 painting Planting, Searching, Rising: Taupiri is the Mountain, Waikato is the River, for example, the crouching or 'hocker' figure that recurs on the carved trees of the Chathams floats mysteriously over the sacred maunga of the Tainui people.

With its many lines travelling over a curved horizon, Uru alludes to ancient journeys across the Pacific, from the warm, safe lagoons of Polynesian strongholds like Tonga to the gales and frosts of the south and the vast barrier of South America in the far east.

The centre of Uru, where the sculpture's journey-lines end and begin, might represent Hawai'iki or its western Polynesian equivalent Pulotu: a paradise and underworld from which souls and ships depart, and to which they return. It might be Kawhia, the place where Brett Graham's ancestors buried their waka and raised the first Tainui village.

Towards the ancient future

Graham's sculpture evokes recent as well as distant journeys. Its grooves might remind us of the tracking lines that record the movements of ships and planes on computerised maps in coastguard stations and airport control towers. In his great essay 'Our Sea of Islands' Epeli Hau'ofa presented the Pacific Islanders who ride passenger jets above the tundra of Pacific clouds as successors to the navigators who discovered and populated lands like Aotearoa. For the author of Tales of the Tikongs, the journeys of islanders to jobs and schools in continents like Australia and the Americas were not evidence of dependency or decadence, but rather a reassertion of ancestral habits.

Hau'ofa is not the only writer to see the peoples who settled the Pacific as both ancient and futuristic. Karl Marx believed that the egalitarianism of the Pacific societies that relied upon fishing and hunting could offer lessons to a socialist Europe. Paul Theroux has compared the Polynesian explorers to the spaceship pilots of science fiction: both have crossed vast and dark distances by following stars. Today the lifeways of the ancient settlers of Eastern and outlier Polynesia are being studied by ecologists, who believe the societies that not only survived but burgeoned on tiny islands like Tikopia and Pukapuka offer lessons in sustainability and efficiency to the world of the twenty-first century.

Uru is both a minimal and vastly suggestive work. Once again, Brett Graham is looking backwards as well as forwards in time and in space.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

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