Louise Garrett, ‘Exploring Conflicts in Pacific Identity’, Dominion Post, 7 June 1994.
This exhibition addresses notions of relativity and ‘Pacific Islandness’. Curator Jim Vivieaere says: ‘The artists are exploring their uneasiness with their blurred identity. Conflict exists between their assumed heritage and their urban experience.’
Encodings relevant to Pacific Island culture don’t sit squarely within a Western art context.
This says something about the curator’s intention. He has staged the exhibition as an installation in which the artists are positioned within the murky depths of the Pacific itself.
The sea is a store of memories, though. For some, the Pacific as a sign of distance and isolation represents a shared identifier between island nations. This definition is muddied in this context.
Varying positions of power that exist in the relationship between viewer and artist are alluded to through the construction of the exhibition. Often the artworks are caught in the crossfire.
On one side of the exhibition, the works are encased by a perspex screen. The viewer’s position is as outsider, mediated by the art institution. The artworks are not named, which could be construed as representing the artists’ lack of identity or perhaps a suitable definition of that identity. Or the withholding of information could underline misunderstandings associated with assumed identity and translation through cultural encounters.
Some of the artworks associate the assumed identity with the commodification of culture by tourism. For example, Ani O’Neill disempowers the spirit of Tangaroa, the god of Rarotonga, by representing him as a series of cuddly toys.
Others situate identity within the creative process, as Toegamau Tom Sefo’s comment on her cast-glass vessels attests: ‘The ideas of these vessels have enabled me to be more aware of myself and to explore my other cultures.’
Michael Tuffery presents woodblocks called Coconut, Coconut. In denying the viewer the finished product he refuses a causal identification of artist and artwork and the production of meaning.
Other works configure aspects of translation. John Pule’s work seems to represent a narrative series. Beside the work is placed a sign on which the viewer might expect an explanation, but, because of its distance behind the screen, it’s impossible to read. It’s cold comfort to find out what the sign does say—a load of medical babble. This suggests the inscrutability of language to confound if it’s set out of its proper context.
A large range of artists working with different media and styles are presented in this show. Intentions are varied but strategies include humour, irony, protest, documentary, flippancy, all encased in a funky veneer.
If one thing confirms, though, another denies. The works seem more comfortable ‘speaking’ to each other than to an audience.
The exhibition describes processes of cultural intervention and looks forward to a time when its particular idiom will be decipherable.
Keith Stewart, ‘Clean, Clear, and Brave’, Listener, 2 July 1994.
Bottled Ocean is conceived and promoted as an exhibition of art by contemporary Polynesian New Zealanders. It is one of the freshest most engaging displays seen in a New Zealand gallery for quite a while. There is much energy here—and enough subtlety, enough ‘cultural’ complexity to lead those questing for meaning down any number of paths to academic justification. There are a number of works in the show that will continue to resonate in our eyes and minds for many years, especially if public gallery curators have the courage to buy such evocative works as Laugutu Poloai’s Economical Reasons or Michel Tuffery’s deliciously quirky Corned Beef 2000.
There are abundant Polynesian/New Zealand, island/colonial aspects in both these and in many of the other paintings, prints, sculptures, tapa and electrical jibbets. A very colonial bull, made from very colonial ‘Palm’ corned-beef tins, has plenty of humour, irony, and meaning for the informed audience, as does the lei spiral of plastic-bag ties that Poloai has made. However, the works also grab the watcher who knows nothing of tinned beef on a cowless atoll. This is visual language at its best: clean, clear, and brave. This is art to look at. Art to fall in love with. Art to remember.
It is not, however, individualised art in the tradition of most gallery displays. This show may be a collection of Polynesian art in the best tradition of gallery accumulations, but, in spite of some standout pieces, it is overwhelmingly a performance, a gathering of artists rather than art.
Each work is the representative of a personality at a party, giving the show the feel of a second-hand shop filled with items from lives, individual objects that have a remarkable intimacy with each other and so form part of a warm whole.
It is this whole that puts exhibition curator Jim Vivieaere in the role of artist himself. He uses other artists as his medium to fill in his own image of Polynesian New Zealand. ‘I actually chose the work because I liked the people’, he says. ‘They had high, young energy. It was almost as if, whatever they did, I didn’t care. There wasn’t a good or a bad. It was just whether I liked the people and they were present in their work.’
Present to the point where the work itself is almost not there, as is the case with Tuffery—all bull aside. He is best known for his powerful woodcuts, which have been badged as an image of the latest International Festival of the Arts in Wellington. Vivieaere felt that the familiarity of Tuffery’s work might dull the audience’s response. Therefore, Vivieaere chose instead the woodblocks from which Tuffery’s prints are taken, hoping to pull viewers into what Vivieaere calls ‘the core of the images’.
The artists’ contributions were often beyond any ideas Vivieaere had for them, and he made a point of giving them no direction on how ‘Polynesian’ their work had to be for inclusion.
‘I think there is pressure for artists to have to fall into a niche, but the artists I chose didn’t know my agendas, and I wasn’t looking for work that looked Polynesian’, explains Vivieaere. ‘I saw artists who were committed artists, and went with them. I talked to artists, and some of them said, “What do you want me to do, Jim?” And I said I just wanted them to do their stuff. I wasn’t trying to get them to do work to sell; I just wanted them to do work immediately, almost spontaneously.’
So, when Tuffery turned up with a tin bull —‘feeling fantastic because he’d had a breakthrough, he’d never done anything like it before’—in it went.
Brave stuff. But is it Polynesian? Unquestionably. Is it New Zealand? Certainly. You cannot divorce the art from the artist, as Vivieaere clearly shows by the process with which he has put it all together. And good artists are inseparable from their own particular piece of cultural swampland. However, there is no point in being precious about it, as so many ethnically precise shows of this type are. The success of Vivieaere’s exhibition is that it is good art, visually fresh, energetically reaching out to pull its audience in before it asks them to consider its origins.
If you want to look for ethnic labels there are plenty of them in Bottled Ocean, so, if you must, go to it. However, the Polynesian flavour is just one of its features, made obvious by the delightful Pacific cone of Tupuanga, a sculpture by Filipe Tohi, and a striking Fatu Feu’u painting crossed with frangipani. Culturally less for the ethnically assured are Ani O’Neill’s soft toy Tangaroa dolls—more sarcasm than irony, cute and menacing at the same time. But even these, and the traditional tapa of John Pule’s Episode AA94 0035 are not domineering Polynesian forms but seductive ones that convince the audience without any need for browbeating.
Vivieaere has presented a potentially arcane idea as an artist’s enthusiasm for pure art. Its definitions may be proper, but the result is a remarkably ebullient celebration of making and talking with visual language that delivers a deceptively easy mix of thought and pleasure to a wide audience. In spite of the ethnic agendas, politics, and even a moment or two of art historiana, at Bottled Ocean you are encouraged to go where the eye leads. Go and see this. With eight galleries around the country signed up for it, you will get plenty of opportunity.
James Mack, ‘Bottled Ocean, Diverse, Superb’, Evening Post, 25 May 1994.
Bottled Ocean is an exhibition by twenty-three artists of Samoan, Tongan, Niuean, and Cook Island extraction who explore ‘Pacific Islandness’ in New Zealand. It is one of the most intelligently curated exhibitions I have seen in New Zealand.
The contents of the exhibition are diverse, covering a wide spectrum of medium, computer graphics, installation art, jewellery, video, photography, ceramics, textiles, sculpture, painting, and domestic design. All things on show are superb.
The display of the exhibition is innovative, breaking new ground for the presentation of works of art. The exhibition has been made into a multi-dimensional experience. The whole melange is embraced by a Pacific Island ocean sound envelope created by Wayne Laird. Jim Vivieaere draws the fine line between gesture and restraint with the eye of a master—he uses very few words, making the art do its own ‘talking’.
The words he does use are carefully chosen to ensure that they enhance the artists’ statements.
Even with the guide/map, you have to joyfully search for works at the extremities of the space and the extremity of expected experience. Iosefa Leo’s three Hinuera stone heads are exhibited way up in the air. Leo is a self-taught artist who really knows how to extract power from the stone.
Ani O’Neill’s curtain Kua Marino to Tai (The Sea Is Calm) uses techniques taught to her by her mother, folding and plaiting white hat ribbon to make an exquisite foil for the Gallery’s deco window.
Ani O’Neill has two other works on view that on the surface caused me to smile outrageously—a lot—but on reflection the message is stronger and deeper than at first view.
The row of brown embroidered Tangaroa soft sculptures balancing on tripod of legs and penis are wonderful. They sit in a row on the mylar mirror surface as a reflection of the exploitation of Pacific cultures.
Exploitation is also the theme of her bubble-encapsulated Tropaks hanging just inside the door.
My favourite work in the exhibition takes its motivation from Rene Magritte’s painting in which a steam train surges optically out of a fire surround.
Filipe Tohi literally turns the Magritte fireplace upside down and replaces the train with a canoe. It is a strong statement redolent with South Pacific power. It deserves to be in a public collection.
Niki Hastings-McFall is in her final year of the contemporary-jewellery course at Manukau Polytechnic. She is creating small repositories for found natural objects that are exquisitely made and rendered. She too is an artist of great potential.
The case display is really handsome. It would have been better, however, if the tiny jewels had been displayed on a horizontal rather than a vertical line. The blown-up catalogue illustration should indicate the drastic change of scale.
Curators of the fine arts rarely take the risk of including design objects in an artistic framework—further bravos for Vivieaere for including three really snappy corrugated plastic lamps by Simmie Nichols. They are sculpturally superb and radiantly functional.
Don’t let the flickering television screen put you off looking at Veronica Vaevae’s Family Line (1993). It’s classy.
I desperately wanted to get closer than the display would allow me to Filipe Tohi’s wood, inlaid metal, and nickel-plated rod Tupuanga (Foundation).
Like all art that is spiritually powerful, the work appears to be larger than it really is. This strong work is undeniably of Pacific origin and it is without hesitation a statement about the here and now. Someone should commission it to be made fifty-times larger.
Vivieaere hesitates about having to have chosen a show with ethnic prerequisites. In any company, it is strong—cohesive—top of the line and should not be missed. Bottled Ocean is a great show.
P.S. In the foyer is a beautiful painting by Māori artist Shane Cotton of Palmerston North, which has been purchased by Wellington City Council for exhibition in Civic Square. It reinforces my belief that Cotton is one of the most important painters of his generation.
Wendy Vaigro, ‘Bottled Ocean: Shape-Shifting’, Art Asia Pacific, vol. 2, no. 4, 1995.
The sound of waves surging and breaking surrounds the viewer entering the exhibition space of Bottled Ocean. The deep organising principle of the show is the circulating currents of the Pacific Ocean, which both separates and connects its islands. As the ostensible organising principle of Bottled Ocean, ‘Pacific Islandness’ is utilised as a term that references, ironically, attempts to homogenise Polynesian artists working in New Zealand. Most artists represented in the show are second-generation New Zealanders, younger than thirty-five years in age, and their ‘Pacific Islandness’ is derived from a range of intersecting identifications.
At the time of writing, Bottled Ocean has traversed three venues: Wellington City Gallery, Auckland City Art Gallery, and the Manawatu Art Gallery in Palmerston North—this most recent showing is the one I will specifically refer to, and the one that curator Jim Vivieaere considers the best realisation of his ideas thus far. As befits a touring exhibition driven by the metaphor of the ocean, it changes shape with each venue. Works that are sold leave the exhibition, and each centre gathers more works around the core of twenty-three works, with three guest artists in Palmerston North.
The gallery provides a map. The works are not labelled, as Vivieaere’s preference is that they be viewed as a whole. In Island Installation (1992), an installation for Artspace at the George Fraser Gallery in Auckland, Vivieaere brought an island into the gallery space—2.2 tons of silica sand, with the interrelationships of sunlight through the windows at given times, lines drawn on the floor, and metres of paper producing the installation. In Bottled Ocean, the compass includes the Pacific Ocean between islands.
In the Manawatu Art Gallery exhibition of Bottled Ocean, one end of the gallery space is brightly lit while the other is in semi-darkness. A perspex screen prevents access to the ‘glass case’ flooded with light, which may be seen as museum or airport duty-free shop, invoking the general idea of window dressing or of merchandising artworks. In Lape Tulisi’s Kamata Ata (Beginning), pottery fragments awaiting the anthropologist, extend the ethnological aesthetic of the glass case. It may also be perceived as a shrine: John Pule’s Episode AA 9400935 is a hiapo body map of his daughter’s life. A medical report of a series of twenty-three CT scans is framed by his prayer in Niuean. The medical terminology is chilling in its impersonality and detachment from the lived body, and this division of languages highlights the Cartesian split of modern western medicine. The hiapo canvas is painted in oil with symbology surrounding the birth and short life of his daughter Zaiya—birds, lizards, shooting stars, constellations, rain, mythical creatures, and her lineage, interspersed with signs relating to her illness, such as circulating blood corpuscles and spleen: a coming to terms and a memorial, which is protected in the glass case. It is the heart work of the show.
The reflection of the hiapo traverses the mirrored floor of the glass case, as if in water. Further out stands Michel Tuffery’s Pisupo’lua Afe (Corned Beef 2000), a life-sized cattle beast, with a ring through its nose, made from flattened corned-beef cans, gazing out of its enclosure. Its paddock-mate, of competing brand name manufacture, bellows in isolation from the central archipelago of works in the gallery. They reference the cultural importance of corned beef in the Pacific Islands, as gift and in feasting.
Ani O’Neill’s soft-toy collection of twelve Tangaroa dolls line up in the front of the glass case. They stand with aplomb, tripods of legs and penis. The religious significance of the Rarotongan god Tangaroa, a fishing deity, and the sexualisation of the dolls disrupts the attempts of mass culture to appropriate spiritual artworks and artefacts as tourist trophies or commercial icons.
Works are connected in different ways in the central archipelago. The line of sight from Iosefa Leo’s carved Mount Somers stone head of a child, peeking around a corner toward the glass case, is paralleled by Albert Refiti’s thirty-five-page fax, consisting of instructions for its hanging and a continuous central line, drawing a line in the gallery, which unfolds across the floor from Leo’s carved head of a woman. The head of the man in this family lies flat on the floor. Effectively, the woman becomes orator through recent technology. John Penisula’s traditionally carved wood and argulite Matai looks both ways before he speaks. He stands next to Robert Jahnke’s A Question of Taste, a post-pop reference to Jasper Johns’s Ale Cans, which may be read in terms of Paul Gilroy’s notion of ‘populist modernism’, whereby black artists (in the United States) interrogate the legacies of western modernism that has excluded blacks.1
Lily Laita’s painting I Can See Clearly Now is hung around a corner, a disruption of conventional curatorial practice. Painted on black building paper, the work is marked by a suppleness of paint application and concepts. Ancestor figures come through from the spirit of the work. Veronica Vaevae’s video Family Tree is shown on a monitor draped with shell necklaces and placed in front of Laita’s painting. In these two genealogies, the background of static to the faces in the video echoes the glaucoma-white paint masking Laita’s more usual reds, ochres, yellows, and blacks.
Greg Semu’s Uprising, a riotous collage of paint, photographs, slogans, and tagging on demolition corrugated iron, faces, across the gallery, the cool white plaiting of Ani O’Neill’s Kua Marino Te Tai (The Sea Is Calm). Laugutu Poloai’s exuberant spiral lei Economical Reasons, made from strips of polythene supermarket bags, swings gently in the breeze in the centre, and provokes delighted laughter from viewers.
Beyond Sasha Kronfeld’s frangipani screen-printed floor tiles, Sources (which echo the painted frangipani motifs of After the Rain by Fatu Feu’u), Sheyne Tuffery’s Don’t Panic is spot-lit in the darkened end of the gallery. A dedication to people with AIDS, and implying the promotion of safe-sex practices, a purple Pan figure marks the end of the serene rainbow of twenty-three woodblocks by Michel Tuffery, Coconut, Coconut. Pagan sexuality is placed in opposition to the references critical of some aspects of Christianity in Glenda Vilisoni’s collage Rapt in Culture, a black-gauze-covered Latin cross displayed at the apex of the rainbow. The rainbow is itself lit by three standard lamps, unfurling shoots of corrugated plastic made by Simmie Nichols. John Ioane’s Magritte-a-Nui substitutes a jutting canoe for Magritte’s rushing train in Time Stabbed, just off to the left field, in a reappropriation of modernism, and providing a counterpoint to the Tangaroa dolls. It’s a sexy show.
Michel Tuffery’s woodblocks were left stacked and still wrapped in bubble wrap (with the permission of the artist) in the Auckland City Art Gallery show. Similarly, one of his bullocks was left penned in its packing case, pointedly referencing the circumscribed representation of Polynesian modernity in the art institution.
Paradoxically, or unexpectedly, the interrelatedness of works emphasises their integrity. It is as if they gain another dimension in relation to one another, in a hybridity and intermixture of ideas. This mediated presentation of the works in Bottled Ocean has the effect of challenging hegemonic gallery practices, where building relationships amongst works disrupts discourses built on racial, national, or ethnic identities, such that these identities appear to be mutually exclusive. Traversing the spaces between them or demonstrating their continuity has been viewed as a provocative act. As provocative as the paradigm shift from identity to identification proposed by Kobena Mercer, where intersecting identifications give rise to unstable and unfixed readings of representations, rather than a particular identity constructing the subject positions from which we speak or are consigned to by others.
As each grouping of works becomes part of the rhythm of circulating currents of the exhibition as a whole, the viewer has to maintain a moving position to fully mobilise their perceptual acuity. The spatial environment of the show potentially produces an intense aural and physical experience. And these kinaesthetic elements of the show are explicitly pointed to by Albert McCarthy’s sculpture spinning in the wind outside the gallery entrance.
The spectrum of media is wide in Bottled Ocean, from Toegamau Tom Sefo’s cast-glass bowls displayed on a suspended glass shelf, high above the viewers’ heads, to Loretta Young’s traffic light-cum-palm-tree printed Curtains for an Imaginary Window, to videos, photographs, and computer graphics; jewellery, woven plastics, paper, painted tapa, sewn fabric dolls; to the more usual (in the institution) media of stone, wood, and paint. This inclusiveness of materials is matched by the display of students’ work with that of established artists. Inclusiveness is a Polynesian ethos; elitism is an institutional gate-keeping strategy. In challenging the closure of aesthetic and political categories, and conventional curatorial practices, Jim Vivieaere creates Bottled Ocean as a meta-exhibition. The result is a subtle and thoughtful show that eludes ideological control and ‘authoritative discourse’ at every turn.
1. Paul Gilroy, ‘Cruciality and the Frog’s Perspective’, Third Text, no. 5, Winter 1988–9: 37.
Stephen Dowling, ‘Visitor Finds Polynesian Art Evolving’, Evening Post, 15 August 1994.
An Australian anthropologist visiting Wellington says Polynesian New Zealand artists are creating a new style of art unlike anything else in Polynesia.
Nicholas Thomas, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University, is in Wellington this week studying Bottled Ocean, an exhibition of New Zealand Polynesian art at the Wellington City Gallery.
He says the work these New Zealand artists are coming up with is something particular to this culture, not simply a continuation of traditional island art forms.
‘Most of the artists here are either of mixed parentage or else they are second-generation Polynesians born in New Zealand’, he says.
Thomas believes many of the artists who have taken part in Bottled Ocean have incorporated themes of migration and cultural differences in their work, giving it a different feel to similar work done in their homeland. ‘A lot of the artists have had art-school training, which means it’s a new kind of Polynesian culture, which belongs here rather than in the islands.’
Thomas believes the exhibition, which uses several devices to make the audience feel removed from the art work they are seeing, works well, in showing art produced by Polynesian artists that retains links to the islands and detachment from mainstream New Zealand art.
‘The effectiveness comes partly from that they are not working in a kind of narrow high-art domain … what they are doing is quite successful.
‘There are artists working in photography, glass, and fabric … this isn’t just a narrow art phenomenon, they’re part of a much bigger movement.’
Thomas says New Zealand has a much wider appreciation of its place in the Pacific than Australia which tends to look north at Asia.
‘The important thing is that there are these big Polynesian populations. They retain a lot of the kinship and in a lot of cases the ceremonies. Even though the patterns of work and life are changed, there’s a great deal that is sustained.’
Keith Stewart, ‘Why Academic Is the Captain Cook of the 1990s’, Sunday Star Times, 11 June 1995. Excerpt.
[Nicholas Thomas:] ‘Production for tourists and visitors began very early. On Cook’s voyages, they were very enthusiastic about purchasing artefacts, and, in places that they had visited repeatedly, like Queen Charlotte Sound, people started producing things for exchange.
‘So as early as the 1770s, there was a kind of tourist art being produced, and some of those pieces have since gone into museums and are now regarded as the oldest and most authentic.’
The view that external influence has as much potential for positive development as it does for negative is at the heart of Thomas’s view that Pacific art not concluded, like that of an ancient civilisation, but continues as a dynamic process that is an integral and representative part of living cultures.
‘I think art is very important to those communities because art becomes a kind of bridge to wider social and political legitimacy. It gives them visibility in a market place, both in a commercial sense but also in a multi-cultural political sense.
‘Having a major exhibition like Bottled Ocean here gives those communities a degree of recognition and legitimacy that they didn’t have before. What art can do is changing, and, over the past twenty years, Aboriginal art, native American art, Pacific art, Māori art, has been a key channel through which wider populations have become aware of what indigenous concerns are, and have come to respect those cultures.’
Nicholas Thomas, ‘Pacific Dualities: Bottled Ocean in Wellington and Auckland’, Art New Zealand, no. 74, Winter 1995. [Reproduced with the permission of Art New Zealand and the author.]
Throughout the Pacific, exchange ceremonies take place on occasions such as marriages, funerals, and the installations of chiefs. In many places, these events focus on the presentation of substantial quantities of valuables—mats, barkcloth, carved wooden objects such as bowls and pottery. In Fiji these valuables are known as iyau—artefacts for exchange. Once they have been piled up and displayed, senior men on both donating and receiving sides make speeches that refer to the history of relations between the groups and the circumstances of the occasion. What is said blesses the gift and the gathering and is itself a moment in the process of reciprocity.
For Bottled Ocean, a major touring exhibition of contemporary Pacific art, John Penisula has produced a sculpture of a Samoan talking chief; his figure has two or several faces and reminds us that an orator may be looking in other directions as he speaks. A facade of eloquence may conceal political calculation.
I begin this discussion of Bottled Ocean’s manifestations in Wellington and Auckland with mention of Pacific ceremonial exchange for three reasons. First, it may be helpful to think of the art as being like Fijian iyau rather than Māori taonga. That is to emphasise not an inalienable heritage but art for display and circulation that expresses the prestige of its makers and their communities and creates social bonds even as it is seemingly alienated. Not objects that seem to bear their own lives but things produced through and for encounters, that elicit rhetoric.
Secondly, though I aspire in neither speech nor print to emulate the eloquence of Samoan, Fijian, or Tongan orators (being too young, for one thing), I emphasise that this comment on Bottled Ocean should be seen less as a detached scholarly or critical commentary than as the response of a recipient or witness to the work’s public presentation. It is part of a process of exchange and response. To refer to a flow of gifts may evoke an ideal world of reciprocity, but Penisula’s sculpture reminds us that ceremony, oratory, and exchange may be contrived and strategic. Presentations of valuables in both Fijian villages and in the modern tribal art market may be overtly celebrated while in fact being ambivalently received. This is to refer already to my third reason for according an exchange ceremony the status of a model or paradigm in this discussion: such events possess a doubleness that, I suggest, is not only a key feature of the exhibition’s context, but a field of ambiguities that it capitalises upon quite brilliantly.
No talk of gifts can disguise the fact that the work in Bottled Ocean is produced for and around a market—not just an art market, but a contemporary global cultural market, a multi-cultural theatre in which identities, signatures, nationalities, and life-styles are affirmed, celebrated, changed, and consumed.
Culture has two sides. It is both a process and an object. It is a real flow of practices, experiences, and efforts to bestow meaning on events; it is ordinary and innovative and resistant to boundaries and definitions. But it is also an artefact, a creation of rhetoric about what makes ‘our culture’ distinctive, about why ‘their culture’ makes their country an appropriate tourist destination. Terms such as ‘British heritage’, ‘Australian culture’, and ‘Polynesian culture’ are the objects of official policy and management; they facilitate the marketing of commodities, sites, journeys, and experiences. If we’re talking about the ‘cultures’ of colonised or formerly colonised peoples, or those of non-dominant minorities, the artifact of culture is clearly political, the upshot of a tussle of definitions between outsiders and insiders, tourists and their hosts, dominant outsiders’ representations and those that emerge from insiders’ practices. In the Polynesian case, both inflight magazine imagery and the lifestyles of people in South Auckland enter into new constructions of ‘Polynesian culture’.
Art, art exhibitions, and, perhaps especially, travelling exhibitions are peculiarly important in the contemporary global cultural marketplace. They are contexts in which identities are not merely displayed and enacted but also affirmed and legitimised. Much cultural adaptation and appropriation have already taken place in the domain of religion—the multiple strands of pacific Christianity being unambiguously Pacific—while in the present much stylistic improvisation and localisation takes place in domains such as fashion and music. If the church and fashion are in different ways more important for Pacific people than art can ever be, exhibitions are nevertheless crucial for the broader legitimation they may convey, for their affirmation of Pacific cultures in mainstream institutions that possess high public visibility. The point hardly needs to be emphasised in New Zealand, given the vital important of Te Māori for wide acceptance of the prestige of the Māori tradition.
If the protection of identity within a cultural market has a positive side, it may also impose constraints. What Jim Vivieaere has referred to as ‘the modern tribal-art market’ in the Bottled Ocean brochure may not be that different to the old tribal-art market. The mainstream audience may be primarily interested in the tropical colourfulness of the work, in the apparent conformity of its spirituality with new-age environmentalism, in its exoticism. Artists appear to have responded to this interest by making exoticism visually explicit through the use of readily recognisable Polynesian motifs. Although the artists’ interests in these forms have been various, viewers can respond to a Polynesian essence, lifting the imagery out of histories of cross-cultural conflict, migration, pain, and discrimination. An audience might therefore be seen to extend the voyeurism so characteristic of European visions of Polynesia, that can be traced back from the Cook voyage paintings of Tahiti through various transformations in Gauguin and colonial photography up to the Bounty films and tourist culture in the present.
The distinctive accomplishment of Bottled Ocean lies in its direct but subtle challenge to this consumerist interest in Pacific art and culture. What Jim Vivieaere has done is overtly display work as though it were in a shop, by creating a brilliantly lit showcase behind perspex, a space very much like that of a glitzy department store window. In Wellington, the names of artists ran past viewers in a digital red letter display, of the kind that conveys information bites in retail environments. The question might be: Is an exhibition of Polynesian art essentially an exercise in window-dressing?
In Wellington, the treatment of Toegarnau Tom Sefo’s beautiful cast-glass works was especially intriguing. Two or three of the four seemed to possess no ethnic signature and would not have seemed out of place in an upmarket glass shop in Europe, North America, or Asia. The stubby legs of one piece, however, referred directly to Samoan and Tongan kava bowls—and thus generally to indigenous sociality, because so much of indigenous sociality, hierarchy and tradition is expressed and enacted through kava ceremonies. The deftly illuminated display on a high glass shelf suggested both boutique presentation and a museum display of ethnographic specimens—a doubleness that might be deceptive, because the specimen and the commodity could be seen as two sides of a coin of fetishism. That is, while they are absolutely opposed, in the sense that one is absolutely available to the consumer’s desire and the other absolutely unavailable—the museum being defined by the withdrawal of its contents from the market—in both cases desire and preoccupation coalesce around things themselves. Desires take the form of curiosity, of the lust to acquire the novel, to extend and complete collections, and to draw the exotic and unusual into the space of possession and the space of the specimen. And while ethnic labelling might long have seemed paradigmatic of the museum, the ethnic origins and signatures of things seem to be increasingly crucial to their marketing.
Putting paintings behind perspex, putting glass on a shelf, makes the play of fetishism, consumerism, and museology explicit. Another doubleness was contrived, between the substance of glass and its beautifully contrived shadow: as if the work was in two places at once, one of which always lay beyond the shelving operations of ethnographic collecting and shopping.
Bottled Ocean challenges voyeurism not only by drawing attention very deliberately—one might say exhibitionistically—to its own character as a display, but also by looking back. Ani O’Neill’s rank of Tangaroa dolls confront the viewer; Tangaroa was once a principal fishing deity in the Cook Islands and elsewhere in Polynesia, and perhaps retains spiritual importance for some. But he is familiar primarily as a national icon—appearing on coins for instance—and as the number-one Cook Island tourist object. In this case, traditional culture might seem to have been irretrievably trivialised and definitively appropriated by outsiders: the eroticism that used to be so marked in European perceptions of Tahiti reappears in exuberant masculine form, as a risqué souvenir, and a sign that what was most vigorous in the islands was suppressed by missionary intervention—or was it?
Just as Jacqueline Fraser has raised a whole series of provoking questions by recasting traditionally masculine Māori artforms such as meeting-house carvings and canoes in airy, light, and stereotypically feminine fibre forms, Ani O’Neill has remade Tangaroa in fabric and in the domestic form of a cuddly but inappropriately sexualised toy. While these pieces are more playful than Fraser’s, in both cases the shifts between gendered media remake the artefact as novel form with new potentialities. Like one of her other works, a pair of plastic dolls entitled Tropaks, this could be seen to capitalise upon rather than merely reject tourist trivialisation. Tangaroa is not really rediscovered or reinstalled as a god, but is reclaimed to mock gently those looking for erotic airport art, and, perhaps more importantly, amounts to a new kind of kitsch souvenir, a souvenir of an epoch in which tourism is engaged in more self-consciously and awkwardly. No longer in pursuit of traces of the exotic, it might instead discover the traces of global cultural flows, and the surprising resilience and responsiveness of local identities. If tourists and travel writers no longer search for primitive authenticities, some—such as Paul Theroux—instead tend to be wryly amused by the detritus of modernity that turns up in the most unexpected places and retain a sense of first-world superiority in imagining that only visitors detect the ironies. Ani O’Neill’s work encourages reflexivity without that self-congratulatory reaffirmation of Euro-American centrality.
Michel Tuffery’s Corned Beef 2000 makes a somewhat different but complementary point about the impact of global trade and colonial economics on Samoan culture and Pacific cultures generally, in a splendid bullock fabricated out of corned-beef tins. What the work refers to is the way an imported commodity has become integral to feasting, gift giving, and communal sociality in the Islands; it is brought back to life with meanings very different from those that tinned beef might possess elsewhere. Although there is no denying that Pacific societies are caught up in market relationships, the point here is that what they get from those relationships is something of their own making, perhaps something often beyond the vision of palagi who are too ready and anxious to discover a fading of culture and authenticity before the corrosive forces of the market and modernity.
The intriguing arguments of these several works were built upon in Auckland’s Bottled Ocean, which became almost a meta-exhibition, in that it displayed not only artist’s statements and other responses to the Wellington show, but also left packing materials with Exhibitour stickers and other traces of movement around the floor. A few works, such as Michel Tuffery’s woodblocks, even remained in their bubble wrap, as if assuming a presence while refusing the mainstream audience’s gaze. The particular accomplishment of the show was that these stimuli to critical reflection complemented more than they subverted the sheer visual beauty of a variety of works: the fineness of Iosefa Leo’s sculpture, and of the paintings by Fatu Feu’u, Fuimanu Kirifi, and John Pule should not go without mention, though many other works held their own interest.
One of the show’s simplest and strongest dimensions was aural. Vivieaere obtained a high quality CD of the sound of the Pacific Ocean, that pervaded the space, irrespective of precisely where the viewer’s attention was directed. In Auckland, the brilliance of the light on the gleaming floor created a play of ripples over the ceiling, that reinforced the sense of duality otherwise produced by shadow. There are likely always to be new pressures to bottle the Pacific, to contain and reduce its flow, to put it on a shelf in a form that can be circulated and acquired. Bottled Ocean can indeed be witnessed and consumed, but the experience of ‘the pure sound’ of the Pacific reminds us that the ocean itself is still there, beyond cultural institutions and their labelling operations, for those who are of the ocean and the islands that interrupt its currents.