Public protest is a fundamental human right. From the strategic but peaceful activism of Parihaka in the late 1800s - to the bloody clashes of the 1951 waterfront dispute and 1981 Springbok rugby tour - or the moving presence of the 2004 seabed and foreshore hikoi. New Zealand’s subversive past is important to be aware of. Especially given the recent civil rights infringements of the anti-terror raids in October – an instance which emphasises how public complacency allows those in power to attain dangerous levels of control over the innocent. Indeed the history of protests around the world emphasise that the voice and action of the people can influence a governing power. Be it though peaceful resistance or violent riot, public protest is often done with feeble means. For instance, human chains, banners, loud speakers, rocks and motorcycle helmets are no match for water cannons, rubber bullets, armoured vehicles and military style attacks. However, despite these odds and apparent failures many protests have succeeded in inspiring subsequent generations to make governmental improvements. Highlighting the fact that public protest is an integral agent in maintaining a healthy democratic society.
If you are feeling complacent in your reaction to political issues I strongly suggest visiting the exhibition The Barricades by artist Dane Mitchell currently on show at Starkwhite gallery in Auckland. Through deceptively simple means Mitchell’s exhibition leads the viewer to understand the fragility of human rights and the importance of public protest. Making an immediate statement as you approach the gallery’s storefront window is a large wall that has had its plasterboard dissected and removed in places with surgeon like precision. Leaving rectangular holes that both reveal the walls timber skeleton and also allowing you to peer through into the next room. Walking into the gallery we find that the rectangular plasterboard shapes have been subtracted in order to create makeshift shields with chain handles, much like those made for the Springbok tour protest. However, being made of plasterboard these shields are a pathetic defence for any attack. Not to mention a defilement of the gallery’s pristine and quasi-sacred white wall. The shields are perched against each other as if one were about to construct a house of playing cards.
On the ground nearby are a cluster of molotov cocktails cast in plaster and placed as if awaiting to be set alight and hurled through the air. However, these homemade artilleries appear petrified with age and stand now as archaeological relics of some foiled rebellion. Due to their unearthly whiteness they also have a spectre like appearance - haunted perhaps by their potential harm and the troubled souls that felt compelled to make them.
Obstructing ones passage into the main gallery space is a work consisting of a shovel which has been stabbed into the wall at head height. From which a blood red flag hangs from the handle. This work offers a violent gesture. It draws on the history of domestic or rural tools being used as makeshift weapons by peasants. The flag's poignant colour and proportionate size to an adult could further symbolise a memorial to bloodshed.
More importantly the shovel and red flag has a striking similarity to the hammer and sickle motif of Soviet Russia as a symbol of the working class. There is also an element of magic to this work. The shovel seems to be impossibly counterweighted since only the very tip of the shovel is penetrating the wall. Making it appear as if it were channelled by a poltergeist like entity.
Following on from the shovel are an extensive series of finely rendered coloured pencil drawings. Each sketch is a monochrome of either red blue or brown. The drawings depict barricades which seem to have been drawn from photographs due to their lack of depth and hard edge. Further on there are two books that contain photographs from which it appears some of the drawings are made from. Emphasis here is upon the makeshift constructions that protesters have created. The constructions however appear pathetic in comparison to governing forces. The barricades therefore stand in as symbolic defences for human integrity and fortitude.
In the centre of the gallery is another stack of shields leaning against a pole accompanied by a wheelbarrow from which a soundtrack of a crowd emanates. Also, on a nearby wall are three framed mind map diagrams drawn in pencil on drafting film. The diagrams contain words that depict crowds rife with emotion and link inanimate objects with events that describe a multitude spurring out of control. It also appears that the words and arrows in the diagrams can be unstuck and repositioned on the page. Signifying that the schematic which we are presented with is not fixed fact and is just one view of a particular past riot.
This body of work presents a compelling selection of both conceptually informed assemblages and ephemeral works together with precious art objects that can be easily collected, sold and re-exhibited. This variety of artistic expression allows the viewer many different entry points from which to examine the precariousness of human rights and what it means to stand in protest against a governing power. You will find Starkwhite at 510 Karangahape Road, Auckland.