Stories of peace and pain are etched into the land of Taranaki. Like the perilous volcanic forces that both toil silently beneath our feet and vocally loom in frightening geography everywhere we look – so to is the history of human habitation in Tarainaki. It is important that we are aware of this history – so that latent grievances can be addressed and elapsed moments of peace celebrated. Art can be a powerful tool to aid the telling of difficult histories. Being specialists of both technique and spirit, artists can use the various materials and media to reveal deep pious like revelations of the human condition. Artists can transform otherwise dry modes and methods of visual documentation. Painting and photography, for instance, can be used plainly as scientific documentation to visually record the facts. An artist, however, can creatively manipulate the possibilities of these mediums to communicate thought and emotion – and express what science cannot.
Puke Ariki’s new exhibition Taranaki Whenua: life-blood-legacy provides a great example of how the subjective possibilities of art can be used to add depth, insight and experience to a history fraught with conflict. The exhibition explores Taranaki’s geological and colonial history with particular emphasis on the conflicting philosophies and agendas of land ownership between Maori and Pakeha. The exhibition welcomes the viewer with large angled walls that jut out in different trajectories. This exhibition design transforms the usually cavernous low ceiling exhibition space into a dynamic warren that invites you to explore and contemplate. As you make your way through the exhibition text panels, data projectors, slick glowing plasma screens, historic artefacts and artworks narrate various stories or rouse thoughtful contemplation. Of the most emotional and thought provoking is the display of a plough used by the people of Parihaka in the late 19th century. The plough is mounted so that it appears to be slicing through a sloping white platform representing the land. The slice of the plough is emphasized by an incendiary ruby light – a bold display that both transforms a rural tool into a historically potent icon and reinforces the great sacrifice of the Parihaka passive resistance movement.
Elsewhere artwork provides similar enrichment. Such as Ann Shelton’s photographic dyptich entitled Arena, Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird South Taranaki. The photographs depict Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird - the location of a Maori village and site of the eminent victory of chief Titokowaru over the British army in 1868. The photographs focus on a monument commemorating those that were killed in that battle. The monument is also believed to mark the spot were the famous hired gun and Commander Major Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was killed. Shelton has chosen to display an identical pair of the image hung in opposing orientation – like a water reflection. This hang references how the creation of history is much like the science of a photographic image. A photograph is first upside-down and back to front due to the laws of refraction – when a photograph is printed this process is reversed. This presents a philosophical quandary as to which is the correct orientation of reality. Therefore, Shelton’s dualistic presentation of a historical location guides one to contemplate the reliability of history. However, before one learns the history of the monument and land the dual imagery alone holds a lingering presence. The stark white cross monument is framed by a visually haunting milieu of a lush grass field and a foreboding parameter of naked winter trees. The freshly mown lines in the grass create a surreal forced perspective that both draws you in and forces you back at knife edge as the two images converge. This perturbed contention is also present in the trees. In the above image the skeleton branches appear to extend heavenward while in the inverted image they seem as roots attempting to grasp Hades. Arena, Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird states no simplistic historical fable but rather visually leads viewer to dwell upon the lingering disturbance of war and the past bias of Taranaki’s colonial stories.
There are many other artworks that are used to both aid the narrative of the exhibition and to contribute additional insight and complexity to the topics. Those that perform this best are Fiona Clark’s aerial photographs of polluted waters between New Plymouth and Waitara caused by industrial waste and sewage – photographs that were later used to support Te Atiawa’s Waitangi Tribunal claim in the 80s. Others include ink and acrylic works by Bevan Ford, enigmatic black and white photography by Laurence Aberhart, and a very brusque banner work by Don Driver. The exhibition is also enhanced by a catalogue which is full of essays and images providing further insight and depth to some of the issues raised.