In May 2011 nine artists were invited to voyage upon the HMNZS Otago from Devonport Naval Base in Auckland, northward through the Kermadec region, towards the Kingdom of Tonga.
The ‘seariders’—Phil Dadson, Bruce Foster, Fiona Hall, Gregory O’Brien, Jason O’Hara, John Pule, John Reynolds, Elizabeth Thomson and Robin White—all had strong connections to the Pacific, through art, ancestry, upbringing and everyday life. The voyage provided a rare opportunity to experience the rolling seas, weather, wildlife and islands of the Kermadec region, and to contemplate the way they affect the mind, body and spirit.
The artists’ project was initiated by the Kermadec Initiative of the Pew Environment Group, an organisation which is encouraging protection of this heritage-rich and biologically diverse Kermadec waters through designation of a sanctuary. Contained within New Zealand’s ocean territory, the Kermadec region is one of the few remaining near-pristine ocean sites on the planet. Its sub-tropical islands sit at the northernmost point of our nation’s territory and have a history of Polynesian and European contact that has, until now, rarely featured in our art history or registered on the national psyche.
The exhibition Kermadec – Lines in the Ocean celebrates the artists’ journey and shines a spotlight on the extraordinary and special features that define the Kermadec region and connect us to the Pacific. The exhibition presents some of the key works produced by the artists since the voyage. These works reflect a wide range of approaches and responses, as well as using a range of media including video, tapa-making, painting, photography, etching, film, sound-recording and poetry.
Going off the map of the known requires the making of new maps, new ways of thinking and seeing; it requires symbols, allegories and the making of subconscious connections. Therein lie the narratives of discovery and enlightenment that are at the heart of these works: the ‘lines in the ocean’ that show us where we have been, where we are and where we think we might be going.
Fiona Hall (born in Sydney, 1953) is a contemporary Australian artist. After establishing herself as a photographer in the 1970s and early 1980s, Hall began working increasingly as a sculptor and installation artist. In 2008, a major survey exhibition was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and then at City Gallery Wellington. Since then, Hall has returned to New Zealand regularly and made significant works relating to the bird life, botany and environmental issues of this country. Hall’s work for Kermadec includes a series of large barkcloth and canvas works painted with Tongan tapa dye and describe the impact of different vested interests in the Keramdec waters, from whaling, fishing, and the search for minerals resources.
Elizabeth Thomson (born in Auckland, 1955) is a sculptor and installation artist whose work often engages imaginatively with the Pacific region. In her early twenties, she lived on Kiritimati or Christmas Island for six months and her experiences from that time continue to shape her artistic life. Thomson’s work also has strong connections with biology, physics and other areas of science. She writes, “while at sea on HMNZS Otago, the vastness of the sea was incredible. Once on Raoul, however, it was the smallest details of life on the island which made the strongest impression. Walking up the Denham Bay track for a closer view of the caldera, I found myself drawn to photographing mosses, lichens, fungi and also petrels nesting deep inside burrows”1 (p.124). Such observations are evident in Thomson’s work for Kermadec; botanical and cellular magnifications of the Kermadec waters photographed then covered with tiny glass beads as well as a grouping of leaf formations carefully painted to resemble Kermadec pohutakawa leaves.
Bruce Foster (born in Whanganui, 1948) is a photographer whose colour photographs in the 1980s explored the New Zealand coastline, with its on-going dialogue between the natural and in-organic. In recent years he has worked as a freelance photographer and has become increasingly engaged with moving image technologies. Foster’s photographs taken on Raoul Island fall into two bodies of work; documentation of rubbish that washed up along a 25m stretch of beach and work that the Department of Conservation has been doing on Raoul Island, clearing the bush of non-native plants.
Jason O’Hara (born in Palmerston North, 1968). His photographs document the HMNZS Otago’s interior–a vessel without windows and a rabbit warren of signs, colours and no-go zones. While walking on Raoul Island, along tracks that Thomas Bell would have cut in the 19th century, O’Hara documented track markers left by Bell and subsequent residents. Struck by the similarities between Denham Bay on Raoul Island and his home in Breaker Bay, Wellington, O’Hara’s photographs make a connection between familiar and unfamiliar realities.
John Pule (born in Niue, 1962) is the foremost contemporary visual artist of Pacific Island descent. He is also the first Pacific artist to be the subject of a major monograph and retrospective exhibition. Pule immigrated with his family to New Zealand at the age of two in 1964 and settled in Auckland where he currently lives. He is a mostly self-taught painter, printmaker, poet and writer and has published numerous collections of poems as well as two novels, The Shark That Ate the Sun (Penguin, 1992) and Burn My Head in Heaven (Penguin, 1998). Pule’s monochromatic paintings and poems are inspired by the uniqueness of the journey and imaginings of what the voyagers on board the HMNZS Otago would find.
Gregory O’Brien (born in Matamata, 1961) is a Wellington-based poet, essayist, painter, anthologist and curator. Between 1997 and 2009 he was a curator at City Gallery Wellington. He returned to cocurate the exhibition ‘Oceania—Imagining the Pacific’, which opened in August 2011. For Kermadec O’Brien has created a series of paintings, drawings and poems. His paintings describe devices that link land and sea; boats, flying foxes, cogs, winches and pullies, exotic fruit plantations and haunting premonitions. His ‘Kermadec’ poems are included in his collection, Beauties of the octagonal pool (AUP, 2012).
John Reynolds (born in Auckland, 1956) is a painter and installation artist. His art is often infused with a sense of grandeur, mystery and abstract thought–yet such qualities are always offset by a characteristic playfulness and wit. Reynolds is known for his dazzlingly large-scale works that immerse the viewer in complex visual environments. The Kermadec region has long fascinated Reynolds. He notes that there are Kermadec Nikau palms outside his Auckland studio, and he planted them there. Reynolds’ recent art incorporates large-scale abstract compositions such as Numbering Waves, a painted wash of marine blue overlaid with silver koru-like patterning.
Phil Dadson (born in Napier, 1946) is an inter-media artist, sculptor and musician. He is the founding member of the influential music/performance ensemble From Scratch, whose composition Pacific 3, 2, 1, Zero was a statement against French nuclear testing made during the early 1980s and was performed at the Paris Biennale in1982. While on Raoul Island, Dadson recorded the surface texture of rocks on spectrophotometer charts and arranged them to form a map of the Kermadec islands.
Dame Robin White
Dame Robin White (born in Te Puke, 1946) graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in 1967. She has strong family ties to the Tauranga region–a geographical location significant within the greater ‘Kermadec’ picture. Widely known for her painting, printing and recent fibre based collaborations, White has also worked consistently in other forms including drawing, watercolour, and photography. Using materials and ways of making art which are practical, local and available, she makes simple images which convey a finely tuned awareness of and sensitivity to ordinary human situations. ‘My work arises out of the situation I’m in’2 she has said. For seventeen years, W hite lived on the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati. She is now based in Masterton and continues to work with weavers and artists from the Pacific.