Cook's Sites: Revisiting history

Mark Adams & Nicholas Thomas
Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington

Cook's Sites: Revisiting History is the outcome of two significant projects merging around a shared field of investigation: specifically, Captain James Cook's visits to Dusky Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound in the South Island of New Zealand. For Mark Adams, the project has involved extensive documentation of complicated cultural sites, from Samoan tattooing to the historic landscapes in the South Island where Maori and Pakeha history have collided, often brutally. In Nicholas Thomas's case, the project includes New Zealand as part of a larger exploration of the cultural dynamics found in settler societies, and in the accompanying instances of cross-cultural interaction that take place.

Cook's Sites takes both these projects back to the moment of contact around which various foundational histories of New Zealand have been constructed. What makes this project so strong is the acknowledgment that such histories are created and sustained via different kinds of representations: visual, textual and historiographical. Adams and Thomas engage all three.

There are really two Cook's Sites under review here. The first is the exhibition of Adams's photographs held in the Boulevard gallery at Te Papa; the second is the book titled Cook's Sites, in which text and image describe alternative but parallel approaches to the same subjects. Surprisingly, there was often a large gap between the show and the book, not so much a result of the problem of text in exhibitions but of Te Papa's decision to intervene between Thomas's text and the viewer, thus altering his role within the project.

Sometimes, too, the translation of Thomas's text was less than precise, as when the wall text spoke of Thomas and Adams finding Johann Reinhold Forster's diary to be 'out of place' in the modernist environment of the Berlin State Library, and to belong 'rather with the light and water of Dusky Sound'. Actually, a reading of the text in Cook's Sites (the book) dispels the unusual notion that the diary belongs in nature, and asserts, instead, that the unease Thomas and Adams feel about its location is a product of 'the new Germany and its troubled modern historical consciousness' which has little focus on the South Pacific, in spite of its rich history of exploration and collecting from this part of the world. Thomas's texts are sometimes reduced to mere shadows of themselves within the exhibition.

Not so with Mark Adams's photographs, which, while beautifully printed in the book, were fantastic when experienced as large scale, lavish, multiple framed prints. Leaving no doubt that Adams is both technically and conceptually fully in control of the photographic medium, his images were spot-on in evoking the specificity and detail of the locations being discussed. When Thomas writes in his text about history becoming tactile at Astronomers Point, you know exactly what he is talking about. The stumps Adams photographed, chopped down by Cook's crew and now covered with lichen and moss, appeared as beautiful fetishes, promising, in their verisimilitude, to grant the viewer a direct experience of the past.

Adams also does a great job of visually engaging with the work of William Hodges, the artist on Cook's second voyage. Hodges's A View in Dusky Bay, New Zealand becomes a 360 degree panorama printed in eight frames, taken from the position in which Hodges's 'noble savage' stood. Cascade Cove, Dusky Bay becomes a four frame photograph in which Adams traces the movement of the water down the face of the rocks and out of sight, into the sea, undermining the generic, romanticised quality of Hodges's original. In each case, Adams manages to open a dialogue with the paintings, revealing new insights about the location in which Hodges staged his images and the conventions that structure them, all the time avoiding the problem of familiarity to which an equivalent textual analysis would find itself subject. Alter all, the fact that Hodges made ideologically loaded representations of Maori has been well-documented.'

At its best, the project encapsulated in the book Cook's Sites does exactly what is claimed of it. Thomas speaks of unsettling histories and foundational narratives, and the text and photographs work perfectly together, weaving around each other, and the expected versions of history these sites have generated. As Thomas is at pains to explain, the point is not to replace old (colonial) certainties with new (Maori, or postcolonial) ones, but to elicit the ambiguity that always attends to interactions like this, to bring out tensions and doubts embodied in the texts themselves, but which get lost in the authorised accounts of history.

In this sense, Cook's Sites is strongest when dealing with Dusky Sound, with its untamed and now uninhabited wilderness, and the complicated interaction between European and Maori that occurred there. What is it, Adams's photographs ask, to found a national history on an overgrown tree stump, or a cleared space in the landscape? What kind of signs are these? Ambivalent ones, clearly, as Thomas shows when discussing the way in which Forster totally misunderstood the nature of the sign the act of bush clearing represented. As Thomas writes, 'Forster supposed that the cleared area would degenerate again into chaos, but the disorder that strikes us now is not a primeval condition but the upshot of contact'. It is not a sign of civilisation's lack, as Forster thought, but historical evidence of its beginnings.

If there is any jarring note in this project, it comes in the photographs of Forster's diary in Berlin. Adams's photograph of the modernist environment of the Berlin State Library is wonderful, but the images of the diary itself, posed on a reading stand, a hand holding it in place, don't have the same power. At this moment, the deft footwork that gives the project its zest at earlier points doesn't seem present, and indeed, there is a curious loss of urgency as the project moves away from the sites Cook visited in New Zealand. Thomas's text, a series of reflections on the places he (and Adams) visited, and the experiences they had, loses something when the journeying described in it is no longer a mirroring of, or an experience imbricated in, Cook's travel over two hundred years before.

This is a minor point, though, against what is an excellent instance of cultural investigation. Cook's Sites capitalises perfectly on a point Adams's photographs have been making for what seems like a long time now. Something's up, and the traces left on the landscape don't tell the whole story. But how these narratives are to be represented is not easily discerned, and Adams is too canny to think they will be answered in a photograph, although he certainly makes sure we look.