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Can art based on politics be interesting as ‘Art’? Are polemics and aesthetics mutually exclusive? Since post-colonialism claimed a place for political and social critique in the postmodern art world, meaning and moralising have claimed a place in art once more. In general postmodernism cocked a snoot at the more politically concerned art of modernism. But artists from oppressed, marginalised and colonised cultures challenge what might be seen as postmodernist amorality. Emerging from obscurity, using art to voice their anger, to lay bare hidden historical realities and to examine the oppression of imperialism, these practitioners use their media to make statements, lay complaints, reveal injustices and to challenge complacency. As the world once more corrodes into a war-torn place and acts of terrorism become more commonplace, many artists—not just those from oppressed or colonised socio-political positions—seem to have rediscovered their political consciences and once more we are seeing politically informed, challenging art.
Recently the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University of Wellington, brought together three exhibitions on the theme of propaganda, war, nuclear weaponry, and imperialist exploitation. ‘Bombs Away’, curated by Sophie Jerrum, was a compilation of seven contemporary artists’ responses to various nuclear nations’ propaganda.1 Indian artist, Nalini Malani’s Remembering Tob Tek Singh explored Partition and threat of nuclear war with specific reference to Pakistan and India. While in the bowels of the gallery, Kainga Tahi Kainga Rua, an installation by Auckland artist Brett Graham, inspired by the doctoral research of Dr Katerina Teaiwa, was based on the degradation and eventual destruction of the Pacific island, Banaba (in the Kiribati Republic), through phosphate mining. Potentially the most didactic of the three exhibitions, based as it was on a specific historical moment, Graham’s work demonstrated that socio-political content and formal power can successfully come together.
Graham placed ten large, empty, white, phosphate covered tomb-like forms—simultaneously sarcophagi and baths—evenly in a row across the gallery floor. These evocative forms were laid out like body bags of victims of terrorism waiting for identification; viewed from the overhanging balcony they had formal resonances with Donald Judd’s clean wall stacks from the hey-day of minimalism. Playing against this clean, slick aesthetic, were three, large, curious, riveted and rusted forms hovering above, suspended from the ceiling, looking like detritus from some archaic space exploration. Moving images flickered across their decaying surfaces: on one we saw small aeroplanes dropping their crop-dusting load on a New Zealand landscape; on another, Banaban dancers performing; and then finally a large metal ‘grabbler’ mining a desecrated landscape.
Graham has been revealing imperialist exploitation and disregard for indigenous people through his work for some time now. In Moenga Roa shown in Auckland last year he explored similar terrain. In that work he dealt with programs of assimilation instituted in New Zealand. The current work is based on Teaiwa’s research showing that from the turn of the century until 1979, twenty million tonnes of phosphate were mined from Banaba. By 1947, no longer able to live on their island, the Banabans had to resettle, at their own cost, to Rabi island in the Fiji group. Unused to the colder, wetter climate of their new home, many Banabans barely survived the new environment. Of the island’s 1,500 acres only 150 acres of coastline remained unscathed when mining ceased.
The emptying out of a land of its material substance, its people and their culture is made palpable in Kainga Tahi Kainga Rua. The ghosts of images flickering across the central suspended ovoid form are scenes of the Banaban dance troop performing the removal of their ancestors from the island. The dance itself is a retrieval from the past, for missionaries for many years forbade traditional dancing. This scene of community and tradition is framed by the mechanised processes of the mining of the phosphate and the depositing of the processed phosphate on the land by crop-dusting planes.
From the death of Banaba both New Zealand and Australia were able to kick-start their agricultural economies, promoting growth, literally from the ground up. That both these countries, and the British, under whose aegis they operated when mining began, behaved reprehensibly in their exploitation and treatment of the Banabans, seems beyond question. That the story of Banaba is one that is echoed in various forms throughout the Pacific is also an unquestioned historic fact. Viewed in the context of ‘Bombs Away’, the explosions of French testing in the Pacific echo in one’s memory.
What role, one might ask, does ‘art’ have in all this? What difference does it make that Graham has completed a satisfyingly resolved installation in which his carefully conceived and constructed forms convincingly evoke the life, death and injustice of an historic reality? Archaeologist Colin Renfrew, recently argued, in drawing parallels between art and archaeology, that contemporary art has transformed itself into ‘a vast, uncoordinated yet somehow enormously effective research programme that looks critically at what we are and how we know what we are’.2 Graham’s work, I would argue, falls within this ‘research programme’. He draws perceptively upon the traditions of installation (for it has now been around long enough to have a tradition) and sculpture, bringing them together to produce a powerful work that communicates a palpable sense of loss, emptiness and reminds us that the legacy of the past lives on.
Graham’s art is polemic, didactic even, but rather than shouting at his audience from a soap-box he produces a work that is monumental and memorial in its scale and forms—a work that is a testament to the loss of the Banaba people. His work is haunting, poetic even in its evocation of loss and destruction. The pure white of the phosphate, the many associations of the bath, the emptiness that remains behind, the hovering, ugly, rusted decay of waste, come together in the presentation not of a coarse statement of anti-imperialism, but rather in an assertion of quiet reflection and questioning of how we might reconcile with and recompense for our histories.
1. Six New Zealanders, Richard Reddaway, Tony de Lautour, Fiona Jack, Jo Randerson and Megan Adams with Paul Redican, together with one New Yorker, Rainer Ganahl, participated in ‘Bombs Away’, curated by Sophie Jerram.
2. Quoted in the Times Literary Supplement, April 4, 2003, p.9 from his recently published book, Colin Renfrew, Figuring it out: What are we? Where do we come from?: The parallel visions of artists and archeologists, Thames & Hudson, London, 2003.