Kaikauhoe | Mark Hutchins Gallery 2007
What lies before you are photographic images that may not, at first, be easy to discern. A rich inky blackness broken by a body of green, evoking elements of dark water and stone...maybe a hint of something surfacing from the watery depths, drawing us to look further. But is this object emerging or softly sinking? Is it floating free or trapped within the frame? With deliberate ambiguity Adrienne Martyn deftly interplays light and dark, space and enclosure to challenge our vision and set the scene for further questioning of her subject.
If we look more closely we can see that the stone is actually an object and the seeming reflections of light on water are in fact giving form to a plastic bag fixed with a single black pinhead. The murky riverbed is transformed into a backing mount. The free and floating becomes captured specimen. Or does it?
These images actually depict taonga pounamu (greenstone treasures) as they revealed themselves in a darkened Museum storeroom. And just as these images conjure different readings for viewers, pounamu too can be as many things to many people. As with its origins in the fluid space of time, Pounamu, formerly known as Te Tini o Poutini, were the slippery fish of Ngahue, who swum the great Pacific Ocean to flee their pursuers finding a short residence at Tuhua (Mayor Island) in the Bay of Plenty. Tauranga Moana tradition states that Poutini came into conflict with the local tribes of Ngati Tuhua and Ngati Hinehoanga and under the guidance of Ngahue found a permanent home in the Arahura river of the South Island West Coast, where they remain under the guardianship of Ngai Tahu.
Highly treasured by all iwi, pounamu was and still is extensively traded and found throughout Aotearoa. A precious resource with amazing properties of strength and beauty, pounamu can be transformed into functional pieces such as the toki (adzes) and uhi (chisels) as shown in these images. Its range of colour and hue, with the speckled translucency of kawakawa or the pale oblique inanga, created desirability when crafted into rei or hei tiki (pendants). Pounamu was a taonga of mana, a gift to be circulated, passed down sometimes as the embodiment of tipuna (ancestors), moving on through the currents and eddies of generations.
Martyn too is concerned with the notion of shifting value and circulation. The photographs in ‘Kaikauhoe’ have been developed from an existing body of Martyn’s work 'Looking for the Subject' (shown at Wellington City Gallery, 2007) that consider how galleries and museums shape significance and value through presentation and exhibition. Here we are invited ‘back of house’ with Martyn as she opens the storeroom doors to explore what lies on the shelves, drawers and cupboards of a closed regional Museum (in Tauranga). What eventuates is the ability to present and to reveal the unseen; maybe to experience what happens when the lights are off.
This is not a new idea. Artists such as Louise Lawler, Mark Dion and others have created works highlighting the power and politics that can be found in all Museum activities. But Martyn’s subject matter address questions relevant to our own locale - site-specific issues inextricably intertwined with Aotearoa - that of ownership and use of indigenous culture, the movements of Maori taonga and controlling identities. For how did some taonga swim so far from home?
The photographed taonga are seen encased in bags and pinned to trays for visible storage and for Martyn, this is yet another form of presentation that sees the items ordered and arranged for access and viewing. Each enclosure conveys a watery space created through collection practice. This device reflects the wider Western practice of collecting cultural ‘property’, deeply rooted in nineteenth century ethnographic collecting traditions of acquiring things from ‘other’ places and resulting in the removal of significant cultural items from many Pacific communities. Recently some of these communities have sought the return of their treasure.
Just as objects can bob and break the water’s surface revealing new angles, shapes and faces, so do taonga weave in and out of reality, moving to the fore in new environments, with different purposes and new korero. Martyn’s allusion to water in these images, can be seen as a metaphor for the bigger cultural context in which Taonga exist - whether they remain the embodiment of tipuna, kept warm by their wearers, or passing through museums, helping to establish living connections with tangata whenua and inspiring new creations.
But whatever view we wish to take, Martyn’s images also evoke a deeper response - whether they are revealing the hidden, allowing a glimpse of something new or acknowledging the familiar - by peering into the dark we know something is there, waiting.
Swim on Kaikauhoe, silently stroke the inky blackness, to emerge back into the light.
Rachael Davies with Dean Flavell.