Con­tact lenses

What does it mean for New Zealand artists to ex­hibit on the world stage, when glob­al­i­sa­tion seems to be com­ing apart at the seams? Metro vis­its Europe’s two lead­ing con­tem­po­rary art ex­hi­bi­tions, Doc­u­menta and the Venice Bi­en­nale, to find out.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — AN­THONY BYRT

What does it mean for New Zealand artists to ex­hibit on to­day’s world stage? Metro vis­its Doc­u­menta and the Venice Bi­en­nale.

As the long gon­dola ap­proached, oared by al­most 20 peo­ple, two seated women came into view. Lisa Rei­hana, wear­ing huge sun­glasses, basked in the wan haze of the Vene­tian sun, and in the adu­la­tion and ex­cite­ment of the friends, pho­tog­ra­phers and pa­trons wait­ing for her on dry land. Along­side her, New Zealand’s Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral, Dame Patsy Reddy, was cloaked in a ko­rowai.

For Rei­hana, as well as her col­lab­o­ra­tors in this en­ter­prise — New Zealand at Venice com­mis­sioner Alas­tair Car­ruthers, Auck­land Art Gallery (AAG) di­rec­tor Rhana Deven­port, and Rei­hana’s part­ner and sound de­signer James Pinker — this was the cul­mi­na­tion of a long jour­ney. Rei­hana’s mas­sive video work in Pur­suit of Venus [in­fected] ( iPOVi) had fi­nally reached one of the world’s big­gest art events, the Venice Bi­en­nale. It was recog­ni­tion for an artist who, for al­most 30 years, has been one of the ma­jor fig­ures in post­colo­nial art, not just in New Zealand but in­ter­na­tion­ally.

The two women stepped off and into the wait­ing crowd. iPOVi was play­ing nearby — in the Tese dell’Isolotto, a build­ing in Venice’s vast Arse­nale com­plex, where in times past so many of the cityre­pub­lic’s ships were built and launched. The sym­bolic par­al­lels be­ing drawn be­tween Venice and Aotearoa were crys­tal-clear: the gon­dola as waka, with Rei­hana and Reddy at its prow; a work about James Cook’s voy­ages screen­ing in one of the great launch­ing posts for global ex­plo­ration; the wood­framed, pitched roof of the Tese dell’Isolotto vaguely evoca­tive of a wharenui.

Rei­hana and the Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral read­ied them­selves to en­ter the build­ing, sur­rounded by other dig­ni­taries, and the powhiri be­gan.

Rei­hana’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Venice Bi­en­nale drew an enor­mous amount of me­dia at­ten­tion in New Zealand. This fol­lowed the hugely suc­cess­ful run iPOVi had at the AAG in 2015. Since then, there’s been a com­bi­na­tion of in­evitabil­ity and an­tic­i­pa­tion about how it would go at Venice, as New Zealand’s of­fi­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the Bi­en­nale.

What has been drowned out in all this ex­cite­ment is that this Euro­pean sum­mer, sev­eral New Zealand artists have also been in­cluded in an ex­hi­bi­tion ar­guably even more im­por­tant than Venice: Doc­u­menta. Held only ev­ery five years, it’s a mas­sive, cu­rated show that nor­mally takes place in Kas­sel, Ger­many. This year, its cu­ra­tors are stag­ing it in two venues:

its Ger­man home base and Athens. The Athens leg opened first, a month be­fore Venice, with a work by Christchurch-based artist Nathan Po­hio in­cluded. Later in the sum­mer, the Kas­sel ex­hi­bi­tion would present work by Po­hio, Welling­ton’s Mata Aho Col­lec­tive and the late Ralph Hotere.

The de­ci­sion to hold Doc­u­menta in Athens has been a talk­ing point ever since its di­dac­tic ti­tle, Doc­u­menta 14: Learn­ing from Athens, was an­nounced by its chief cu­ra­tor, Adam Szym­czyk, in 2014. The de­bate is largely be­cause Athens, right now, is thor­oughly fucked. Fucked by debt, by un­em­ploy­ment, by vi­cious aus­ter­ity cuts, by the in­flux of des­per­ate mi­grants from Africa, Afghanistan and the Mid­dle East. And well and truly fucked, if you ask some Greeks, by Ger­many specif­i­cally — the Euro­pean Union pow­er­house driv­ing the Greek bailout and the dra­co­nian fi­nan­cial con­di­tions placed on its cit­i­zenry.

The main con­cern — pointed out by ev­ery­one from the Greek econ­o­mist and for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter Ya­nis Varo­ufakis to groups of young, un­em­ployed Greek artists — was that Doc­u­menta would be­come poverty porn for in­ter­na­tional art worlders like me, who swan in, cry a few lib­eral tears while we’re there, then head home to our in­fin­itely less-fucked-up cities, leav­ing Athens in ex­actly the same mess.

But this risk was also the art world’s op­por­tu­nity, and it’s what makes this Doc­u­menta — and, in fact, this year’s Venice Bi­en­nale, too — so im­por­tant.

Over the past 15 years, the in­ter­na­tional art world

has be­come a theatre of ex­tra­or­di­nary priv­i­lege, its gath­er­ings float­ing on a mar­ket that many com­men­ta­tors be­lieve to be at least partly fu­elled by global money laun­der­ing. The art mar­ket’s abil­ity a decade ago to come through the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis com­par­a­tively un­scathed (un­like, for ex­am­ple, Greece) was de­press­ing proof that, de­spite as­pi­ra­tions for art to op­er­ate on a higher moral plane, the con­tem­po­rary scene is un­der­pinned by big money, and big cap­i­tal.

This year, then, the art world has three op­por­tu­ni­ties — Venice, Doc­u­menta, and an­other ma­jor event called Skulp­tur Pro­jekte Mün­ster — to look at it­self hard and re­ally test its rel­e­vance as a space for pro­gres­sive think­ing.

We are, un­hap­pily, liv­ing in the Trump era and wit­ness­ing the vul­gar­ian de­cline of the ne­olib­eral cap­i­tal­ism and glob­al­i­sa­tion that have been so heartily em­braced for the past 30 years. The art world to­day is as much a prod­uct of that eco­nomic sys­tem as the cur­rent US pres­i­dent is. And, frankly, it has a lot of eth­i­cal catch­ing-up to do. But Szym­czyk’s Doc­u­menta is a no­ble at­tempt: a sin­cere and se­ri­ous ex­hi­bi­tion which pro­poses that gen­uine eco­nomic change and po­lit­i­cal revo­lu­tion might ac­tu­ally be pos­si­ble.

Per­for­mances, lec­tures and de­bates are scat­tered through­out Athens, but the core of Doc­u­menta takes place in the newly opened EMST Na­tional Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art. The first work seen upon en­ter­ing is Po­hio’s Raise the an­chor, un­furl the sails, set course to the cen­tre of an ever set­ting sun! — a com­pan­ion im­age to the work nom­i­nated for the 2016 Wal­ters Prize and which stood so dom­i­nantly as a back­lit bill­board out­side the AAG’s main en­trance (the bill­board ver­sion would be in­stalled later in Kas­sel). In Athens, it is qui­eter, and more dis­ap­point­ing in its ma­te­ri­al­ity: a large dig­i­tal print, hung a lit­tle clunkily on a high wall. As an im­age, though, of Maori men on horse­back ac­com­pa­ny­ing Lord and Lady Plun­ket in their mo­tor­car, it is still as sur­real as ever — es­pe­cially away from Aotearoa.

It’s also a work about hospi­tal­ity and di­a­logue. Plun­ket was Gov­er­nor of New Zealand from 1904-10. Po­hio’s found im­age cap­tures the mo­ment when a group of Ka­iapoi ran­gatira, wear­ing ko­rowai, meet the Plun­kets to es­cort them onto the Tuahiwi marae — the start of a wel­com­ing process. The work’s place­ment as a gate­way to the ex­hi­bi­tion (as it was in the Wal­ters Prize) gives Po­hio and his no­ble rid­ers the open­ing word in a del­i­cately crafted con­ver­sa­tion on the EMST’s ground floor about moder­nity’s con­se­quences for in­dige­nous rights, re­source ex­trac­tion, and colo­nial ex­change.

Cen­tral to this is the work of the late Cana­dian in­dige­nous artist Beau Dick, who made beau­ti­ful cus­tom­ary masks, and ex­plored the cul­tural and eco­nomic func­tion of cop­per for North Amer­ica’s First Na­tions. The cu­ra­tors have spun this out to ex­am­ine cop­per’s es­sen­tial role in world so­ci­eties: as cur­rency, as coinage, as spir­i­tual con­duit, and most re­cently, as ca­ble and cir­cuitry for the ex­change of in­for­ma­tion. The fact that the an­cient Greeks were in­stru­men­tal in de­vel­op­ing coinage as a struc­ture for the ex­change of goods and ser­vices, and that Greece is cur­rently suf­fer­ing un­der the vast con­cep­tual weight of weight­less money trans­ferred across in­for­ma­tion net­works,

col­lapses per­fectly the time and space be­tween the an­cient, the colo­nial and the con­tem­po­rary.

Much of the re­main­der of the EMST ex­hi­bi­tion is framed by the work of the Rus­sian revo­lu­tion­ary Arseny Avraamov, his bril­liant 1922 Sym­phony of Sirens boom­ing through an up­stairs space. Sirens, can­non blasts, ma­chine guns, lo­co­mo­tives, plane fly-bys and L’In­ter­na­tionale over­lap to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect. Granted, it is a dig­i­tal re­con­struc­tion from 2010, but is ex­traor­di­nar­ily con­vinc­ing given that the orig­i­nal ver­sion was staged, live, us­ing the Rus­sians’ en­tire Caspian naval fleet as its per­form­ers.

Nearby, footage from post-revo­lu­tion Rus­sia plays, show­ing marches, anti-Western slo­gans, dis­plays of weapons, car­ni­va­lesque cos­tumes, the de­struc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist sym­bols, and peo­ple yoked and pulling wag­ons. I won­der what we’d call these events if they took place now. Ex­trem­ism, prob­a­bly. But it hap­pened, and it mat­tered, and the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion showed Europe there was an­other way: that a feu­dally based sys­tem of gross un­fair­nesses re­ally could be over­come.

This cen­tury-old im­agery and sound, though, also high­lights one of the big­gest co­nun­drums global pro­gres­sivism faces: how to ef­fect rad­i­cal change with­out vi­o­lence, given that the sys­tems that need chang­ing are them­selves so con­tin­gent on vary­ing de­grees of brutality: eco­nomic in­equal­ity, cli­mate dev­as­ta­tion, war, dis­place­ment, cul­tural era­sure, misog­yny, and so on. Al­though it might seem in­cred­i­bly ide­al­is­tic, Doc­u­menta tries to show, in sev­eral dif­fer­ent forms, that hospi­tal­ity, di­a­logue and em­pa­thy might pro­vide a mean­ing­ful al­ter­na­tive, and a path to col­lec­tive ac­tion.

Tak­ing place out­side Athens City Hall, the Bri­tish-Pak­istani artist Rasheed Araeen’s Shamiyaana — Food for Thought: Thought for Change as­pired to ex­actly this. It in­volved a sim­ple prin­ci­ple: the shar­ing of a meal in a mul­ti­coloured pav­il­ion the artist had de­signed. Eat­ing to­gether is, af­ter all, one of the most fun­da­men­tal so­cial con­tracts we have.

Tick­ets for two seat­ings, the first at 1pm and the sec­ond at 3, were given out on a first come, first served ba­sis. I joined the queue about 12.15pm. What I very quickly re­alised was that the line wasn’t filled with art folk, but with un­em­ployed Greeks, el­derly peo­ple, Afgha­nis, and en­tire fam­i­lies of Syr­i­ans. I stepped out. The co­or­di­na­tor asked me why, and I said it was be­cause these peo­ple clearly needed the food more than me.

She shook her head. “There are plenty of soup kitchens nearby,” she said. “This isn’t that.” She asked me to re­join, and I did. By that stage, of course, I was much fur­ther back. A man next to me saw this all un­fold and asked, in English, where I was from. When I told him, he in­stantly asked if New Zealand was a wealthy, safe coun­try. I nod­ded. We in­tro­duced our­selves. His name was Ka­mal, and he was Kur­dish. He was in his mid-40s, with a shaved head and a few days’ stub­ble.

I asked him if he had work here in Athens. He smiled. “Look around,” he said, point­ing at board­edup build­ings around the square. “No work here. Not even for Greeks.”

Ka­mal had been liv­ing in Greece, es­sen­tially state­less and in­vis­i­ble, for three years. With no of­fi­cial sta­tus, he had no ac­cess to fi­nan­cial sup­port, and re­lied on the char­ity of churches and other refugee sup­port groups.

When we got to the front of the queue, he in­sisted I take a ticket ahead of him. We got two of the last spots for the 3 o’clock meal. We went our sep­a­rate ways for a cou­ple of hours, and when we re­con­vened at a ta­ble with an Eritrean guy who spoke no English and a tired-look­ing Greek dude who just wanted to eat his lentils, rice and chopped salad un­mo­lested, Ka­mal and I picked up our con­ver­sa­tion.

He spoke five lan­guages, and had worked as an en­gi­neer in the­atres, on stage de­sign and me­chan­ics.

“Look around,” he said, point­ing at boarded-up build­ings. “No work here. Not even for Greeks.”

But with Turkey’s grow­ing con­ser­vatism, he hadn’t been able to find work for sev­eral years. His pa­pers clearly iden­ti­fied him as Kur­dish, and he said Turks wouldn’t hire him be­cause they thought he’d make trou­ble.

So he’d de­cided to try his luck in the Euro­pean Union. He’d paid some­one 300 euros for a map that would get him into Greece un­de­tected. De­spite this, he was ar­rested on the Greek side and de­tained for four weeks. Then, on the 28th day, they let him out. “There were too many of us,” he ex­plained.

I asked him why they hadn’t sent him back to Turkey. He shrugged. “Be­cause I’m Kur­dish,” he said, point­ing out that though the Greeks might not want him, they also have a mas­sive an­tipa­thy to Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan’s treat­ment of the Kurds.

His goal was to get to Ger­many or the Nether­lands. “Very lib­eral,” he said. But he was also sub­ject to the Dublin Reg­u­la­tion, which de­ter­mines where in the EU some­one can ap­ply for asy­lum. Usu­ally, it is the first coun­try a per­son en­ters, which is why Greece and Italy have been so ham­mered by the mi­grant cri­sis.

With­out pa­pers from the Greeks, Ka­mal couldn’t go any­where, at least not legally. He’d fi­nally es­tab­lished that his chances of get­ting those pa­pers, given the num­bers Greece is deal­ing with, were next to zero. So, in­stead, he was go­ing to try to get some­one to smug­gle him on a boat to Italy dur­ing the sum­mer — one step closer to north­ern Europe, where his in­vis­i­bil­ity would start all over again.

The vol­un­teers cleared our plates and brought us the dessert: a dry pas­try dusted with sugar. Ka­mal looked at it and smiled. “It’s usu­ally bet­ter than this,” he said.

We ate it any­way.

The Tese dell’Isolotto is, for its marine and meet­ing-house ref­er­ences, an ideal build­ing for Lisa Rei­hana: Emis­saries. There was also a fair amount of prag­ma­tism in the choice of venue — Rei­hana needed a long room so that iPOVi , the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cen­tre­piece, could fully un­furl. Rei­hana was able to avoid many of the build­ing’s most idio­syn­cratic and dif­fi­cult quirks, sim­ply by build­ing a long wall onto which iPOVi was pro­jected: more movie screen­ing than in­stal­la­tion.

This was telling. The ti­tle, Emis­saries, sug­gested we were go­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing dif­fer­ent from iPOVi at the AAG. There had been much talk in the build-up about new photographic el­e­ments. In the end, these boil down to a cou­ple of large pho­to­graphs: one of an ac­tor play­ing Joseph Banks, and the other the Chief Mourner — two key char­ac­ters in iPOVi. They are like play­bills for a bad cosmic pan­tomime, overblown and corny. There are also a few ob­ser­va­tional in­stru­ments — old tele­scopes and so on — near the en­trance. Both as­pects barely reg­is­ter; the suc­cess of the ex­hi­bi­tion hangs en­tirely on the new and im­proved ver­sion of iPOVi.

The film has been ex­panded and en­riched since it was screened at the AAG. New scenes have been added, and the tech­ni­cal glitches that trou­bled it have been ironed out. The sound­track by James Pinker has also been de­vel­oped.

The most im­por­tant new se­quence in­volves Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal per­form­ers. In col­lab­o­ra­tion with Camp­bell­town Arts Cen­tre in Syd­ney,

Rei­hana filmed mem­bers of the Koomurri com­mu­nity, their pres­ence help­ing to close the nar­ra­tive cir­cle, re­mind­ing us that the se­cret sec­ondary pur­pose of Cook’s 1769 Tran­sit of

Venus voy­age was to dis­cover the south­ern con­ti­nent, Terra Aus­tralis. It also helps to dis­rupt the com­fort­able “Paci­fic­ness” of the rest of the project, and is an an­ti­dote to the fact that the orig­i­nal French wall­pa­per that iPOVi is based on had pushed darker-skinned fig­ures into the back­ground.

Rei­hana has also in­tro­duced waka and Pa­cific

boats, draw­ing fur­ther con­nec­tions with the Vene­tian lo­ca­tion, and, in­deed, with her and the Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral’s ar­rival at the Arse­nale. Stranger, though, is the de­ci­sion to “dou­ble” a se­quence in­volv­ing Cook. In the new ver­sion, Cook is played by a wo­man. In her cat­a­logue es­say, Deven­port writes: “The video panorama … raises ques­tions about cul­tural for­get­ting, vis­ceral power and sex­ual iden­tity. The rad­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion of a trans­gen­der Cap­tain Cook ref­er­ences Pa­cific peo­ples’ con­fu­sion as to the ex­plorer’s sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion… The 32-minute loop be­comes 64 min­utes with the in­clu­sion of this barely dis­cernible yet fun­da­men­tal flip.”

Deven­port’s use of the term “sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion” here is unusual, and ar­guably in­ac­cu­rate. It’s an un­con­vinc­ing leap from con­fu­sion about Cook’s gen­der be­cause of his cloth­ing to the con­tem­po­rary idea of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion — as in, whether he was gay, straight, or some­where in be­tween. When I asked for clar­i­fi­ca­tion, the New Zealand at Venice team re­sponded that this was “a sub­tle artis­tic (as op­posed to his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate) ges­ture which al­ludes to how some Pa­cific peo­ple may have per­ceived Cook”. The use of “trans­gen­der”, and sug­gest­ing the flip is “barely dis­cernible”, isn’t very con­vinc­ing. Cook doesn’t come across as a trans­gen­der fig­ure in iPOVi. He is ob­vi­ous first as a man, and, in the sec­ond it­er­a­tion, as a wo­man in Cook’s cloth­ing. This might seem pedan­tic, but the ac­cu­racy of lan­guage here, and the ac­cu­racy of de­scrib­ing what is ac­tu­ally seen, is so im­por­tant, be­cause it’s es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing what iPOVi is try­ing to make us think and feel and do.

Deven­port writes that Rei­hana’s “project is not a dig­i­tal recre­ation of the wall­pa­per; rather, it is a rad­i­cal” — again, that ad­jec­tive — “recla­ma­tion from a trans-Pa­cific perspective.” “Pan-Pa­cific” would be more ac­cu­rate, and this, for some, is a cen­tral prob­lem of this work. Sev­eral Pa­cific artists and cu­ra­tors — par­tic­u­larly younger ones — have pri­vately voiced con­cerns about Rei­hana’s ap­pro­pri­a­tion: what it means to co-opt, for in­stance, Ton­gan or Tahi­tian or Abo­rig­i­nal per­form­ers into her larger vi­sion. In an age when the speci­fici­ties of iden­tity are be­com­ing more im­por­tant, par­tic­u­larly for groups who have been “oth­ered” or marginalised by coloni­sa­tion, the danger of “Pan-Paci­fic­ness” as a con­cept is that it might well be just as flat­ten­ing of cul­tural dif­fer­ence as the orig­i­nal wall­pa­per was.

The cen­tral de­bate about iPOVi should, there­fore, hinge on whether Deven­port’s claim is ac­cu­rate: whether Rei­hana’s recla­ma­tion has re­ally done any­thing rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from its orig­i­nal source — whether, in an­i­mat­ing the wall­pa­per, she has given the per­form­ers their own power, their own agency. As a Pakeha writer who has al­ready had a loud and con­tentious say on this, I think it’s up to the peo­ple more di­rectly af­fected to pub­licly dis­cuss what Rei­hana’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion does to and for their re­spec­tive cul­tures, and what it means to have that play out on an in­ter­na­tional stage like Venice.

That we are still ar­gu­ing about these things is kind of sur­pris­ing, given how much has been pub­lished in New Zealand about iPOVi (two books, and a vast num­ber of me­dia ar­ti­cles). So the re­sponse it re­ceived at Venice was al­ways go­ing to be in­trigu­ing. So far, it has fol­lowed a pat­tern: it has been dis­pro­por­tion­ately Bri­tish. Two of the UK’s more con­ser­va­tive me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions, the Times and the Tele­graph, have lauded it. And two of Bri­tain’s old­est cul­tural and sci­en­tific in­sti­tu­tions have be­come di­rectly in­volved.

Deven­port’s use of the term “sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion” here is unusual, and ar­guably in­ac­cu­rate.

At the open­ing, the artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Tim Mar­low, an­nounced that iPOVi would be in the academy’s

2018 Ocea­nia ex­hi­bi­tion — a show, if you want to talk about po­ten­tially trau­matic dates for the South Pa­cific, that will co­in­cide with the 250th an­niver­sary of Cook’s first voy­age. And the Royal So­ci­ety — the in­sti­tu­tion that launched Cook’s voy­ages — be­came a spon­sor, mak­ing a small fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion and giv­ing Rei­hana’s team ac­cess to his­toric arte­facts, in­clud­ing a clock from Cook’s voy­ages, the tick­ing of which is now part of iPOVi’s sound­track.

Dr Julie Max­ton, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Royal So­ci­ety, gave a speech at one of the open­ing events in which she said: “It is one of the Royal So­ci­ety’s am­bi­tions to en­sure that science of the past and present is recog­nised as be­ing at the very heart of hu­man cul­ture. What bet­ter ex­pres­sion of that could there be than in ex­pe­ri­enc­ing Lisa Rei­hana’s ex­plo­rations of our com­mon her­itage in Venice, one of the great ge­o­graph­i­cal cen­tres of cul­tural ex­change. On be­half of the Royal So­ci­ety, I am de­lighted to be able to be here to com­mend her in­no­va­tive work which rep­re­sents New Zealand in such a pow­er­ful way.”

Those ital­ics, ob­vi­ously, are mine. Be­cause it’s per­plex­ing. Whose com­mon her­itage is Max­ton re­fer­ring to? Who is the “our” here? How does she de­fine that, from her of­fice in one of the old­est, and, his­tor­i­cally, most im­pe­ri­ally aligned in­sti­tu­tions in Bri­tain? And how ex­actly, to the Royal So­ci­ety’s eyes, does iPOVi rep­re­sent New Zealand, when it presents what is ob­vi­ously a fic­tional Pa­cific ar­ca­dia?

In the cat­a­logue, the Ger­man cu­ra­tor Jens Hoff­mann writes that: “Rei­hana looks back cen­turies af­ter to this time [of Cook’s voy­ages] as a mo­ment of ‘in­fec­tion’ — the mo­ment of first con­tact, a mo­ment when things be­gan to change in­ex­tri­ca­bly, not only through the ex­change of dis­ease, but through many other lev­els of trade, in­flu­ence and de­struc­tion.”

Hoff­mann’s state­ment sug­gests iPOVi cri­tiques the con­se­quences of con­tact. As a re­sult, the new col­lab­o­ra­tion and en­thu­si­asms of two Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tions di­rectly in­volved in the “dis­cov­ery” and sub­se­quent de­struc­tive ex­plo­ration of the South Pa­cific (Royal So­ci­ety) and its artis­tic (mis)rep­re­sen­ta­tion (Royal Academy) in the UK, at a time when Brexit has reignited a Bri­tish nos­tal­gia for the days of Em­pire, are un­set­tling. This em­brace, it has to be said, has been re­cip­ro­cal: New Zealand at Venice com­mis­sioner Alas­tair Car­ruthers was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting both in­sti­tu­tions in­volved with Emis­saries.

New Zealand chose, very con­sciously this time, to send a work to Venice about the history of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this part of the world. Rep­re­sen­ta­tion is al­ways about agency and con­trol. And this is a mo­ment when global in­equal­ity, the mi­gra­tion cri­sis, the dis­place­ment of Pa­cific peo­ple due to cli­mate change, the need for in­sti­tu­tional de­coloni­sa­tion, tino ran­gati­ratanga and re­pub­li­can­ism are defin­ing ques­tions for New Zealand’s pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics.

So yes, it was weird, in this con­text, to have the Royal Academy and the Royal So­ci­ety in­volved.

And yes, it was strange to see and hear Dame Patsy Reddy speak so ebul­liently about iPOVi. This is not a per­sonal crit­i­cism of the Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral, who has long been a sup­porter of the arts. It is the pres­ence of the of­fice it­self, specif­i­cally in re­la­tion to the work, and along­side the Royal Academy and Royal So­ci­ety,

So yes, it was weird, in this con­text, to have the Royal Academy and the Royal So­ci­ety in­volved.

that I ques­tion. Reddy’s whaka­papa goes back to the first Gov­er­nor of New Zealand, the naval of­fi­cer Wil­liam Hob­son. And his goes back to Cook.

As I lis­tened to the open­ing speeches from Mar­low and Reddy, I thought back to Po­hio’s im­age of Plun­ket, an­other of Reddy’s pre­de­ces­sors, in Doc­u­menta. Po­hio’s work is about rep­re­sen­ta­tion, too. It is also, like iPOVi, based on his­tor­i­cal im­agery. But it stands for the col­li­sion and trau­mas of our colo­nial ex­pe­ri­ence. Its strange­ness re­mains ir­rec­on­cil­able. It still has a dis­rup­tive power — here, now — and re­sists com­ing to stand for a na­tion. And in Doc­u­menta, it found its peers, en­ter­ing a dis­so­nant, en­abling, pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tion about con­tem­po­rary in­di­gene­ity.

In Venice, with so many ves­tiges of the old Em­pire cling­ing to the sides of Rei­hana’s boat, I couldn’t say the same for iPOVi.

Af­ter lunch, Ka­mal and I walked away to­gether to the edge of the square, and shook hands. We took op­po­site di­rec­tions, and I heard him call my name. I turned, and, smil­ing, he touched his chest and blessed my son, who I’d told him about over lunch.

What mat­tered above all was our mu­tual recog­ni­tion. We had seen each other. We were in­vis­i­ble to ev­ery­one else, back­ground vis­ual noise in a mas­sive city. But we’d shared a recog­ni­tion. It was the frame­work of con­tem­po­rary art that had al­lowed this to hap­pen. What this did, even af­ter we parted, was tune me in to how many peo­ple in Ka­mal’s sit­u­a­tion I was pass­ing on Athens’ streets. Sud­denly, I saw them.

The most press­ing cri­sis Europe faces, I re­alised, is not the hate­ful rhetoric of peo­ple like Marine Le Pen or the stu­pidi­ties of Brexit, though those are ter­ri­ble things, too. It’s the dual con­di­tion des­per­ate mi­grants like Ka­mal ex­pe­ri­ence, of state­less­ness and in­vis­i­bil­ity. Al­most ev­ery as­pect of our lives is gov­erned by the be­lief that free trade and the bor­der­less move­ment of goods are es­sen­tial to our wealth and suc­cess. The move­ment of peo­ple, though — or, at least, peo­ple from cer­tain places — not so much.

And this is why the mi­grant cri­sis poses such a threat to cap­i­tal­ist or­der: be­cause it is an anonymous mass driven not by want — the dom­i­nant Western de­sire for goods, for wealth, for more — but by the ba­sic hu­man need to sur­vive. This des­per­a­tion is al­ready a revo­lu­tion, which will change how we think about and see each other for­ever. Nos­tal­gia for an Ar­ca­dian past when bor­ders were se­cure and peo­ple stayed where they be­longed is point­less. This is the new re­al­ity, and we all cre­ated it.

Af­ter Ka­mal had dis­ap­peared, I did what I’d first planned to do that day. I went up to the Parthenon, the an­cient struc­ture miss­ing its beau­ti­ful mar­ble frieze, which in­stead sits — still — in the Bri­tish Mu­seum in London, as part of the col­lec­tion named the “El­gin Mar­bles”, af­ter the English­man who stole them in the early nine­teenth cen­tury.

There were very few other tourists around, so I had al­most a free run of this tem­ple, built for capri­cious gods who de­ter­mined the lives, suc­cesses, hopes and dis­as­ters of the mor­tals liv­ing in the white city be­low. The af­ter­noon was a blis­ter­ing blue, the view per­fect across the city and out to the hori­zon, where the Mediter­ranean and the sky met and where, not far be­yond, over­packed boats, now that the calm weather had ar­rived, were al­ready cap­siz­ing.

Af­ter an hour, I walked back down the hill and into Athens. The next morn­ing, I would go to the air­port with a pass­port, a cou­ple of credit cards and a few hun­dred euros in my pock­ets. I was headed to Italy. Ka­mal, I knew, wasn’t. Not yet.

ABOVE— Lisa Rei­hana and her video work in Pur­suit of Venus [in­fected].


Nathan Po­hio’s Raise the an­chor, un­furl the sails, set course to the cen­tre of an ever set­ting sun!, a large dig­i­tal print, is the first work seen on en­ter­ing Doc­u­menta in Athens.

ABOVE— From Lisa Rei­hana’s in Pur­suit of Venus [in­fected].

LEFT— Shamiyaana — Food for Thought: Thought

for Change in­volved the shar­ing of meals in a mul­ti­coloured pav­il­ion.

RIGHT— New se­quences from Lisa Rei­hana’s in Pur­suit of Venus [in­fected].

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