The Other Side of Speaking
By Rangituhia Hollis
From – (2013) More than we Know. Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust. University of Auckland Press.
Jesus said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”John 14:6, The BIBLE
These are the words printed on a billboard outside the window of my apartment. I’ve read the sign so many times that I know this excerpt from the bible by heart. At night, through the walls I often hear passersby reciting the text. While these are irregular events occurring days or weeks apart there is continuity evident in the delivery of the phrase, from person to person. The booming voice of each speaker suggests a unanimity that the voice of god would be deep and resonant. In pairs, glass sliding doors rise vertically to indicate the compartmental divisions between floors, faces, external balconies and hidden interior rooms. Thin facades such as these allow for the aural transmission of developing understandings between unseen identities to pass in at least in one direction. Deeper into the hub of the city, the Kenneth Myers Centre on Shortland Street has its own spatial relationship with sound. A two layer brick wall shell, forms a 56 centimetre barrier intended to cocoon the interior from outside noise. As a result identities both inside and outside the walls function without any indication or knowledge of each others movements. Years experiencing intrusive audio bleed between the interior and exterior walls of inner city apartments has contributed to my understanding of just how rare this form of dissociation is in the city. It was this soundproofing that also intrigued Artists Jeremy Leatinu’u and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila when they were approached to develop the exhibition More than we know for the Gus Fisher Gallery. In response to this spatial anomaly; site specific sound engagements became their foundation concept for the exhibition. A mutual starting point from where their works could develop. Put simply Kalisolaite will stand on top of the building to welcome the audience in the Tongan language, directing them inside. While in the gallery video documentation of Jeremy’s physical/sound engagements on the exterior of the building will be shown. Both artists’ performances are intended to use sound to breach the seemingly impenetrable walls of the building. While in previous works sound may have been a byproduct of both of their practices it has yet to have been the focus. Rather ‘Uhila and Leatinu’u typically choose to take on board strategies of resistance to inequities or differences – that either absorb or redirect the energies of a public to whom they are often outsiders. In practice they allow space for others to come to terms with such divisions in their own time, without ever stating these differences overtly. At the time that I write this it is notable that neither of these artists have spoken in their work. Jeremy and Kalisolaite are not without language, they are both apart of a much wider discourse, one that places primacy on the efficacy of the corporeal.
It’s early morning at the end of 2012 when ‘Uhila, Leatinu’u and I arrive at the Kenneth Myers Centre. The plan is to kill two birds with one stone, we’ll watch both Jeremy film his performances and Kalisolaite prepare for the performance that he is to undertake on the opening night. We’re between the Centre and a neighboring building waiting at a closed gate. For us to proceed further permissions have been sought. Auckland University security may be watching us through the overhead cameras. They’re unseen in some centralized control room elsewhere. We stand behind a University staff member whose name I forget. The phone call she makes describes our appearances and our purpose for being there. A number on the gate is read out and the gate unlocked remotely. Then we pass through. We are now all inside what Leatinu’u would refer to as one of the hidden spaces that surround the building. Both Leatinu’u and ‘Uhila have been here before, scouting the building for potential sites of interest. This space is one that Leatinu’u has selected. A 16 by 9 HD camera is set up to frame the first of three works in Leatinu’u’s Spatial Resonance series. The composition of the shoot is such that a large steel sculpture by Dr Richard Shortland Cooper is arranged in the frame to be slightly off center. Originally Shortland Cooper intended that the four steel sheets of the work would vibrate as the wind passed through and subsequently would create sound. It’s a heavy seemingly immovable work, stolid and monumental. I move close to listen to it. It may make sound, but I can’t hear anything. Then I move back to view the screen. The camera is fixed. The Architecture and sculpture are also fixed. The camera is activated and Leatinu’u begins his performance. He enters from the right, moving toward the sculpture, taking a position in front of it. My focus is to monitor the recording, I see the work through the lens. After pausing for a short time he begins to hit the work with open palms. His initial strikes appear probing, testing the potential of the sculpture to make noise. The slow attack of his initial blows cause a pleasing echoing sound. However this is lost as the frequency increases and the resonance begins to build in intensity. Gradually through the ensuing cacophony a rhythm becomes apparent. Soon the noise slows and ends. As Leatinu’u walks back out of shot the performance is over. It seems to me as if the sculpture needed to be reinvigorated in order to enhance one of the original aspects intended in the work. When considered along with the three other works in this series The works appear to be building a language of engagement by testing the generative potential of place. In these videos, each scene add new performative variations to a growing codex of spatial engagements.
Jeremy Leatinu’u’s The Welcome Project exhibited at Artspace in 2010 and in his East Street performance in 2011 both used written language to convey meaning. The later of these works was a 12 hour endurance performance promoted by the Auckland Heritage Festival in conjunction with We Should Practice. In this work he wrote down – in chalk on the pavement – the details of the past residents of East Street (off Karangahape Road). Inscribing the date of their occupancy and the residents name in that order. The work took place over the space of a Saturday night and into the next morning. During the late night section of the performance Jeremy often attracted the attention of drunken passersby. Remaining silent throughout, kneeling and writing – he was focused on the monotonous task of documenting everyone. His lack of response to questions or insults was enough provocation for some to react violently to what they no doubt misread as a dismissive demeanor. Fortunately a constant stream of supporters were present and able to intercede in these instances. With fights being broken up around him Jeremy continued on to complete the task. The Welcome Project 2010 in itself was another seemingly innocuous work. The two screens displayed related performances, the left screen was a video of Jeremy holding a welcome sign to greet new arrivals to the Auckland International Airport. The right screen was a video of Jeremy at the bottom of the crater at One Tree Hill collecting and placing volcanic rocks in such a way so as to again spell out the word welcome. For english speakers his welcome statement is a dichotomous expression, an invitation that states a inclusivity while at the same time what ‘they’ or ‘we’ are being welcomed into will forever remain exclusive and nondescript. Denying us an entrant passage as this place is never defined, so subsequently we can never enter.
“I have two lenses. One is a Pacific lens and the other is European. You can rotate the lens so you can look from the inside or outside. My work is about the unheard voices of our community, of our people. It’s about being broad, not being constrained.”‘Uhila
On Shortland Street Kalisolaite ‘Uhila climbs the exterior wall of the Centre. Up ladders barely visible from the roadside he emerges on the roof. From the opposite side of the road I see him through the frame of a single lens. Still carrying a camera I assess the scene with the highest resolution available to me. Stepping back to look up and down the street what is becoming clear is that the camera won’t be able to contain the entirety of the spectacle. Think of the film Zidane: A 21st Century portrait where 17 cameras were trained on the football star. ‘Uhila’s performance if it were to be documented similarly, would likewise carry with it the sense of being a study of action within a limited context. Ignorant of ‘Uhila’s socio-spatial activations that expand and contract beyond what this frame can capture. ‘Uhila’s focus is not fixed and cannot be anticipated in his own words he his unconstrained. Now he is leaning over the edge of the building. He peers over the edge and cups his hands to his mouth. Here he is testing the space. A woman pushing a pram passes below. Walking oblivious to the performer above who is now leaning down, poised and watching her with his hands still at his mouth. He doesn’t call out. He appears to be saving the words for the performance. This passerby who entered from outside the frame of the lens, emerged as if from nowhere, creating an effect like that engendered when unsuspecting moviegoers stand up in cinemas in front of telesync (TS) bootleg recordings of films. The passerby has in relation to ‘Uhila unintentionally signalled that the frame of containment that the video lens defines is now broken.
“I wanted to be up high, use the echo of the surroundings, and call people in using my Tongan language. This is the first performance where I will be using my voice. I’ll be calling out, using the energy from the echoes and my surroundings.”‘Uhila
But what of capturing the sound? For ‘Uhila deciding to finally break his silence has been a decision he has made carefully. When he found that the Kenneth Myers Centre’s former purpose was as a radio station, he realized that this could be related to his Tongan culture. He relayed to me that he became certain of how he would respond to the site after recalling a conversation with his Mother. Who had told him that in her day Tonga didn’t have daily radio or tv communication and news passed by word of mouth. This caused him to focus on one of the significant roles in Tongan culture, that of an Uiaki fono. An Uiaki fono is a specific person in every village or town, who is chosen to disseminate the word of high ranks such as kings and nobles. ‘Uhila in describing this role relates it to its’ western counterpart that of the somewhat archaic Town Crier. On top of the Centre ‘Uhila is difficult to ignore. I have a sense that like a method actor he will immerse himself wholly in the role of Uiaki fono. However at this stage my opinion is merely conjecture. When this text is first read the performance will already be over. So I can only speculate. I am left questioning. He has been given the opportunity to speak, when it happens – whose words will he pass on? And moreover I think of the Dylan lyrics to ‘You’re gonna have to serve somebody’ and wonder who it is that ‘Uhila will be serving? On the night of the performance ‘Uhila as the Uiaki fono will call out loudly, passing on a welcome that will direct his audience inside. Seeing him preparing on the roof I am in two minds, it’s impossible for me not to think of his past works where he’s subordinated himself and now with his figure is so dominant on the horizon it seems as if he’s shifted social classes. Perhaps he can do this at will. There is a change evident in this man on the roof. I see him again as the man I first met some years ago brimming with confidence, and painting with a machete at AUT. Then he was making certain and assured gestures, cutting monochromatic lines into the canvas and creating an artwork, a tangible object and a commodity. In contrast when he was performing homelessness or living with pigs as endurance art he created temporal experiences for those around him. The signs and placards he made as a homeless artist weren’t kept and as far as I know he ate the pigs. These subordinate performances showcased an artist confident enough to shift his public standing so that through his actions he can reveal what remains hidden within his audience to his audience. In the show What do you mean we? 2012, as a homeless artist living off the donations of visitors to Te Tuhi he was both supported by some and hated by others. By simply being there, his performance polarised elements of the community of Te Tuhi and Pakuranga. His presence was enough to intensify feelings of unease amongst those who felt confronted. While his work with a machete in the medium of paint did add a new Polynesian dimension to a largely western tradition. As a homeless man, he was working in a medium that is far less subject to the classifications of scholarly analysis that allow for an understanding of its intricacies to be learnt. Rather they have to be experienced. Simply by being present he was able to trigger uneasy feelings in some, that is without provocation or insult. Throughout the exhibition ‘Uhila carried a council permit to show that he was allowed to be outside the gallery at night. At the end of What do you mean we?, on the closing day when his permit had expired, police officers arrived. They asked for the permit and then proceeded to screw it up, telling him to move along. So while it seems that some things may simply return to how they were before, another truth is added to the works’ layers. On the opening night of More than we know he will perform again, and at this stage this is as much as I know, I can only guess what will happen.
Early in 2013 I assisted Jeremy as he carried out another series of work. At this time the work is as yet untitled and yet to be shown. The work concerns New Zealand’s four statues of Queen Victoria. The statues are located in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Filmed in four parts the work involves Leatinu’u sitting atop a ladder in front of each of these statues and spending time with the Queen.
“Whenever you see a ladder by a statue it could either mean that someone’s there to preserve it or to deface it. I’m doing neither.”Leatinu’u
The series shows that Leatinu’u acknowledges the statues as symbols of the complex historical and political expressions of British imperialism. Through the use of a ladder as both prop and symbol, Leatinu’u generates a subtle shift in power relations. While his position in relation to the ground does become elevated, it never lifts above that of the Queen. There is never a sense that his intention is to supersede her position in a way that would take make him more dominant – If that could ever be done? The work mimics the tradition of placing objects on plinths to elevate the object and refocus our perception of it away from the banal. The ladder performs the same function as the plinth. Through a working class object Leatinu’u is elevated so that we might watch and consider him as he himself is perhaps also considering his own relationship to the Queen. This is a layered meditation that operates in terms that seem to pivot around the notion of class. Leatinu’u has transversed these significant distances in order to sew the points on the colonial map together.
Here I would speak briefly of the expressions of power that are all a part of colonial expansion. I would continue to talk about roads cut through pa sites, dawn raids and a rampant enactment of strategies of displacement. However I would speak from a position of seeing the traces of this juggernaut, without ever having directly felt its irrespective embrace. So I have issues around who it would be to best to engage in this discourse. But in the absence of others to speak, I would conjure them up in a text. Lets make this a cold language we’re speaking – in order to talk the properties of becoming colonized. Let’s take an imagined journey through the streets of Martinborough. A journey that was first highlighted in the work of Bob Jankhe’s Ta te whenua. In that work an aerial photograph reveals that the cities plan was designed with the union jack as its’ counterpoint. I’ve never been, so i must imagine that at this time there’s someone walking toward that center. And this is my point, I wonder if nearing that center if you get the sense of that overlay? Does standing at the convergence of those eight roads allow for some form of colonial revelation? Could they or we experience the extent of imperial vision in relation to the colonial project? This is where the performance artist arrives as key, in order that we might through observation and vicarious osmosis understand the complexity of a problem with further clarity. These questions will never be answered unless we go there, if we can. In this show both of these artists have either stood or will stand where we can’t. Where we don’t have access. They are doing what is needed in order to serve our ever growing understanding of what place can become.