Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Vanished headlands

Fiona Jack and Ngati Whatua o Orakei: Kohimaramara
ARTSPACE billboard project on Karangahape road

Mixing up or blending together images from the past and present is one of the obvious characteristics of digital photography where physical cutting and pasting (collage style) is no longer needed. Two photographs of the seafront at Bastion Point, taken 107 years apart, provide the raw visual material for an exciting new panorama on a huge billboard on the Langham Hotel car park on K’ Rd. These images by Haruhiko Sameshima and James Richardson have been combined to create a spectacular land, sea and skyscape, supervised by Fiona Jack (lecturer at Elam) and Ngarimu Blair (the Heritage Manager of Ngati Whatua o Orakei).

The massive horizontal hoarding mourns the destruction in 1908 of Kohimaramara, a large rock (called ‘Sugarloaf’ by Europeans) that was linked symbolically to the various peace agreements between Maori tribes in the Auckland area. It has a ghost-like presence in the centre of the rectangle. There is also an odd wit in this image's placement on the side of a hotel car park to subtly critique ‘progress’ and 21st century modernity. It shows lines of parked cars on the foreshore as a symbol for the present.

The image and title allude to an oral tradition where place names were used by Maori as a sort of mapping structure preserved not by visual means but through stories and language. No persons who have seen this rock are alive now but historical photographic archives provide a valuable resource that supplements verbal and written records.

It would be good to know why the rock was destroyed. Plain ignorance? Malicious vandalism by the pakeha authorities maybe? Perhaps it was seen as a hindrance to shipping, or as aesthetically unsightly?

This billboard is a subtle work that prods us to look closely at the past and how it effects our assumptions about the landscape of the present. In a lively, very evocative text Layla Rudneva-Mackay speculates about what happened to Kohimaramara, suggesting that it could have been ground up to help build the causeway or even used to make a foundation for the Shortland Street Post Office.

Kohimaramara reveals a particularly smart use of the panoramic properties of the elongated billboard format, making it the most successful so far of the several works ARTSPACE has organised. The image plays with us like the recent lenticular photographs by Megan Jenkinson of ‘phantom’ Antarctic islands. Both sorts of work deal with evanescence - one physical, the other mental. You ponder presence and absence simultaneously. In Kohimaramara’s case, the large scale of the image makes both past and present equally palpable, super-assertive and hard to pull apart.

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