Is New Zealand a backwater or a paradise? The answer is not and never has been simple. For modernist writer Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), still arguably the country’s most famous export, it was both, as it was probably for many settlers oscillating between feelings of exile and of dominance.
The two works inKoTiro, Emepaea(Girl, Empire), the recent exhibition by George Watson (of Ngāti Porou, Moriori and Ngāti Mutunga heritage), was based on one of Mansfield’s early stories, “Summer Idyll” (1907). With each piece set in its own adjoining gallery and Te Uru’s layout providing multiple access points, much has been left to chance. Visitors determined for themselves which of the pairs of works they would encounter first, and therefore how they might interpret the chronology of events surrounding the austere architectural form around which the exhibition crystallized.
Installation Prelude (both 2021 works) are reminiscent of scrapyards found across Aotearoa, filled with abandoned relics of colonial homes. Two walls intersect to suggest four rooms, except with windows that wouldn’t make sense on the interior walls. Gestures towards beauty were seen – light refracting through mottled lavender glass – but the overall effect was elegiac and unsettling: something terrible happened here. The blackest soot swirls on the walls, a window is broken. However, languorous traces of desire rub shoulders with the filthy residues of violence. The name HINEMOA has been lovingly etched into the wall, as is a simple, curvy mark referring to the kowhaiwhai model. White candle wax is accumulated on a windowsill.
This villa skeleton reappears in the video they are cruel, now transported into a pastoral landscape, bird’s-eye drone footage revealing its cruciform shape. Here, the walls have not yet been blackened with soot, and the sun-drenched “rooms” are populated with objects: a cozy bed with a decorative frame in white metal, covered with branches of flowers mynouka; a table laid with bread, Pennsylvaniaua (abalone), honey, enamel mugs swarming with bees and pieces of kumara (sweet potato) dyed an alien shade of blue. We hear two girls conversing on the soundtrack of the video: In response to Hinemoa’s protests that blue kūmara is unnatural, Marina states, “I eat it for that reason; I eat it because it’s blue. Based on their names, viewers might assume that Hinemoa is a Maori and Marina a European settler, but our natural interpretation of these roles becomes hazy and uncomfortable when it is Marina teaching Hinemoa how to dive, who sleeps among the native mānuka and who identifies and then consumes kūmara (the most important food crop for the Maori, so much so that it is considered a taongaor treasure).
At first listen, the tone is light, childish and sensual. Clearly, Hinemoa and Marina are or are about to be lovers, and it’s been suggested that Mansfield drew inspiration from his relationship with Maori socialite and scholar Maata Mahupuku when writing “Summer Idyll.” . Yet listen any longer and an eerie darkness creeps in. Marina’s audacity has a hint of menace, never more so than when she compares native fern fronds to “beautiful green hair,” then goes on to describe how they could trap a warrior at night. , coiling around him until he dies. “They are cruel even as I would wish to be towards you, little Hinemoa,” she continues, uttering a line that can be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the insidious cruelty exercised by the settlers against the Maori. Like Mansfield’s writing, Watson’s practice shows how identities can become attached to objects. “KoTiro, Emepaeaused the picturesque aesthetic of colonialism to disclose a darker psychic undercurrent at odds with the utopian ideas of New Zealand colonization that persist to this day, revealing the deeply unstable affect at the heart of Te Ao Pākehā: the world of White New Zealanders.