Thursday, August 21, 2008
A Handful of Dust
…the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief/And the dry stone no sound of water. Only/there is shadow under this red rock/(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),/And I will show you something different from either/Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
It might seem an anomaly to begin an essay on the works of Nicholas Twist with an excerpt from T. S. Eliot. How might the multifaceted, apparently postmodern works of a young Maori photographer, imbued with a complex relationship to whenua (land) and whanau (family), be positioned by comparison against perhaps the most archetypal, Pakeha, modernist?
I begin here because there is an unusual symmetry between Eliot's allegorical writings on life and the passage of time and the observations Twist makes regarding the appropriation, degradation and destruction of the natural environment in his series of works, Waste Land. Yet Twist's photographs, unlike Eliot's poetry, do not seek to rely merely upon the subjective elicitation of an emotional response. They stand, at the outset, as both documentary and allegory. Their subject matter serves to both highlight events, places, and sites, and to suggest their implications.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of Waste Land is its relentless darkness. Twist has, subjectively, visually, and tonally, created a landscape which is as much a barren future as it is a contaminated present. And, in many ways, he continues an interrogation that seems to be unremarked upon in contemporary New Zealand imagery. Somehow, the green hills and long white clouds of the mid-century pastoral have been exchanged for a sodden, sullen, gray landscape populated either by genuinely toxic wastes or by metaphorically toxic creatures - from the Orcs of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings to Twist's disused fertilizer factory. Sadly, while the former stands merely as evocation, the latter stands as reality.
Waste Land represents a development of a series of works Twist completed in Invercargill. In the early and mid-1990s, his works explored the barren cityscape of urban Wellington. Domestic interiors and commercial exteriors around Newtown became late-twentieth century interrogations of absence, while an earlier series of works documented his, and his whanau and tupuna's, relationship with Murupara.
In 1999 and 2000, Twist completed a complex series of portraits of Maori kaumatua, and it seems that this immersion in portraiture compelled him into his current direction.
As a suite of works, Waste Land also reflects Twist's reconsiderations of urban or rural imagery, and with the presence or absence of the body. In many ways, it also highlights Twist's subtle acknowledgement and appropriation of photographic history. His lineage extends from two rather surprising predecessors - Lee Friedlander and Robert Smithson - perhaps two figures of twentieth century photography spoken of with reverence, or awe, but seldom actually viewed. Yet Twist's images of contaminated sites pick up on the abjection and revulsion of Friedlander's 1980 Factory Valley series. Twist's images are, however, perhaps even more complex than Friedlander's. For while Friedlander's Factory Valley images reflect the inevitable decay of manufacturing, and thereby supposedly the demise of late capitalism, Twist's cause one to reflect upon, and consider, the implications of site, of circumstance, and of political economy.
The series contains three images of disused fertilizer factories or other "contaminated" sites - sites which previously contained manufacturing or production processes deemed both necessary and useful, but whose long-term effects have become cause for concern. The term for something that is both useful and dangerous is the sublime, a term one would not likely use in relation to this subject. In a predominantly rural economy, based primarily on agriculture and primary production, Twist's focus on these sites is inherently critical. It maps both the relationship of use to land, and raises questions of responsibility and reaction.
In many ways, Twist's representations of Wanganui might be read as a postmodern reinterpretation of Robert Smithson's classic text and imagery found in A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey. In that essay, Smithson satirized the notion of the monument in contemporary culture, providing images of 'The Great Pipe Monument,' 'The Sand Box Monument' and 'The Fountain Monument' - a construction pipe, six drainage pipes, and a sandbox, respectively - and suggested that these were in fact monuments of late-twentieth century suburbia. In many ways, he is indeed correct. The residue, the detritus, of the ebb and flow of commerce often result in precisely these monuments.
One similar monument is the abattoir at Patea. Patea is also the site of the Aotea Memorial Canoe, which celebrates the settlement of the region by Turi and his Hapu (and which is included in the Patea Heritage Inventory 2000 as Item E3 and is given an "Overall Cultural Heritage Value" of "14 out of 20"). Patea is also the place in which Poi-E was composed and sung. This destitute building, symbolic of one of the major industries of the area, must be set against the wairua of Patea and the vehemence with which Poi-E served to assert a resurgence of Maori culture in the face of Pakeha speculations concerning its demise. Karl Marx would suggest, of course, as Twist's abandoned abattoir suggests, that the true insidiousness of cultural dominance comes from economic subjugation, at least as much, if not more, than cultural assimilation, appropriation or domination. Perhaps Poi-E stands as a signifier against Marx's theorem, with the abattoir serving as both the remainder and the reminder.
One intriguing corollary that Twist draws is the unusual relationship, perhaps both formally and conceptually, between the abattoir and the museum. It is a given in critical theory that museums are not neutral spaces, and that they in fact affect the works that are contained within. Theodor Adorno points out in his text "Valery-Proust Museum", for example, that ''museum" and "mausoleum" share particular linguistic similarities. But the slaughterhouse, the abattoir, has more complex characteristics. In his Encyclopedia Acephalica, the French author Georges Bataille wrote of the abattoir. He suggested,
The slaughterhouse is linked to religion in so far as the temples of bygone eras (not to mention those of the Hindus in our own day) served two purposes: they were used for both prayer and killing. The result (and this judgement is confirmed by the chaotic aspect of present-day slaughterhouses) was certainly a disturbing convergence of the mysteries of myth and the ominous grandeur typical of those places in which blood flows.
One might compare this with the writings of Daniel Buren, in his essay The Function of Architecture. He suggests that an empty museum or gallery has no meaning, to the extent that it can be transformed at any moment. He also recognizes, however, that , anything placed within the museum's context becomes altered. He writes,
Now, let's exhibit a work of art - of any kind - in a Museum: can we really distinguish it from other works of art?
Twist's photographs of the abattoir and the museum, respectively, highlight the complex relationship between commodification and the object. In the abattoir image, one is confronted by a complex set of social and cultural relationships between consumption and use. From specific, religious dietary requirements, to questions of political or social concern, the suggestiveness and implications of the abattoir, or, to use Bataille's term, the slaughterhouse, are myriad. So too the specific suggestiveness and implications of the museum. Both become sites of veneration and abjection. Both become sites upon which specific social and cultural decisions are made, and remade, on a daily basis. Yet the image of the Sarjeant is clean, crisp, minimal, modernist -reflective of the objective intentions of the gallery, or any museum or gallery, for that matter - to be the neutral, non-politicized, space of contemplation.
Of course, those in Aotearoa rejected this myth very shortly after it began being critiqued. Exhibitions such as Te Maori highlighted the fact that the museum was perhaps not the neutral site that it was always claimed to be. Twist's images must share in that lineage, to the extent that they recognize the museum as an enclosing space, and the tapu (unclean) space of the abattoir as its philosophical, if not conceptual, other.
Twist also turns seemingly everyday images into ones imbued with space, with openness. Rutland Street is an image of the street where Twist works. In the middle of an urban environment, the street seems almost entirely devoid of life. The majority of the other works are marked by an absence, predominantly, on the surface, the absence of people, but on a more complex level, it is the absence of life itself. Many of the images in Waste Land depict sites that are basically unusable. In one instance, there is the even a depiction of an illegal toxic waste dump. The waste has become entirely complete. It is beyond reclamation, beyond the immediate hope of a simple dredging and a return to usefulness. This is indeed Eliot's "stony rubbish" where "the dead tree gives no shelter,the cricket no relief/and the dry stone no sound of water." It is a landscape which was not formed barren, but has been made barren.
A surprising aspect of Waste Land is Twist's personal adoption of techniques which specifically did not contribute to the contamination of whenua which he has so critically documented. As part of the project, he experimented with a Vitamin C developer, a process which was in fact successful. In early September he wrote,
My Vitamin C developer is working well and now I have work that is Vitamin C produced from film to paper.
This is not to suggest that the works are entirely devoid of traditional photographic process techniques. Twist tones certain images, perhaps to highlight their generally bleak subject matter. Apart from the image of the Sarjeant, taken in such a way as to suggest bright, or at least natural, light, the images generally seem low key, comprised of sombre mid-tones, tending towards rich browns and blacks. This is the right palette for a waste land, one would tend to believe.
There is, however, one other image, apart from the Sarjeant, that seems to stand in opposition to the thesis of waste or decay. This is the image of the Harrier Hawk, or better, the Kahu, a native bird-of-prey which feeds primarily on wild turkeys and pukekos. Strangely enough, so the New Zealand Birds and Birding Nga Manu o Aotearoa website tells us, this bird flourished precisely as a result of Pakeha intervention - European farming techniques created vast amounts of open pastureland, their preferred habitat. This resulted in a bounty being placed upon them in the 1930s and 1940s. They received protection in 1985.
In many ways, the fate of the Kahu stands as a metaphor for Aotearoa. Finding opportunities to thrive, it became hunted. Then, as it became endangered, it became protected. In many ways, it is as if Poi-E stands as a similar metaphor for the resurgence of Te Reo Maori. Yet in Twist's photo it seems evident that the Kahu is partially domesticated. What, one must wonder, are the implications of this? Is it a signifier of the uneasy relationship between people and land, between use and value, or between instinct and reason?
Waste Land highlights the complexities with which one must consider contemporary culture. It is a presence marked precisely by an absence. This idea becomes evident in almost every work. From dream, to ideal, to nightmare, from abattoir to contaminated site, from school to museum, each image maps precisely a finite consideration of an endless question. How does one consider the Waste Land precisely when the waste land itself is not empty? This is a question Twist asks, but one he cannot answer.
Posted by Brett at 8:09 AM