I have returned from Biel/Bienne, a small town caught between lakes and hills in the part of Switzerland that from French speaking becomes German, hence the double languages in the signage. I never thought using two languages could have been so confusing, when trying to order at the bakery I think I managed to use four languages in one sentence. I was there to follow the time based performances constituting the 2014 Swiss Sculpture Exhibition. Bodies rather than objects, interacting or reacting to the city, its public constituted by amused, confused or blind passerbys and art professionals, prepared to witness anything and following a strict time schedule.
Almost concurrently I was receiving updates from the Walters Prize and in particular news in regards to the endurance project Kalisolaite ‘Uhila has undertaken : Mo’ui Tukuhausia.
Being in Europe, I am reliant on other people’s physical interaction with the project or chance encounters with Ite, on the perimeter around the AAG in Auckland’s CBD.
Natasha Matila Smith in a response on the prize finalists she sent to Eyecontact, explains the meaning of the title, from the Tongan “absolutely stranded; to be left destitute and friendless”. Without a home. I have seen snippets of a NZ TV programme where Ite’s project was covered and the artist was filmed busking on Queen St with an Auckland Art Gallery disposable cup in front of him, recognisable from the design of three words intersecting into three letters that make out the word “ART”. I have also seen a smiling Ite in some photos taken by artist Janet Lilo, around the shell of the AAG lit at night. Other friends in Auckland have described random sightings of the artist, offers of food and drink to him, sometimes accepted other times refused, reports of them being worried for the harness of certain winter days and nights.
I was thinking at the way the body performs and carries messages without words. How one reacts to a de-socialised body? Someone who has- temporarily- given up the comforts of a home and embraced a life on the street. The passerby is confronted with oneself more than by Ite. There is nothing menacing about the artist’s body language, his identity almost is concealed. What is at stake is our reaction to this person that decides to sit at the fringes of the functional society we are told/taught we all need to partake in. We face our own subjectivity and we question notions of living, what impressions does this situation raise? Discomfort most of all. Then there might be pity, or compassion. Is Ite more special than other homeless people in Auckland? Is he more ‘protected’ because he is undertaking an art project and the AAG is keeping an eye on him?
Notions of visibility and invisibility here take central stage, language loses power and notions of failure and success, as implied in our ordinary lives, are overturned. What if this project had won 50 grand? Will it really have an impact on the community at large? And what effect might it have on the art microcosm; how is it possible to make a shiny gala, where tables are bought for a lot of money, coexist with someone who has been living rough for three months?
This is no Hollywood so even imagining Ite arriving with a tuxedo and ta’ovala, fresh and clean for the evening sounds as impossible as all the wealthy patrons giving up their gowns and following Ite on Queen St, as St Francis would have done.
Publicness without a public. Ite’s nomadic existence endured for three months, his body performing as a temporary structure haunting the city. There is no monolithic solution, one that fits all, this is the terrain of complexity and of slowed down time. No clear theoretical backing or revolutionary slogans seem to be driving Ite- or none that he wants to impose onto the people encountering his process. His biopolitics, his life experience, is what is offered. Is that strong enough as a the desire to draw awareness to certain issues? Is that the seed of change or is it a danger zone, a black hole?
Don’t look; Look away. Works both for Ite and for the average person that walks on Queen St, we decide not to look, because it is easier to ignore the problem that to deal with it. Look harder. Don’t be like those lazy people that don’t see things, especially in art galleries because there is nothing there. Well there is, just use your head.
Italy, September 2014
This text was written following an invitation from Anna-Marie White to think about the Mo’ui Tukuhausia project. Many thanks to Janet Lilo for allowing to use her photos with this text.