Printing the Pacific: 1698 – 1804 and Tales of Handsome Ignorance.
The bi-cultural nation is performed yearly in the sub-tropical theatre of Waitangi. The day is telling marked as a ‘commemoration’, in place of the expected ‘celebration’. It’s a subtle difference but it says a lot about the fraught and contested state of nationhood in New Zealand. Excellent I say: for a retrograde construct like nationhood, it’s preferable to have a day enshrined with problems.
The Auckland Art Gallery gifted a quiet bombshell this Waitangi Day, a re-hang of the historic New Zealand collection. No more gross over-dependence on Goldie and Lindauer, (the two monoliths are now confined to a tasteful presentation in the near-by Auburn Gallery). The preceding exhibition Toi Aotearoa was punctuated by some successful tinkering, but it had been a long three-years of The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand, 1898. When it came to ‘historic’ New Zealand art, Auckland was as starved as the inhabitants of that anachronistic canoe.
The new exhibition is titled Printing the Pacific: 1698 – 1804, and brings together some of the earliest artistic ephemera of New Zealand and neighbouring Pacific Islands. The print material – largely etchings and engravings – reveal a distinct set of agendas on the part of European Explorers. Cartography, ethnology, botany, and satire describe the various Enlightenment traditions applied to Polynesian culture and topology.
This is a Pacific suspended between Abel Tasman and The Treaty of Waitangi, a space of alien encounters, as the ‘old’ world traverses the ‘new’. The collection of prints holds discrete personal observations, alongside a clinical scientific rigor embodied by aristocratic naturalist Joseph Banks.
Predictably – and regrettably – Printing the Pacific lacks the reciprocal gaze of a Polynesian perspective. This slight should be forgiven – although it reveals the persistent inability of museums to think beyond material traditions. Forgiven, the Auckland Art Gallery is principally a custodian of Western artistic traditions, and such a high-calibre exhibition should be celebrated.
The Apotheosis of Captain James Cook, 1794 is one of the exhibitions many gems. Captain Cook: inspired cartographer, compassionate coloniser, and working-class hero is shown ascending to heaven above the Battle of Hawaii. Angels of Britannia trumpet Cook as he transitions into south-seas mythology. Not bad.
Consigned a special place of honour is A young woman of Otaheite, bring a present, 1784, an illustration inspired by one of Captain Cook’s well circulated accounts of Tahiti – the island was a kind of sexual utopia frequently described in 18th century Europe. The female subject of the print is shown in an exotisized hooped-skirt, one breast exposed in a refreshing lack of Georgian morals. The print is a fictitious fantasy that is only loosely based on observation, and one of the exhibitions handsome ‘lost in translations’.
The pièce de résistance is undoubtedly The Savages of the Pacific Ocean, 1804-05, a 15-foot wallpaper depicting the Pacific’s fantasized inhabitants – again a visual translation of early explorers literary accounts. The salon-appropriate Polynesians are depicted as a Byzantine and Native American hybrid, feather headdresses accompany flowing Greek folds, and breasts, enormous breasts everywhere. It’s a sight to behold. And the most beguiling ignorance of the entire exhibition – a title for which there is heated competition.
I could produce literary drool for Printing the Pacific much longer than anyone would be willing to read. The stories are rich, and the connections culminate in a full understanding. This collaboration between Auckland Art Gallery, Te Papa, and Alexander Turnball Library is a humdinger.
Printing the Pacific represents a significant shift in the Auckland Art Gallery’s permanent collection as a new generation takes the curatorial helm, this time in the form of Mathew Norman, an erudite assistant curator. The exhibition doesn’t feel beholden to a focus group – which would undoubtedly produce yet another Goldie survey. Norman has described a world in generous detail, and profiled parts of the collection that never see the light of day.
A museum is as good as it’s permanent collection. To some extent, I struggle to care about visiting exhibitions – as epileptically fun as Light Show was – they come and go and leave almost no trace of their existence. UFO is the term commonly used to describe these experiences, something descended from who-knows-where without considering the relationship to this place. The real battle is in the permanent collection. These spaces should feel like wall-bound novels you feel compelled to revisit, a repository of gems you can’t live without seeing at least a few times a year.