– Spring/Summer 2006

Interrupting Perpetual Flight: a Local Practice of Locational Identification

Jon Bywater

Michael Stevenson, This is Trekka, 2003. Photographs by Jennifer French. Courtesy of the artist and Vilma Gold, London

Michael Stevenson, This is Trekka, 2003. Photographs by Jennifer French. Courtesy of the artist and Vilma Gold, London

Standing in the morning sun outside Hoani Waititi marae in Waitakere, in my hometown in the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, I am thinking of a BBC news infographic. The trigger is the figure of the migratory bird.

When visitors are formally welcomed by Maori, indigenous New Zealanders, onto a marae or community meeting place, the figure of the migratory bird is invoked across the marae atea, the highly charged space in front of a whare hui, the meeting house. Participating in such a welcome as a visitor, I am interpellated as a bird by the karanga, the first call from the host side. The karanga, performed by a woman, traditionally a kuia, a woman elder, is high pitched. Its commencement dissolves the everyday social space of conversation and distraction as the tapping of a glass or a clearing of the throat might at closer quarters and in different circumstances. Across the distance of the open ground in front of the house, it can sound powerfully disembodied, the impersonal voice of ceremony focusing attention and invoking a particular kind of awareness. Although I only know a few words of Te Reo Maori, the Maori language, in the tuned, chanted call I recognise the term manuhiri naming me. Usually translated into English simply as 'visitors', I hear in it the Maori word manu, bird; a word I know first from local place names.1 It is as a freshly landed bird that I hear myself called forward. During the Northern summer in 2005 outbreaks of bird flu have been confirmed in Russia and Khazakstan, and fears reinforced that the deadly H1N5 virus might

  1. The southern harbour of the city where I live, Auckland, Tamaki Makaurau, is named Manukau. According to tradition it is an abbreviation of the phrase he manu kau noa iho, 'they were only birds', after the report of scouts of the 14th-century invader Hoturoa, commander of the Tainui waka, who had been spooked by calls from what seemed to be hidden warriors.

  2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/world/05/bird_flu_map/html/1.stm

  3. H.W. Williams, Dictionary of the Maori Language, Wellington: Legislation Direct, 1971, p.176

  4. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000

  5. See H.W. Williams, op. cit., p.53 and http://www.tewakamokopuna.net/Tikanga2.html

  6. H.W. Williams, op. cit., pp.268, 300, 354, 408 and 497

  7. Party leader Pita Sharples is interviewed on this question on the blog 'Poll Dancer' by Keith Ng in the entry 'Revolution in Maori Time', posted 15 November 2005, http://publicaddress.net/default,2701.sm#post2701; accessed 1 December 2005

  8. Although I would not want to associate either with any misrepresentation I may have made here, I am grateful for what I've had the opportunity to learn from Chaz Doherty and Charles Koroneho, who have been vital to my present understanding of tikanga Maori.

  9. See Connie Butler, 'Flight Patterns - artist exhibition featuring the theme of topographic landscape', Art Journal, Summer, 2001

  10. Connie Butler, 'West of Everything', Parkett, no.57, 1999, p.191

  11. 'The Australian artist, we might say, is a migratory bird who owns not one home but two - the new world of Australia and the old world of Europe. The attempt to live entirely in either world is for him a spiritual death, and he draws his strength and whatever wisdom he has from a kind of perpetual flight. He is a permanently displaced person whether he sits under the gum tree or walks upon the Pont Neuf.' Bernard Smith (1956) quoted in Peter Beilharz, Imagining the Antipodes: Culture, Theory and the Visual in the Work of Bernard Smith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p.99

  12. A major Australasian contribution to the discussion of nationalism, colonialism and culture in these terms is the Art & Language work by figures such as Ian Burn, Terry Smith and Mel Ramsden. See Michael Corris, 'Another Look at the Social Dimensions of Indexing', Blurting in A&L online, 2002, http://blurting-in.zkm.de/e/another_look; accessed on 1 December 2005

  13. Giovanni Intra gives an insightful account of the New Zealand art world's first steps into international exchange in 'Leaving New Zealand: The Question of New Zealand Art Abroad', in Te Ao Twhito / Te Ao Hou, or Old Worlds /New Worlds: Contemporary Art from Aotearoa / New Zealand (exh. cat.), Missoula: Art Museum of Missoula, 2000. Quoted from http://www.artmissoula.org/exhibits/New%20Zealand/essay.html

  14. New Zealand first presented a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, as part of an initial funding commitment to a three-exhibition trial, now under review after the 2003 and 2005 Biennales.

  15. Another thoughtful response to the export tradition was the exhibition '+64' of expatriate artists curated by David Hatcher and Louise Garret. The exhibition intended to obviate models 'often expected to represent some perceivable national identity' by showcasing instead a set of different negotiations of identity in relation to Aotearoa. Quotation from unpublished project outline for '+64', Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2002.

  16. Jeff Gibson, 'Third Asia-Pacific Triennial Of Contemporary Art - Various Artists: Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia', Artforum, January 2000

  17. Quoted and discussed by Tze Ming Mok on the blog 'Yellow Peril' in the post 'A slow, hocking sound', posted 9 August 2005, http://publicaddress.net/default,2399.sm#post2399; accessed on 1 December 2005

  18. Albert Refiti, 'The Forked Centre: Duality and Privacy in Polynesian spaces and architecture', unpublished manuscript

  19. Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p.179

  20. See Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicultural Society, New York: New Press, 1997

  21. The thinking in this essay is indebted to an ongoing discussion with my collaborators on the Cultural Futures symposium, Danny Butt and Nova Paul.