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Paradise Now?

Lisa Reihana, “Native Portraits n.19897,” 1997. Multi-media installation. Variable. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Asia Society

April 2004

Embracing irony and cliché in the title itself, Paradise Now? presents fifteen artists from the Pacific Islands who use postmodern devices to interrogate notions of a “Pacific” identity in a culturally and geographically diverse region. While the show is representative of the plurality of practices in contemporary art, there is an underlying sense of loss, resignation, sadness, anger, and defiance that emerges through an artistic critical gaze.

In an elegant curatorial decision, the show is hung to formally reflect the complexity of affixing a singular label—Maori, male, artist—to a subject. The exhibit initially appears to be organized according to themes of place, history, and nature, but the works appear in multiple sections reflecting the hyphenated identities of artists whose ethnic background and cultural experience are radically disparate. Deeply satirical, “Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief” (1996) by Michael Parekowhai plays on the self-conscious presentation. This sculptural installation is best encountered without further description, but its perceptual shift immediately calls into question cultural stereotypes. Parekowhai’s sculptures are simultaneously funny, sad, and embarrassing. This kind of both/and quality is indicative of the way many of the artists use painful and obvious clichés to expose Western stereotypes.

Lisa Reihana’s video installation is the inverse of Parekowhai’s sly intervention. Reihana’s large entryway of screens leading to a wall of flat panel monitors presents video reenactments of nineteenth-century Maori. The living subjects wear traditional dress and yet chat on cell phones in a way that expresses the burden of having to live in a present weighed down by colonial history. Mohini Chandra’s “Studio” (2003), another video installation, deals with her Fijian-Indian identity. In the static videos of a commercial photo studio, non-native Indians in Fiji pose for photos in traditional Indian settings. There is a profound sense of loss in the long gaps between the subjects. It is the emptiness and distance between the two monitors that position the viewer as an outsider looking in.

Shane Cotton’s sepia-toned paintings are probably the most plainly beautiful works in the exhibit and explore the intersection of Maori and Western culture through iconic symbols. “Faith” (1995) is divided into flag like bands, populated by lonely and isolated letters and symbols in surreal, stretched spaces. Cotton’s compartmentalized canvases appear like contested landscapes, divided by words and symbols that mark cultural divisions vis-à-vis language, property, and representation. Closely aligned with Cotton’s sensibility are John Pule’s lyrical canvases. The three large white paintings are composed of red clouds interwoven with vines and various small symbols including churches, crosses, and active figures and machines. Pule paints multiple cross-cultural references, from Christian missionary imagery to Jimi Hendrix song titles in “Tofua” (2002).

Still intimately personal, yet more overtly political themes are taken up in Niki Hastings-McFall’s sculptures “Nuclear Rosary Series – Black Rain III” (2003) and “Afio Mai Series” (2003). In the former, a rosary made of fluorescent plastic glows in the dark, referencing the twin legacies of nuclear testing and the introduction of Christianity into the Pacific Island cultures. In the latter series, the artist reprinted her European grandfather’s old photos of “paradise” and hung paper lei’s made from reprints of the photos over them. Part memorial, part critique, the works reference her multicultural background. Sofia Tekela-Smith’s large format, unframed photographs depict man wearing traditional ornaments in his mouth. In a simple, provocative gesture, the title of the photo “Savage Island Man with Pure” (2003) is hand written in pen across the bottom. Defiantly acknowledging the stereotype of the “savage,” noble or not, the title and the decision not to frame or mount the photographs become more than token gestures of resistance.

While a large portion of the show skillfully negotiates cliché and stereotype, the works of Ruth Watson, Peter Peryer, John Ioane, and Bill Hammond are perhaps so closely aligned with Western art practices that they lose the necessary critical edge. Watson’s tear-shaped sculptures in “Oceanography” (2004) are beautiful “maps,” but are too close to abstraction to convey a sense of politicized geography. Peryer’s photos are handsome black-and-white images, but again there is little to distinguish them from documentary. “Dead Steer” (1987) captures something of the experience of the real behind representations of paradise.

Alternately, Ken Thaiday’s and Michel Tuffery’s work doesn’t disengage enough from the clichés of “outsider” or “primitive” art. Thaiday’s headpieces of animals and boats are apparently meant for performances, which might have given them a more complete representation. Tuffery’s animals made are also part of a larger performance based series, placing too much emphasis on the materials and forms, making them feel conceptually slight.

Downwind Productions, a collaborative project between art historian Andrea Feeser and artist Gaye Chan, presents “Historic Waikiki” (2001-04), an informative piece of socio-economic and cultural criticism. But its hypertext-based presentation is prohibitively long for a gallery kiosk. As an art piece it suffers from its lack of immediacy, which the souvenir station aims to bring. Perhaps an intervention elsewhere in the museum itself might have added to the impact of the work. Unfortunately, Denise Tiavouane’s mechanical installation of dancing palm trees was not swaying at the time of this review, making it appear far more decorative than it should have been outside the gallery. But Parekowhai’s use of the rest of the museum to house his “KapaHaka” (2003), rather generic looking Maori security guards, seemed exceedingly appropriate.

Paradise Now? ultimately presents a conscious reminder of why postmodern strategies are important in engaging the cultural narratives that construct identity. Through explorations of the exotic Other that “Pacific” represents in Western culture to ironic treatments of lasting effects of colonialism, the artists’ balance strident criticism with the feeling and pathos that expresses their own cultural experiences, not imposed clichés or stereotypes.

Learn more about Paradise Now here.


William Powhida


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2004

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