History, the sky, and the street: three new commissions for Mason’s Screen

Installation Shot: Across the face of the moon (2020) Rangituhia Hollis. Commissioned by CIRCUIT and Wellington City Council for Masons Screen

The three new video art commissions for the screen in Mason’s Lane, a busy pedestrian staircase in Wellington’s CBD, resist any unifying theme or aesthetic. However, taking Aotearoa’s history, the sky, and the street as their respective materials, the works each reinterpret collective, shared experience and make it personal.

Rachel O’Neill’s work Not my Autobiography? (2019) was first up in the trio of new commissions. When I fossicked around in the archive of O’Neill’s work as research for this piece I quickly uncovered some of my former selves, as O’Neill and I are friends. Over the years we have worked together on exhibitions, publications, and events, so to make a claim to objectivity in relation to O’Neill’s work is a writerly feint. In fact, to refer to the artist as 'O’Neill' feels like an awkward required convention of semi-formal art writing. Better, perhaps, to refer to them as “Rachel O”, as the artist does in Not my Autobiography?. Rachel O’s work is driven by a specific and challenging kaupapa, as elucidated on their website, “I am a Pākehā storyteller. My practice responds to a challenge that esteemed filmmaker Merata Mita laid down to Pākehā filmmakers, which was to get our noses out of Māori images and look instead at our own culture. In response to her wero, a big part of my kaupapa as a storyteller is to answer, what is a Pākehā image?”

In Not my Autobiography? Rachel O is contacted by Detective Rex of the Organised Identity Unit with regards to a spate of underground fires in the East Waikato and to alert her that an 'entity' has claimed her autobiography and is spreading malicious rumours about her via a film screening at a suburban mall in Hamilton. Convoluted, yes, perhaps, but the opening dialogue lays out the work’s central thesis: “Would it not be strange in a country of almost five million people if one individual autobiography were never to stray from the path of the individual to whom it exclusively belongs?” Not my autobiography? plays up the idea that a person’s identity, their autobiography, can be transferred, rewritten, and run amuck with.

The funny dialogue that plays out between Rachel O and Detective Rex accompanies cut and paste montages sliced from magazines—a little bit Kerry Ann Lee (think, Pip Adam’s The New Animals book cover), and a little bit Hannah Höch (manipulated faces, enlarged eyes, and skewed perspective). Though static, these images are traversed by the camera, overlaid with filters and animated in a way that gives them a cinematic energy that is often funny and lo-fi. Rachel O cleverly plays with the beats of the dialogue and the interplay between the two interlocutors; Rachel O is blunt and answers the detective’s enquiries with a nonchalant Kiwi-accent-inflected, “Yup”, and Detective Rex flashes onto the screen with a Burt Reynolds-style moustache.

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Not my Autobiography? (2019) Rachel O'Neill. Commissioned by CIRCUIT and Wellington City Council for Masons Screen

This droll wit is characteristic of Rachel O’s work, which extends across many disciplines—visual art, writing, and filmmaking—and frequently reimagines pop culture as funny but vaguely disquieting—this is perhaps part of her answer to Mita’s wero. Her volume of poetry, One Human in Height (2013), is illustrated with a series of drawings entitled ‘Love Letters to Barbara Cartland’. What interest would Barbara Cartland, famed ermine-clad romance writer, able to dictate 7000 words of a novel in one afternoon, have in an upside down astronaut, or a flailing parachute, the reader might wonder? But there’s something funny in the idea of Cartland, someone who trades in the translation of love into words, receiving love letters herself. Would she admire the prose? Would she search the text longingly for the stereotypes that she so extensively promulgated?

In Not my Autobiography? Rachel O explains to Detective Rex that the underground fires he is investigating are a “legacy of colonisation”, as after the Crown’s confiscation of Māori land in the Waikato the wetlands were drained for farming and now “decomposing tree roots in peat can spontaneously combust”. The work’s underpinning concern with the transience of identity and the permeability of biography are on going concerns for a postcolonial society such as Aotearoa, and also chime with a moment when the signifiers of gender and racial identity are being remade and rethought. As a Pākehā, and in response to Mita’s challenge, Rachel O sees themself as complicit in the ongoing effects of colonialism, as manifested in the underground fires smouldering in the East Waikato, near where they grew up. Not my Autobiography? is the first in a series of short films called The Subterranean Hotel and it will be interesting to see how Rachel O, with her absurdist blend of humour and history, further pursues the question: Can somebody be cut out (like the montages Rachel O creates) and removed from their personal and collective inheritance?

Entirely different in tone and aesthetic, but similarly interested in the legacies of colonialism, Rangituhia Hollis’s contemplative silent video work Across the Face of the Moon (2019) followed Rachel O’s on Mason’s Screen. Hollis, who is a multimedia artist and creates work for a diverse array of formats and environments, is interested in the conflation of the old and the new and how digital technologies can unpick a colonial inheritance. Quoted in the exhibition information for the 2015 St Paul Street exhibition, Since 1984 – He aha te ahurea-rua?, Hollis asks, “I have questions regarding speaking of newness, in the context of a burgeoning digital future. Will the new frontier [of the virtual] continue to co-opt the narratives of old colonial visions? Or could decolonised spaces develop in response to all of this colonial sameness, in order to address and ameliorate such anxieties? And what form could they take?”

Like Rachel O, writing is an important component of Hollis’s practice and Across the Face of the Moon is structured around text that is extracted from a longer prose poem/short story that you can read on Hollis’s website. Hollis’s writing is meditative and introspective and seems to follow a protagonist in a series of quotidian events: exploring a city, taking care of their son, getting up in the morning and making a cup of coffee. The piece includes an evocative passage describing the experience of being a young child sitting in the back of a car at night: “I’ve been watching power lines out the window for a while. They follow the road, but seem to follow the car too. They look like guitar strings being strummed. Cartoon like though, and drawn by a hand I can’t quite see in the distance. Quickly drawn changes, between four strings, five, down to one or two. Rising up, above the window. Flicking past like an old film.”

Te marama looms over Hollis’s writing and the resulting video work. Or rather, te marama appears to be the thread that weaves through Hollis’s thinking and making; the moon follows a car through the night; considers the Earth from a distance, and sends out a karanga to someone observing from below. Across the Face of the Moon knits together huge arcs of time—time measured in incomprehensible mind-bending things like moons and galaxies and eons and the distance between stars—with observances on a smaller scale: a couple contemplating their journey as parents to their young son.

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Across the face of the moon (excerpt) (2020) Rangituhia Hollis. Commissioned by CIRCUIT and Wellington City Council for Masons Screen.

I am using equivocal terms—“seems to”, “appears too”—in discussing Hollis’s work because I am aware that in Across the Face of Moon the artist will be drawing on elements of te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori that I have no knowledge of—I acknowledge the limitations of my writing as a Pākehā viewer. Regardless, Across the Face of the Moon remains an entrancing and beautiful work; the steady lilt of the poetic text and the central animation of a somber face (Hollis?) receiving and projecting thoughts, are mesmerising. The final animation is enigmatic: half a figure, a train platform, a train slowly arrives and departs. What could this mean? Arrivals and departures? The slow, repetitive drip of time passing, as exemplified by the monotony of public transport? I am happy to sit with not knowing.

The final work of the new commissions to screen was those who go quickly (2020) by Max Fleury and Bena Jackson. Taking its cue from the specificity of Mason’s Screen’s location in Wellington’s CBD, this work picks up on a new element of the city’s environment: the Flamingo electric scooters that now ferry citizens from a to b. The benefits and disadvantages of electric scooters in several of Aotearoa’s cities has been much discussed in mainstream media, as city councils and central government scramble to figure out the regulatory and safety codes needed to integrate the scooters effectively into their transport ecosystems. Fleury’s and Jackson’s work eschews these bureaucratic concerns and instead wonders whether the scooters can be repurposed in more inventive, personal ways, or even become objects of whimsy.

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One who goes quickly (excerpt) (2020) Max Fleury and Bena Jackson. Commissioned by CIRCUIT and Wellington City Council for Masons Screen

In the video, a scooter is adorned with foraged roadside parsley, pimped with a DIY cup holder, used as a small table for strawberries and to juice an orange, and attached to a piece of chalk so that its path can be traced onto the forecourt of an empty former petrol station. In all of these new roles, the scooter is only mildly effective; it’s not a particularly good table, its cup holder is a bit shonky, and its wreath of parsley looks like it will quickly disintegrate as the scooter picks up speed. If Jackson and Fleury are proposing Duchampian “new thoughts” for the scooter, they’re not especially practical ones; the potential for failure is accepted as a necessary part of their investigations.

In the final scene, a scooter sits proudly on the waterfront against a typical grey Wellington sky of rapidly moving clouds; the cardigan that is arranged over its handlebars flaps erratically in the wind. Much of the mainstream rhetoric around the introduction of the electric scooters has been combative. Some people have taken their introduction as a personal affront, as is often the case when alternatives to the individualistic car-centric model of contemporary cities are proposed. See, for example, this footage of an angry man throwing a scooter onto a traffic island. The final shot of those who go quickly enfolds and laughs at the intensity of this rhetoric and inverts the practical considerations necessary for the scooters’ introduction into civic life. The scooter is given a funny grandiosity in this final shot; set against the brooding, sublime sky, the wind in its hair, the scooter calmly takes stock of its new urban territory—part monument, part satire, and unapologetically part nuisance.

- Thomasin Sleigh