Imagine, if you will, Masons Lane between The Terrace and Lambton Quay before the city. Before 1855 and the most powerful earthquake to be felt in Aotearoa by colonials, causing major uplift of land in the Wellington CBD. A steep goat track up a cliff.
It’s early February 2021 and I walk along the waterfront with artist Angela Kilford. This walking is her practice. It began with waiata "Ka huri atu au," composed recently by Kurt Komene. As we trace the water the sound acknowledges the harbour, its surrounding coastline, and, to our backs, the major landmarks of pre-colonial Wellington. The walk connects us back to a string of pā sites by streams—Te Aro, Kumutoto and Pipitea. Out on the waterfront’s wharves Angela notes that once upon a time to stand here would be to bob in the ocean, looking back to a cliff face at what is now Willis Street and Lambton Quay. From there, you’d find places to hop from rock to rock and form paths upwards to move around the shoreline. Directing us to Matairangi (Mount Victoria) Kilford helps us see an impressive waterfall that was said to fall into the harbour there, capturing colour in its spray. Who needed public art?
Today the architecture is concrete. Masons Lane has an impressive steep Escher twist of a staircase, with an abundant native plant wall (installed as part of the council’s 2015 urban redesign which gave us Masons Screen) as a broach to remind us of what once was. Idly I’ve often imagined the effect of buckets of marbles spilt down these steps, like the Jaffa sweets I remember rolling down old wooden cinema floors as a child. Thanks to Kilford I now imagine clay and harakeke.
“I had to climb hills with unreasonable gradients,” commented Layne Waerea to CIRCUIT Director Mark Williams on her work planting kūmara slips (or shoots) in preparation for Masons Screen commission Uninvited Visitor (2020). That’s gardening in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara for you. In the work a kūmara bounces down a range of steep public steps that look familiar from the hilly terrain behind the city. This bouncing of kūmara might once have been a familiar lamentable yet comical issue for Māori harvesters. I think of buying a kūmara at the New World to bounce down the Mason Lane steps.
In the video Waerea trowels compost into the earth on a windy site, making a heap before cutting a line along its back to plant the pretty young slips. There must have been something in the air this past year: over the same summer Hōhua Thompson has been growing kūmara under lights inside the Dowse Art Museum (originally planned for Britomart during the 2020 Auckland Art Fair) and Te Papa is growing them in tyres on their rooftop terrace as part of the Wana Ake festival. Stressful for the plants I thought, Waerea uses video to highlight the way to do it right.
Noticeable in the video is the abundance of the aggressive European weed ground cover known as "Wandering Jew", or sometimes here "Wandering Willie" (Tradescantia), which is said to have made it harder to keep Māori gardens tidy.(1) Unlike elsewhere in the Pacific, kūmara were a principal root crop for Māori, yet as Waerea notes, the kūmara are not indigenous, they were brought here by early Māori. Yet the plot thickens: the bouncing kūmara we see in this video are not those grown back then (which were no bigger in size than a finger). They are the familiar large bulbous kūmara, largely grown in Northland, that came to New Zealand from America in the 1850s.
Which brings us to Layne’s title. So, who is the uninvited visitor? The kūmara? The colonial settler? Or Waerea herself? All of the above it seems. The work gently touches on the complexity of origin.
Layne notes her title was in part inspired by the fact that she (Ngāti Wāhiao, Ngāti Kahungunu) tried to belatedly make contact with mana whenua during the creation of the work but never achieved it. She’s conscious this isn’t her landscape, and that she also has whakapapa with some of the earliest colonial settlers in Northland (1817), home now of this immigrant kūmara. The location of Waerea’s kūmara patch is unclear, her planting is done in the presence of a dog with no discernible tikanga being observed, unless the bouncing kūmara might count.
Uninvited Visitor is also a playful response to the discussion begun in 2020 over colonial monuments. It bounces kūmara down a path, as others might draw a line, to open out discussion about how we memorialise the past. Hōhua Thompson like Waerea is Te Arawa, his plantings looking to acknowledge their tribal canoe traditions that “explain that the kūmara was saved by the tupuna Whakaotirangi during the migration from Hawaiki when other plants were lost.”(2) The growing of kūmara in a public art space then is a form of memorialisation. Video becomes a way of creating memorials out of performative acts.
The site of Kumutoto pa, its kainga and garden beds, are a mere 100 metres along the cliff from Masons Lane. Now, like Kumutoto stream, they are buried, the Wellington Club settled on the ground in its place. Treasury officials now duck down Mason’s steps to lunch on the more generous quay.
The uninvited visitors might be those bulky Victorian plinths with their erect figurative monuments, sitting at odds architecturally with the surrounding hills. Yet Wellington does pride itself on some more recent indigenous architecture from ‘60s and ’70s mavericks, like Ian Athfield, John Scott and Roger Walker. As kāinga, most famous is the late Athfield’s own home—a veritable village cascading down an even steeper hillside in Khandallah above the harbour. While it might resemble some modernist space-age extension of a Greek mountainside village, paying ode to the stormwater culvert pipe, in its theatrical play outside the cube Athfield’s work totally subverts our colonial traditions. There’s even a comedic play with form down the hillside in line with the knobbly kūmara’s downhill bounce, but one making reference to natural forms—think of the way a stream might navigate a channel down a slope through large rocks.
The bodily sense of movement in Athfield’s complexes welcome us to, in our imaginations, shift our own form in new ways. This clearly inspires Annie Bradley’s The Sea in Us (2021) a title noting our profound connection to water through our very constitution and like Waerea’s work using movement in response to the environment. The dance captured in this video, on a rooftop of the Athfield house, is choreographed and performed by Auckland contemporary dancer Solomon Holly-Massey. Dressed in denim, white t-shirt and sneakers, Holly-Massey’s relaxed everyday approach pays homage to Athfield’s own casual approach to public life; a wish to break down some of hierarchies around architecture and public performance. Athfield actively presents areas like roofs, skylights and other elements as both living space and play space, an attitude to which Bradley and Holly-Massey’s work duly responds.
Holly-Massey explores the potential play circuits provided as surfaces to carefully touch off, again as if to memorialise: portholes, slopes, and differing levels. He stands sentinel facing the big blue harbour, just as Kilford had earlier, body shifting in the wind with an unpretentious posture and gait, standing with and then walking the roofline.
In the work’s ease and beautiful framing there’s a comic deadpan edge that reminds me of a Buster Keaton film. Keaton’s gags were often silent plays of exertion in conversation with architecture and machinery. He never did the same thing twice, and played with the visual tricks of depth and perception found within the flat world created by the camera frame.
In The Sea in Us, Bradley enjoys the elegant shapes and generous spaces afforded by Athfield’s architecture and the interpretive movement of the dancer. The camera relishes the interesting angles offset to the frame that Athfield’s white architecture makes, challenging the white cube. Holly-Massey accentuates these surfaces through full-body touch—rolling and sliding over the sunbaked surfaces—exploring how he might turn upside down or cradle sideways to test his body’s potential against gravity, echoing Athfield’s bend with straight up-and-down convention.
Bradley returns him to the same frames as if in a loop, and each time Holly-Massey positions his body slightly differently to further test out the space. At the same time, the scope of the work is limited to one roof and space; might Athfield’s building and Holly-Massey’s choreography offer a less contained and more multifaceted opportunity for exploration? Nevertheless, as a dance with architecture, it’s beautifully reflective yet apposite to the movement we make on the Mason’s Lane steps, with the pleasure their twist and scale provides the pedestrian body on a recurring basis.
We speak of communing with nature, not architecture as Bradley’s work does. The pockets of nature we preserve in a city can hold a spiritual dimension. But we appear, at least presently, to have turned our backs on modernism’s reach to provide public sculpture that might also spiritually recharge us. I’m thinking of this when considering Theo Macdonald’s use of nature and signage in a play on reflective space in Waterfall Confessional (2020). The way it nicely subverts that moment offered by Masons Screen on a dark, partly enclosed landing to have a moment to stop, take breath and muse before scuttling onwards.
Yet this waterfall immediately makes me want to go to the toilet. Its industrial-grade volume of cascading water, the luxuriousness of its new-age video sublimity (accompanied by a gurgling electro-acoustic water soundtrack the measure of a Douglas Lilburn sound experiment), is itself undercut by the grotesque advertorial banality of the deeply personal confessions offered up by text across the waterfall pictured on screen. “My stomach reopened after five years of nicotine,” runs the narrative, before noting “I no longer have the moral certainty of vegetarianism.”
The effect is tragi-comic, inspired in part, Macdonald says, by the deadpan truth parables of US humorist Jack Handey and his surrealist philosophical musings "Deep Thoughts", which on American late-night TV show "Saturday Night Live" were accompanied by easy listening music and stock scenes of nature familiar from cheesy relaxation videos.
For sure, humour is used to confront the snake oil peddling of religion with its confessional box, but those priests are old school preachers. More in focus in an urban setting is the advertising of salves to your daily commuter life through services that promote attachment to the natural, organic and ethical, and, even more strongly evoked by Macdonald’s script is the insidiousness of the confessional nature of much of our social media interaction online; as if we are doing everyone a favour by opening our wounds and announcing what experience cured them.
“Confession obliges individuals to convert unnameable emotions into tangible discourse, and to publicly embrace this discourse,” writes Macdonald in his notes for this work. “Online, confession is definitive. Epiphany memes (“What you need to know about ____”) generate social capital while lifestyle bloggers seek absolution by externalising their daily minutiae. Looking back to the Catholic confessional presents three ideas: Confession begets liberation, confession is a cycle, and we are all guilty.”
At the end of Catholic confession you are offered absolution but the personal guilt remains. Responsibility—the one thing the individual right now needs to embrace in the Covid high capitalist era—is not necessarily encouraged. Instead, just keep scrolling.
In the second half of Waterfall Confessional Macdonald offers us shots of various big fat spinning disc-shaped signs, advertising the likes of an "I-Hop Restaurant" and the "Guinness World Records." I’m reminded of the round unleavened bread you are offered at confession representing the body of Christ. On screen an elephant sculpture spins on a disco ball set against a soundtrack of fat cheesy keyboards and the mumbled oh-so-serious words of an American artist, describing the process behind his work. All becomes fatuous, debased by the self-importance of human cults and entrenched global-branded economies.
I’m left imagining what wonder of nature might be engineered by a disrupted stormwater pipe on The Terrace turning these steps into a waterfall. In Waterfall Confessional your psychic engagement with a perilous height is made sublime by the camera angle at the waterfall’s edge but you are left fearful, as if facing God. While Holly-Massey stands on a ledge high above the harbour, here one’s consciousness is heightened of just how treacherously steep the descent down Masons steps is. Based on Macdonald’s sentiments, a descent into purgatory with the public service money changers seems inevitable. Your only hope, letting nature take back some of what we’ve buried.