A 24-hour public screen for artists’ video, Masons Screen has been operating for the past eight years in a shady alleyway in downtown Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, nestled between the government and business hot-spots of Lambton Quay and The Terrace. The three new moving image commissions for 2024—by The Observatory Project, Jake Kīanō Skinner and Noel Meek, and Robyn Jordaan—are distinct but share a number of similarities: each work engages with past narratives, features rocks or stones, and includes moments of creative collaboration. Viewed in the context of Aotearoa’s political centre, they trigger thoughts about embedded colonial systems of control, bicultural relationships with whenua, and the value of the creative arts as a means of processing complex, often traumatic issues. In doing so, each work highlights the potential contribution that public art can make to contemporary political discourse, as well as the inevitably contested nature of such sites.

The Observatory Project, Non-standard Measures (2024)

The Observatory Project is a collaborative endeavour established by Ziggy Lever and Eamon Edmondson-Wells that is inspired by overlaps between the artistic and scientific worlds. The skill of observation is, of course, fundamental to both fields. The project works with an expanded notion of ‘The Observatory’ (beyond its typical astronomic application) to consider how sites of observation can be recontextualised in an artistic environment. The creation and identification of new types of observatories is stated as a primary aim, and the collective have thus far identified a range of spaces ripe for potential investigation, spanning optical, social, non-physical, site-specific, and subjective spheres. This approach is demonstrated in a series of works from 2019 that show a small group of people, some in hi-vis hard hats, wandering around various sites performing ‘interferometry’—detecting invisible, but audible, waves using a hand-held aerial.

People in hi-vis hard hats make observations from a 30m radio anntenna

The Observatory Project, Super-tangential interferometry, IRASR, 20190131 (2019)

In their new work, Non-standard Measures (2024), Lever and Edmondson-Wells  visit a series of official public markers in Paris and London that display officially-determined measurement standards from the eighteenth  and nineteenth centuries, taking reference copies using a blank tape measure. Non-standard Measures follows the format of their earlier works, documenting a moment of serious, scientific-style field research, but here the focus is more tangible. The work is divided into three scenes, each displaying a static shot of official metric or imperial units of length. In each of the three, a performer appears onscreen holding a blank tape measure, which is extended alongside the given unit of length. A second performer appears and inscribes, in black permanent marker, the official measurement on a blank tape measure before stepping away. The tape measure bends and drops down, in that accidental and annoying way that they do, but the performers right it, and allow the camera to view the text just long enough for us to read the inscription, before departing. We are left with the same static opening shot that began the sequence.

The first two scenes are set in Paris, and each focus on a carved marble feature embedded in a block wall and inscribed with the word ‘MÈTRE’ in a classical Roman-style serif font. Beneath the inscription, a set of lines have been carved between two markers that bookend a ruled length divided into ten unit divisions, the last of which is again divided by ten. The sound of an urban centre can be heard in the background: buses, a motorbike, wheels on sealed road, footsteps, chatter, and the booming bass of a car stereo.

Two men hold up a tape measure to the base of a column on a public edifice in the Place Vendôme, Paris, that reads 'mètre'.

The Observatory Project, Non-standard Measures (2023)

These  artefacts are the last surviving examples of the sixteen original standard metres (Mètre Étalon), installed in Paris by marble worker Corbel to the design of architect Chalgrin in the late nineteenth century. The first dates from 1791, just ahead of the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars and abolition of the monarchy, and the second from around 1799. They are relics from the early days of the establishment of the metric system, and represent a cultural shift in France away from imperially-decreed measures to a new scientific empiricism: a decimal measurement system derived from earth distances (one metre equated to one ten-millionth of an arc from the North Pole to the Equator). It is interesting to note that the nineteenth century definition of a metre has been refined and modified several times, with the current (2019) definition based on the length travelled by light in a vacuum during a prescribed time interval: a level of precision that implies scientific rigour, but is difficult for the general public to verify.

The third scene focuses on a comparable site across the English Channel, outside the Greenwich Observatory, where a heavy-looking iron plaque bolted to a brick wall displays a range of Imperial ‘Public Standards of Length’: a ‘British Yard’, ‘Two Feet’, ‘One Foot’, and other less legible measures. We hear a bird tweeting and a distant aircraft. An information panel provides context: "These British Imperial Standards were first mounted outside the Observatory main gates in January 1869 to enable the public to check measures of length." In the artists’ words: "Before standardisation, many villages had a local foot, yard, and inch that differed slightly from those installed in Greenwich. [...] A condition of the Prime Meridian being established in Greenwich in 1884 (instead of Paris) was that the UK adopted the metre and metric system. This shift wouldn’t happen until 1960, and imperial measures are still used in many aspects of life in the UK."(1) By visiting these sites and taking their own hand measurements for reference, the artists reenact a performance that would have been undertaken by numerous members of the public in previous millennia. While there is an element of absurdity to this, the act of duplicating the measures also serves to re-validate them, reminding us of alternative approaches to systems that are now ubiquitous.

An imperial ‘Public Standard of Length’ outside the Greenwich Observatory in London

The Observatory Project, Non-standard Measures (2024)

Sited in Mason’s Lane, the piece raises questions about Aotearoa’s own standards of measurement. As a British colony, New Zealand used the imperial measurement system for many years, but largely shifted to metric in the 1970s in an act that served to distance it from its colonial past, and open up new trade potential. Standards are terribly useful, after all, enabling transnational collaboration for example, but they can also be used as forms of control—a means of rewarding those who conform to an officially-determined system, and alienating those who don’t. The ability to control technological standards can be a very powerful and profitable position, particularly when market domination is up for grabs. In this country, the development and promotion of national and regional standards, and the adoption and modification of international standards, is managed by Standards New Zealand, a business unit within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Their offices are on Stout Street, a stone’s throw from Mason’s Lane.

Jake Kīanō Skinner and Noel Meek, Rua Kōhatu | Two Stones (2024)

Jake Kīanō Skinner (Ngāti Rangitihi, Tūhoe) and Noel Meek (Pākehā) are both based in Ōtautahi Christchurch. Kīanō Skinner is a multi-instrumentalist who works with Taonga Pūoro and carries an interest in soundscape, while Meek is a musician, composer and video artist who explores  meeting points between the non-human world and te ao Māori. In Rua Kōhatu | Two Stones (2024), Kīanō Skinner and Noel Meek elicit a range of sounds from stones in a series of vignettes set to the backdrop of Ngā Kohatu Whakarakaraka o Tamatea Pōkai Whenua, Ōtautahi Christchurch’s Port Hills, juxtaposed with text from the poem 'Thoughts On A Sufi Proverb' by Hone Tuwhare.

Several of Meek’s past works provide useful background for considering this second commission. In the 2021 series, Ngākawau Kōrero, Meek plays experimental sounds to a set of found object protagonists located at sites of environmental significance in the Buller District. Framed as ‘kōrero’, Meek ‘converses’ with a stone about tourism; a piece of iron about climate change; a mamaku (black tree fern) about river health; and Ngākawau River about energy production. Meek grew up in the region; as a descendent of both coal miners and engaged environmentalists, he acknowledges the tension of his heritage in the face of climate change. More recently, Awa Orotau: River Attunement (2023), captures a group of performers (including Kīanō Skinner) interacting with the Pigeon Bay stream on Horomaka / Banks Peninsula at Hays Reserve, producing experimental noise with a variety of objects both found at, and brought to, the site. Again, this piece is underpinned by environmental concerns and asks how the act of engaging with water—being kōpūwai (watery)—can help us navigate a time of hydrological crisis. It is worth noting that the stream has maintained a level of cleanliness due to remnant old growth forest preserved by Pākehā landowners, and Meek sought Mātauranga Māori advice on the work.

A group of performers interacting with the Pigeon Bay stream on Horomaka Banks Peninsula at Hays Reserve, producing experimental noise

Noel Meek, Awa Orotau: River Attunement (2023)

Rua Kōhatu | Two Stones seems a natural progression from this work, enabling the pair to work together once again, drawn together by their shared interest in stone, which is used as an instrument in both taonga pūoro and experimental music traditions. The video is formatted as a split screen that displays two scenes simultaneously. Both feature a close-up of a pair of hands holding two stones and making playful sounds with them. Boulders can be seen in the backgrounds of some shots, framed by a hilly, grassy landscape, blue skies and wispy clouds.

In one frame, the sound-maker holds a flat stone, and gently draws circles, spirals, and straight lines on its surface with another stone. The sound is undulating, soft, gentle. In another, two smaller, soft-edged rocks are tapped together making a quick, chattering, rhythm that complements the steady noise of the other frame, and echoes the sparrows that can be heard chirping in the background. Cutting to a black silence, words appear in a white serif font: "I want to become stone again." This is the opening call of Tuwhare’s poem, which continues to be revealed, line by line, as the video progresses. The hands and stones reappear in new hilly locations, with a body of water visible in the background of one scene. A wide range of improvisational sounds are made: taps and scribbles, grasping the rocks to affect a muted tone, gallops and trots. One flat piece of stone builds up a layer of marks, wearing the results of the percussive action, while another is struck to make a surprising bell noise.

A split screen each showing two hands bringing together two rocks, against a grassy background

Jake Kīano Skinner and Noel Meek, Two Stones | Rua Kōhatu (2024)

The stones seem to be giving voice to the landscape—recalling Meek’s earlier conversations with the environment—in a collaboration that highlights the artists’ concern for constructive, bicultural relationships. From the perspective of the anthropocene, the work conveys a desire to communicate with, or give voice to, nature at a time when the environmental issues facing humanity seem insurmountable. Tuwhare’s poem is layered throughout the work like strata, evoking the deep layers of history embedded in the whenua of Aotearoa. In it, we are given visions of the dark side of the moon, and the erosion of rock, crumbling to sand and eventually ancestral dust: a deep time that eclipses the span of human existence.

Seen in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s political quarter, Rua Kōhatu | Two Stones brings to mind current bicultural conversations about the control of the whenua of Aotearoa New Zealand. This author wonders what te rua kōtahu might have to say about the concerning Treaty Principles Bill proposed by the ACT party, which seeks to erase established understandings of Te Tiriti. Something seismic perhaps.

Robyn Jordaan, The Lady at the Pier (2024)

The final commission, Robyn Jordaan’s The Lady at the Pier (2024), is the most poetic and emotive of the three. Like Kīanō Skinner and Meek, Jordaan has also set her work in the Cantabrian landscape, but the focus of this piece is a personal one rather than an environmental-geological meditation. A filmmaker and choreographer based in Ōtautahi Christchurch, Jordaan experienced a major tragedy in her life when her Banks Peninsula home perished in a blaze.

Revisiting the site of this past trauma, the piece opens with a view of the artist, dressed in black and sitting on a concrete wall, vaping and gazing solemnly into the distance. The day is sunny and bright, the scene peaceful, idyllic, romantic. Cicadas and birds chirp in the background, a gentle breeze is evident; nature is creeping back over the concrete paving, leaning over the wall, and taking root in the corners of steps. Placed prominently in the scene is the façade of a miniature two-story house with white walls and a red roof. We see the protagonist and a companion engaging with the site: lying in the grass, looking at the sky, wandering, playing on a tree swing, embracing, interspersed with black-and-white close-ups of a lunar surface and the charred and smoking remains of a fire. The hills of the Otago Peninsula are visible in some shots, along with remnants of a suburban past: white garden chairs, a red door embedded in a bank, a rotary washing line.  A purple poppy, pressed for preservation, appears several times and eventually becomes a pair of poppies: a symbol perhaps, for the relationship between the two performers as close friends or lovers, bonded by their shared grief. The work’s soundtrack includes a honky tonk piano that modulates between minor and major keys, the odd mistake here and there creating a haunting, domestic atmosphere. A voiceover asks, "what do you see?" Responses include colours, the ghost of a house, landscape features, and the moon.

Two women lie in dry grass in hills and look up at the sky

Robyn Jordaan, The Lady at the Pier (2024)

The Lady at the Pier culminates in two decisive, and potentially cathartic acts. First, the duo sit and watch while the miniature house, now ablaze, buckles and collapses, recreating the past tragedy. Pain, loss, mourning, disbelief, and resignation are apparent in both their expressions, but there is also a sense of release. Lastly, the duo appears on a jetty, dangling their feet over the water. Leaving behind a book (Mary Oliver’s poetry collection, Devotions, from 2017), they push forward and leap into the water.

Two women watch a model house aflame amidst the ruins of a former structure

Robyn Jordaan, The Lady at the Pier (2024)

In a curious turn, Masons Screen was vandalised during the run of Jordaan’s piece—a first for the project. In a case of life imitating art, someone tried to burn a hole through the middle of the screen, leaving the work out of action and the screen requiring replacement. What kind of person would commit an act like this, and what was their motivation? Was it inspired by the artwork itself, or was it a random act of destruction fuelled by something more cliché like substances, strong emotions, or perhaps mental health issues? Considering the screen’s connection to the heart of Aotearoa New Zealand’s political centre, was it an act of protest, and—if so—towards what, or whom?

Vandalism is a well-known risk borne by artworks in public space, and at times the acts are driven by political agendas. In 2019, a Woodville resident took offence at a traditional-style Māori carving in the Manawatū, cutting off its penis. He was fined for emotional harm, but the deterrent wasn’t enough to discourage a similar act by an as-yet unidentified vandal in late-2023.(2) This time, a steel phallus was removed from a six-metre statue, ‘Whatonga', at the top of the Manawatū Gorge Tawa Loop Track in Te Āpiti. Local iwi Rangitāne were understandably disappointed by the cowardly and ignorant act (the sculpture represents a significant ancestor), but encouraged anyone with strong feelings about artworks to engage in progressive and educated discussions about their concerns.

Revisiting The Observatory Project’s proposition, perhaps all artworks in public space could be considered types of observatories, with the potential to detect and capture responses to politically and socially charged issues. The Rhodes Must Fall movement is a case in point, but any such action is futile unless it is underpinned by open and rigorous public discussion and debate. In this author’s opinion,  it is unlikely the vandalism of the Masons Screen was politically motivated, but the action could be a symptom of broader social concerns. Perhaps the vandal could have instead stopped and engaged with Jordaan’s work, and realised that creative, constructive acts are a far more effective way of dealing with personal issues. To quote Mary Oliver, "The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time."(3)

Robyn Jordaan’s The Lady at the Pier is playing at Masons Screen until 10 June 2024.

Dr Bronwyn Holloway-Smith is an artist, author, and Co-Director of Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand, a research initiative established to document, communicate, and save (where appropriate) the heritage of Aotearoa's twentieth century Public Art.

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