The potent symbolism of full-face motorbike helmets exploded into our collective consciousness with the Springboks tour of 1981. Documentary photographs show police in full riot gear facing off against helmeted protestors—those divisive battlelines having since been described as the moment when New Zealand lost its innocence; also the moment that the full-face motorbike helmet become forever associated with protest and activism.

Murray Hewitt is adept at mining the semiotic power of such symbols, evidenced by the use of motorbike helmets as a recurring motif in his work. Manifesting himself as a kind of helmeted super-agent provocateur, Hewitt has performed a number of lone, idiosyncratic rituals in which he continues to construct his personal inward journey, while at the same time to gently prick away at the nation’s conscience.

For the exhibition The secrets of their own hearts, Hewitt travelled to Te Urewera National Park and produced a body of work in response to the history and politics of the place. Te Urewera is a heavy, powerful site: transplanted into the gallery, it brings with it a pre-loaded darkness of unresolved conflicts. As I entered the gallery I could sense a weightiness of purpose, underpinned by historicity; clearly this was a show I would need to sit with for a while.

Hewitt’s work can often achieve a lighter touch but I observed that this work seems more earnest, as if he too were treading cautiously in this contested terrain. I’m aware that the performance I’m watching is an artist’s response to a specific site—but it’s not the original performance: it is a re-presentation that, while it stretches all the way to Te Urewera, is actually being viewed within the cultural framework of this art institution. So I start to wonder how the work might exist outside the gallery, for instance as a YouTube clip viewed at will on individuals’ computers without the ideological reference points of the art gallery. Or perhaps on a marae where the cultural reference points would undoubtedly undergo another huge shift. Or indeed how it may be interpreted by viewers once it is posted on the CIRCUIT website.

However, within the art gallery, Hewitt also manages to orchestrate a certain conversation between painting and performance whereby the archetypal New Zealand landscape is projected onto the flat, planar gallery walls. Indeed, according to David Joselit, "in its adherence to the planarity of the gallery wall, video projection is as much heir to the traditions of modernist painting as it is successor to closed-circuit video."(1) Thus, in many ways, this show is also a kind of moving document about painting. And perhaps it was sparked by the formal quality of the large video projections as much as the subject matter itself, but I kept thinking of this work as if it were a painting show.

Installation view of The Downfall of Light (2011) City Gallery Wellington (2012). Photo by Hamish McLaren

And so when Hewitt travelled to Te Urewera National Park for this project, he didn’t travel lightly. With him on the journey were a couple of art world heavyweights: Colin McCahon and Shane Cotton. On the edge of Lake Waikaremoana, a helmeted Hewitt performed a lone ritual in which he transplanted a potted plant—a young karaka tree. The pot was specially commissioned by Hewitt to resemble those in Cotton’s paintings that, in turn, paid homage to the Māori prophet and warrior Te Kooti and his struggles for ancestral land. To quote Robert Jahnke: "Land in pots, land in plots…signposted the alienation of mana Māori and Māori land. The pot plant emerged as a critical ideographic image encapsulating the notion of control afforded by the land contained and growth restrained."(2)

Installation view of Smoke rises around the silent sea (2011) at City Gallery Wellington (2012)

Hewitt’s performance piece is titled Smoke rises around the silent sea (2011-12) a play on the words of the kaumātua Tūtakangahau and, according to the artist, a reminder that Te Urewera is back on the political agenda. In the gallery, the video is projected large onto a gallery wall, so that Hewitt is almost life size. Near the beginning of the video, he stands with his back to the audience, blanket wrapped around his middle, motorbike helmet emblazoned with 'UDNRA', and with his right arm momentarily upraised—he could be bestowing an earnest Pentecostal blessing on the misty lake, or the upraised prayer of Te Kooti's followers, but then it abruptly changes to an activist’s clenched fist. And you can just pick up from his body movements that he’s singing, but you can’t hear it. The sound track mostly consists of noises recorded from the lakeside—but also something else dimly in the background: if you listen very closely, it’s the dislocated sound of a rugby crowd judiciously inserted into the sound track.

On the other side of the gallery is The Downfall of Light (2010) a video consisting of seven different projected waterfalls, also filmed in Te Urewera National Park. Desaturated of colour, these projections are slowed down and played in reverse so that the water flows upwards; the overall effect of the seven projections is visually luminous, painterly, sublime, historic—and there is a kind of gentle apocalyptic grace to the action of the water being sucked up, if there is such a thing. Hewitt cites McCahon’s Waterfall (1964-65) series and Stations of the Cross (1966) as reference points for this work. Significantly, McCahon likened the arc of falling water in his Waterfall paintings to "a fall of spiritual light illuminating the darkness of the human condition… a metaphor for the cleaving of evil by good."(3) And it struck me that this sentiment is what underpins this work, re-interpreted and re-presented in Hewitt’s seven waterfalls—the presence of McCahon and his particular brand of religion are almost palpable in Hewitt’s work, as is his strong empathy with Te Urewera and the Tuhoe people.(5) But one must tread carefully; McCahon casts a long shadow in New Zealand, and to invite the ghost of McCahon into your artwork is to unleash a force that can be difficult to contain.

Smoke rises around the silent sea Murray Hewitt

Indeed this body of work has the quality of an epic encounter between activism and art; and in many ways this show is a kind of moving document about painting. But it is also the documentation of a lone protest action on the edge of Lake Waikaremoana—which, in the process, reinforces the link between the artist(s) and the site(s). And by introducing a loaded site such as Te Urewera into the rarefied environs of this inner-city gallery, it is as if Hewitt asks us to reflect upon one man’s lone gesture, now removed from its original context and re-played within the privileged position of the institution. And through Hewitt’s compassionate gesture, it seems fitting to conclude with a quote from Brian Doherty;

"A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the context of ideas it changes and joins."(5)

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