Monday, July 28, 2014

Making the past strange: Justine Fletcher's '607'



It begins with a list of 607 names, and you might not know who they are and what it means. So perhaps the point of the exercise is how to restore that meaning. Because each one of the names, taken individually, may mean a variety of different things, but taken all together, they only mean one. Something the women to which those names belong all took part in, one after the other, over the course of some weeks in 1893.




Justine’s exhibition opened at Aratoi in Masterton ten days ago, but before then the pieces – 607 cast pendants, each named after one of the Wairarapa women who signed the Suffrage Petition delivered to Parliament on 28 July, 1893 – had been on display in the four local districts in which the signatures had been gathered: some at the Greytown Town Centre, some at a cafè in Masterton, some the Memorial Hall at Eketahuna, and some at the West Taratahi Hall.


I was especially fond of the last installation, which involved forty or so pieces hung in the window of what had once been the local primary school, and is now a community space run by a private trust. The grounds have been converted into a paddock for sheep, and the small shelter under which the local children would have played on rainy days has become theirs. It’s one of those special little New Zealand places in which history speaks as wry understatement. Justine took some pictures inside.



The installations, and the pieces themselves, condensed and made visible again a social event whose effects are concrete and lasting, yet difficult to apprehend. Nowadays the vote for women is something that exists, a right that we have. But to acknowledge how it came about at the time that it did is not simply a ‘celebration’. The symbolic connections are more complex than is accounted for in that word, the tendrils that reach back in time more intricate.

Speaking the names of people who once lived is always a fraught act. This is why the power of memorials is immediately and near-universally understood. There will be descendants, for one thing. There will be questions you didn’t anticipate or prepare for. Justine found this: people reacting in ways and with an intensity that she didn’t expect. But even I – who had scant knowledge of the history and the places and none of the people, outside of what she told me – was touched by the experience of travelling from one location to the other in search of those pieces and of what they signified. It’s not always we get an opportunity to connect geography with history in that particular manner, as a form of play. It caused me to redraw my inner geography of the region.


I love this photo that Geoff Walker took at Aratoi, unstaged, of women’s hands lifting the pendants, touching them. I also love that Justine and I came through completely different routes and mediums to grapple with roughly the same set of concerns – with memory, politics and the social transmission of history. It was exciting to see this project of hers take shape. I hope she’ll get more opportunities like this one.


The work of memory consists sometimes in making the past strange in order to reveal it. A list of names, in and of itself, is a very opaque thing. But if you assign each name to an object, and then display those objects according to an explicit design, then the list will become a kind of performance and the past, made strange, will make itself known in a way that is new, or different, or unexpected.

Before having to hurry back to Italy, I had been planning to write about Paul Janman and Scott Hamilton’s Great South Road geocaching project, which is quite differently structured but I find similarly inspiring. A parallel of yet another kind comes for me in the permanent and temporary displays at Foxton, a town that is constantly – and problematically – at play with its own history. But of course, in this colonised land, history can never be anything but a problem, and our lessons need to be lessons not in how to read it more simply, but again, and differently. That remembering is always an act of reinvention is one of those things that art needs to teach us from time to time.



‘607’ by Justine Fletcher will be at Aratoi in Materton until August 4.

All the photos in black and white are by Geoff Walker, the ones in colour by Justine.

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