Across the hall, they’re showing Ralph Hotere’s The flight of the godwit, a vast varnished painted board that use to greet international travellers at Auckland Airport. Standing alone in the enormous oblong room, it is stern and impressive yet you can see it has lost its original purpose. It was designed for a different space, and for differently flowing people.
Facing it, but in a different room, is another repurposed artwork: Chris Marker’s The Hollow Men.
The prelude in a series – which the aging Marker never completed – entitled Owls at Noon, this video essay plays in a loop out of eight contiguous LCD screens, like a much smaller, black and white, animated version of Godwit. The gallery bills it as a ‘powerfully emotional tribute to World War One’, and in so doing gives it a much narrower meaning than Marker intended, or the work has. But it will do, as our city prepares to host a new memorial park and all manner of re-evocations of the year Gallipoli happened.
A month ago and ahead of schedule they opened the ‘memorial underpass’, which is lined with poppies, and the people of Wellington walked through it, which they will never get to do again. Elsewhere in the city, figures of soldiers have started to pop up. Like this one, which I photographed badly today outside the southern fence of the Basin Reserve.
The young man in the picture is Norman Cummins, one of 10 Wellingtonians chosen – as part of a council-sponsored project called ‘Lest We Forget’ – to represent the roughly 100,000 New Zealanders who fought in the First World War. Cummins volunteered five days after New Zealand declared war against Germany and served twice: first he took part in the successful invasion of German Samoa, in 1914; then in October 1915 he left for Egypt, and from there to France. He died on the Somme in September 1915.
If poppies along a motorway underpass and posters of soldiers dotted around the city – plus whatever is in store for the memorial park to be unveiled next year – are the literal, pedestrian, face of the commemorations, Chris Marker’s Hollow Men stands in radical contrast. Hardly a tribute, the essay takes the form of a commentary of TS Eliot’s famous poem, interspersed with images that aren’t exclusively of soldiers, nor of war, nor of the war. Nonetheless death, destruction and ruin are its major themes, their flow running against that of memory, and Marker even attempts to make explicit the connections between Eliot’s lines and the Great War. Surely the ‘cactus land’ has to mean barbed wire strewn in between the trenches, he opines. Surely ‘the twinkle of a fading star’ must be a reference to a falling plane.
The Hollow Men plays on eight small LCD screens and in a continuous, 19-minute loop which makes it difficult to tell where it begins and ends. There are two channels, so that each second screen plays the same picture. There are words and images, and some of the images are digitally retouched so that they appear to be painted on wood or etched into stone. And there are not just men but also a gallery of women, as if to signify that the whole of society is a veteran of the great war and of the wars that followed. (Marker sees in Eliot’s premonitions of World War II, merely ‘eighty seasons’ after the first.)
The result is a mournful, uneasy meditation on the ruins of a culture that is only good at this, now: producing more ruins. It is not my intention to discount in advance the coming commemorations – much as the ‘WW100’ branding campaign makes me fear the worst – but Marker’s eschewing of exemplary individual lives in favour of the tortuous flow of social, collective time, is likely to provide a useful antithesis.
I wouldn’t ordinarily do this to the mother of my children – you try to be the segue from Chris Marker and Ralph Hotere – but this is also happening in Wellington, and it’s the last week, so I’ll say a couple of things about her latest.
‘1260’ follows on from the project that Justine did in the Wairarapa earlier this year, and is similarly structured as a collection of pieces symbolically connected to the local signatories of the suffrage petition of 1893 – all twelve hundred and sixty of them. The individual pieces –wich are moulded to reproduce or resemble common household objects found in contemporary homes – are arranged by suburb into hanging ‘chandeliers’. The chandeliers in turn are arranged in the exhibition space as a map of Wellington, therefore a visual representation of the distribution of those women. The names of the signatories are printed on wallpaper squares so that you could, ideally, connect each of them with each of the pieces, creating imaginary threads alongside the literal ones that keep the chandeliers and the pieces together.
It is a map on a scale that is social and political, an attempt to reimagine a campaign and its outcome in the same physical space it occurred. What does it mean for such an event to ‘take place’? What (and where) are the threads that tie us still to that idea, that universal suffrage would liberate us? But there is a common thread running through these exhibitions as well: in this age of memorials and commemorations we can use being reminded that nothing is yet to be written like the past.
Chris Marker’s Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men is on at the Wellington City Gallery until November 23, as is Ralph Hotere’s Godwit/Kuaka.
Justine Fletcher’s 1260, Sign for Change: Mapping the Suffrage Petition in Wellington is on at Toi Poneke, 61 Abel Smith Street, until October 18. Entry is free.