Last year, Te Papa museum exhibited one of my favourite Aotearoa artworks. It was part of a small show, with an understated title that did not capture its punch: Two Artists. Emily Karaka’s unabashed anti-colonial paintings about Bastion Point, and advancing Ngai Tai land claims hung alongside Shona Rapira Davies’ terracotta Nga Morehu. Nga Morehu must be one of the most powerful sculptures ever produced in New Zealand, and first exhibited at the City Gallery in a 1988 show called Whakamamae.

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Shona Davies, Nga Morehu, 1988. Photo: City Gallery Wellington

Nga Morehu means “the survivors”, and the sculpture depicts a women’s karanga. A girl child looks up to face a group of life-size wahine, strong, barefoot women who call out to her as they step along a woven flax mat, reference to their whakapapa. The women are the young girl’s tipuna, shaped and alive with love. Davies’ hands seem fresh off the clay she has lavished with care to leave them emphatic, stirring and solid.

The women’s mouths are open, chanting but silent, the black of te po because Davies hasn’t just indicated the mouths with an indentation; she has channelled out a passage of voice for each through their chests, into history and beyond, where these tipuna call from. Their aliveness makes the thick silence that envelops the group striking and chilling. Te reo Māori belongs after all, to a culture of flowing oratory.

These women though are inscribed all over with writing; words all over their bodies. Words like,

Maori girls are
easy fucks
dirty Maori
dirty Maori
unclean
ignorant

Words like,

But kia toa little one
you were born of
survivors little one

The paradox of a struggle against violence and silence is a hallmark of Davies’ work in Two Artists. In another piece, the words ENOUGH IS ENOUGH are carved from transparent Perspex to imitate a spraypaint scrawl, and hung from the wall, visible only from certain angles. Another series looks to have been produced by a girl closed off in her room, abandoned to her thoughts, which come to paper:

Say goodbye to your brother, he is going to a good home
All maori men beat up their wives
Your father is a maori
I am a maori

Her fierce compassion makes Davies a standout artist: her works are profound, confronting, compassionate and urgent. They talk about colonisation, about rape culture, and life in Aotearoa from the perspective of a wahine Maori who is vociferous, even as she is silenced. Nga Morehu is still absolutely relevant today – perhaps even more than before.

In New Zealand today, police are called to one domestic violence situation every seven minutes on average. One in three girls will be subject to sexual assault by the age of 16, and for Maori girls and women the likelihood of experiencing sexual violence is nearly double. Davies does what most artists don’t: she looks. She insists that we are confronted, that we cut through the silence, that we korero, and that we work to make a better world for our girls.

For a time, while Karaka and Davies’ works showed at Te Papa, the City Gallery was displaying new and old photographs by Fiona Pardington, who also made her name as a feminist artist in the 1980s, in its show A Beautiful Hesitation.

Gigi was a featured work in the show: a rephotographed image of a woman in underwear and heels, on the grass, crawling away from a pursuer – or posed to fetishise the act of crawling away from a pursuer in the viewer’s position. The image was rephotographed from a 1960s softcore porn magazine, and curator Aaron Lister positioned it on the City Gallery floor during Beautiful Hesitation, for visitors to walk over.

Massive

Gigi was also plastered on a Courtenay Place billboard, which Gallery director Elizabeth Caldwell explained was “to spark public interest and to pique viewers’ curiosity” in the venue. In other words, pornography gets foot traffic. Massey’s student magazine, Massive pulled the same stunt in March this year, to get readers. It was gross, and despite all the claims made by editor Carwyn Walsh, there’s nothing new, progressive or avant-garde about porn endorsement or the resulting controversy. Pornography and sexism are absolutely everywhere, it’s simply more disappointing than usual when publicly funded organisations get on the bandwagon. It is institutions like the City Gallery, too, whose actions and positions on pornography and gender will inform and encourage the likes of Massive.

Massive got away with their image because, as everyday as objectification is, its editor decided the controversy made him look cutting edge, exciting and effective, because a student magazine is supposed to be controversial. The tired reinforcement of gender stereotypes feels about this exciting to me.

CGW Yvonne Todd Goat Sluice 2008
Yvonne Todd, Goat Sluice, 2008. Photo: CGW

An art gallery can similarly sidestep social responsibility, by way of semantic acrobatics and conceptual manoeuvring. Lister understands Gigi like so:

By selecting and rephotographing individual images from the original proof sheets, Pardington liberates these women from the pornographic context. The women are given new life in a public and contemporary context, and new narrative possibilities. In re-presenting and often renaming each woman—in this case, the subject is named Gigi — Pardington humanises and returns agency to her subjects.

Is this the Emperor’s Clothes parade? I would like to know where Lister gets the notion that any woman is “liberated”, “humanised” or granted “agency” by having her image walked over on the floor; by the lining of strange pockets through its continued reproduction; by a man’s use of his public platform to endorse pornography; by his dressing up said porn in the language of postmodernism to sell it as “fine art”;  or by being called “Gigi” irrespective of what her name or circumstance actually is. I would like to know where Lister gets the notion that any woman is “liberated” by the endorsement or reproduction of pornography anywhere.

What I do know is that pornography today is even more pervasive, violent, normalised and in demand than it was in the 1980s, and that that should be any curator’s primary consideration in placing these images in a “contemporary context” – particularly in the name of women’s liberation. 88% of pornographic films contain physical violence toward women, and pornography is not only highly available, but heavily promoted, actively normalised, pervasive, and fuelling rape culture. This all worst affects the very girls that Shona Rapira Davies was encouraging us care for enough to critique social norms like the routine degradation, commodification and objectification of women, while the City Gallery stuck Gigi on the floor and on its marketing, just across the City to Sea bridge.

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Pardington’s Choker – according to the City Gallery, this woman’s neck is “lovingly bruised”.

It seems as though the City Gallery is not as interested in challenging these norms as it is in how they can be used to market the venue as saucy, risqué and flirtatious. The same pornographic ideas are recycled and endorsed again for the current show Bullet Time, this time without requiring any notable contribution from female collaborators.

When I first entered Bullet Time, I found it captivating. Like Davies’ Nga Morehu, it explores the wonder and vastness of time, the way we each etch our every movement irreversibly within it, while it constantly offers the possibility of radical transformation. It also presents a fascinating historical, intergenerational conversation about the recording of motion. Eadweard Muybridge’s late nineteenth century photographic studies of birds in flight and nude women washing and climbing ladders speak to Harold Edgerton’s wartime images of gunshots penetrating fruit, and Steve Carr and Daniel Crooks’ current work with video.

One of Carr’s videos depicts an upright watermelon being wrapped one-by-one with rubber bands, placed round its middle by two pairs of women’s manicured hands. The most amusing part of the video is how viewers who gather to watch it become rooted to the floor, even though its content is essentially inane. Someone will lean in to determine whether the watermelon is gaining a waist or not; someone else will flinch at the loud snap of a rubber band, as they wait for the one that makes the melon explode. It gets harder to leave the longer you remain – surely the minute you turn away the transformation will happen, and despite your investment of time you’ll have missed it. It seems so silly to feel so compelled to see a melon pop, that the installation made me laugh and freed me to wonder what preoccupations I might carry around that I could be liberated from, that I might hold on to, for no other reason than that I’ve invested time.

watermelon
Steve Carr, Watermelon. Photo: CGW

I was far from considering what chief curator Robert Leonard does in his catalogue essay, that the video is about castration. Quite far. I also hadn’t considered the essay’s explanation of the adjacent works by Carr, Screen Shots, which are also hypnotic. Across several screens, colours ripple round each other in slow motion, as a man’s hand bursts paint-filled balloons with a needle.

The generic-anonymous male demonstrator may not wear a lab coat, but his crisp, clean white-cuffed shirt means business. Because he is male, it is easy to understand the pendulous balloons as female and their rupture and release as orgasmic. Is this a portrayal of male prowess (he always bursts her bubble)…? Screen Shots is a compilation of orgasms, of feminine money shots.

This statement is not just an incidental, harmless, casual association with “popping cherries”. It actually tells us something central about the sexual politics and framing of the exhibition in question, and because of its consistency with that of previous shows, makes me concerned about what seems to be a repeated, explicit, implicit and subliminal endorsement of male entitlement, female subjugation and rape culture at the City Gallery – that’s what bursts my bubble.

Bullet Time’s catalogue essay facilitates a conversation between its male artists, looking for the commonalities and distinctions between them. It concludes with the statement that “Each offers an antidote to the other, but each, in his way, is a seducer”. The male artist of course, cannot be content with being a metaphysical philosopher and technical master of his craft, alone – he must also affirm his sexual superiority and “prowess”.

Leonard’s essay seems to affirm that Carr and Crooks have got behind it, behind all creation, to “make time and space their bitch”. The language is not coincidental – female subordination is corollary to the idea of male conquest that is at this exhibition’s nucleus. We live in society, not on some astral plane or inside the Matrix, and Bullet Time‘s artists are invested in ideas of male supremacy. The show is a boys’ club affirmation of this masculinity, which positions women as sexual subordinates. Locomotion studies of female nudes offer “an alibi for voyeurism”, apples are shot, balloons pricked, milk is Freudian, tunnels wait passively for trains to power through them.

CGW Circuit Source
From Steve Carr’s Screen Shots. Photo: Circuit

Leonard says that Carr “picks up on the erotic subtext” of wartime photographer Harold Edgerton. Leonard mentions that Edgerton also documented atomic-bomb tests in the Marshall islands in 1952, after having developed technology for aerial reconnaissance during World War Two – but only in passing. Its these artists’ prowess, their technical mastery and philosophical profundity that is meaningful to Leonard – not what their depictions of guns have to do with militarism or male violence. As Leonard writes,

Edgerton’s images were often sexually loaded: a gun discharging with an ejaculatory puff of smoke, an exploded apple (tempting forbidden fruit), a ruptured banana (a phallus), milk splashes (mummy!). They suggest those movie cutaways that signify sex without showing it—steam trains entering tunnels and fireworks exploding.

This might be a good time to reference Howard Zinn’s The Bomb, or Jock Phillips A Man’s Country, to problematize Edgerton’s simultaneous eroticisation of military and sexual violence. To examine how the ideas of sexual conquest, military ambition and technological fanaticism are related – and indeed also to the nuclear devastation in the Marshall islands and wider Pacific that Edgerton recorded, and to the colonisation that Shona Rapira Davies and Emily Karaka so recently called attention to at Te Papa.

In The Bomb, Zinn, a World War Two combat soldier turned critical historian, writes how the dropping of the bomb Enola Gay on Hiroshima occurred in haste after Japan had effectively surrendered. He says, pertinently,

It seems that there was no specific decision to drop the bomb on Nagasaki… three days later… One reason for the absence of discussion may well have been that while the Hiroshima bomb fissioned only uranium atoms, the Nagasaki bomb used plutonium, and there was a question whether plutonium would work as well. Military operations have often been undertaken not out of military necessity but to try out new weaponry. Human life sacrificed for technological “progress” – that is part of the history of modern “civilisation”.

harold-edgerton-bullet-piercing-an-apple
Harold Edgerton, Bullet Through Apple, 1964

Phillips’ A Man’s Country provides an extraordinary analysis of how militarism, male violence and their concomitant misogyny have shaped New Zealand since colonisation, while women are often laid blame. Leonard provides two telling illustrations of how this blaming works, in his Bullet Time essay. One as he rationalises a homicide committed by photographer Eadweard Muybridge not as an act of male violence, but of “envy” – in short, caused by Muybridge’s wife; another as he relays Carr’s explanation of how his Watermelon video signifies castration. Unlike male violence, castration performed by women barely ever happens, but the mythologising of it does provide some abstract justification for real misogyny.

What does it mean that the City Gallery will consider porn reproduction to be feminist, while it will not acknowledge rape or rape culture? That it considers “money shots” sexy and subversive, but will not touch porn’s routine violation of women or the sex trafficking that it feeds on? That it is interested in the technology that precisely and aesthetically performs aerial reconnaissance and records gunshots and explosions of flesh, but not in challenging militarism, white supremacy or colonisation? Or that it salivates over a bullet pulping the representation of a woman as a primordial metaphor, but will make no mention of the actual male violence that injures and kills thousands of women each year at the hands of partners alone, some of whom are indeed armed with guns?

It feels a lot like hearing Margaret Thatcher insist that there is “no such thing as society”. Exhibition titles like Inhabiting Space and Just the Right White often feel that way as well.

Yet the battering and killing of women, our treatment as objects meant for sexual gratification, is not a metaphor for women – Rebecca Solnit calls it the Longest War. I long to see a platform that gives due voice to artists like Emily Karaka and Shona Rapira Davies, women who reject the perpetual repetition of sexist norms, who challenge them, who resist them with fierce loving compassion and teach us all how to find the same fight in ourselves. Whose work is neither conformist nor escapist. That’s art.

Rape culture is a black hole. It’s the black hole of humanity. It depletes us for the sake of men who insist on making themselves appear as Gods.

1 in 3 women in this country experience sexual assault, with a higher rate for Pasifika. In that context, in the face of this violation, does a male artist or curator really have the right to position himself as some kind of prime mover and seducer, making “time and space his bitch”?

This is the culture that sees Women’s Refuge and Rape Crisis centres and safehouses a mundane necessity in every town. In the U.S., a rape occurs every 107 seconds, a woman is beaten every 9, and one thousand women each year killed at the hands of male partners. New Zealand suffers such high rates of teenage pregnancy that the government has looked at effectively forcing contraceptive injections on school girls, while it keeps telling them to lengthen their skirts. Again: as if women bring it all on themselves. With our female fertility, our skirts, our production of envy in men, our unconscious desire to castrate, our primordial kinship with tunnels. Consider too that while we generally perceive the men who impregnate adolescent girls to be their school peers, most of them are adult male predators.

Wellington’s Westpac stadium could fill every year with the number of women who undergo abortions. And while we are contemplating time and sexual politics – I happen to know something about how this experience can make a woman confront time. That “gun” is fired and suddenly she has an infinite potential for life inside her – which ultrasound indeed makes look a bit like a bullet, or the pupil of an eye in her womb. Or a black pearl, an astounding Pacific black pearl in its surrounding ocean. Or the full stop concluding a sentence, or that camera lens that so fascinates champions of photography, for all it sees and swallows, documents, fossilises, and hesitates over.

The small window a woman has to decide what to do with this mysterious cluster of cells inside her, society celebrates on her behalf as her “choice”, when it isn’t busy telling her she’s contemplating cold-blooded murder. She faces the generations of mothers who have raised her, expecting her to be one of them, the best yet; centuries of feminists who have fought for her to live a safe, autonomous, creative life. This society will listen to her and support her adequately neither in motherhood nor grief. Part of her own life has been stolen, while the value of his time weighs heavily.

If she opts for vacuum aspiration, as I have done, it is not something that happens to her because she is as a person who is innately analogous to fruit or flowers or a balloon. Experiences like this, for women, stem from our being part of a class of people who are subject daily to the violence of men who use their positions of power to sustain the idea that such metaphors reflect a natural hierarchy, rather than the myths of an unjust caste system, and that it’s a woman’s real purpose to serve them like a tunnel does a train.

The reason it is really so important to include reflections on gender in art is not because it makes you look sexy, but because women constitute half the population, and these deeply held beliefs about our purpose are part of our experience not because they constitute our natural destiny, but because they are so sacrosanct to male supremacy and to the rape culture that destroys us. Perhaps the true realities that women face get written off as too banal for reflection, too close to the ground, not intellectual, conceptual, ambiguous or sophisticated enough for fine art displays. That is what Davies’ Nga Morehu calls out, where Creamy Psychology, Beautiful Hesitation and Bullet Time are painfully silent.

This silence is a tension in all of Davies’ work. She not only deals with the injustices of colonialism, systemic racism, rape culture and domestic violence, she grapples with the problems of talking about them: with love and agitation, anger and faith, heartbreak and union, violence and prayer, betrayal and courage.

Because these are our human problems. Profound, earth-bound, definitive, necessary, inescapable problems. The type that artists and public institutions must be driven to creatively examine and to radically transform. Privilege can make us feel we are exempt from confronting these challenges, from listening to artists like Davies, as though we are above what she lives, as though we live in another realm.

But we aren’t and we don’t. So listen, and confront, we must – and the time is now.

 

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Image: National Library

 

 

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