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E kōrero ana ngā rākau

‘the trees are talking’

Raewyn Atkinson’s richly layered visual language involves paradox and citation where metaphor, the natural environment, chance and ceramic processes all play their part. This is particularly evident in the time-delay footage of the changing installation I Too Am In Paradise II (2019), featuring thirty kōwhai ngutu kōrako in unfired clay vessels documented in the artist’s Brooklyn garden over ten months. The project may sound unexceptional, but the plants chosen are a rare white variant, an albino form, of Clianthus puniceus, one of the two endangered species of kōwhai ngutu kākā. As with Atkinson’s earlier projects involving politically charged content (for example, melting ice in the Antarctic in 2005 and 2006), uncertainty and anxiety around survival resumes. There is good reason. The Department of Conservation claims only 120 kōwhai ngutu kākā survive in the wild in Te Ika-a-Māui. Thus the artist felt a great responsibility in being entrusted with this rare plant by its kaitiaki ‘guardians’ for her installation.

The resurrection of kōwhai ngutu kōrako, last seen growing naturally in the Wairoa region in the 1950s, provides then a miraculous though complex focal point for Atkinson’s work. Propogation of the native was achieved with seed obtained by chance by Scion, the crown research institute specialising in forestry, around 2013 and later gifted back in the form of a hundred plants to the Te Reinga Mārae Trust, Wairoa. In 2015, Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry acknowledged the unusual route of te hokinga mai nei ‘this return’ to ngā kaitiaki, the Wairoa hapū Ngāi Kōhatu (Ngāti Hinehika):

The wairua of the plant and the aroha of the iwi [means] that the plant is with us today — very few species can recover from this — once they are gone, they are gone forever.

Moved, the artist said: ‘I thought it was a wonderful, hopeful story and … that it would add to the understanding of the installation.’ This wānanga ‘narrative’ is certainly compelling, but each chance layer complicates its meaning and potentially restricts its audience. I Too Am In Paradise II, although situated outside the gallery and grown in the artist’s private garden, is still an artwork read and understood primarily within the New Zealand art paradigm. What interests me is the extent to which the installation references both an indigenous kaupapa ‘native agenda’ and a New Zealand art history whakapapa ‘genealogy’ privileging the West. The crossover seems straightforward. The shrubs conceptually epitomise the threat of indigenous loss, but they also signify the possibility of resurrection. However, the pots containing the native plants paradoxically embody the passage of time and of death, recurring themes in Atkinson’s work. This contradiction continues, while the artist creates a work of haunting beauty, almost regardless.

Dwelling on the threatened status of the kākā beak with these references is risky, inviting misunderstanding in the acknowledgement — perhaps even the valorisation — of the extinction of ‘the Other’. The ‘dying Māori’ motif is a longstanding and popular paradigm in New Zealand art and literature. Atkinson’s actual citation is the French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia ego (1637—38) ‘even in Arcadia [paradise] there is death’, a title inscribed on each potted tree. Entertaining Poussin’s proposition regarding temporality while at the same time considering the plight of kōwhai ngutu kōrako makes heavy demands on the viewer.

Atkinson quotes Poussin’s bleak caption on white sepulchre-like urns, each individually elevated on ziggurat-like, six-across-by-five-deep stepped red clay perches. This arrangement resonates the scene in Poussin’s painting where figures stand around a central battered tomb inscribed with the same text. The memento mori also feels uncomfortably close to classic icons of New Zealand art history: the portraits of elderly rangatira by Lindauer and Goldie, for example, or in the 1972 book Moko by historian Michael King. A familar entropic narrative is thus conjured by Atkinson’s reference to Poussin’s vanitas-like content and her use of the endangered New Zealand native. This latter theme, the idea of threat to the indigenous, is deeply engrained in Pākehā settler history and, some might argue, in the ongoing New Zealand psyche.

For me, following the link to Et in Arcadia ego offers a more fruitful reading of I Too Am In Paradise II. Art historian Anthony Blunt sees Poussin’s paintings as, ‘sensuous manifestations of Stoic ideas’. Not surprisingly this ancient philosophy is also the inspiration for the phrase ‘et in Arcadia ego’. Stoicism helps clarify Atkinson’s installation of the same name, too. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus once cautioned, ‘Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.’ In I Too Am In Paradise II Atkinson gives her audience a tangible understanding of her plant metaphor by using time-delay photography. This embodiment of the kupu whakarite ‘metaphor’ in this medium is both accidental and revelatory:

The film is critical to the audience understanding of the installation. It is the only way they 

[i.e. the viewer] could see the transformation as it is not in a public space. The installation is not static, but undergoing constant change and the film captures the passage of time as well as
the beauty in those changes. I hoped that the plants would flower but did not know that they would, so this added another layer to the installation, with the film ending with the formation
of seed pods.

As the film progresses, Atkinson accidentally captures the most compelling resolution of the two seemingly contradictory ideas dominating her installation: growth and extinction. There is a point at which the conditions are right and the plants decide to flower en masse and then to produce seed. It is here the viewer realises (as Minister Barry did similarly) the kōwhai ngutu kōrako are telling their own story about survival and potential loss. Viewing the plants is a little like sensing sadness in Poussin’s work. We witness shrubs undergoing their life processes while enduring and thriving in their environment. The collapsed ten months is a metaphor for a wider environmental struggle. Clouds, fierce winds, blasts of sunshine and rain all hammer the urns as branches pulse and twitch. The moon casts its shadows in the night. The sun circles: entering from the east to swing west, orbiting lower in autumn and winter, then higher later in the film as it heads for spring and summer. With this cinematography the viewer feels the plants’ physical journey, building up their reserves for a high point as gorgeous shadows, legume in silhouette, move fluidly black on white across the convex surfaces of adjoining pots. E toro mai ana ngā rākau ‘the plants are stretching out’.

Along with this tupuranga ‘growth’, chaos is also at play undermining paradise. Whether by day or night and regardless of season, entropic changes are emerging. A green discolouration begins to cover the surfaces of the urns. A third of the way through the film, and then at the halfway point, one pot after another collapses. Weeds push through the greywacke platform beneath, poking through broken vessels and threatening the perimeters of the installation.

In the middle of all this detritus something spectacular occurs. E puāwai ana ngā rākau ‘the plants are flowering’. Beautiful creamy white clusters of crescent-shaped blossoms, unique to the Wairoa variant of kōwhai ngutu kākā, first form and then explode simultaneously across the installation. It is these processes of te tupuranga me te puāwaitanga ‘growth and flowering’ that tangibly demonstrate a once endangered taonga is now living. After nearly a year of the artist’s careful nurturing, the plants offer this final statement. Seeds are formed and so the cycle, plants talking up their survival, returns. Atkinson says
she didn’t plan this cresendo. I know:

E kōrero ana ngā rākau ‘the plants are talking’.

Dr Rangihīroa Panoho is an artist and writer passionate about
his Māori/Polynesian heritage in the Asia Pacific region. Author of the multiple award winning publication MAORI ART: History, Architecture, Landscape and Theory (Batemans, 2015). Panoho’s tribal affiliations are Te Uriroroi and Te Parawhau of the Northland region of Aotearoa. He has curated, published, lectured and collaborated in local and international galleries and universities. His work as curator, educator and art historian (Phd, Art History) feeds into his visual practice. He is currently working on a book that aims at redefining contemporary perceptions of taonga ‘traditional Māori treasures’.