26 February 2012

The merest hint of mortality

The bi-annual international arts festival has just begun in Wellington, and all around the capital the arts community is gearing up to put on a show. The Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt was aiming to participate by installing a work entitled So It Vanishes, by the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles. It’s a conceptual piece in which soap bubbles are projected into a large space within the gallery; the catch being that the liquid used to produce the bubbles uses trace amounts of water from a Mexican morgue that has been used to wash dead bodies. So on the one hand, we have the light-hearted whimsy of playful bubbles in an art gallery, but on the other there is also the frame of reference of mortality and the transitory nature of life – like a bubble, our lives will one day pop out of existence.   

It’s an interesting concept, and one that’s less pretentious than some of the other exhibits the Dowse typically shows. The ‘morgue water’ is supposedly only a minuscule proportion of the total liquid supply used to produce the bubbles; indeed, the curator said on TV3 News that it would be ‘four tablespoons in 160 litres’ used through the whole 12 week duration of the installation (that portion of clip not online). That's a ratio of more than 2700 parts ordinary water to 'morgue water', so the vast majority of the liquid used to produce the bubbles, 99.96 percent in fact, is plain tap water. 

This 2004 Frieze magazine report on an identical Margolles exhibition at the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt shows the reaction the exhibition (then called En el Aire / In the Air) is meant to elicit:

In the museum’s soaring hall children play under bubbles that come from Teresa Margolles’ piece En el aire (In the Air, 2003). Running, laughing, catching, they are fascinated by the glistening, delicate forms that float down from the ceiling and break up on their skin. A common motif in art history, the bubble has long been used as a memento mori, a reminder of the transitory nature of life. The children’s parents, meanwhile, studiously read the captions. Suddenly, with a look of disgust, they come and steer their offspring away. The moment of naive pleasure turns into one of knowing repulsion: they have learned that the water comes from the Mexico City morgue, used to wash corpses before an autopsy. It’s unimportant that the water is disinfected; the stigma of death turns the beautiful into the horrific.  
The key here is the word 'disinfected', which was not mentioned in the New Zealand discussion around the Dowse exhibit. If the water was disinfected, then there is even less rational grounds for concern. And in this era of biosecurity and stringent checks on imported goods, you have to wonder if the 'morgue water' actually exists at all, and isn't just an artist's imaginary concept. She certainly seems keen on it though: it's also used in this Tate Liverpool exhibit, dripping onto a hotplate and making interesting sizzling noises.

But in any case it appears the installation will not go ahead because the local Te Atiawa iwi, who play a strong role at the Dowse, have objected to the ‘morgue water’ on cultural grounds. They argue that in Maori spirituality, water that has been used to clean dead bodies is tainted and cannot come into contact with sacred artworks. The iwi’s primary concern relates to the historic pataka (carved food storage hut) that is a centrepiece of the Dowse’s Maori art collection. They find it unacceptable that tainted water might pollute their taonga, and they also express health concerns for the safety of visitors to the museum, with iwi spokesperson Liz Mellish saying to TV3, 'We would be concerned for all people about the safety of such a thing, particularly children who could run in', and 'It's inviting death in, so culturally it's really, really unsafe'.

Respect for other traditions is an important trait, particularly in an environment like New Zealand in which one cultural tradition has run roughshod over the beliefs of a colonised minority. Society should endeavour to allow all members of society to feel comfortable sharing their views and beliefs, and the iwi are fully within their rights to express their concerns about the Margolles installation. The Dowse’s press statement indicates that there were long-running discussions about the exhibit, and it seems that the gallery was unable to reconcile its desire to show the Mexican piece with its stewardship of the iwi’s taonga.

But when a cultural tradition is out-dated and anachronistic, where is the harm in questioning that tradition – in a polite way, naturally? The exponential dilution at work in Margolles' art installation renders the ‘morgue water’ – if it exists at all – utterly harmless. These bubbles could not pose any risk to visitors  who came into contact with them. The only danger is that they might think about their lives and the role that death plays in society and culture. And kids, blithely unaware, might have a bit of harmless fun playing in bubbles. Isn’t that a laudable goal? If we start labelling Margolles' work as 'unsafe' it makes us akin to the shysters who promote hyper-diluted homeopathic remedies as genuine medicine. 

There's also the concern that superstition is derailing a 21st century art installation. The Dominion Post's reporter, Shabnam Dastgheib, clearly raised the 's-word' when he spoke to Victoria University's head of Maori Studies, Peter Adds

Adds said superstition was a "loaded" word and any objections to the exhibition would have been based on a deeply entrenched cultural belief for many Maori. "People would have inadvertently placed themselves in danger and Maori people would have treated the people as being contaminated. Those people would have been treated with a degree of caution. Maori don't muck around with issues of tapu."    
Oxford defines superstition as 'excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural' and 'a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief'. This sounds like an accurate reflection of the dynamic at work in this case. It's true that some Maori people may have treated people who came in contact with the bubbles as being 'contaminated', in a cultural rather than medical sense. But there is no proof that the exhibition could 'contaminate' people in a way that actually led to adverse medical effects, and certainly no cause to believe that they had 'inadvertently placed themselves in [actual] danger'.

There's also a slightly worrying aspect of superstition at work in the TV3 item by reporter Charlotte Shipman, which says of the Dowse's pataka, 'It's so sacred to Maori it can't be filmed'. This concept of unfilmability was mentioned in another recent case, that of the return to New Zealand of a collection of severed Maori heads (toi moko) from French museums. A TV3 European correspondent explained to viewers at the time that for cultural reasons the heads could not be filmed, which begs the question, when did such a modern concept as video imagery become part of Maori tradition, and who decided that this was culturally unacceptable? And why is it acceptable for the Dowse website to show a picture of the pataka but not for television to film it? (On reflection though, I can see a good reason for not showing images of the toi moko on the nightly news. It would probably put people off their tea).

I don't have any problem with the iwi standing up for what they believe in, even if in my view the beliefs they express are based on superstition. Good on them for putting their views in a persuasive way. Because this was a problem that the Dowse has made for itself. Gallery director Cam McCracken has issued a statement that indicates that this was really an issue of the Dowse trying to have its cake and eat it too (which has always been a silly aphorism, but you get my drift):

Because of the work’s themes of death and memory, The Dowse has been in close consultation with representatives of local iwi, Te Atiawa, in the months leading up to the opening of So it Vanishes. In particular, we have discussed Teresa’s work in relation to our most treasured taonga, Nuku Tewhatewha.The Dowse is guardian of this nationally significant pataka which was carved in the 1850s as a sign of support for Kīngitanga, or the Māori King Movement. Nuku Tewhatewha is one of only seven Pataka built around the North Island as ‘Pillars of the Kingdom’, and is the only one to survive. Its home at The Dowse carries great meaning for many communities locally and nationally and the team at The Dowse is proud of its guardianship role.Grave concerns have been shared about exhibiting So it Vanishes alongside Nuku Tewhatewha and The Dowse has therefore decided not to proceed with the exhibition. This was a difficult decision to make, but one we believe is important.

Grave concerns! Pun unintended, I presume. 

The Dominion article referred to above also quotes iwi kaumatua Sam Jackson:

Te Atiawa kaumatua Sam Jackson said he had been asked to bless the bubble installation but refused. Iwi also threatened to shut New Zealand's only sacred pataka (storehouse), Nuku Tewhatewha, housed in the museum, if the exhibition went ahead because of fears it would be contaminated. 

So here's the rub. If the Dowse wanted to run Margolles' exhibition it could have done so by either sealing off the pataka in some way - by putting it in storage, ceremonially sealing the rooms it sits in, or even arranging a loan to another museum, which would enable more New Zealanders to see it. But when faced with the decision to proceed with the bubble exhibit at the expense of the pataka exhibit, the gallery chose its pataka. Cam McCracken told TV3: 'The pataka is the heart of the building, and for it to be closed off or its essence or its lifeforce to be removed was just a bit too difficult for us to contemplate'.

Really? Its 'lifeforce'? If the iwi concerns were unable to be addressed, the Dowse could have 'protected' the pataka in some way. But it chose not to, and now all it has to show for the exercise is an empty gallery and a reputation for pusillanimity. It's certainly a pity: I for one would have made the journey to Lower Hutt to visit Margolles' exhibit and see what else the Dowse had to offer.   
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