Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand
20 August – 22 October 2023
Bodies of Water, Made of Land (2023) is the second iteration of a collaboration between artists Harrison Freeth and Benjamin Work. The first, Bodies of Water (2023), was exhibited as part of SHIFT: Urban Art Takeover at the Canterbury Museum in Ōtautahi/Christchurch in January. The site-specific, large-scale installation featured a catwalk of wooden bracing—a pathway referencing the life of a museological storage room but also a method of wayfinding and seeing the work, guiding you through a topology of archival paper, copper and mark-making.
For Te Tuhi, Bodies of Water, Made of Land builds on the artists’ earlier explorations, teasing out the intersections and tensions of their shared Pālangi (European) and Tongan heritage. The work consists of two installations; a line of wall-mounted kit-set copper motifs referencing different forms of migration—appearing like heru (a comb or fence-like structure), others resembling a ship like Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour—in contrast to a darkened corner featuring a volcanic island of scoria rocks on top of waves of white archival paper. At the volcano crest sits a crescent-shaped tomotomo (the masthead from the ancient voyaging waka, called Kalia); beside it, the outline of a body, like a carved ancestor or pou, and a heru. In the darkened interior the copper motifs are echoed in three dimensions, the ship sailing down onto the archival paper ocean.
Beneath the watch of the tomotomo is a white, wooden model state house, eerie blue light streaming out of its windows. The model is based on a house in Puketāpapa (Mount Roskill) that Freeth rents. The symbolism of a crescent shaped moon speaks to the voyages made by the people of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, whose method for navigation was reliant not only on the moon, but also on the winds and the seas of paper. Scoria, in particular, suggests how the city of Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) is made up of 53 remnant volcanoes, many of its roads and gardens carved out of sacred volcanic rock. It embodies the ways in which land and sea are entwined, connecting Aotearoa and Tonga to a longer history of the Pacific Ring of Fire–the horseshoe shaped region defined by hundreds of volcanoes and frequent seismic activity.
The exhibition feels fragmented, but it’s a consequence of the space rather than the work. It also feels like a deliberate strategy to destabilise fixed time, highlighting the ways in which concepts of Vā (relational space) and Tā (time) are woven through the body and the ocean’s currents. These are central tenets within Polynesian thought, particularly Vā which is difficult to translate and define: rather it defines us. According to Pasifika scholar Benita Kumare Simati,
...the Vā is our past, present, and future… It does not appear as a physical form. It is never vacant. The Vā connects us all through our relationships as a space that always already exists, whether we think about it or not, and even when we feel disconnected…
Freeth and Work explore this idea by blending the scoria rock, perhaps thousands of years old, alongside references to Polynesian wayfaring and more recent technologies including digital video. In this way the Vā is expressed as fluid as the ocean and Tā is understood much like the Māori whakataukī, Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua: ‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past’.
Perpendicular to Work and Freeth’s copper ship is a wallpaper of faces forming American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson’s installation Logic Paralyzes the Heart (2021). Debuting at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, the installation blurs the body and the digital, and military-based systems of control. What looks like plasma-screen wallpaper is made up of AI-generated faces described as ‘missing persons’, abutting a largescale, single channel video of 61 year old narrator cyborg played by Joan Chen (best known as Josie Packard in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks). The cyborg’s revelations about the origin of the missing persons is unsettling; it is hard to reconcile the smiling faces as synthetic, AI generated visions. We are challenged to think about what is and isn’t human, the relationship between identity and authenticity. I reflected on my Te Tuhi visitor experience, signing up to their online newsletter, and the CAPTCHA test asking me to ‘prove my humanity’. For whatever reason, it took several attempts before being recognised as human.
Leeson’s cyborg (Chen) reminisces over the death of her ‘siblings’, including Hanson Robotics AI robot Sophia, and asks the critical questions, can we transform the tools of violence into tools of liberation? Or ‘can you teach me to dream?’ The latter proposition refers to Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, whose central character Rick Deckard is tasked with distinguishing between organic and artificial life, reaching the conclusion that ‘being human’ is not so much a probable biological fact as a philosophical determination.
Like previous films by Leeson, such as Teknolust (2002) starring Tilda Swinton, Logic Paralyzes the Heart explores the ways in which technology/machines, and ‘real humanity’ are fixed binaries in which human-machine interactions are met with fear or suspicion, ever fuelled by the capitalist demand for profit. Chen’s cyborg outlines the role of technology in aiding war and conflict. She recalls Alan Turing, who created the Enigma machine at the end of the Second World War, helping to crack Nazi codes and saving millions of lives. Developed to help distinguish between the artificial and the real, the Enigma machine still informs coding used today in programs such as CAPTCHA.
At one cinematic point, Chen’s cyborg is joined by the actor Tessa Thompson, a cyborg in the HBO series Westworld (2016–22, based on the 1973 film), now appearing as an educator. The cyborgs discuss how technology and warfare have historically combined to infiltrate our daily lives, subjugating society through numerous technologies such as predictive codes used in warfare, and by police to develop racialised ‘crime zones’ for state surveillance. It seems like a scene lifted from Philip K Dick’s novel The Minority Report, but AI is currently used in 'predictive policing' with facial recognition technology. Logic Paralyzes the Heart is frightening, but also enlightening to the realities and capabilities of technology, even as we take our instruction from the cyborgs.
While Bodies of Water, Made of Land bleeds into Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Logic Paralyzes the Heart, the sounds of Chia-En Jao’s REM Sleep (2011) echoes throughout both. At times, this was distracting: each would benefit from less sonic interference. Curator Vera Mey has tried to tie together three very different exhibitions, which share some similar concerns in terms of human perception, migration and technology, but also work in opposition. Architecturally, exhibitions at Te Tuhi will always encounter this problem, but when you spend time with each body of work, they start to form a web of shared ideas about how we might continue to live in the world together—whether land or ocean, human or machine.
- ^ Benita Kumar Simati, “The Potential of Vā: An Investigation of How ’ie Tōga Activate the Spatial Relationships of the Vā, for a Samoan Diaspora Community”, [online thesis] (Auckland University of Technology, 2011)
- ^ Simati
- ^ Jussi Parikka, “Insects, Sex, and Biodigitality in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Teknolust”, Postmodern Culture Journal of Interdisciplinary Thought on Contemporary Cultures, 17: 2, (January 2007)
Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Mahuta, Ngaati Hinerangi, Waikato/Tainui, Waitaha, Ngaati Waewae ki Kai Tahu Poutini) is an artist, writer and independent researcher based in Aotearoa.