Open for Interpretation

The Art of Reuben Paterson


I should like to be buried in this dress
poised before the mirror
the lady toasts her reflection in the evening light
the dress a whim of the sublime

He hokinga whakaaro ki nga wa,
this is for all those times

she escaped herself in that dress
poised before the mirror
absorbed by that lustrous fabric of transience
the scent of stale perfume whispering

He koiringa e kore e hokia
one last dance for this one

consumed in motif
liberated between the weave
shedding life in pearly rivulets
flight of fancy resounding

Ko ta te ruahine me te puweru
the lady and the dress
Koia nei he puweru moku
Ina, tukua au ki te kopu o te whenua(l)

'Open for interpretation' is a beguiling term.(2) Yet, it is an expression that provides access and insight into some of the verbal machinery of visual art culture that affect the art practices of contemporary artists. The term also opens up and allows a probing of one's understanding of what it is to know oneself as an interpreter of art. Begging the question, at what point does one recognise one is looking, explaining, claiming and questioning interpretations of art? Is interpretation something that one comes to voluntarily, intuitively or does it require one to belong to an art set to talk about it?

Reuben Paterson's 2004
exhibition at Gow Langsford
Gallery, Sydney

I use the term in this writing to explore a knowing and understanding of a contemporary Maori artist who draws on the visual, lived and philosophical traditions of his ancestors and western art history and theory. In this way, 'open to interpretation' is a conduit to ask where do such foundations of knowing come from? The art of Reuben Paterson of Ngati Rangitihi, Ngai Thhoe and Pakeha whakapapa offers many ways in which to extrapolate some ideas I am interested in.
The question which one asks oneself begins, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one's keys to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.
JAMES BALDWIN Nobody Knows My Name

My rohe is Matata, Ngati Rangitihi iwi, and on a small part of its coast a new subdivision has been built. My uncle has told me of how this is where the land wars ended, as waka taua became trapped in an outgoing tide, it became a place of many deaths. Now the subdivision, which has absorbed all this tapu, exudes a lot more pain on its residents. They are dying, they have divorced, and they are becoming ill. There was a protest at this place just recently, but people are ignoring the past and its presence on them for a view of the beach. Many differing perspectives and perceptions from people occupy the land of Matata. Those that just see the land, those that know and abide by the history, and those that live on it.(3)

Paterson's connection with his turangawaewae and his taha Maori or Maoriness have been expressed in defined themes in his art-making practice. Each series he produces can be linked to memories of recent and ancient pasts that are visceral, intangible and tangible. His awareness and respect for tangata whenua or original people and wahi-tapu or sacred places informed his thinking for Whakatata mai: do you see what I see? commissioned for the Art & Industry Biennial in Christchurch in 2004. He took seriously that he was manuhiri or a temporary visitor to Christchurch, and wished to be respectful to the cultural owners of Te Wai Pounamu, their land and ancestors.

Narcissus, his 2005 exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery extends these developments in his practice. He utilised memory, identity, place, time, belonging and the 'sacred' as a metaphor for expressing how land might absorb collective energies from the past. With the benefit of an artist's residency at Punatapu near the Ngai Tahu ancestral Lake Wakatipu, and inspired by the region's pounamu or greenstone stories, kaitiakitanga (cultural guardianship), ahi kaa or tribal occupation rights, historical occupation and history, Paterson settled on his Art & Industry idea.

Whakatata mai: Do you see
what I see?
Installation at Riccarton House
and Bush, Christchurch,
commissioned for ECHO,
an exhibition component
of the New Zealand Community Trust
Art & Industry Arts Biennal
04 SCAPE from a different angle

Riccarton House in Christchurch was the site for his Whakatata mai: do you see what I see? project and he chose to make a pathway leading up to the house to honour the intrepid journeys taken by Ngai Tahu to collect the precious resource of pounamu. He wanted a glitter path to surround the house with a shape that evoked the legendary Lake Wakatipu. His mission was to create optical illusions of the surrounding landscape including mountain peaks, pre-human fossils, along with all the sedimentary rock and sandstone that informs Maori knowledge of pounamu. His imaging of the energies left behind in the land by Maori, for him, emerged as undulating rhythms that become one with the land. The colours black and white paradoxically echoed the idea that things were almost never black and white. The purpose of the installation title was to invite the viewer to draw near and ask the question' do you see what I see?'

The grand Riccarton homestead, was home to the pioneering Deans family for 91 years. The house began its life as a residence in 1856 and was added to in 1874 and 1900. Of Scottish heritage, the Deans over time installed a cool cellar, and the 20 rooms were ornately decorated. Today the house is fully restored and furnished in period style and many of the family's items are on display. The land that the house sits on, indeed the surrounding area is known to local Maori as Putaringamotu or the place of echo. The area is also Canterbury's sole remnant of kahikatea floodplain forest and Riccarton Bush has national significance. 600-year-old kahikatea trees are the surviving forests that were established on this site 3000 years ago. They have endured two cultural periods, Maori and Paleha fires, farming and cropping.

The artist's engagement and questioning of perception and optical illusion was inspired by Gestaltists, Wertheimer, Kohler and Koffka who were German psychologists in the early 1900s. Their theory was that understanding abstract patterns and form, indeed interpreting such art, required clues to help us understand what exactly one is looking at. Things up for consideration included, how close to stand to 'see' a work; how similar patterns appear; how they might vary and become new and unexpected things ... especially while one was in the process of receiving and taking in an image. The human brain once stimulated by op-art, triggers different fields of 65 perception. And because there is simply too much information to take in at once the brain reshuffles the information to create something more uniform.

Reuben Paterson's 2003
exhibition at Gow Langsford
Gallery, Auckland

Once their theory became associated with a modernist aesthetic - that like music and architecture, all art is essentially abstract design as characterised by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller in Design Writing Research (1996) - the Gestaltists and their theory fell out of favour. Lupton and Miller renounced the Gestalt theory: 'They abstract, simplify and reinterpret it, isolating it from much of its historical, linguistic and social background and, thereby, ironically, largely ignore its "cultural interpretation".' Maybe it is the need for uniformity that creates a desire for us to be protected from spiritual and cultural truths. The refusal to acknowledge cultural and spiritual connections to land is too largely ignored as Lupton and Miller argue, a cultural interpretation.

In a compressed world, Paterson, his methods of thinking and his art are flipped to amplify his Maori identity by the way he claims and interprets his distant and recent past. Perhaps because it helps him understand his present at its simplest level, while also acknowledging that the past and the present activate each other in immeasurable ways. Paterson wants the knowledge and experiences that reinforce his learning in order to evolve his human expectations. Even though, his practice aligns to the Gesalt theory that there are multiple perceptions and perspectives, this is true in a limited way. In spite of this, his search for a greater truth and his deepening desire for what can be known, understood and reached is astonishingly Maori. The realisation of this was a turning point for me in my understanding of his practice.
Truth is beauty
beauty is truth(4)

You're an all night generator
wrapped in stockings & a dress
Glitterdust on canvas, 1500 x 1500 mm.

The introductory poem to this writing was a collaboration between Paterson and Sharon Whippy. Retro fabric patterns and elements of optical art reminded the artist of his maternal grandmother who took her own life. A certain party frock Paterson imagined she was buried in inspired the suite of paintings he made in 2003. In his Sydney exhibition in 2004 he further carried this idea through the coalescing of his parents' distinct whakapapa by utilising the Maori ascension motif poutama. In these paintings, the poutama or stairway to heaven pattern descended back to Papatuanuku and transformed into kowhaiwhai. In so doing, Paterson inscribed his whakapapa or genealogy on the work as maunga whakahirahira or as major signifier. In this manner, he not only bids his kuia a fond farewell, he knowingly combines his dual heritages because he is compelled to do so. By dedicating an extensive body of work to his kuia, he not only celebrates a matriarchal figure from his Pakeha whakapapa, he also intuitively engages and practices customary knowledge instilled by his Ngati Rangitihi iwi from Matata.

Let me draw a link.

The Matata lagoon nearby Paterson's ancestral home is where his Ngati Rangitihi forebears practised the second stage of burial, of scraping, washing and painting the bones of deceased ones. The third stage is reburying their remains in a final resting place known to the whanau or family members. In Maori times, the first stage of a burial is when the tupapaku or the body is left to decompose naturally. The Matata lagoon is a wahi tapu or sacred place.

The Sky Cries for the Virtuous 2004
Glitterdust on canvas,
1215 x 1215 mm.

The place Matata (5) is also the home and name for the bird, believed to be a tohu animal by Ngati Rangitihi. It is said that their cries could foretell the future; indeed the bird played a role in rituals to resolve why and when bad things befell the people. Matata were also sacrificed on the death of rangatira, so that the manu could accompany the person safely to Hawaiiki, the original homeland of Maori.

Shortly after his 2003 solo exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, Paterson made an op-art window-work installation at Dunedin Public Art Gallery entitled When Paradise is Not Enough. This piece was final tribute to his kuia. His idea was to create a spirit world in the window space that gave the illusion of a translucent heavenly expansiveness. A light box rerenga wairua where the wairua or spirit of his kuia could emanate and bathe in the beauty of light was conceived of to enable her to arrive at her chosen Hawaiiki.

He hokinga, whakaaro ki nga wa, /this is for all those times.

Who else but a descendant of Ngati Rangitihi would take on the intensity and joy of providing one last glimpse of best cultural practice and philosophies of knowledge in glitter? Who else engages whakapapa to evoke the spiritual dimension?

My Emotional Seasons Repeat Themselves 2004
Glitterdust on canvas,
900 x 900 mm.

If one accepts that a primary characteristic of the business of artists is to make known the importance they place on their worlds then what have we to learn from Paterson?

In these times of meshed and diminishing indigenous identities Paterson's paintings can be interpreted as devoted to his psychic spiritual past, lived humanist traditions and experiences from his ancestry through to adulthood. Vibrant and vivid visual mind-map paintings present as highly executed expressions of valid and inter-related states of being and knowing, across time and space.

Each time he unravels his known and inherited histories in glitter, he imparts his postmodern identity and informs on his private and personal connections with friends and his whakapapa. But more than that, his art illuminates his and our learning because when one re-charts and recognises what is often overlooked in art criticism, then surely what artists make and evoke is worth remembering.

Even if self-preservation is at the centre of Paterson's practice, his search for artistic and cultural values that will last (at least for the lifetime of the artist) is something to ponder. I would like to think that any meshing of past, present and future apprehensions and stillness means we are on the way to finding spiritual calmness and fulfilment within the cultural context of indigenous knowledge. My sister, remember all the ways our grandmother taught us to connect with those who have gone before, in wind and rain, in land and sea, in our bodies, through our hands. And when we worry that our own hands are not heavy enough with her wisdom and love, we trust new and different connections - connections that the ones who went before create for us in stories and voices that only the ones who follow us will understand.

When Paradise
is Not Enough
A Dunedin Public Art Gallery
Rear Window Project

It is hard to resist a suggestion that few writings on contemporary Maori practice acknowledge and accept the range of Maori philosophical thinking and interpretation of the worlds in which they live and move. The New Zealand contemporary art world can be a particularly dogged place of resistance when it comes to understanding why Maori produce artworks that challenge interpretations in Western terms. One might ask what is there to be learned by an investigation of Maori philosophies of knowledge. Simply, it is because Maori identity and Maori 'knowing' are at its very core. Paterson's exhibition Narcissis is a moment of reflection, which is not an altogether bad thing. His Maori core will surely find flight with Greek mythology and philosophies of knowledge. The artist is currently living in Greece. Tihe Mauri ora!

1. Reuben Paterson's childhood friend, Sharon Whippy on the occasion of the artist's solo exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery 6 May 2003 penned the poem I should like to be buried in this dress. It was spoken at the opening event by the author to music selected by the artist. The musie was a remix version of If you leave me now by Lemon Jelly; originally released in 1976 by the rock group Chicago. Whippy is an emerging poet and is currently completing her MA in English at University of Auckland. The Maori translation was provided by Te Haurnihiata Mason
2. Open for interpretation is also the marketing catch-phrase used by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki to capture audiences for exhibitions.
3. Excerpt from the artist's proposal to Art & Industry proposing his installation Whakatata Mai: Do you see what I see? Paterson's contribution was curated by Tessa Giblin for the larger project entitled ECHO. The exhibition comprised contemporary artists whose work responded to the specifics of the site, its natural and human histories, Maori and European.
4. Urewera Mural CD, In conversation, track by Arnold Manaaki Wilson. Published on the occasion of the exhibition Urewera Mural: Colin McCahon held at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki March 1999.
5. In June 2005 massive flooding devastated the Matata region. In the clean-up process, human remains were washed from their resting places together with debris and silt. Some Maori say ther ancestors are angry. Much of the damage is in areas where ancestors killed in the wars of the 1860s are buried. 'I'm a believer in this, whole-heartedly,' said Tuwhare Kaumatua Matialia Ota. 'This is the area where they wanted to build houses and to us it's a wahi tapu.' Earlier in the day 68-year-old May Clarke, known as 'Auntie' and who has lived in Matata for 45 years said: 'They [the ancestors] are angry. The bones have been disturbed. I never knew that they would do it in full blast for the whole community but they used their force which no-one can take from them.'
6. He Rere Ke: Taking Flight, Tinakori Gallery and Toi Maori exhibition 2004 catalogue p. 5. Puni Kukahiko is Kanaka Maoli, and art lecturer, writer and art educator at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.