Scan Magazine: 2005-04-28

David Eggleton

Mainly I was led to them, the casinos of aluminium,

by the gift of eyebright, whose hollow core contained

a vision of the coast. . .

- from “Painting Mount Taranaki”, by David Eggleton, AnAnthology of New Zealand Verse, Oxford University Press (1997).

Numinous as bracelets, they are anonymous industrial entities which seem to await a techno soundtrack. They loom up monumental from the gallery floor, but they consist of nothing more than a few dozen arranged lugs of alloy: the payloads from a casino of aluminium.

By shaping these units into waka or canoes, Stephen Mulqueen has turned them into floating signifiers launched out on the currents of historical formalism.

The waka is now central to New Zealand’s loaded mantelpiece of nationalist symbols. It’s how the nation sees itself. Stephen Mulqueen’s installation Tiwai posits that waka symbolism as part of a global nexus of trade and exchange. It signifies materials transformed and moved from Australia and New Zealand, and shifting on to Japan, Korea, China and the USA, before returning to New Zealand and Australia. Extruded and cast aluminium, rolled out from a Southern Hemisphere technological temple of metal, travels to car factories in Japan in the Northern Hemisphere, then comes back as high-tech desirable commodities.

The circularity of the process is itself a kind of enacted libido: transport as an image of desire with its promise of endless mutabilities. These waka are ghost ships, themselves their own exotic cargo. Emblems of the quest to complete a particular circuit, these billets and ingots contain within their suspended potentialities the apotheosis of the commodity. They could be part of almost any piece of consumerist hardware you can dream up: implicitly energised - gleaming, sleek, protean.

Yet in the first instance it is their literalism you grapple with. The experience of the austere modular forms which evoke the classic Sixties Minimal Art tenet of the object and nothing but the object. Mulqueen coaxes you beyond this minimalism by utilising a material which establishes tensions and contradictions. Because the aluminium is given representational status (the playful boat form) there is an implied critique of impersonal capitalist methods of production and consumption. The ability to subsume individuality within soulless mechanisation is capitalism or monetarism at its most abstract. We become merely “terms in its logic” to quote Australian poet Les Murray (from “The Cool Green”, Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 2004).

In a way Stephen Mulqueen is engaged in a mock-heroic project. It’s heroic because the installation is an attempt to invest mechanically reproduced units with the aura of ancient objects. It’s mock or ironic because the attempt to reclaim these emblems of industrial alienation within a mythic history of an organic relationship with our environment can only be regarded sceptically at our present moment, with greenhouse meltdown scenarios being shouted from every two-bit satellite television newsdesk. Nevertheless, Tiwai offers a welcome psychological space or context within which we can meditate on such concepts.

Mulqueen is a mid-career artist whose current preoccupations have grown out of his own lifestory. Born and bred in the Deep South, in the Invercargill-Bluff area, Mulqueen began as a craft worker, serving a jewellery apprenticeship in Invercargill before helping set up the Fluxus workshop for contemporary jewellery-making in Dunedin in 1983. By 1990, New Zealand’s sesquicentennial year, Mulqueen’s interest in jewellery - the fusion and transformation of precious materials into symbolic designs - was accompanied by a deepening interest  in biculturalism: the negotiation of intersecting cultural histories.

His art practice began exploring the notion of historical authenticity. The speculative combining and recombining of a variety of symbolic materials  as expressive of a relationship of exchange found its focus in a sense of the self as an amalgam and a product of influences centred on the place where he grew up - Southland.

According to one Ngai Tahu creation myth the South Island is Te Waka-a-Aoraki, or the canoe of Aoraki. The Marlborough Sounds represent the shattered prow and Bluff Hill is the stern. Such myths feed into Mulqueen’s procedures. Bluff Hill/ Motupohue and the surrounding area is a microcosm of cultural hybridity with Maori and Pakeha histories intimately interwoven. In the 1990s Mulqueen  created an artwork which successfully encapsulated the area’s mosaic-like history of interaction. The Bluff Hill/ Motupohe lookout is the centre of a koru-like spiral. At the top, on a panoptic stone diorama, placenames, Maori and Pakeha, are marked. This palimpsest, or overwriting, then led on to the creation, in his 2000 exhibition Whakamaoritanga/Translations, of a whole series  of “entangled objects”. These sculptural animistic forms - for example a larger than life-size titi/muttonbird crafted from a colonial iron pickaxe head and aluminium wire -  are collages which establish poetic resonances.

Mulqueen has become the artist as archeologist. Another series of works in 1993, Papakihau (or “slapped by the wind”), presented aluminium casts of ventifacts found around the Bluff harbour area. Ventifacts are lumps of argillite, basalt or granite that have been abraded by wind, sand and sea into sharp-edged stones. The bay is littered with rock shards part-shaped into tools, the remnants of a neolithic Maori tool-making factory which existed for some six hundred years on this site.

Tiwai (or “dug-out canoe”) is the Maori name for the tip of a long windswept strand within Bluff harbour. Before construction of the Tiwai Point smelter began, the building zone was excavated, between 1967 and 1969, by anthropologists from Otago Museum. They established that the Tiwai site had produced some of the most aesthetically satisfying and technically efficient adzes in Polynesia. (In Comparatively Speaking: Studies in  Pacific Material Culture, published by Otago Univerity Press in 1972, H.D. Skinner states: “Murihiku - the southern half of the South Island - contains a greater variety of rocks from which implements can be made than all the other parts . . . of Polynesia put together. The Murihiku implement maker could therefore experiment to an extent impossible elsewhere.”) The neolithic Maori manufacturing economy around Tiwai was elaborate, and included stone and bone tools, flax containers, skin clothing, and wooden canoes. Later Victorian-era Pakeha industrial activities in that same area included shipbuilding and the making of railways.

The electromagnetic field is almost palpable,

a fuzz of force that stiffens chain, aligning iron rods.

- from “Tiwai Sequence”, by Cilla McQueen, Markings, Otago University Press, (2000).

The Tiwai Point smelter began operating in 1971, and was considered by the Government a smart way to export surplus hydro-electricity in the form of aluminium. Now the smelter turns out more than 350,000 tonnes of aluminium a year and uses 15% of the nation’s annual power output. (Power comes from the Lake Manapouri hydro scheme.) This metallurgical monster earns for the New Zealand government and the local economy around $90 million per year. (Comalco, part of the multinational Rio Tinto Group, owns 80% of the smelter; Sumitomo Chemical Company of Japan owns the rest.)

The prime raw material, bauxite, is mined at Weipa on the western side of Cape York peninsula in northern Queensland. Front-end loaders scoop up the reddish-brown bauxite pebbles out of the ground which are then washed and sieved from the soil. This bauxite rubble is next transported by bulk carriers round the Cape to Gladstone in south-western Queensland to be refined down into alumina, a fine white powder.

Ships carry the alumina to a deep water berth in Bluff Harbour. From here the alumina is unloaded onto a conveyor belt and taken directly into the smelter, where it is electrolysed into liquid aluminium, before being siphoned into crucibles, cast into billets and ingots, and water-cooled. Finally it is stockpiled, ready to be shipped out.          

Today I surrendered the life

of my Honda City

to a wrecker in Penrose for $30 . .  .

That car took me to Uncle pat’s tangi in Bluff.

We stopped and gazed at Moeraki,

the dream sky, on the way.

- from “Honda Waka”, by Robert Sullivan, Star Waka, Auckland University Press, 1999.

In the mid-Nineties, interested in what happens when art practice meets corporate industry on a culturally layered site, Stephen Mulqueen gained permission to make art within a specified area of the smelter. He focused on concepts suggested by the word “WakaTiwai” (“canoe-boat”). This in turn led to a series of chalk drawings on the floor of a storage area. These evolved into a a representation of the six-metre length dimensions of a dug-out canoe held in the collection at Niho O Te Taniwha Southland Museum and Art Gallery. The linear chalk drawings led in turn to the placement of ingots and billets in a quasi-archeological act of reconstruction. The rectangular ingots were stacked, while the cylindrical billets were placed in a vertical position side by side. Three canoe forms were thus created, forming the installation Tiwai. In the current presentation an adze shape, painted black to represent basalt, is buried within one waka shape.           

These vessels remind you amongst other things of palisades and kete (woven baskets), but the effect is by no means purely memorial. Tiwai is an installation which undercuts its own coolness, its own smooth sculptural formality, with visual jokiness: an ingot has been turned into a cartoon car with the addition of wheels. And the installation contains another example of present-day waka. There’s a photograph of a car - “Te Waka” - belonging to John Broughton of Ngai Tahu. Selected documentary photographs by Erwin Brinkmann, who has extensively and sensitively documented the Bluff Harbour area, provide another layer of context.

So this is an exhibition which amalgamates identities, which conducts realignments of currency, and which retrieves still potent symbols from the archives of the past. It’s an exhibition about assembly and dispersal; about continuities: where we’re from, where we’re going to - and the crafts that accompany us.

Go to Tiwai in the Gallery

David Eggleton is a Dunedin-based writer and critic.

Stephen Mulqueen is a sculptor who resides between Dundedin, Otago and County Leitrim, Ireland. A previous winner of the Cleveland Art Award, he has had numeous exhibitions and installations. He was the artist in residence in the Department of Human Geography, Macquarie University, in 2005.