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September 24, 2018 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Changing Tides

“While the notion of a collective identity centred on Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa is reminiscent of a pre-colonial world, it is perhaps also an imagination enabled by a connectedness made possible both through our uptake of new technology and our ability to be mobile again.”
– False Divides, Lana Lopesi
The exhibition text for a temple, a commons, and a cave, curated by Amy Weng at MEANWHILE, is a reminder of this “current critical moment in the South Pacific,” where new means of communication can be used to navigate a reconnection of this region.
Arapeta Ashton and Wai Ching Chan’s video Pātai (2018), has no audio. We see harakeke being gathered. Its threads are separated out in thin wiry strands, then the fibres are rubbed across the shin until they form a rope. It is very long and slender. It is put into a pot of water with a brick, and left overnight, so the earthen pigment can seep in. In the finished object, suspended among other objects, we can understand how one location can host a multitude of different perspectives and approaches to existing in a place. Blessing Machine by Peng Jiang and Thomas Lawley (2018) is a metal structure, like an arcade game, free-standing in the gallery. Visitors are able to type their name in, and a receipt printer that is an internal component of the machine will print out a small docket. The machine is futuristic and exciting. The docket assigns you a Chinese name, accompanied by a short message of blessing from the Chinese gods.
What is in a name? What can names communicate about ourselves and our heritage? They tell us about connections, to land and to people. The changing nature of identity can be stabilised by the certainty of a name, or severed from it if it doesn’t fit right.
When I encounter Blessing Machine, I think of the re-naming that occurs in Aotearoa. The supposed complexity of Asian names for Pākehā means that people of Asian heritage in New Zealand are often asked to choose a English name or word, to be referred to instead of their real name. At my high school, Asian exchange students would be introduced in assembly by their real name, and then their “new” name would be announced. This practice only shows that Pākehā value their own convenience over respecting a significant part of someone else’s identity. In 2015, real estate data was leaked showing that the Labour party used Chinese-looking names as evidence that the housing crisis in Aotearoa was influenced by foreign investment. This sent a clear message to Chinese residents who owned homes that they would automatically be othered by virtue of their name alone.

Barely three years later, Kaoru Kodama has produced Orange Notes (2018). Orange is the colour of bureaucracy in Aotearoa, avoiding any political allegiance. Orange Notes is a 20 minute long audio work, comprised of sections of various institutional culture and heritage documents, including an opinion piece written by the Prime Minister and Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern. The state is willing to accept our dependence on Asia in economic terms, but underplays the cultural contribution of people of Asian heritage in New Zealand. Consequently, their responsibility to culturally support Asian communities is often overlooked in strategic plans. a temple, a commons, and a cave is a changing sea tide.

The isolation myth is over. Aotearoa has never been isolated, we have always been part of an interconnected web of islands and people and water, and these relationships are being strengthened once again.

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