Gateway to a wonderland

In 1982 Robin White made an etching titled Goodbye Bay of Plenty. On one level it signaled her move from New Zealand— the place of her birth and her whakapapa— to Kiribati. On another level, it memorialised the notorious historic marlin kills that took place in the Bay of Plenty. From the 1920s onwards, marlin were fished, killed and proffered as sporting trophies. Photographs abound of catches lined up, and the fishers looking very proud. In 1955, Mrs H. J. Carkeek held the New Zealand record, with a 430 lb striped marlin, caught not far from Mayor Island. The bounty of the fishers— both in size and number—is now viewed as an atrocity by many. As late as 1987, the cover of The Borough of Mt Maunganui’s information handbook depicted two large marlins encircling the Borough’s coat of arms. The marlin killing fields were emblematic of the richness of marine life in the Bay of Plenty and—as things were to develop—also of its vulnerability. Further north, the Kermadec Trench still subscribes to that richness of marine life.

Goodbye Bay of Plenty

Little did Robin White know that nearly three decades after making Goodbye Bay of Plenty, she would be sailing along the Kermadec Ridge, the superstructure of the Pacific that begins geographically at Mt Tongariro on the North Island’s Central Plateau and ends at Tonga. Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty are located at the point where this geological formation enters the ocean—hence the particular relevance of the ‘Kermadec’ project to the region. With that thought in mind, it is especially fitting that the Tauranga Art Gallery should be the inaugural venue for the ‘Kermadec’ exhibition, presenting a selection of art which offers as much vitality and diversity as the Trench itself.

The Kermadec region can be viewed as a natural extension of the Bay of Plenty. Relatively close, at 130 kilometres off our coast, the Clark Volcano on White Island, is the first in a row of active volcanoes. Stretching like a mountain range beneath the sea’s surface, the Kermadecs are a continuation of New Zealand’s seismic fault line. After the 7 July 2011 7.6 earthquake (the epicentre was 160km from Raoul Island and 920km from Tonga), television broadcaster John Campbell described the Kermadec Trench as a ‘volcanic and tectonic wonderland’. He also pointed out that, on average, the area sees more tectonic activity than any part of mainland New Zealand. ‘Wonderland’ is a perfect word to use when describing the Kermadec area. Its inaccessibility is perhaps integral to its charm; it is relatively unspoiled and it contains much that is yet to be discovered or understood.

The nine artists who travelled on HMNZS Otago, have each grappled with, and embraced, the flora and fauna they discovered there. Four of the artists have existing ties with the Tauranga Art Gallery. Phil Dadson showcased his Breath of Wind installation here in 2009 and Elizabeth Thomson’s Another Green World graced the large atrium gallery during the summer of 2010/11. Dame Robin White, born in Te Puke, is one of three artists the Gallery actively collects; her Goodbye Bay of Plenty was an early gift for the Collection in 2004. Robin White wanted to celebrate the idea of a public art gallery for the Bay of Plenty—something it lacked at the time, but which was eventually initiated by the community. The significance of her work is even more relevant now, following her visit to the Kermadecs. Gregory O’Brien has been part of the Gallery from the outset. In 2004 he gave a floor-talk in an empty shop surrounded by borrowed contemporary art, to whet the appetite of Tauranga’s small art fraternity. Since the Gallery opened in late 2007, Gregory has given several talks and more recently, the exhibition he curated, ‘The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy’, has been showcased. For the other artists in the exhibition, the gallery presents a fresh context in which to show their work. As the Kermadecs are placed more firmly on the international map, so too is the Tauranga Art Gallery.

While the current project was not the first— and it will not be the last—to record the flora and fauna of the Kermadecs, it did offer an unprecedented opportunity to approach the region from a non-scientific angle. Artists were selected on the grounds that what they produced for the exhibition would not simply mimic nature; the region deserves more than mere replication. Imaginatively, they would embrace aspects, either minute or vast; they would interrogate through words, symbols, sound, patterns and so on. Sound artist, Phil Dadson, studied the stones at Raoul Island. For him, every stone has its own voice–only an artist at one with their raw material could come to such a conclusion and interpret it for an audience at large. Through such artistic interpretation, the imagination of audiences is captured; they are inducted into a deeper awareness of the region.

The artists have humanized the Kermadec experience for us. Robin White’s contribution to the exhibition, three tapa cloths totalling over 16 metres in length, is not a farewell lament like Goodbye Bay of Plenty. Rather, it is a welcoming celebration; its subtitle is particularly apt: The fault line that connects New Zealand to Tonga as a metaphor that allows us to explore a human story of island life. For some of the artists in this project the Kermadecs have offered a new experience and a new world to explore artistically. For Robin White it is also about returning. She explains that one of her earliest visual memories is of witnessing a ‘giant creature’ on Mount Maunganui’s main beach. It was a dead marlin that had been caught and then brought ashore. She laments the beached marlin, and recalls how huge it appeared to her, as a pre- schooler. In Goodbye Bay of Plenty, the scale of the marlin, in relation to the tent, is overpowering.

‘Kermadec’, the exhibition, is about journeying. Indeed New Zealand’s strong artistic tradition of nationalism and landscape imagery has often been about journeys, and how those journeys are recorded. That this exhibition was initiated by a shipboard voyage adds to a long tradition spanning both Polynesian and European history. The Kermadec-inspired works speak volumes about Tauranga’s place and role globally as a destination and place of departure. As a region, the Bay of Plenty exports produce internationally. Our port is the second largest in New Zealand. Our beaches, where dead marlin were once lined up like trophies, are the gateway to—as we now know—one of the last untouched places on Earth.

As onlookers, we can be enriched by the artists’ experiences on this voyage. Exploration is also at the very heart of the works in this exhibition—and hopefully the content will inspire greater care and conservation for this watery wonderland. Like all explorers, the artists quickly discovered that there was so much to know and experience of this region beyond the realms of science and the rational mind. For some, the voyage has become the catalyst for a huge body of work. The expedition has provided inspiration and subject matter for work that will ultimately contribute to New Zealand’s canon of art history.

Like the Australian and Pacific plates that have come together over millions of years to create what we call the Kermadec Trench, in this exhibition, art and science meet to celebrate a very special place, literally at our back door.

—Penelope Jackson


Background image: Siu i Moana (detail) 2011 Robin White with Ruha Fifita barkcloth, umea, tongo (natural dyes and pigments)