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The Artist as Haua

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If we recognise the seriousness with which Kalisolaite ‘Uhila has performed Mo'ui tukuhausia, and remember the effort he has given to learning and displaying the survival skills of the haua, then we can refuse the equation of homelessness and artlessness made by many of the viewers of Campbell Live. Instead of treating the homeless person and the artist as members of different species, we can recognise the qualities that they often share.

Auckland

 

Simon Denny, Maddie Leach, Luke Willis Thompson, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila

The Walters Prize 2014

 

12 July - 12 October 2014

For the last three months Kalisolaite ‘Uhila has been homeless in central Auckland. Dressed in blue overalls and a variety of dark coats and shod in gumboots, carrying about a rolled-up mattress and a couple of bulging holey bags, he has become a familiar site on the pavements of Queen Street and its tributaries, in Albert Park, and at the City Mission on Hobson Street.

In 2012 ‘Uhila camped for a fortnight on the grounds of Pakuranga’s Te Tuhi gallery, in a performance he called Mo’ui tukuhausia, or Living Homeless. This year the Walters Prize selection jury - via Auckland Art Gallery - invited ‘Uhila to reprise and extend the performance, and gave him a room to use as his base. Although he has preferred to wander Auckland’s streets and parkland rather than remain indoors, ‘Uhila has stored some of his possessions in the gallery, and has set up a long white wall there where visitors can comment on his work.

Mo’ui tukuhausia is one of a series of clever and provocative performances put on by ‘Uhila in recent years. In 2011, in central Auckland’s Aotea Square, he shared a sty with a piglet he named ‘the Colonist’ for eight smelly days; in 2012, during a show by the Tongan-New Zealand artists’ collective No’o Fakataha at Mangere, he pretended to cook himself on an ‘umu’ made with stones, wood, and dry ice; in the same year, on Wellington’s waterfront, he spent four days and nights inside a sealed crate, living on coconuts and shitting in a bucket, as he re-enacted the journeys of Tongan stowaways to Niu Sila. Some of ‘Uhila’s performances have lacked audiences: Family Tree, for example, saw the artist walk alone to an obscure park in suburban Auckland, climb the tallest tree in the park, and fall out of that tree, hitting as many branches as possible on the way down.

Mo’ui tukuhausia may have been one of the four finalist exhibtions for this year’s Walters Prize, but it didn’t win, and ‘Uhila’s performance was criticised by some art critics and by many members of the public.

In an article comparing the Walters finalists, EyeContact editor John Hurrell argued that Mo’ui tukuhausia did not deserve to win the prize, because it lacked the ‘complex multiple resonances of its competitors’. Hurrell acknowledged that ‘Uhila’s performance expressed a ‘moral indignation’ at the plight of the homeless, but felt that it didn’t offer much else to art audiences. (1)

After TV3’s Campbell Live ran a report on Mo’ui tukuhausia, many viewers posted complaints on the show’s facebook page. If John Hurrell felt that ‘Uhila’s performance was a simplistic work of art, many viewers of the Campbell Live wondered whether it was art at all. A viewer signing herself ‘Daisy Catt’ expressed a common sentiment when she argued that, if Mo’ui tukuhausia was art, then ‘all homeless people are artists’. ‘Morris West’ claimed that ‘Uhila was not a performance artist but a ‘piss artist’ playing a confidence trick on a credulous cultural establishment.

Many of the unhappy viewers of Campbell Live associated homelessness with a set of behaviours - substance abuse, loafing, fighting - that they considered inimical to art, and to other worthwhile pursuits. By becoming homeless ‘Uhila had, they reckoned, abandoned any hope of making art.

Kalisoliate ‘Uhila would not have been surprised by the negative comments his appearance on Campbell Live provoked. When he performed Mo’ui tukuhausia for the first time at Te Tuhi gallery he often suffered aggressive rejection. Some visitors to the gallery wrote complaints about ‘Uhila’s presence there; others expressed themselves more directly, by swearing at and spitting on the artist.

Uhila’s unwillingness to explain Mo’ui tukuhausia has perhaps contributed to misunderstandings of the work. The artist has seemed very reluctant to engage with the journalists who have hunted him through the streets of central Auckland over the past three months. His statements to the Campbell show were terse and mostly unrevealing.

In these notes I want to outline an interpretation of Kalisoliate ‘Uhila’s art in general, and of Mo’ui Tukuhausia in particular. I don’t claim that mine is the only or most valid way of understanding ‘Uhila; I only think that it is preferable to the aggressive incomprehension that Mo’ui tukuhausia has too often provoked. (2)

Sia’atoutai and its rebels
During the first half of this year, when he was preparing to take up his residency on the wintry streets of Auckland, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila lived at Sia’atoutai Theological College, on the tropical island of Tongatapu, where his wife was studying.

Sia’atoutai sits in the Tongatapuan bush, a safe distance from the nightclubs and fried chicken joints of Nuku’alofa. Its campus is divided into seven villages, which are named after the seven churches of the Book of Revelations. Chapels, lecture halls, and dormitories squat under old trees, and look onto a huge circular field as smooth as a bowling green. It is also a stronghold of the Free Wesleyan Church, one of the most powerful and conservative institutions in Tonga. Founded in the 1880s, when King Tupou I tired of meddlesome European missionaries, the church was soon sending its own emissaries and propaganda to pagan corners of the Pacific. In Melanesia and in Outlier Polynesia it was often Tongans, rather than palangi, who brought the word of Jehovah to native peoples. (3) Today Sia’atoutai remains the base from which ministers and missionaries depart to evangelise and monitor both their countryfolk and the peoples of the wider world. (4)

Like many institutions set up to propagate an orthodoxy, though, Sia’atoutai has often bred heretics.

In the 1970s, a thin faith healer and Sia’atoutai graduate named Senituli Koloi led a revolt against the Free Wesleyan Church. Convinced that church buildings had imprisoned Christianity, Koloi wandered through the Tongan countryside preaching in the open air against feasting, drinking, decadent ministers, and the pursuit of worldly power. Like the Cathar heretics of medieval Europe, he believed that self-denial brings humans closer to God, and undertook long fasts. By the time he died in 1980, after refusing food for more than two weeks, Koloi had convinced thousands of Tongans to reject their religious establishment.

Salesi Finau is another famous Sia’atoutai rebel. A former lecturer at the school, Finau summed up his ideas in Jesus the Haua: Diaspora Theology of a Tongan, a playful and provocative little book published in 2008. (6) As Finau explains to his readers, ‘haua’ is a derogatory Tongan word meaning ‘wanderer’ or ‘outsider’:

The haua stands outside or drops off from the social ranking map…The haua are excluded…They operate in various groups…The haua can beg for money, to buy food, drugs, or alcohol. They are mobile…

Because they are uncontaminated by financial ambition and exempt from the exhausting rituals of polite society, haua are able to empathise with the whole of humanity, in the way that a minister or businessman or politician cannot. Finau believes that, by breaking bread with the marginalised and expressing his‘unity with sinners, Jesus made himself a haua.

Finau knows that his equation of the Son of God with society’s outcasts upsets many Tongans:

The traditional Tongan ranking system identifies Jesus with the majestic status of Tu’i (king) or e’iki (lord, noble, chief)…The haua image of Jesus is in conflict [with that]…I am not conforming to Tongan social and Christian structures of respect…

Like Senituli Koloi before him, Salesi Finau insists that Christians must reject the hierarchies and priorities of established society if they are to achieve godliness. Finau’s book was published by Massey University Press, and its arguments are surely as relevant to Niu Sila, as well as to Tonga. In this country, as well as in the Friendly Islands, large groups of people - the very poor, the homeless, illegal immigrants, the mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts - have always been treated as haua. It is hard to read Finau’s arguments without remembering RAK Mason’s great poem ‘On the Swag‘, which tried to rescue the itinerant labourer-beggar of interwar New Zealand from condescension:

His body doubled
      under the pack
      that sprawls untidily
      on his old back
      the cold wet dead-beat
      plods up the track…

Let the fruit be plucked
      and the cake be iced,
      the bed be snug
      and the wine be spiced
      in the old cove’s night-cap:
      for this is Christ.’

Becoming haua
I don’t know whether Kalisoliate ‘Uhila drank kava with Salesi Finau or one of his co-thinkers during his stay at Sia’toutai College, and whether he has read Jesus the Haua. It seems to me, though, that ‘Uhila’s work in general, and Mo’ui tukuhausia in particular, can be understood with the help of Finau’s rebellious theology.

To understand the extent of the parallels between Finau’s ideas and ‘Uhila’s work, we have to consider the role that art has tended to play in Tongan society.

Traditionally, Tongan carvers, dancers, musicians, poets, and ngatu makers have often exhibited their work at important social occasions, in front of powerful figures like royals and chiefs and ministers, and have sought to impress these audiences with intricate craftwork. Perhaps not coincidentally, the subject matter of Tongan artists has tended to be idealised, rather than realistic. Many poems praise the beauty of women or landscapes; tapa are often covered with symbols of national pride, like royal lions or fragrant flowers. (5)

Not surprisingly, scholars of Tongan art have emphasised its social function, its intricate forms, and its celebration of beauty. The late Futa Helu, who was famous for his knowledge of Tongan as well as European cultural tradition, noted that the ‘master artists’ of his country used ‘perfect proportion’ and ‘lovely rhythm’ to create work that was appreciated by their community as ‘faka’ofo’ofa’ (beautiful). (6)

It seems to me that Kalisoliate ‘Uhila’s art has little time for proportion, rhythm, or beauty. With their vast length and lack of obvious structure, his performances contrast with carefully constructed Tongan dances like the lakalaka and the me’etupaki. ‘Uhila’s subject matter is as heretical as his forms. Again and again, he has presented his audiences with marginal and despised characters: the stowaway, sweating and shitting in a cargo hold; the prodigal son, living far from home, amidst the filth of pigs; the slave being turned into a meal on an umu tangata; and the homeless man wandering between central Auckland’s steel and glass monuments to surplus value and alienation.

Like Salesi Finau’s theology, Kalisoliate ‘Uhila’s artworks rejects convention and celebrates the haua. Where Finau dismisses the rituals and preoccupations of mainstream Tongan Chrisitianity, ‘Uhila bypasses the forms and subject matter of traditional Tongan art. (7)

Fellow rebels
Of course, ‘Uhila Kalisoliate is not some isolated, instinctive rebel. He has learned from Western modernist and postmodernist art, and he has co-thinkers and predecessors in Tonga. While he was working towards a Bachelor of Visual Arts degree at AUT University ‘Uhila became interested in Joseph Beuys, the anthroposophist who liked to declare that ‘everyone can be an artist’. In the name of art, Beuys could share a cage with a coyote, and place lumps of animal fat in a gallery. Beuys’ curious mixture of provocation and calm can be detected in many of ‘Uhila’s performances.

Uhila’s iconoclasm is shared by a number of other contemporary Tongan artists, like the sculptor and ngatu maker Visesio Siasau, who has upset audiences by putting pagan gods like Tangaloa on crosses, and by painting dollar signs on Sisu Kalaise. The artists of Nuku’alofa’s Seleka Club, who spend their evenings drinking kava from a toilet bowl and making Picassoid portraits of their home town’s more eccentric inhabitants, also share ‘Uhila’s irreverence. (8)

It can be argued, as well, that Tonga has always been home to artists whose work has been made and shared away from the eyes and ears of political and religious establishments. The anthropologist Wendy Pond has spent decades collecting, translating and analysing some of the subversive songs that have been sung out of the earshot of the country’s rulers. In a famous essay Pond discussed the kava songs of Kitione Mamata, who lived in the remote Niuan archipelago and described, with empathy but not pity, the hard work and poverty of its people. Mamata’s songs would make a fine soundtrack to Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s performances. (9)

Survival skills

In place of the careful patterning and regard for symmetry that many Tongan artists have valued, ‘Uhila has emphasised what some sociologists call the ‘survival skills’ of marginalised people like the homeless. ‘Uhila has learned, through observation and practice, how to sleep in the rough without being roughed up, how to beg without arousing fear as well as pity, how to harvest food and shelter from rubbish bins and gutters, and how to make and sustain friendships with other homeless people. He considers these skills as important and as hard-earned as anything he learned at art school. 

While performing Mo’ui tukuhausia, ‘Uhila has often tried to draw attention to the skills that the homeless use to survive by moving very slowly and silently. He can spend a quarter of an hour mutely exploring a rubbish bin, or rolling a cigarette, or unrolling a mattress.

We might compare ‘Uhila’s deliberate slowness with the tactics of the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, who likes to make his audiences watch slowed-down versions of famous movies. Gordon’s Twenty-four Hour Psycho was intended to make its viewers aware of the details - some of them trivial, some of them suddenly significant - that are overlooked when Hitchcock’s masterpiece plays at its normal pace. Like Gordon, ‘Uhila wants us to improve our attention by slowing down his art.

Artists and haua

If we understand Kalisoliate ‘Uhila’s work as a challenge to the conventions of traditional Tongan art and an attempt to dignify the marginalised and despised people Tongans call haua, then we can counter some of the charges that have been made against Mo’ui tukuhausia.

John Hurrell complained that Mo’ui tukuhausia lacked complexity, but if we consider ‘Uhila’s performance in a Tongan context we can see its many and radical implications. Like Duchamp’s Readymades a century ago, Mo’ui tukuhausia is an apparently simple artwork that disguises years of intense thought and represents a response to an entire art tradition.

If we recognise the seriousness with which Kalisolaite ‘Uhila has performed Mo’ui tukuhausia, and remember the effort he has given to learning and displaying the survival skills of the haua, then we can refuse the equation of homelessness and artlessness made by many of the viewers of Campbell Live. Instead of treating the homeless person and the artist as members of different species, we can recognise the qualities - ingenuity, eccentricity, pride, endurance - that they often share. Perhaps the similarities between ‘Uhila’s art and the everyday lives of the homeless should make us think in new, more positive ways about Auckland’s haua, rather than condemn ‘Uhila.

Scott Hamilton

(1) John Hurrell, ‘Pondering the Walters Prize 2014’, EyeContact, 30th of July 2014, at http://eyecontactsite.com/2014/07/looking-at-the-walters-prize

(2) Nina Tonga has published a very interesting study of Mo’ui Tukuhausia called ‘Roaming All Levels’ for the Te Papa website at http://www.arts.tepapa.govt.nz/off-the-wall/7959/roaming-all-levels The facebook thread which featured the aforementioned attacks on ‘Uhila is preserved in all its silliness at https://www.facebook.com/CampbellLiveNZ/posts/10154581948935226

(3) In New Guinea the Free Wesleyan Church founded its own colonies, complete with plantations and schools as well as churches; in Ontong Java its representatives banned the local religion and punished recalcitrant pagans so vigorously that they were reprimanded even by palangi missionaries.

(4) A friend of mine trained at the school before travelling to Sudan and Uganda, where he converted witchdoctors and sung them Tongan hymns.

(5) Eric Shumway’s essay ‘The Eulogistic Function of the Tongan Poet’, which was published in Pacific Studies in 1977 and is online at https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/PacificStudies/article/view/8962/8611, goes so far as to argue that the ‘primary responsibility’ of Tongan poets has been to ‘glorify and aggrandise’ the country’s rulers.

(6) Helu makes his remarks in the long late text Art of the Community, which was written for Unesco and is online at http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/files/29489/11347324813community_art.pdf/community_art.pdf

(7) Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai has argued persuasively that palangi critics and curators often use the term ‘traditional’ in a patronising and discriminatory manner when they discuss art from Tonga and other parts of the Pacific. Artists who work in long-established ways - women who make ngatu to display and gift at important social occasions, for example - are often negatively contrasted with artists who show the influence of modernism and postmodernism and show their work in galleries. The first type of artist is held to be ‘traditional’, and therefore conservative and unimaginative; the second is considered ‘contemporary’, and therefore innovative and creative. I believe that there are big differences - stylistic, institutional, conceptual - between Tongan artists working in long-established contexts, like the women who make and gift ngatu in the country’s villages, and self-consciously iconoclastic, gallery-oriented artists like Kalisolaite ‘Uhila or Visesio Siasau, and I have used the term ‘traditional’ in these notes to try to indicate this difference. I don’t mean the term in a patronising or derogatory way.

(8) I have blogged about the Seleka Club’s adventures at http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2013/12/why-tevita-latu-is-new-lou-reed.html and http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2014/07/through-portal-to-tongatapu.html#mce_temp_url# and described some of Siasau’s extraordinary sculptures at http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2014/01/burning-gods-letter-to-visesio-siasau.html

(9) Wendy Pond’s essay ‘Wry Comment from the Outback: Songs of Protest from the Niua Islands, Tonga’ was published in Oral Tradition in 1990, and is online at http://journal.oraltradition.org/files/articles/5ii-iii/4_pond.pdf. Pond and Garth Rogers included the lyrics of several of Kitione Mamata’s songs in their fascinating book The Fire Has Jumped: eyewitness accounts of the eruption and evacuation of Niuafo’ou, Tonga, which was published by the University of the South Pacific in 1986.

This is the fifth in a series of forums on aspects of The Walters Prize 2014.

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This Discussion has 23 comments.

Comment

Ralph Paine, 10:10 a.m. 16 October, 2014

Today, when art suffers the ignominy of its hyper-institutionalization—or what amounts to an increasingly desperate fetishization of the art school, gallery, museum, fair, biennial, competition, etc.—there seems no real point no more in attempting to construct venerable lineages and historico-cultural precedents for any artist’s practice/work/life.

Sure, there are many examples dispersed through space and time from which one could draw out a genealogical path for Kalisoliate ‘Uhila. From the Cynics of Ancient Greece to 60s & 70s performance artists in New York and elsewhere, from Hindu ascetics and seers to the Buddha himself—and yes, including the Tongan figure of haua—there is no shortage of staging points and personae for the construction of such a genealogy.

But are we not tired—exhausted even—by all this tracking down and tracing, by all these search-engine methodologies, this institutionally instigated research into artistic models and contexts of tradition? It seems to me that the entire result of current artistic precedent setting, back-story production, and lineage mark-outs is a kind of capturing and taming—a capture of art by elites, a taming of artists for careerism and professionalization.

The counter-move here would have been to follow more closely the artist's lead and to take seriously and defend his stance regarding the becoming-everything/everybody of art: yes, the field of art is an immanent potentiality of the common; yes, this potentiality is open to all, requiring no permission slip or pass card for participation. And no reporting back either!

However, given Kalisoliate ‘Uhila's (naive?) allowance of his performance Mo’ui tukuhausia into the 2014 Walters Prize short list, and thus his personal acquiescence to what seems a humiliating process of institutional capture and taming at complete odds with the spirit of the work, a very difficult line indeed for any writer to pursue.

Reply to this thread

Scott Hamilton, 8:44 p.m. 17 October, 2014

Hi Ralph,

I can't agree with your argument because it seems to me to rest on two problematic assumptions.

In the first place, you seem to assume that, in twenty-first century NZ, all arts institutions have become enemies of creativity and prisons for talent.

There's a grain of truth to your assumption. But not all institutions are not the same, and no institution is without contradiction and change. There's a significant difference between the priorities and resources of a top-end dealer gallery in central Auckland, for example, and a community gallery in an outer suburb. There are considerable differences between the ideologies of our different regional galleries and museums. Not all art schools sing from the same hymnbook.

Your attitude to institutions reminds me of the 'Give Up Art' manifesto that Jared Davidson circulated a couple of years ago. I wrote a blog post contrasting Davidson's undiscriminating and essentially nihilistic demand for the destruction of art galleries with the programme of Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai, the Tongan-NZ cultural activist who has been campaigning for the expansion of our definitions of art and the inclusion of hitherto excluded groups in our galleries: http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2014/07/occupying-not-abandoning-bourgeois.html

Reply to this thread

Scott Hamilton, 8:57 p.m. 17 October, 2014

You also seem to assume that any effort to contextualise an artist, by describing his or her personal history or influences or peers or social context, tends to vitiate that artist's work. Only if the work appears in a mysterious sort of vacuum, without the encumbrances of precedent and parallel, can it be truly exciting.

But it seems to me that, far from being radical and rare, the sort of decontextualised art object or performance that you praise is a ubiquitous and often negative part of both high and popular culture in the twenty-first century West. In fields like music as well as visual art, we continually see the appropriation, decontextualisation, and reuse of motifs and fragments. Think of the Polynesian motifs that have ended up as innocent and mysterious decorations on the limbs of Robbie Williams fans, or the Yemeni singers lost amidst the samples on a hip hop track.

I've tended to think that the insistence on understanding an artwork in social and historical context is, or at least can be, radical, because it resists the trend towards the appropriation and decontextualisation which is such a part of late capitalist society.

You argue for the collpasing of art into life, but Herbert Marcuse made a very cogent case for the keeping, and even the strengthening, of that division, so that art could be the repository of possible alternate pasts and possible futures and dangerous fantasies.

Reply to this thread

Scott Hamilton, 6:11 p.m. 18 October, 2014

I did appreciate the comment though, Ralph. There is probably something a bit compulsive about my contextualising of artists!

Your talk about deinstitutionalisation reminded me of an article in the latest New York Review of Books which reflected on how strange it seems, in this age when exhibitionism is expected of artists, that Duchamp's Readymades were not initially conceived to be shown to the public: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/sep/25/cult-jeff-koons/

I'd agree with the author that something profound and mysterious was lost in the long march from Duchamp to Jeff Koons.

Reply to this thread

Ralph Paine, 9:42 a.m. 20 October, 2014

Citizenship of any given nation-state is no warrant for personal autonomy and freedom, and nor can the institutions of such politico-economic configurations be relied upon to provide art’s autonomy and freedom. Yes, there is difference among institutions. Always-already there is much historico-cultural variation. But I spoke of a perceived change in today’s currents and trends, of a shift in the contemporary confluence.

I call this the ‘hyper-institutionalization of art’, a term marking the arrival of a time of institutional overkill and excess. A time when the institution-as-such is obsessively, compulsively, fetishized—when IT becomes the aim, the glory, and the end of art. But is the institution the desire itself? No, because the institutions do not have copyright on the common name of art. The Duchamp game is over.

Historical and institutional context are not what art is. Rather, these are what art differs itself from. Context is that from which art escapes. Hence: art is non-context, de-territorialization, becoming. But escape is also what allows for a re-jigging of context. Today more and more of art is leaving the compound, exiting to the outside where the air is fresh. Surely and simultaneously this involves the shape-shifting of context, re-territorialization, an enhancement of life conducted via the becoming-everything/everybody of art. Not then the destruction of institutions. More like abandonment, leave-taking, exodus…

Reply to this thread

Scott Hamilton, 6:12 p.m. 20 October, 2014

Once again, Ralph, your comment seems somewhat over-prescriptive to me. You offer up a definition of art that would exclude almost all of what we today call art. The traditional artists of Polynesia, the Byzantine mosaic artists, and Shakespeare would all be left outside the door of the narrow chapel you apparently want to build.

Why focus on extreme novelty and a disregard for historical and social context when defining and discussing art? Do you have an ethical or political rationale for the rules you're promoting?

Reply to this thread

Scott Hamilton, 6:33 p.m. 20 October, 2014

I suppose what I'm trying to query is the certainty with which you generalise about the state of art, and the certainty with which you offer recommendations for its future.

The notion that there is one truth, about art or economics or religion, that is valid in every part of the world, always seems natural in centres of imperial power, like the nations of the West. But it is a false and dangerous doctrine, which leads to cultural and political imperialism.

Reply to this thread

Ralph Paine, noon 21 October, 2014

When I speak of leaving the compound, you accuse me of wanting to build narrow chapels.

When I speak of art as a potentiality open to all, you accuse me of exclusivity and of promoting false and dangerous doctrine.

When I speak of a play of difference operating between art and its context, you accuse me of a disregard for context.

When I speak of what I observe happening in the world around me, you accuse me of promoting one truth.

When I speak of the common, you accuse me of cultural imperialism...

WTF???###!!!!

Reply to this thread

Daniel Webby, 1:20 p.m. 21 October, 2014

I wonder if returning to Marcuse would answer many of the questions you’ve put forward, Scott – in particular his thoughts on repressive desublimation. “By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests”.

Beuys’ – the artist as opposed to the anthroposophist – assertion that “every living human being is an artist” for me has little to do with the production of affects and the performance of subjectivity which is now simply a social reality – rather it is an ethical imperative, a responsibility more than a right, for the constant negotiation with the actual and formal freedoms within which subjectivity emerges – where “formal freedom is the freedom of choice within the coordinates of the existing power relations, while actual freedom designates the site of an intervention that undermines these very coordinates” (Zizek). And this for me is a useful way to think through aesthetics – never wholly reducible to one or another ideological coordinate but always with the potential to elide ‘structural tendencies’ as it also describes new sites from which to act.

And in this sense it seems your representations of Salesi Finau’s work and in turn ‘Uhila’s practice glosses over the very alterity at their core. Redemption, in the sense outlined by the fragments of Finau’s thoughts provided, is primarily a framework of rejection - “I am not conforming to Tongan social and Christian structures of respect” - and has nothing to do with redemption in the viewer’s gaze. That aside, it seems to me the cultural context you’ve provided is extremely useful and I don’t agree with Ralph on the point of emphasising deterritorialisation. While Deleuze & Guattari seem to anticipate some form of industrial strength ‘absolute’ rupture, in the mean-time, the domestic strength, ‘relative’ variety has been pretty effective in disabling our collective imaginary toward any sort of ‘outside’.

David Graeber provides an excellent model for thinking through history, not as a tool for stabilising the image, but to be deployed in a manner not unlike Finau’s figure of the haua; “If we can extricate ourselves from the shackles of fashion, the need to constantly say that whatever is happening now is necessarily unique and unprecedented (and thus, in a sense, unchanging, since everything apparently must always be this way) we might be able to grasp history as a field of permanent possibility, in which there is no particular reason we can’t at least try to begin building a redemptive future at any time.” http://www.tenstakonsthall.se/uploads/38-graebersadness.pdf

Or whatevs.

 In reply

Ralph Paine, 4:22 p.m. 23 October, 2014

Deleuze and Guattari’s concept “deterritorialization” is way more fascinating and currently useful than you make it out to be. And it’s not a matter of either absolute deterritorialization or relative deterritorialization, as both forms require and proceed by way of each other. Further, both forms have negative and positive versions: “There are thus at least four forms of deterritorialization that confront and combine, and must be distinguished from one another following concrete rules” (D&G, ATP, p. 510). Of course there are many other terms involved: “line of flight”, “the earth”, “the Cosmos”, “regime of signs”, “the natal”, “the refrain”, “milieu”, “reterritorialization”—and wrapping one’s head round all these is crucial, especially the latter term.

Let’s return to Kalisoliate ‘Uhila. Clearly his self-designated art-life is composed of relative deterritorialization: he’s on a line of flight, an attempt at absolute deterritorialization—a sustained movement by which he leaves the “territory”. But constantly this movement reterritorializes; on some part or aspect of the system, within the established art world, on texts, whatever. In the recent past these reterritorializations have been both positive and negative to some degree. For example, Mo’ui tukuhausia’s first iteration at Te Tuhi seemed relatively positive, although the institution (and no doubt the artist) couldn’t help but over-code the performance as WORK; document it, market (and thus financialize) it, etc. Hence its taking on of a somewhat negative aspect.

Ralph Paine, 4:27 p.m. 23 October, 2014

But it’s with Mo’ui tukuhausia’s second iteration as a finalist in the 2014 Gordon Walters Prize that the performance reterritorialized within extreme negativity—inside a hyper-institutionalized black hole as it were. This time around the over-coding machines really kicked into high gear, with way, way more intense documentation, marketing and financialization, media coverage and speculation, etc. In fact, this time the Prize’s by-line immediately over-coded the performance as HARD WORK, as the “toughest” kind of (art) work there is. And like I said, no amount of subsequent “precedent setting, back-story production or lineage mark-out” can redeem the performance of its now archived allocation within all that. But hey, I'm guessing Kalisoliate ‘Uhila has already left the territory!

Once upon a time I sat with haua on the beach at Nuku’alofa. Drinking cans of Fosters, sharing cigarettes, shooting the breeze: “WE ARE LOST!”… “WE ARE SAVED!”

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Scott Hamilton, 7:23 p.m. 21 October, 2014

I might be failing to read you with enough care, Ralph - on the other hand, though, you might be failing to express yourself clearly.

Perhaps you could offer an example of the sort of art you're commending? An artist who does what 'Ite and others have failed to do?

I did a search and saw you reviewing et al enthusiastically. But it seems to me that the approach to art she reflects has been appropriated gleefully by neo-liberal 'reformers' at the University of Auckland: http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2010/08/getting-technical.html

 In reply

Ralph Paine, 3:49 p.m. 22 October, 2014

Can't recall ever reviewing et al.

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Scott Hamilton, 9:59 p.m. 21 October, 2014

Hi Daniel,

I agree that those ideas, which I associate with Marcuse's '60s works like Eros and Civilisation and One Dimensional Man, can be used to justify attempts to break through barriers between art and life, and between artists and non-artists. I think that the organisers of happenings and other countercultural actions took some inspiration from the Marcuse of the '60s.

But I was thinking about The Aesthetic Dimension, which Marcuse published at the end of the '70s, and close to the end of his own life. In this book Marcuse turns back to some of the masterpieces of 'bourgeois' art, like the novels of Balzac and the plays of Shakespeare, and argues that they have a power that is lacking in phenomena like happenings because they exist somewhat, though not of course completely, apart from life.

Marcuse notes that dictatorships, like those of Stalin and Hitler, have advocated the unity of art and life, and have been impatient with works of 'high' art that refuse to be assimilated to any obvious political agenda. He thinks that the great works of art can be radical precisely because they sit somewhat apart from life. They can show us the gap between what is and what might be; they can offer refuge to the oppressed mind.

There's an interesting connection between Marcuse and Tonga, because the sociologist and novelist Maikolo Horowitz, who has been a long-time teacher at the 'Atenisi (Athens) Institute, the radical school set up by the classicist and democratic reformer Futa Helu back in the '60s, is a former student of Marcuse.

When I worked at 'Atenisi last year Maikolo told me stories about how disappointingly distant Marcuse was, in his dealing with the radical students of the '60s. Maikolo hung out with the '60s avant-garde - he used to go drinking with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground - and he had expected Marcuse to place himself at the head of that movement, not behave like an old-fashioned German scholar. But I tended to sympathise with Marcuse, when I heard Maikolo's stories!

 In reply

Daniel Webby, 11:45 a.m. 25 October, 2014

Thanks for posting this link Maikolo – it made me think of Campbell Jones “What kind of Subject is the Market?” in particular the bit about “despotism without despots”.

The independence of art seems a central theme among the comments here and reminds me of a recent eflux provocation (used to launch their conversations project);

“Slavoj Žižek has said again and again that the eternal marriage between capitalism and democracy has ended, but perhaps we must say the same of the supposedly eternal marriage between contemporary art and progressive thinking?”

http://conversations.e-flux.com/

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Scott Hamilton, 10:14 p.m. 21 October, 2014

I agree that Salesi Finau is disassociating himself from mainstream Tongan society by aspiring to the state of the haua, but I don't think his rebellion would necessarily have to be individual and aesthetic.

It could be political too, because Tonga has for decades now had a strong, if chaotic, pro-democracy movement, which has attracted, at one time or another, many theologians and ministers unhappy with the country's establishment.

It's interesting that one of Salesi's brothers here in 'Atalanga ran as a candidate for the Internet-Mana Party in the recent election.

One of the things I dislike about some of Marcuse's 1960s works, like One Dimensional Man, is the prioritising of individual rebellion, involving the making of certain choices about lifestyle and culture, over collective political action.

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Daniel Webby, 2:07 p.m. 22 October, 2014

A clever rebuttal - nevertheless I suggest you are seeking to have your haua and eat it too.

The question isn’t for me how to legitimate the desire for an outside but to ask what legitimates the orthodoxies you seem be advocating for? Other than, of course; a) the intuition that there is nothing else or b) the fear that there very well might be. Or, in much stronger language, from Lisa Robertson’s "Palinodes";

What we have not dreamed explains the visible
Let’s not decide what danger is

I really do recommend the Graeber essay I linked to in the previous post – particularly the section titled "the art world as a form of politics”

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Scott Hamilton, 2:23 p.m. 22 October, 2014

I appreciate the link, Daniel, and will think over your arguments.

Frankly, I don't really mind whether I'm right or you're right - I just think it's fantastic to be discussing Tongan intellectuals and artists in a place like EyeContact! I remember going to university and filling my head with the often convoluted and abstruse ideas of chaps like Marcuse and Derrida and Zizek, and all the while considering the culture of NZ's closest neighbour*, and other societies of the tropical Pacific, impenetrable! I'm trying to make up for lost time now by writing about thinkers like Salesi Finau and Futa Helu and artists like 'Ite.

It's interesting that 'Ite made you think about Graeber, whose ideas seem to have been linked quite closely with the Occupy movement.

After someone suggested on facebook that 'Ite and Willis Thompson were very different artists, and that the decision to award the Walters to Thompson rather than 'Ite was a travesty, I tried to argue that the two artists have quite a bit in common, because of their questioning of the gallery space and their unease about the relationship between art and the rest of society.

I might have been stretching, but I thought that, by trying to substitute human intimacy - in the form of one on one interaction in a city street, or a visit to a private home - for the distance that the artist normally puts between him or herself and the audience, 'Ite and Thompson might be echoing the gesture of the Occupy protesters, who tried to make a human, welcoming spaces in the alienated hearts of our cities.

*With the exception of Norfolk Island, which probably deserves to be considered more seriously by Kiwis, too...

 In reply

Mark Amery, 10:52 a.m. 23 October, 2014

On the 'Ite - Willis Thompson thread: http://www.thebigidea.co.nz/news/columns/mark-amery-visual-arts/2014/oct/150408-the-welcome-mat
It's just kneejerk Walters reaction that doesnt give credit to Willis Thompson's sustained interest in bringing the Pacific human into the gallery, and rupturing the membrane. A wee fave of mine was the piece in this show: http://eyecontactsite.com/2012/06/what-is-documentation

John Hurrell, 12:28 p.m. 23 October, 2014

No it's not kneejerk, Mark. Luke has done better works than inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam. He is an admirable artist for sure, but this particular project did not show him at his best.

Why? Because it radically changed contextually in its presentation as a WP finalist, previously withheld information about the destination in its first showing then being made public; plus it gave out conflicting signals as to how its audience should behave (do you not touch stuff presented in front of you because it is private, or do you sift through it for 'research'?) or interpret (is it a readymade, an assisted readymade, or an installation?. Each has a different experiential template of analysis). These reservations are legitimate, and not to be ignored simply because the work is perceived as 'Pacific'.

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Daniel Webby, 4:18 p.m. 22 October, 2014

all very relevant points Scott - except maybe the bit about lost time - to reference another foreign cultural artifact; soy un perdedor, falling wax, choking termites etc.

And to completely undermine myself - I'm not convinced that "outside" is the most useful conception in terms of what I was trying to say - perhaps inflection plays a much greater role but that seems a longer story.

To return to the concrete - wouldn't it be nice to see the art world be the first to abandon zero-sum games such as the current system of art awards. $50K toward a dozen month long projects throughout the city reconsidering the nature, forms, objectives of competition itself. Maybe next year...

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Daniel Webby, 11:43 a.m. 25 October, 2014

Points taken Ralph – my characterisation was reductive, possibly bordering on absurd. The comments were in relation to Scott’s essay and a certain cultural amnesia which it seeks to avoid. I guess I’m a fan of that ladder analogy – the one you can use to claw your way across and then discard.

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Ralph Paine, 12:07 p.m. 28 October, 2014

On Being-in-Rivalry

There is a remarkable competitiveness and hierarchy in the history of art production and exchange (as there is, of course, in the history of production and exchange in general), an antagonism and exploitative aggressiveness acting as a negative precondition for artists. Even ancient myth speaks to us of this. In Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of the goddess Minerva’s jealousy for the astonishing weaving skills of a young woman named Arachne—a jealousy which lead Minerva to challenge the young woman to a competition. When indeed Arachne does weave the better tapestry this sends the goddess into a rage and she destroys Arachne’s work and beats her viciously about the head with a weaving shuttle. Dishonoured and badly injured, Arachne then fastens a noose around her own neck and attempts to hang herself. But upon this Minerva takes sudden pity, deciding to let Arachne live, and so leaving her suspended in mid air like that for all time she transforms Arachne into the first spider.

Extreme forms of pride, virtuosity, humiliation, destructiveness, and pity combine here to create, not a moral tale, but rather a retelling/relaying of the conditions necessary for the emergence of new forms of life, new species. And so it is today that when the independent subjectivities operative of the production of art find themselves captured by an historic logic arising from the negative preconditions of the capitalist mode of that production and exchange, the ensuing politico-economic precariousness and alienation endured should be conceived as vital components in that play of contradictions and tensions requisite for the cooperative invention—and continual reinvention—of a different mode, that is to say, the common.

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