A Memory of the River

Nathan Homestead, Manurewa, 11 August - 22 September 2018

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If you stand at the door the room to your left is partitioned by a row of saree sourced from various market shops along Dashashwamedh Road. The video work called From Assi to Brahma, 2018, was all filmed through the Rolliflex camera sitting on the windowsill. This is an attempt to record the various ghats (steps) that follow the west bank on the River Ganges. I say attempt, because as a stranger in a strange land I can only ever know a place from a distance.

This show is the culmination of my time spent on an Asia New Zealand Foundation artist residency in Varanasi, India, and as a collection of work it is a retrospective of failure. Failure, in the best possible way. In the show I do not attempt to seek enlightenment or push it on others, nor do I use the common tourist trope of photographing the more “colourful” locals of the river, projecting a kind of human zoo onto the ancient city.

I show you my various attempts of capturing the un-capturable in trying to contain the vast depths of story and history through a camera lens or at the end of a paint brush. All are genuine attempts of record, but all fall short. The dust does not get in your eyes as you travel the streets and alleyways in the photographs. The paining does not capture the smell of places moved through and around, and the video does not portray the feel of hot, dry wind wrapping around everything it touches.

It is perhaps the kaleidoscope work, sitting on the seat and named after the philosopher, speaker and writer, which best describes the visual sensation of life in Varanasi. Every time I went to the river I would buy a new beaded necklace. Haggling the price down from 300 rupee to a more respectable price, later realizing, with the exchange rate checked, I was haggling over a few cents. 

The painting A Memory of the River, 2018 was painted over two months and was added to daily. The dry heat evaporated the oil paint allowing for layers to be added more frequently without mixing with each other and so the colours, like that of the city, stand out against each other, fighting for attention while always moving in a blur. 

The watercolours were inspired by the brightly painted steps of the ghats. Lines of unnatural colour reflected in the river and are covered with thick mud during monsoon season only to be wash off and intermittently repainted. I only used water from the sacred river to make these paintings hoping again that this would somehow impart a holy resonance to the abstracted lines. The lock in the small room is gold leafed and hangs, holding on, prayed over and blessed by the man who sold it to me. He said to gold leaf it for more blessings. I tried to tell him I was an artist, but he didn’t seem to care. The small stool covered with bindi dots bought from a stall; in a jewellery section in a market where I was too often lost in, responds to the absurdity of the place. The collision of faith and commerce, beauty and poverty and industry and subsistence living, it is a contradiction, sacred and profane but holding meaning and space all the same.

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New Show with Martin Awa Clarke Langdon - Te reo Pākehā

Review of show: https://pantograph-punch.com/post/unmissables-july

Date Paintings

In 2012 upon entering England the border agent at customs check point was very firm, reminding me that I was only to stay in the island kingdom no longer than my 90 day holiday visa. Should I explain than both my parents paternal and maternal lines trace back to England and so I am from here? I decide to just agree and move forward into my hostile ancient home. I’m aware of how citizenship works, and genealogy is not it.

So, I am positioned back in Aotearoa. The only home I have known, having to embrace the feeling of being in exile. Māori have found a way to deal with this exile. They hold Hawaiki within their identity story. A placeless place that is over the great ocean of Kiwa. It is a beautiful and complex understanding of coming from one place but belonging in another.

I am, of course, envious. Hawaiki is a placeless place that the dead return to, it is real and not real at the same time, there is mystery there which is not to be unpacked or investigated by non-māori. England however, is a locatable place that I’m not even allowed to spend two seasons in. When I die my spirit goes nowhere. Or at least if it does it is not in any cultural story of whiteness I have found. Perhaps the best story I’ve heard is that your soul just moves to another suburb. So, in the Heideggerian sense, to focus on dasein, being-towards-death, I have realized that if England won’t have me and I’m to be a happy exile within the island paradise perhaps it is time to do away with British/Eurocentric time-thinking all together.

I’m not suggesting throwing the baby out with the bath water but maybe just a readjustment, to time and space. To really resolve this tricky identity thing ‘we’ (white skinned, non-Māori or European/British heritage) might begin when our story begins. Or place making and our place losing. The loss of England and Europe via emigration to a wholly new and strange place. To begin it is important is to realise that ‘we’ are not living within a singular narrative but are merely an easily sunburned addition to the original story of Aotearoa.

This has shown itself as a western overwriting of Māori from its beginning. Colonization was and is a large subplot to this story and it tends to drown out all other voices. But as part of owning a story of identity, a real story, these date painting began to consider the beginning of pākehā space and time from 6 October 1769. The sighting of New Zealand, I say New Zealand because that’s important to the prologue. I have begun a new calendar system that starts from that fateful day to establish a way of tracking pākehā presence.

TE TAU TUATAHI – A.C. 

The first year, followed by the acronym A.C. which plays with B.C. / A.D. timelines, these could stand for After Cook, After Contact, After Collision or After Colonialism. The last title I am dubious to use, not because of its baggage, that should be addressed and made aware of on a daily basis, especially those who continue to benefit from its lingering imprint that seems to mark everything if you look deep enough.

I am uncomfortable with its use because colonialism continues, and it has not stopped since first collision so therefore cannot be referred to in the past tense. So far there has not been an after colonization in Aotearoa.

I mention the prologue because I have not used the sighting of New Zealand by Abel Tasman as the beginning. Mostly because he didn’t set foot on land. And his only encounter with Māori was a violent one. I am perhaps being naïve by trying to reset time in order to give pākehā a second chance at redeeming themselves and endearing themselves to tangata whenua. Spoiler alert, they didn’t. The dates in the show note 248 and 249 years since Cooks landing based upon the Māori calendar’s new year falling within the pākehā months of June and July.

I have used te reo māori because it is the first language. It seems only right to use the language that was the only language spoken right up until that moment of contact.

I have used Obelisk typeface designed by Alistair McCready to entrench the idea of carving and engraving of messages into solid objects so this ‘fictional’ time is locked into the world through the production of the paintings and the artist’s willingness to hold value in this way of recording a new time and new understanding of a pākehā or non-Māori position in time and space.

Māori _____ flags

These copper plates are the same size as the field notes taken by P Reveirs and William Francis Gordon of flags ‘captured’ or ‘confiscated’ by British militia during the New Zealand land wars. Their titles, taken from the Te Papa digital archives are etched into the surface and all forgo tohutō and all use the pejorative world 'rebel'. They are polished only once in their lives. After that, they must be handled without gloves by anyone moving, hanging or holding them. The copper will hold a mark when it is touched, the oils on your hands are a marker and will reinforce the idea that everything you do, all actions, all language, leaves a mark.

Everything you touch/contact is changed by your presence. Whether you realize it or not, unconscious or not it is changed by you.

Like digging up ancient monuments or ruins, these works recharge an understanding of cultural views during a formative time of the colonial nation as it stands today. The deceptive subtleties of language continues to elude discussion and clarity and therefore remain undisputed or unprocessed and therefore still retains negative power. Why are these not titled freedom flags or opposition flags or even flags of faith denominations? These works are designed to record the marks and touch of its human collaborators. It will not be cleaned, and the work will oxidize over time.

So maybe these works are just a note to the viewer and maker that whatever they touch, that thing is altered and reacts, it changes and is changed by your presence and the way you decide to give it language. It could be an environmental aspect, but this is more of an historical perspective. That my very presence in research is leaving a mark upon history and it is my responsibility to make sure I am confident and comfortable with my residue.

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Home Again

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I have only been home for a week or so and already the norms of life in Aotearoa have begun to creep back in. I do love it here, so I never fight the inevitable closing down of senses that occurs in your home surroundings, I enjoy the smaller world that drew me home, but I do find myself daydreaming of my time in Varanasi when a memory comes to mind, and I don’t fight that either.

It’s the everyday things of Varanasi that I have noticed lacking here like standing at fruit stands outside dairies I miss the fresh juniper berries piled high smelling earthy and sweet and at the same time savory and aromatic. Missing are the jackfruit and the guava or coconut, freshly cut to enjoy the cooling liquid inside. I miss the commotion of small shops selling only padlocks or prayer mats or metal kitchen ware. I carry on down an urban Auckland street trying to smell for the hot coals placed in the chambers of antique clothes irons, working on business shirts being crisply starched after their wash in the river. No one stops to offer you chai with its sweet and spicy sugary kiss. No one is hanging around chatting or passing comment on the world that passes by, it’s as if everybody is too busy here to care about observing ourselves.

On the main streets, in tuk tuks or on the boats of Banaras* men sing to themselves, many different songs that I will never learn, their voices surprisingly good and betray their weathered position in life; yet here, silence. No ringing bells, or honking of horns, no calling out to tourists, Indian and Western, “where you going!?”, “Where you from?!” “Youwantboat?!” in a single word. Their nuanced language always beginning with hello was reinforced with a smile and open hand. Broken English is the common tongue in the city of travelers and pilgrims in a country of 22 official languages and many more dialects to consider. It was always a joy to chat to school children with astounding English skills who always wanted selfies and to practice conversations and taxi drivers who knew no English and couldn’t read Hindi who would often drop you off in the opposite direction to where you wanted to be. Never in my life have I checked my privilege so regularly and been confronted with my own ignorance so frequently.

I miss the broken buildings being kind-of-repaired and wondering if the underlying structure was demolished or restored before being over built and painted over. Much of the city was destroyed and rebuilt throughout its volatile and dynamic past. There is something about the hazard of buildings in this place with its severe lack of health and safety regulations that reminded me of more honest times of personal responsibility that I’ve never lived through.

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This captivated me but barely fazed the nonchalant young men and women of the city. They navigated the busy streets and narrow alleyways like fish in a stream, the young men with fresh haircuts and women with determined attitudes that have affected a drastic change in the community structure and power of women in contemporary Indian society. Their Royal Enfield motorcycles lining the streets as they participated in the abundant nightlife while they discussed the future of the city and country while also streaming a news channel on their smartphones. There is such a vast difference in wealth and income in the city that I could barely even brush the surface. But the growing middle class of India seems be embracing a western world view with their desire for all things western, clothes, style, food and technology which is quickly replacing ritual and customs and subduing identity. It was strange to be in a place that seemed to have nullified colonization so thoroughly be so easy swayed by western ideologies. As with anywhere I’ve travelled, people are aware of the way globalization creeps into the small sacred spaces of life and distorts it for its own purpose. Time will tell how Varanasi combats capitalism and greed in the Hindu city.

I had a conversation with a student from BHU** and he wouldn’t be convinced of how cool it was when Indian men wear all white Sherwani or Kurta for special occasions and temple responsibilities. He reminded me that (traditional) Indian clothes are from history books and western clothes are from television, he was 19 and I couldn’t convince him about the importance of the past nor should I, his future looked bright. Conversely, when I tried the sherwani on I looked like a disappointing substitute member of the Backstreet Boys (circa 2008) which he’d never heard of. Another astounding pastime that me and the other guests of Kriti Gallery artists in residence all played, was watching sari-draped women riding sidesaddle on the back of motorbikes as they wove through traffic and never once got snagged on the cities always loose wires, car parts, tree branches or other vehicles. The blur of coloured saris will stay with me as I return to Auckland’s drab fashion aesthetic of black on black with a hint of navy to add colour. I now long to see sadhus praying and reciting sacred texts or men in carts selling raisins or pomegranates in tidy piles. Auckland motorbikes seem boring now with only one passenger, don’t they know you can fit three or four people on one bike, you just have to hold on tighter.

I’ve since wandered along the Waikato, the regions own sacred river. But there was no one there. Some tourists stopped to use the public restrooms and granted it was a Tuesday but any day of the week the Ganges flows with souls, both living and dead. There is life to be lived down by the river. Maybe this is the sign of contemporary life in Aotearoa, where nobody has time to keep the river company maybe that’s why our rivers get sick or maybe this is why the river stays clean. The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world owed almost entirely to chemicals and pollutants from factories and agriculture as well as the cities struggling sewage treatment system which looked more like a Wes Anderson set piece than a functioning facility. This did not deter sons and daughters in their mid-fifties guiding their elderly parents to the water’s edge. I watched their cautious steps across the submerged stones just under the water where they appear for a moment to walk upon the surface of the oily sun licked ripples, and in this way every magical thing seemed ordinary. They bathed and washed away sin in the holy river that only a few meters away received the ashes of newly cremated bodies of the departed, all are blessed, all are made clean.

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What I’ve missed most is the people, looking past the sales pitch, which wore off once they were convinced you were not interested in buying yet another necklace of prayer beads or brass pitcher. Once you got through that the people of Varanasi were really interested in what you were about, they were inquisitive and would stare without embarrassment at this bearded, European looking traveler with long hair tied in a knot, with arm tattoos, photographing broken steps and sleeping goats.

There is a warmth to the Indian way of being, avoiding harm and living simply, prayerful in greeting and grateful of exchange, yet sadly things are beginning to blur in my memory. Like I said, my real life is returning to me like waking from a dream. But you cannot return from India unchanged. It altered something in me, something that, like the place itself, is hard to describe. Under the umbrella of the Asia New Zealand Foundation I did not “discover myself” but maybe uncovered a part of myself in a place entirely new and exceptionally old and this is where the real richness of the program resides. The opportunity of an extended period of time held within the relative safety of the city and the residence was an experience that is hard to describe or fathom in this writing, but one that will be long lasting and slow to reveal its true impact. I swung from being overwhelmed and broken to being thoroughly at home and at peace, walking the small alleyways or dodging bikes on the main streets, holding quiet space in temples and laughing as a tuk tuk drivers tried, unsuccessfully, to double the price of a journey you’ve taken many times. I followed the path of pilgrims and sat drinking chai while vendors fixed a bicycle under a swastika sign. I encountered the profound and ordinary all in one place, outside of time and within ceremonies in temples, shop floors and doorways.

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*Local/common name for Varanasi in the city

**Banaras Hindu University

Sarnath

I didn’t tell you about the monks! I’ve had the opportunity to go to Sarnath International Nyingma Institute. It’s a Buddhist institute that holds the sacred text of Buddha as well as teaching young Tibetan monks English while still carrying out their other scholarly duties. We planted some trees and last Friday we cooked them dinner as a graduation celebration. On the first occasion we got to witness the Stupa ceremony which was really special and on my return I saw the lid complete.  A stupa (Sanskrit: "heap") is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (śarīra - typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation. A related architectural term is a chaitya, which is a prayer hall or temple containing a stupa.

In Buddhism, circumambulation or pradakhshina has been an important ritual and devotional practice since the earliest times, and stupas always have a pradakhshina path around them.

This kind of stupa is known as the "Stupa of Many Gates". After reaching enlightenment, the Buddha taught his first students in a deer park near Sarnath. The series of doors on each side of the steps represents the first teachings: the Four Noble Truths, the Six Pāramitās, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Twelve Nidānas.

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What Gold Smells Like, a recap.

Here are my latest thoughts. This entry is a recap of my residency so far for the Asia New Zealand Foundation. 

It seems strange to talk about being half way into my Varanasi residency, but my half way point is approaching and it feel apt to mention navigation, space and perspective. This place walks the fine line of truth and fiction. It is easy to see how mythology folds naturally into everyday life here. Even the smell in the air of honeysuckle and incense mixed with cow manure and roasting spices betrays and confuses memory. I am gently reminded that I will never fully know this place, it will always keep something from the visitor.

 Submarine at Scindia Ghat

Submarine at Scindia Ghat

If I told you that I passed a boat learning to fly or a monkeys that can talk to children I wouldn’t be entirely lying. There is so much rich storytelling material here that I was initially overwhelmed and even as I return to the river the more I continue to see, it seems to persist in its unfolding and I change to meet it, no longer phased by the pollution, poverty or beggars but with a resolve to address it my own home upon my return Aotearoa. On one walk along the river I find a submarine sat on the steps of the ghats and watch a sardu playing a convincing game of cricket with some local children, there is a stepwell called Manikanika Kund where pilgrims come to bathe that is a geometric dream that leads down to still pool which at night reflects the stars. Over on the river’s edge a temple sinks on its foundations and people bathe, cleansed by Mother Ganga.  

Just along from Manikanika are the burning ghats with wooden logs stacked high in orderly towers. These are purchased by family who have brought their deceased loved one to the river for cremation and interring into the river. They walk in a procession along the road chanting and singing with the cloaked body raised upon their shoulders. This was a shock at first but after sitting on the steps watching the whole event unfold there is a very peaceful and natural aspect to this tradition. This process is the end point of reincarnation, death and rebirth, in the Hindu faith.

Leaving the ghats, there are endless chai stalls which is sweet and restorative for a weary pilgrim. I will often stand sipping the hot tea out of terracotta cups, which are smashed on the ground after use, next to shopkeepers who seem rooted like plants in their kiosks, growing too big for their container. A little further on there are holy men worshiping and chanting and slowly turning to stone, their faces covered in pigment and hair tied in a knot. I have become accustomed to the cows wandering the streets, lanes and alleyways around the city, I’m told they hold the gods in their bellies so I always give them some space as they wandering around unimpeded by the noise and pace of the city and you’ll see people tap them lightly as they pass.


This ancient city which is built on ancient cities whispers, ‘creation, destruction, creation, destruction’ endlessly as I weave through different areas of markets and temples. Hanuman, Shiva and Ganesha statues and shrines are everywhere and must come to life and coat themselves in vermillion paint in the night, which is the only way to explain the hurried paint job, always fresh but always quickly applied.

I have spent most of my time here filming the river from different ghats so I often find myself sitting on the painted steps that lead to different worlds beyond the river. The steps sit below castles and fortresses and fold out like origami to reveal that they are all one but with many different sides. There seems to be no wrong turn in Varanasi, just a different way to arrive at your destination. This adds to the many unexplainable yet somehow ordinary occurrences that life in Varanasi gifts you. This is a place where, as a tourist, you have to sit in the mystery and be carried by the flow of the traffic, the people and the rhythm of the river.

It is very hard to define this experience, being in amongst the chaos, the city seems to fold you into her disordered embrace and leads you, again, to the river. However, with the sun setting like a deep red bindi circle in the sky, it is perhaps necessary to speak in riddle or metaphor. And although it might seem mysterious, and I might be caught up in the allegory of this place, because of everything I’ve experienced in this enchanted place and for reasons I can’t explain, I now know what gold smells like.

 

 Manikanika (Burning Ghats) from the river.

Manikanika (Burning Ghats) from the river.

Check out the Asia New Zealand Residency programs here: 

http://www.asianz.org.nz/about-us/our-programmes/grants-and-internships

 Hut at Ganga Mahal Ghat

Hut at Ganga Mahal Ghat

Getting Lost, sort of

As bats flutter and glide over Assi Ghat and the full moon rises through the filter of pollution and dust, which seems to be merged into the word “haze”, I’ve been thinking about how I no longer feel lost in this familiar place. Granted, it is only one small corner of Varanasi but it is familiar now, even certain street merchants and sadhus are familiar all interesting men with beautiful faces but rough hands and dusty toes.

Kids from a courtyard above the ghat kick a football over the edge and people below encourage each other to throw it back to them. The circus of nearly making it over the wall entertains the families gathered for the beginning of the Hanuman festival.

It is now normal to sit and watch the goings on of people down by the river, the people in bright coloured clothing alighting boats, a sound tech, checking the mic on a thrown together stage and watching teenagers who just hang out like they do the world over. Hanging back and not talking to girls while the girls wishing the boys would talk to them.

Also getting normal is men holding hands, linking pinky fingers or leaning on each other. This form of male affection is made by good friends and is normal behaviour in this religious and conservative state. They are normally sharing headphones plugged into their smart phones or just playing music out loud as they huddle in and enjoy the tinny rhythmic beat of Indian pop.

So before I forget the particular joy of being lost and finding it all very strange, let me elaborate.

Getting lost in Varanasi is a strange achievement because you are never really lost in this relatively small, ancient city; you may have just wandered too far down a different alley way than last time but there are very few dead ends here. This in a way, adds to the confusion. The labyrinthine layout of “streets” seems to be ingrained in the psyche of the locals but to a stranger it’s a vast matrix of interconnection that we don’t have the codex for.

And it should also be noted that you are never far from something which will captivate you so intensely that you may forget for a moment that you were trying to find your way out. Wandering, lost somewhere in a section of laneways in the Chowk region we happened upon a pristine courtyard, we spied through the gates a beautiful family temple which was a collection of tower spires painted in ash pink that stretched two, three and six meters into the sky. This was a momentary reprieve from the dark and dingy section of our journey.

There are very rarely directional or navigational signs and if there are they’ll be in Sanskrit which all looks like Sanskrit to me. However, way finding is made by remembering that in one area items like jewellery or brass blend slowly into spices and sarees. There is even an entire lane that supplies the area with all the milk curd they need for sweet treats, sitting in muslin sacks and brass trays on the cobbled walkway.

Looking on google maps isn’t much help either, though main road and lanes are mapped there are always paths and passes that are unmarked and it is a strange pleasure to look down at your phone and find that you are nowhere. You are outside of current technology and it always makes me smile knowing that there are people living their whole lives in lanes uncharted by google. This special lane where old men gathered to drink chai, endless chai, may have had the same action repeated uninterrupted by social media for centuries.

The lanes however small don’t seem to deter the casual motorcyclist. Always winding up smaller and smaller spaces these motorbike or scooter drivers will either yell “side” or just honk their horns. In the narrow walkways this can seem impossible but again like occupying a space that doesn’t exist people adapt. The smallest spaces are filled with life here and it makes the lonely streets of home seem like vast canyons to traverse from one side to another. There seems to be great community here, each family or group of families, often separated by caste live intergenerational lives among the ruins of temples, the too close cows and the constant passing by of tourist, but more often pilgrim and worshipper.

Great pride is taken in the presentation of shop fronts and entrances to homes even in the dark and dusty streets that are somewhere in the middle of destruction or construction, doorways are painted bright colours and shrines are adorned with fresh flowers and someone must have just left because the incense is still burning.

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Temples of Durga

 Temple, a street over from the river.

Temple, a street over from the river.

As I sit here with the paste and pigment of the Shiva tilak (ceremonial markings on forehead in the style of Shiva’s) drying on my forehead I am looking back over the 8 days and 9 temples, dedicated to the Goddess Durga, visited throughout Varanasi beginning on the first day of the Hindu New Year. Temples are the most common thing in Varanasi besides paan stalls and yet they always hold some mystique for me. They are in open spaces and crammed into alley ways or more correctly buildings and lanes are crammed up to them, so finding these places can be a mission but this all helps locate yourself when trying to figure out this city. As places of worship and pilgrimage I am drawn to them but as places of rules and protocols I am guarded.

Spiritual aspect aside, these places are nerve racking places for upholding customs and the right way of doing things. Shoes are always removed well ahead of entering the temple gates, so strangely, street grime is carried through these sacred spaces. Raised door ways are the sacred threshold that sustain the whole structure of a house so are always touched and a blessing is given before you step over them, mindful of not stepping on them which is difficult when you’re being cajoled by parishioners eager to stand in the presence of one of the nine forms the Goddess takes.

I approached one temple only to read the sign stating, ‘If gentlemen are not of the Hindu religion please do not enter the temple’ I questioned our guide and he just said that was for a respect thing. Trying to tell every tourist what to do is a logistical nightmare so it’s easier just to make one sign that stops the problem of overenthusiastic backpackers walking in, shoes and all, to photograph the cool statues inside the temples.

After that my forehead is smeared with clay and vermilion in the first of what would be many blessings over the week. Once closer to the temple with coconut and hibiscus wreath in hand I am told to ring the bell above my head three times as those before and after me will do. This is supposed to make the auspicious sound ‘Om’ which is the name for Lord and therefore is pleasing to whatever god it is whose temple you are at. I find it interesting that bells have been rung all over the world for so long in so many religions and sects.

While waiting in line it is a privilege to watch all the different coloured saree worn by the women who assemble en masse. These colours manage not to clash in India by sheer force of will by their wearers and the constantly changing complimentary colours of the dark red, bright yellow or pale blue of the temple interiors. Once closer to the form of the goddess the pushing and shoving becomes more energetic and shouts of different priests directing the flow of people becomes more apparent.

I hand a man behind the railings my items including coconut and small offering of money. The money like koha goes onto a pile and the coconut is smashed violently against a stone or the side of a wall. Breaking a coconut symbolises smashing your ego and humbling yourself before God. The hard shell of ignorance and ego is smashed which gives way to inner purity and knowledge symbolized by the white of the coconut. I think the point of this ritual is to repeat it over and over again until it lodges itself deep within you and appears on the surface.

I am handed back the coconut to take home and consume, blessed by the goddess.

Once that is done I will often stand off to the side waiting for the others in the group, each participating in different ways. On one occasion I was called over by the armed police who lazily patrol the temples on these special occasions. They were intrigued by my presence and tattoos. On another evening some offerings of cloth caught fire as they were above the candles lit in prayer and quickly engulfed the side of the temple, a few men began to panic, a hose was quickly produced and the fire put out, no evacuation or cordon, everything just went back to normal though with a now blackened temple.

You will not see any photographs from inside the temples as this is prohibited and not everything needs to be photographed. I like this place for these strict adherences to religious practice and lack of Instagram worthy hashtags attached there is some digital silence here where technology is not required. There was however a beautiful cursive hand-painted sign which said ‘Photography is Prohibited,’ painted in English directly onto the temple wall above a shrine that I would have loved to show you.

After taking it all in I notice that the people who flow from all over the city all seem to  circumnavigate these holy sites going around them, touching and pausing at certain places to pray and perform rituals. Our guide Ajay tells me this is because Hindus believe in doing things in their entirety. To fully walk around the temple grounds you to these places. You see it and feel it from 360 degrees. This is an action of contemplation and devotion as well as a thorough act of completion and grounding. And I think I get it, for the past three years or longer I have been going to sacred places of memory and loss as well as spiritual places of reverence  and walking around them, not fully understanding why but knowing it is important.

Now it makes sense.

 Small vermilion shrine agains the palest blue walls, Manikarnika Kund

Small vermilion shrine agains the palest blue walls, Manikarnika Kund

I Won't Find What I'm Looking For

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Last night at an artist talk Dorothy Cross at the Alice Boner Institute talked about the difficulty or absurdity of bringing art or making art in Varanasi and forcing it into the place as a thing that is somehow meant to belong, and she recognized that it will always feel foreign and out of place. Varanasi already has all her own signs and markers. There is no lack of content and at every turn the city is full of its own quintessence, it drips, quite literally down the streets and flows to the river. This is not only because of its age and stories, colour and ritual but also because of its place in the heart of its people.

Cross mentioned that a contribution could be a temporary work like a performance or sound work as the only really beneficial artwork to gift Varanasi and I have to agree. She came to the residency without a plan, no drawings prepped no proposal outline and this resonated with me as a far truer way to approach art making. Especially when the directive is to respond to a place and its people. She drew across time and space to locate her ongoing, wider practice to her current location on the steps of Assi ghat on the sacred river.

The more I stay the less grounded I feel and perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps I'm actually facing a truth of not belonging, that home (Aotearoa) is home for a reason. I’ve begun to feel rudderless and adrift on the maze of streets. This is not helped by the many cobbled alleyways that I’m forced to negotiate cow pats and sleeping dogs, cows, donkeys, goats or menacing monkeys. However, after a late night vege cheese burger I feel surprisingly more connected to a street vendor outside Kriti Gallery. Not exactly Indian but not entirely western either. The deep-fried bun helped.

The action of the flâneur that I am familiar with, seems impossibly fraught here, with a collision of a disconnected self and deeply engrained social and cultural structures. The real flâneur knows the places he wanders, loves the people he is criticizing, is knowledgeable of the politics (even if he refuses to participate) of his home, but here I am lost, and I am other. Rootless and without solid footing, I am from somewhere far away distance has a stretching quality to it, the call of home creates a thinness in you only to be remedied by your return. So, I have had to quickly come to terms with the simple act of observing and recording, and of that holding its own value in my creative practice. I am failing in capturing the invisible substance of this place, but I am committed to this failure and it is responding in kind.

I am considerate of people and their various rituals and customs and therefore you will never see images of the burning ghats or interiors of temple shrines, of streets kids sleeping or funeral procession. These are not my people, and this is not my place and it behooves the tourist to remember that statement, “this is not mine”. Not everything needs a photo, not all memories are to be locked into a visual narrative, captured on a screen. From what I know about memory making the stories are better and more resilient that any rigid perspective. I’ll tell you more about the burning ghats in a later post, but this will have no photos. But I will record, again and again, my attempts at capturing this place, though the more I know this place it feels like the truth is hidden just out of sight or in my periphery and I turn my head only to find it shift out of focus again.

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Normal Life

I know I’ve come to record place, not people, however, separation of the two is impossible. Everything is reflected in the river. Was Italo Calvino writing about Varanasi in Invisible Cities? The river sustains its people being the life blood for irrigation of the delta as well as a source of water for the plants and animals in the surrounding area. I learnt that there are gangetic dolphins found only here, they’re blind but have perpetual smiles on their faces.

It has been interesting how quickly the strangest things become normal here. The shock of seeing a cow sorting through rubbish on the side of a road or standing in the middle of an alleyway that you’ve got to brush past to get where you’re going, old men will tap the cows as they walk past making sure the gods and goddesses know it is them passing.

The constant dismissal of tuk tuk and rickshaw drivers asking ‘where you are going?’ is another quickly learnt skill, however the existential nature of this place always throws that question in a particular light, they just want the fare, but after shaking my head and hand I again silently ask myself, ‘Where am I going?’ The question is only compounded by the continual state of being somehow lost but on my way somewhere.

But the Ganges is always there, perhaps it’s her reassuring presence that leaves me unbothered by the constant inquisitive stares I receive, every part of every day. It is funny that I have come to a place as an artist in residence to observe and participate in this new and brilliant place, yet I am the one being observed. The gaze is reversed. It becomes a shocking event to witness a European tourist. I am jolted back into my skin. I am reminded that I’m also this oddity and I observe these western faces with similar interest, is that really what I look like?

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On the Steps of the Ghats

Perhaps the safety I feel, weaving in and out of traffic, come from the constant and overarching theme of karma. To harm or to hurt others in this life means karmic consequence in the next. So, caution is inherent. People are calm and the elderly and infirm can wander home unhindered, crossing roads with a calm reassurance that they will be avoided.

I arrive again at a threshold. Every time I arrive the river greets me, it does so as a stranger, formally and without connection. Its memory of me is poor and I introduce myself over and over. I say this with the awareness that she greets everyone, every day from time immemorial.  

But there are invisible boundaries at play here. A stranger in a strange land relies on the steps of Tulsi, Dashashwamedh and Assi Ghats to locate them in a place of holy chaos. Rituals are taking place and people are bathing with no regard to the body being burnt, meters up stream. Mother Gańgā protects all her children. I have not even ventured to the bottom step which the river laps at slowly and with conditions, yet children are doing bombs off a boat and sheets and sari are being beaten clean against flat slabs of rock.

All day, the sky is full of birds and smoke, both dance above the secrets of the river.

No one seems to have let Varanasi/Benares/Banaras/Kashi know that the rest of India was once a British colony, as an independent state it seemed to move through time as it has always done, collecting memories and layering new ones over those less resilient. Other than the Futura typeface seen on official signs of the Water Works or Theosophical Society there is little else to reflect occupation. There are still the occasional alarming mentions of the Colony on road signs and in district names, but the presence of English names has not defined the Indian identity. It has been added to it. In the amazing resilience of Indian attitude to life, more is preferable. More gods, more festivals (I just found out that different states celebrate different New Year’s Days to each other) and more lives.

So, my task then is to sit down, at the river, not on the street where people are living their lives and selling goods from durian to children’s backpacks, not in a café built especially for westerners thoroughly out of their depth, but on the steps of the ghats. To sit at the holy places, not to convert or adapt to Hinduism but to be amongst it. To give space, as Indians seem to do, to everyone here. Maybe it’s the scale of the place or the population here but I have never felt more finite and temporary. That’s the tourists lot I guess. To not matter, to be a blip on the landscape, washed away by the monsoon rains.

 Wash and dry.

Wash and dry.

Varanasi Begins

Upon arrival before my feet hit the tarmac the heat of the city carries with it the smell of hot beeswax and honeysuckle, it wraps itself around my head and holds tight.

I’m entering an ancient place that is so frenzied and disorderly it should fall apart. I hold on to the side of the taxi expecting to see everything collapse at the next bend. It never does, and it hasn’t fallen apart for thousands of years, I must remember to keep my arrogance in check. The river will flow through this city long after I'm gone, and it does not care for my smallminded view of “the proper order” or what it means to finish or begin.

I record a video out the window with my phone for a few minutes, but my hands begin to sweat with excitement and 35-degree heat, the road is bumpy and unfamiliar, so I put it away, though I’m afraid of missing anything, or everything. I open my eyes wider attempting to take more in. My mind tries to set my visual memory stores to high definition, but short-term memory is blurry and unreliable. The dust from constant creation and destruction of the city gets in my eyes and mouth, even the dust here is sweet, yet it stings just the same. I am stared at by passersby, I’m the oddity that momentarily catches their eye, the strange anomaly in a sea of ordinary faces.

The driver has used his horn continually from the airport into the city, confidently foregoing indication or the use of side mirrors. The weaving of cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and tuk tuks blend with buses, trucks, carts and bicycles that all unite in a kind of raucous dance that I don’t know the steps to.

I am dropped off down short driveway past an old mansion formerly owned by the gardener’s father. I’m greeted by two friendly dogs that graciously guard the residency members from the angry monkey I still haven’t met. They make themselves comfortable in my studio as I unpack. The garden outside is being watered and small lizards patrol the tree trunks while squirrels survey the canopy. The horns continue their evening chorus. I think I’m gonna like it here.

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 Studio warming/welcoming committee. 

Studio warming/welcoming committee. 

Surveyor, PhD Show 2017

This exhibition attempts to elucidate through a process of travel, research and making, the way memory markers reveal or conceal themselves in differing circumstances, specifically discussing ideas of enigma, signature, place-naming, silence, absence and speech. By observing and referencing signs, signwriting, tombstones and monuments there is a repeated encounter of human interventions with and in landscape. Whilst I walk the tracks and paths towards these markers I am repeating the action of advancing and retreating from memory, I also perform a kind of pilgrimage/research interaction that reveals to me the complex and differing layers of memory that exist within the social spaces of Aotearoa New Zealand. These experiences of mine in the field, both physical and cerebral are then articulated into the art works that constitute the thesis of this practice led PhD.

A key aspect of the project involves the research and discussion of the uses of text in Aotearoa New Zealand and its continued presence in contemporary art. Within the parameters of this writing I pay particular attention to the usages of language that draw attention to the complexities of naming, recording and translating the texture of social memory in the public domain.

Research questions involve a questioning of the nature of historical monuments in relationship to the complexities of memory. Furthermore, as a nonindigenous landscape artist, who was born in Aotearoa, how does my artistic practice relate to modernist perceptions and traditions of landscape painting in New Zealand? How does the nature of travel and the use of photography relate to an ongoing studio practice?

Surveyor has become an exhibition that attempts to trouble oppositional structures of presence and absence, inscription and erasure. In this respect, the project engages with temporalities in which artworks explore death and memory. The difficulties of reading the underlying qualities of marked places. My practice explores the lingering effect that memory markers have on the witness. At the core of my work and its translations of the landscape exists a dis-stilling of time that paradoxically opens up toward the depth of an elsewhere. This ‘elsewhereness’ destabilises binary oppositions which presume to lock a fixed site to a fixed time. 

HOW TO BURN DOWN THE HOUSE

Text by Emil McAvoy

 

The Reckless Pilgrim

Elliot Collins

Tim Melville Gallery

2 - 24 June 2017

 Image: Kallan Macleod

Image: Kallan Macleod

Watch out, you might get what you're after
Cool, babies! Strange but not a stranger
I'm an ordinary guy
Burning down the house
Hold tight, wait till the party's over
Hold tight, we're in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house
Here's your ticket, pack your bag
Time for jumpin' overboard
The transportation is here
Close enough but not too far
Maybe you know where you are
Fightin' fire with fire
- Talking Heads, Burning Down the House

 

Sometimes you just need to burn it down and leave town. Get on the road and go looking for yourself.

At least until the dust settles.

Contemporary pilgrimages also provide passage through inner landscapes. A chance to remember

and forget. They offer rituals connecting the mythical journeys of the ancients to the urgencies of the

present. Bridging the seen and unseen, they sustain the symbolic pursuit of authenticity. Art as an

experience.

Artist Elliot Collins makes broad, contemplative pilgrimages in his own country, roaming widely and

finding moments of significance in abundance. If there is a recklessness in this activity, it is perhaps

found in a commitment to the poetics of indeterminate wandering. As Collins suggests, it is “a journey,

not the journey.” If it were the journey it would likely constitute tourism, or enacting someone else’s

concept of travel.

Pilgrimages offer interventions in the often slow, predictable progression of our everyday lives: a

break from ordinary work, routine and the linear experience of time. Artists’ often unconventional ways

of seeing things make them fitting candidates to embark on pilgrimages to places of significance; to

re-imagine such sites and the expeditions to visit them, to explore the fringes of the world and

alternative ways of being in it. From the wanderings of the nineteenth century flâneur to the

Situationists’ psycho-geographical dérive, artists have long made movements more focussed on the

journey than the destination. In some ways pilgrimages can be likened to art-making: as excursions in

to the unknown, where intuition, intellect and improvisation can act as navigational skills within

uncharted territories. Of course, you don’t have to set fire to anything before you embark, but it may

catalyse and hasten your departure.

Collins’ exhibition title references Surrealist René Magritte’s painting The Reckless Sleeper (1928),

and though on the surface the association appears loose or opaque, Magritte’s sleeping figure and

the apparent content of his dreams provide a range of interpretive links. Signs of conventional social

expectations embodied in the bowler hat and ribbon are contrasted with more ambiguous and

historically loaded symbols, such as the lit candle, mirror, apple and bird. The symbols are grouped

together without hierarchy on what appears to be a stylised gravestone. Magritte may be suggesting it

is the sleeper’s dreams which might prove reckless, or simply the act of dreaming itself.

The automobile is a loaded symbol of, among other concepts, dreams of social mobility, freedom and

escape. Collins’ S/Z (2017), a customised 1986 Toyota Hilux truck, appears centre stage in this

exhibition as both a vehicle for creative pilgrimages and an art object in its own right. Riffing on the

license plate (which begins with ‘SZ’) and semiologist Roland Barthes’ text S/Z, Collins’ numerous

alterations transform this vehicle-as-found-object in to a rich semiotic container for potential meaning.

The exterior of Collins’ well-worn truck is augmented with Dark Night (2017), a handmade stainedglass

rear window, and a poem painted on the wooden deck. The stained-glass window of Dark Night

is reminiscent of an abstracted McCahon landscape, and shapes the quality and colour of light which

surrounds and passes through it. The painted poem was written by Collins on the road. Its glowing

yellow text set on the wooden deck reminds me of McCahon’s reference to the ‘Hairdresser and

Tobacconist’ typography he saw painted on the glass of a shop window in his travels, alongside Ian

Scott’s eponymous, somewhat ironic piece from 1988.

Inside the truck’s cab, a video work, Bodies of Water (passed under, over, through and around),

2014-17 (2017), loops on an iPhone lying on the passenger seat, alongside The Company of

Travellers (2017), a collection of kowhai seeds that fills the centre console. Bodies of Water was

compiled from five years of footage, and explores his personal voyages in relation to histories and

mythologies of water, which, like the artist, are always moving somewhere else. Collins’ kowhai seeds

offer another container for meaning: the kernel of an idea, and the real dispersal of living memory

gathered on the move.

The poetically augmented truck finds a parallel in gathered close in silence (2017), a suite of digital

photographs and monochromes of stained-glass set in black frames which are butted together, akin to

the thick lead filament of a stained-glass window composition. The photographs record fragments of

the truck and are overlaid with lines of Collins’ poetry, their yellow letters reminiscent of cinematic

titles, internet memes (the work was first released sequentially on Instagram), and painted yellow road

markings.

The artist’s self-titled word paintings draw on diverse influences and conflate a range of styles and

citations. They are rendered in oil on linen, drawing on the history and gravitas of Western traditions.

However, their underpainting in ‘pop’ colours such as pale pink, red, cadmium yellow, lilac, and sky

blue complicates their apparent seriousness, and problematize conventional readings of the texts

which appear on their surface. They engage rhetorical and literary strategies which open a range of

associations, questions and mental images. In a nod to the pithy one-liners of Ed Ruscha’s cool

conceptualism, Collins’ paintings appear at once sincere, ironic, neither and both. HOW TO BURN

DOWN THE HOUSE (2017) appears as a rhetorical question, a statement and a set of instructions.

Similarly, HOW TO MAKE HISTORY (2017) can be seen to reflect on painting’s historical role as a

cultural artefact, alongside artists’ attempts to enter art history. Fittingly, their Obelisk font, designed

by Alistair McCready, is used in gravestones and memorials. In counterpoint, the accompaniment of

Collins’ feathery, gestural brush strokes in bright pigments appear to negate these lofty and potentially

solemn concerns in a light-hearted way. This tension between surface and depth, humour and

pensiveness underpin his practice. There are moments which are seriously funny.

Collins clearly enjoys pushing painting around. The colourful markings in these works may evoke

numerous references, from the animated strokes of the Post-Impressionists, the chunky viscosity of

Abstract Expressionism, to the more self-referential, cerebral strokes of Robert Ryman. In the context

of travel, Collins’ paintings may also suggest dappled light glimpsed through the trees, caught in

peripheral vision while travelling at speed down a rural road, echoed in the words HOW FLEETING IS

OUR TIME IN THE SUN.

The Horizon Paintings are constructed from Collins’ repurposed canvas drop sheets, complete with

aberrations and previous paint marks visible on their unpainted sides. In a range of domestic interior

paint colours, they trace the ever-receding horizon as experienced on this travels through New

Zealand. Collins’ horizon lines are perfectly straight and display a visual congruence with his earlier

VTS Paintings (Very Tranquil Sea). The combination of the two distinct tones evoke a third unseen

colour in the humming space between; akin to the horizon, ever-present yet always somewhere else.

Collectively, The Reckless Pilgrim charts the artist’s inner and outer journeys of significance,

materialising their lasting memories, impacts and influences. Yet Collins is aware that to observe is

also to affect the object of one’s observation. Collins’ travels intervene in the landscape he traverses,

records and to which he responds, leaving both forever altered.

Church, Pakanae, Hokianga, 2016

 

 

The afternoon light shifts low on the horizon in Pakanae outside of Opononi. In the distance a church rests on a tranquil hilly clearing. I wondered if it might be open. Many in Northland are, perhaps as refuge for the wandering pilgrim or parishioner. I also wonder who mows the grass so regularly in these out of the way places. There is no sign of lawnmower or grounds keeping tools as if this place is preserved in a perpetual frozen state of upkeep. I have no reason to think otherwise.

Deciding to alter my route and revise time, I turn off the main highway and the car grumbles down a gravel road, juddered by the combination of rain runoff, stones and loose dirt. The road narrows. Up ahead is a farm gate across the driveway the veers upward to the right towards the church.

Stepping out the driver’s side door I fall into a shallow ditch, boggy with moss and mud. Blackberry vines grow wild here and though not yet in fruit small green shoots are wandering over grass and stumps, overwhelming surrounding vegetation as it flourishes.

Taking in the surroundings distracts me long enough to allow my t-shirt to catch on the thorns and I am scratched by my absent-minded movement, leaving sharp, red marks that darken as they dry across my bare legs. Small incisions creating blood shed, an action recorded on skin.

The stillness of the gravel road is confirmed by the wooded hills that close in on the valley. The dense bush beyond the narrow pastureland swallows up remaining echoes of the car engine. Before getting to the gate a large copper coloured pheasant leaps, screaming from the undergrowth and flies away into denser bush. As the bird scurries away I hear my rapid heartbeat thrown into action by reactions beyond my control. I hadn’t noticed the bird cowering and still and I wonder what else goes unseen in the quiet places of the world.

The gate has a handwritten note attached to the top bar. A white, rounded-square ice-cream container lid reminds visitors to ‘keep the gate shut’ I look up to church in sursum coda, an action of reverence. Looking up is supposed to release chemicals in your brain that make you feel happy. There is a moment of the unknown and unknowing that I decide is to be ruptured on this occasion; there will be others that don’t have the same response.

            I breath in and the church with its ochre-red roof and white weatherboard exterior settles in its clearing. Religious buildings will always be at odds with their environments. Its presence is that of being purposefully in, but not of the world with its iconic form reiterating its sacred position as a place of worship in the minds of believers.

The church sits here to interrupt a vision of the ordinary landscape and, with the help of the spire, sans bell, points to the sky, which draws my eyes involuntarily to the heavens.

What I'm Doing At University

For more than two years I have researching and monumentalising certain memorials, sites, objects and place because they are not ordinary or everyday. They are set apart. They contain some kind of special occasion to them. Or they contain some kind of distinct sentiment. They exist in places or are places to go to, to remember things, either very recent or deeply historical things. The march of time will see that everything becomes distant eventually. They are reminders of things related to you, a close family member like a mother or father or someone you’ve never met some ancient relative that shares your DNA. They are often outside of a direct line of connection like ancestry. They may simply hold a place in your awareness that brings you a deep feeling of connection.

They are also places that stand in our place when we are too busy, distracted or consumed by working or making love or putting out the rubbish that we don’t remember everyday, all the time, the things we know are important. The things if we took a moment, if we had the time, would bring us back to a very specific moment. I can be brought to tears or laughter on any given day.

They are built or erected through hard work or ritual, by a community or an individual. Whatever and who ever made the memorial, they are also there, even if I am not the audience, assembly, family or person that the memory marker is made for, they still say, often silently and on the wind, “remember”. These sites and traces of memory are also quietening grounds; they are locations where calm descends. For no other reason than that they are set apart from your everyday life and that the writing, there is often an inscription, requires something of you.

And so when we come back to these monumental objects, artworks or buildings we are once again confronted by memory. I would not take the liberty to describe which memory or how this memory is played out. The artist’s job is not to tell people how to feel but just to feel, not how to remember but just to remember. These memorials also tell us that it is ok to forget a little bit. To lose track of the date and time of the event. That I might feel like the world is a fluid, transient medium through which I am propelled is counteracted when I observe a monumental object. It very materials, often made of stronger stuff than myself reminds me that life might actually be quite solid at least the physical world which, for 99.9% of the time before my death, I occupy. Because someone, or a group of people, has recorded important details it is acceptable for them to get a little bit fuzzy in our memories.

What I am not going to do during this research is try and explain to you why people have recorded and memorialised certain things over other things. The only meagre offering I have to come to terms with why some memorials and not others is that memory is often emotional. Seldom is a memory clinical and removed from the person or peoples marking it in memoriam.

From Tourist To Pilgrim, Tim Melville Gallery, 2-27 August 2016

Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.

                                    - Alan Watts

 

This exhibition contemplates the ideas of time, navigation and the self, in relation to the endless multitudes on earth that crave connection.

The works in the show address the way the artist is attempting to depart from being a tourist and positioning himself towards the way of the pilgrim. Through his use of poetry, silence and stillness the artist highlights the presence and absence of objects, people and other living things in the physical world.

The paintings are based on drawings and memories of passing through spaces as they pass through you, both, changing as a result. The colour and brushwork is a representation of the energy that is contained within everything. The reciprocal nature of listening during the many sojourns that the artist often undertakes has produced works from the privileged position of the manuhiri (guest), and the special responsibility that that entails. The paintings and photographs as well as the brief texts, made out of wood, paper and metal reference a reverence for our natural and built environment as well as the way we communicate with each other.

The show invites the viewer to join the artist, if only for a moment, to pause and reflect, with appreciation, on a world that yearns to be witnessed.