Prospects Fearful reviewed - October 2018

Prospects Fearful

Caroline McQuarrie and Shaun Matthews

The Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakatū, Nelson

01 September – 11 November 2018

Reviewed by Nicholas Haig

 Installation view of the photographs in  Prospects Fearful  by Caroline McQuarrie and Shaun Matthews. (Photograph by John-Paul Pochin).

Installation view of the photographs in Prospects Fearful by Caroline McQuarrie and Shaun Matthews. (Photograph by John-Paul Pochin).

What is behind me still remains ahead of me. Can’t a man rest?

— Laszlo Krasznahorkai [1]

Many years ago I was told of a group of hunters who upon shooting a deer on the banks of the Buller River had watched as it tumbled into the water below before being devoured – instantly – by a swarm-surge of eels [2]. Some years later, and when hitching fitfully down to the West Coast from Nelson, I stood looking into what seemed, unfathomably, to be the old water of the river and pictured myself taking the place of the deer and then, after a moment, the eels. For as long as I can remember the Buller has been richly fabled, though in recent years and perhaps in part because of it being a long time since my last visit it has become something of an Antipodean River Lethe to me, a river that is, of forgetfulness and oblivion.

While also steeped in and underwritten by myths of various kinds, the Suter Art Gallery is a dressing-gown and slippers sort of familiar space, though one, as is to be expected and hoped for, in which I am occasionally transported to different elsewheres. The recent redevelopment of the Gallery has, however, muddled my sense of the place; my memories have become disorientated. For some reason I cannot now recall Brett Graham’s work Mihaia (Messiah) (2010), an exquisitely carved model of a Russian BRDM-2 scout car which showed as part of the Suter Biennial in 2013 without thinking of a talk Hera Lindsay Bird gave some years later in the Suter theatre, without thinking that Bird gave her talk from within Graham’s menacingly beautiful vehicle. The Suter: where militancy meets Monica from Friends.

In their multi-media exhibition Prospects Fearful, which surveys the legendary (and infamous) 550 day journey Thomas Brunner made to and from the West Coast, Caroline McQuarrie and Shaun Matthews are interested in revisioning the past, in suggesting that we need to recall it otherwise. As McQuarrie and Matthews write, ‘Our intention in Prospects Fearful is to re-situate this story in a way that we hope causes reflection on the prevailing narratives of our history.’ The exhibition itself, which is immaculately composed, is comprised of a series of gorgeously sludgy-aqueous photographs of the landscape traversed by Brunner taken with a pinhole camera and printed on fabric which are hung banner-like throughout the space [3]; a low plinth with 18 pairs of pāraerae (flax sandals); and a series of entries from Brunner’s diary hand embroidered in needlepoint on linen [4]. The exhibition is also accompanied by a handsomely put together loose-leaved catalogue containing postcard-size images of the works, an introductory essay by the artists and another by Jessica Hubbard.

In late 1846 Brunner set off from Nelson with local Māori guides Kehu and Pikiwati and their wives, wives who would – despite spending 550 days in his company – never be mentioned by name in Brunner’s diaries. The aim of the expedition was to “prospect” for land suitable for the expanding Nelson settlement. McQuarrie and Matthews contend that ‘The story is reasonably well known in the Nelson and West Coast regions. The typical narrative which goes something like this: brave European explorer makes terrible journey, nearly starves in the Buller Gorge and suffers a stroke on the way home, is summarised neatly in the oft quoted extract from Brunner’s diary on 21st March 1847 – “Rain continuing, dietary shorter, strength decreasing, spirits falling, prospects fearful.”’

What McQuarrie and Matthews are particularly keen to highlight is that Brunner could never have survived (let alone undertaken) the journey alone. In this way they write of seeking to celebrate both the ‘difficult journey made by this extraordinary group of people’ and to counter the prevailing ‘Pākehā narrative that Brunner was an explorer who valiantly made the journey singlehandedly.’ Brunner’s vulnerability and reliance on Kehu and Pikiwati is best captured, for Matthews and McQuarrie, in the moment when his boots rotted away and he was forced to make and wear pāraerae. McQuarrie and Matthews’ own learning of the craft of fashioning pāraerae is described as a ‘repetition of Brunner’s learning, a symbol of his coming to understand the world he travelled in and to move according to its rhythms.’ However appealing this metaphor for and act of cultural recognition may be it is not the “whole story” with regard McQuarrie’s and Matthews’ exhibition.

Prospects Fearful brings together oneiric imagery, highly-charged objects and matter-of-fact (and indeed didactic) textual framing. This moralising element, which is most pronounced in Hubbard’s weirdly comic and somewhat feverish accompanying essay (which takes the form of a letter addressed to Brunner and in which Hubbard documents his many “crimes”), is deferred and even undermined by the lush-murky impressionistic photographs. On the one hand there seems to be a desire for intelligibility, reconciliation and amendment (found in the accompanying catalogue texts and represented by the pāraerae), and on the other, a certain moody and poetical evasiveness provided by the unruly magic of the pin-hole camera and subsequent (Photoshopped) manipulation. Prospects Fearful thus reads as a charge sheet embroidered and almost upended by dreamy association and whimsically melancholy impression.

In her recent book Reparative Aesthetics, Susan Best describes the lineage of ‘reparative approaches’ which informed her particular adoption of the term:

[...] my interest in a reparative approach [...] is deeply indebted to [Eve] Sedgwick’s early theorization of reparative reading practices. Sedgwick, in turn, borrows the idea of a reparative position or orientation from psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, for whom the term signifies a capacity to deal with ambivalence, and to incorporate both positive and negative feelings. The reparative position is not, then, simply about undoing or reversing damage; ambivalence precludes that wholly positive orientation [5].

McQuarrie and Matthews’ exhibition seems to hinge on such a form of ambivalence, particularly as it sails very close to affirming certain Romantic and nostalgic notions of Aotearoa as a pristine (if unhomely) and untrammelled land. The photographs are unpeopled and the landscapes captured are virginal and murkily sublime. Why depict it in such a way? Why this simulation of seeing the Buller through Brunner’s eyes? What does this “as if” element add to the exercise? Although Brunner may have failed in his efforts to find and secure arable land for the Nelson settlers, the West Coast certainly did not escape the very mixed blessing of imperial and capitalistic enterprise. I am here thinking of what Wayne Modest terms ‘colonial aphasia,’ which he suggests ‘marks a kind of lack, an inarticulacy, about the structuring force of colonial society in contemporary society’ [6]. Prospects Fearful seems to both coast in the direction of such ‘colonial aphasia’ and (rhetorically at least) veer sharply away from it, with the viewer, this viewer at least, left stranded somewhere in between.

Nikolai Zharkov, one of Svetlana Alexievich’s interlocutors in Voices from Chernobyl, is quoted as saying: ‘In order to answer the question of how to live, we need to know who’s to blame’ [7]. Although this is certainly not a sentiment I imagine either McQuarrie or Matthews would express, it does offer an insight into the hazards associated with and the motivations often underpinning desires for historical amendment. How, in other words, do we stare into the abyss of the past without either bolting ourselves shut, hitching ourselves to mollifying mythscapes, or embracing fantasies of vengeance and retribution? There is no innocent and certainly no foolproof way of apprehending, representing or making use of the past and the difficult and violent legacies we are compelled to live with and confront. With Prospects Fearful, McQuarrie and Matthews have created an occasion in which to reflect on just such things.

Notes

[1] Krasznahorkai, Laszlo. Satantango (G. Szirtes, Trans.), (London: Tuskar Rock Press, 2012), 133.

[2] I now have doubts as to whether it was in fact the Buller and not the Karamea.

[3] The photographs were taken with a pinhole camera using medium format film before being scanned and reworked in Photoshop. The base images were not manipulated but were overlaid with digital photographs from the same sites and scans of paper toned with black tea and chlorophyll which was extracted from native plants. Some of the images are annotated in a handwritten but “vintage looking” script. The annotations name the guides and two of the Poutini Ngāi Tāhu chiefs the party met on the journey.

[4] I quite simply do not know what to make of the needlepoint works. Why the need for the (“antique-replica”) ‘real thing’?

[5] Best, Susan. Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing Contemporary Art Photography, (London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 3.

[6] Modest, Wayne. Museums and the emotional afterlife of colonial photography. In E. Edwards & S. Lien (Eds.), Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs (pp. 21-42), (London: Ashgate, 2014), 29.

[7] Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, (New York: Picador, 2006), 120.


Gallery of installation views from Prospects Fearful (L to R): Embroidered wall texts, Pāraerae (flax sandals), Photographs and pāraerae. (Installation photographs by John-Paul Pochin).

Based in Nelson, Nicholas Haig recently completed an MA in Museum Studies and is currently a Massey University Doctoral candidate. His research focuses on contemporary memorial formations and the social and political functions of museums. Haig also moonlights as an art critic and curator and has been employed on occasion as a research assistant and tutor by Massey since 2016.