Matters of Delicacy

Imagine you’re a goat.

A ram, to be precise. God – or your sculptor – has endowed you with a ballbag of overly generous dimensions. One night, in the wee small hours, humans, subversives perhaps, come to castrate you. Snip! Ouch! Eina! Yes, it is true that the angry ram sculpture at the Ostend causeway, erected to celebrate the exploits of our fine rugby league team, had its testicles removed by persons unknown. Twice. And that, in an answering display of creative genius rich with symbolism, they were re-attached used a sturdy padlock.

Such has been the Waiheke way in dealing with a wider matter of great delicacy. What to do with public art that may have cause to offend? More specifically, recently, the issue of the legitimacy of tenure of statues of people who have passed their use-by date of adulation.

There’s this thing about history. It ain’t ever quite so simple as most renderings make out. The zeitgeist is ever changing. And new views, provide by evolved lenses, alter what is considered appropriate or not.

Mostly, the history we read is, to a greater or lesser extent, a mythistory. Why? Because, when it comes to covering areas of conflict, it tends to be written by the victors. And prominent statues in public spaces are a part of that triumphant narrative. But the stories they tell are often no longer palatable. Times have changed; and rightly so. The examples – of unchanging statues and changing attitudes – are legion. Question is: should they stand or fall?

Trevor Noah had it right, I reckon, when he suggested that public sculpture should be made from a material that dissolves all by itself after a set number of years. That may be one way of future-proofing with the problem. Also a way of keeping sculptors at work. (Given our fashion for the artform, sometimes I fear the New Zealand landscape is in danger of reaching sculptural saturation.)

The current debate about the place of statues of statues of historical figures, almost all of them men, now offensive to modern sensibilities, is fraught suchly.

On our island we have grappled with similar issues of the use-by date, or the appropriateness of public artworks – only here they have been about contemporary sculpture. The issues are both logical/practical and vexed/unsettling. Like at Alison Park – should we, as someone quite wisely mentioned to me the other day, add new columns to the work that charts Waiheke rainfall, to show how climate change may have affected us? And what are we to do about a piece that is the work of a man convicted of sexual assault? Is the occasional scrubbing off of truth-telling graffiti enough?

We’ve removed artworks before. The tangle of corrugated iron that tumbled down the hillside at Matiatia, an overstayer from a Headland Sculpture on the Gulf Exhibition, was finally taken away – and in a manner that worked for both the community and the artist. Win - Win. It can be done.

But it’s not always that way. New Zealand had its preview to the historical statues conundrum, with the occupation by iwi of Motua Gardens in Whanganui in 1995. And as always in these cases, there were some simple issues, some seriously complicated. The statue of a kūpapa ‘hero’ of the New Zealand Wars the Pūtiki chief Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (or to use his British Colonial Army title, ‘Major Kemp’) is a prominent feature of the park.

Just these two seemingly innocuous sentences above are problematic. First, the location should more correctly be called Pākaitore. That was the name of a pā that stood there. And local Māori say, that land was never sold to the Pākehā. At the time of the occupation, the Whanganui community was split between those who used place names properly, and those who didn’t. You proclaimed and took your side, simply by how you used local place names. The people of Whanganui are still split in this way, in debate on the pronunciation of the town’s name itself.

Second, we all know what a kūpapa is, right? If you perhaps you do not, let’s leave it to the inscription on his pedestal to inform us: "high-born Maori chief, brave soldier and staunch ally of the New Zealand Government". In short, a turncoat, a traitor to his people. Yes, or no?

There’s more: in that small, contested space, stands another memorial to the battle at Motua Island in the Whanganui River, which was fought exclusively between kūpapa and resistance fighters, whose goal was to retain their land. But the inscription reads, “To the memory of the brave men who fell at Moutoa, 14 May 1864, in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism." Pākaitore also has a statue of John Ballance, organiser of a volunteer cavalry troop in Tītokowaru's War and later Premier of New Zealand. He was the one who was decapitated. But the city re-capitated him by commissioning another statue in 2009. Right or wrong?

By the way, there are no statues to Tītokowaru, who led his people in a fight for their land, and who never lost a battle (though he did curiously abandon a seemingly impregnable pā just before one.)

There was collateral damage, too, of a tragic kind at Pākaitore. A Māori child drowned in a water feature which featured a bronze statue of a woman who had water artfully dripping off her umbrella. The child was of one of the families occupying the gardens, and was momentarily unattended. In a fit of grief – no politics at all in this – the occupiers destroyed the sculpture.

Yes, these are matters of delicacy. To be approached with due caution and knowledge by the triumvirate that presides in public art: the commissioning agency, the artist, and the people ourselves. Here’s hoping we – here at least – can come up with wise solutions.