The Contemporary Pacific 16.2 (2004) 429-434
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Brett Graham's installation at the Adam Art Gallery was one of the most powerful and affecting artistic statements on the nature of Pacific history and identity I have seen. The work may be cited as an example of what Andreas Huyssen has recently called "memory sculpture"—work that attempts, in an age of cyber-capitalism and media-induced amnesia, toevoke more cogent and embodied reflections on the present and the past ("Sculpture, Materiality, and Memory in an Age of Amnesia," in Displacements, Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition catalog, 1998 ). Such work also focuses on the locality and specificity of historical experience. Reversing modernism's investment in the universality of aesthetic experience, it seeks to embed aesthetic subjectivity in narratives of particular times and places. These are also, importantly, private works. They are not public monuments or national memorials; they have no official or representative status (however much they might recall such functions). As mnemonic prompts, they address the individual gallery-goer in a personal reverie about the relationship between the present and the past.
Kainga Tahi Kainga Rua (First Home, Second Home) is an installation about the modern history of Banaba, or "Ocean Island." It was produced as a collaboration between contemporary Māori artist Brett Graham and Banaban academic [End Page 429] Katerina Teaiwa, interpreting ideas distilled from Teaiwa's PhD research on the colonial exploitation of Banaba through Graham's unique sculptural language. Their collaboration in many ways is a pioneering response to recent calls to decolonize Pacific history and rethink what are valid and effective modes of Pacific historiography. It is an experiment that attempts to speak across indigenous perspectives, to return marginalized histories to the field of representation, and to challenge how Pacific history might be experienced and communicated. As "art," this work is not an expressive but rather an inarticulate supplement to real history; Kainga Tahi Kainga Rua goes to the heart of history by examining what constitutes historical consciousness in the modern Pacific.
A brief wall text greeted the visitor to the installation and provided a basic narrative informing his or her encounter with it. I quote it in full: "Between 1900 and 1979 the island of Banaba or 'Ocean Island,' in what is now the Republic of Kiribati, was mined and relocated across the farming fields of New Zealand and Australia. Phosphate fertilizer or superphosphate was a crucial factor in the growth of the agricultural industries of both these nations. But their growth resulted in the displacement of the indigenous Banabans to Rabi Island in Fiji and 20 million tonnes of Banaban homelands to New Zealand and Australia. The growth of their agriculture could be interpreted as resulting in the 'death' of this Pacific Island. Today, Banaba is a silent graveyard of the phosphate mining industry. While the island was once crucial for New Zealand and Australia it is now all but forgotten by history." As an addendum, we were told that the work reflected on "the relationship between New Zealand and Banaba from a Māori and Banaban perspective of kainga or home—the land that feeds and nurtures." This text already takes history from a narration of facts to a reflection on what these facts mean from particular perspectives and across time. There is loss and irony in the text, but equally, affirmation and metaphorical play—qualities expanded and given substance in the work itself.
Installed in the lower gallery of the Adam complex, the work deployed elements from Graham's repertoire of sculptural forms. One of the things that made the installation so effective was the way these elements were integrated into the gallery space. They did not just sit in that space; they animated it, incorporating its height and narrowness, its viewing vantages, its scale, and so on, into the total experience of the installation in a way that was both theatrical and...