McCahon vs Scott

Art has dealt with the question of land and the colonial project far better than architecture.  Nowhere is this so clearly illustrated than at Waikaremoana, where McCahon’s Urewera Mural overpowers John Scott’s visitor centre in its ability to expose the differences in the way landscape is viewed by Maori and pakeha.

McCahon was commissioned to undertake the mural at John Scott’s suggestion.  The park board was looking for a centrepiece to the visitor centre designed by Scott, something that suitably expressed the Urewera landscape.  As Geoff Park in his Theatre Country notes, if the board wanted ‘picturesque lake in misty forest, and Panekiri Bluff scenery’, then asking McCahon to do it was a mistake.  McCahon ‘repudiated the picturesque landscape-painting tradition, and its derivation from mastery over land, land as property.’

Urewera Mural - Colin McCahon

Repudiating this tradition meant McCahon was more interested in communicating a message about ‘Tuhoe prestige and their inseperability from Te Urewera’.  The colonial project never made it to the Urewera’s, the land never tamed into farms and settlements.  It remains a bastion against subjugation in landscape as well as political terms.  A site of resistance, it has harboured leaders such as Rua Kenana and Te Kooti, and even today the national conciousness still sees it as a place where those against the (post)colonial project seek refuge.

And so McCahon delivered something controversial.  Deidre Brown notes it was subject to stinging attacks (from both Maori and Pakeha) about its appropriation of Maori words and symbols.  Its powerful imagery was more sign and symbol than faithful pictorial representation of the view.  As such it challenged how visitors to Waikaremoana looked upon the land, resistant to the all-encompassing gaze over the landscape, resistant to any idea that this land shall ever slip away from Tuhoe’s mana.  It is a highly politicised work of art, so much so that it was stolen by protesters who wanted to remind a nation of the feelings of loss that occurred with confiscations of land.

Scott’s visitor centre design never competes on this level.  No controversy, no viewing of things differently, no politicisation.  In fact, you could say that in suggesting McCahon, Scott was admitting that the painter could do what he had failed to.  Deidre Brown talks more about McCahon’s painting than the visitor centre in her book on Maori Architecture – much like it was a whare whakairo with the art inside being more important than the building.  Geoff Park’s best interpretation of Scott’s architecture is that it is a chapel to environmental conciousness, drawing on concepts of ‘sanctuary and salvation to the mission of nature conservation.’

The building’s most political statement has been through its recent demise.  Declared a ‘leaky building’, precious works from inside have had to be removed (including McCahon’s Mural) because the architecture can no longer protect them.  Succumbing to the environment, Scott’s architecture is perhaps a reminder that any intervention into this bastion shall be defeated.


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