I am not afraid of the dark

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent
play of built volumes brought together in light.
To see form under light is what our eyes are made for.”
Le Corbusier

1,500 settler militia and volunteers marched into Parihaka pa in 1881 to arrest Te Whiti and Tohu along with hundreds of their followers.  Many were transported to the South Island without trial (as allowed under the Maori Prisoners’ Trials Act), some dying there in the face of forced labour and the harsh, cold, conditions.

Laurence Aberhart’s The Prisoner’s Dream series of photographs transport the viewer to Ripapa Island in Lyttleton Harbour where a number of the Parihaka prisoners were held before heading further south.  The usual readings of Aberhart’s series focus on the darkness as negative – invoking claustrophobic feelings, a sense of restriction, deprivation.  Gregory O’Brien writes that when coming upon these photos the viewer enter a “compressed sensory space”, the darkness squeezing our sense to a narrow band of light.  We are, then, invited by Aberhart to participate in the feelings of oppression (both spatial and spiritual) felt by the prisoners.

Such a reading is always based on a duality that has light as the positive element – the saving grace, freedom, purity, enlightenment.  Our eyes are made for light according to Le Corbusier, darkness is unnatural or even worse, primitive.  Aberhart’s images show the architectural form of this duality, which in the colonial context is captured by Paul Morris’ comment that Maori “live in their partial darkness awaiting the full saving light of Christ’s Euro-gospel.”  The prison is therefore not just a transition space but represents the general state of the Maori race in the view of settlers and administrators of the time.  Imprisonment – a most brutal tool of the state – is the state of waiting, waiting for the enlightenment that will be brought in the wake of European imperialism.

View #1, Fort Jervois, Ripapa Island

View #2, Fort Jervois, Ripapa Island

View #3, Fort Jervois, Ripapa Island

View #4, Fort Jervois, Ripapa Island

But this is also a protective view, a defensive position that would be taken up by people engaged in battle and wanting to deny easy access to the interior (much like Aberhart’s images of Masonic Lodges).  It is one of surveillance, gazing upon the ground outside, watching the land for signs of the enemy.  The darkness here plays role of protector – denying ease of vision for those outside, keeping secret the happenings inside.  Our sight from the inside has indeed been squeezed, and this squeeze serves to focus us on the land outside.  As Paul Virilio notes, “the firing slit, like the squint of the eyelid, reduces the visual field to a strict minimum, to the target”, and that “to possess the earth, to hold terrain, is also to possess the best means to scan it in order to protect and defend it.”  The views presented to us by Aberhart fulfil both of Virilio’s statements, raising the question of just who is under attack – those inside gazing out, or those outside gazing in?  The answer is probably both, for this is most definitely a war.

Deidre Brown touches on this focus on the land when she comments that ‘Aberhart was also interested in the views that the prisoners longed for during their confinement.”  For her (and him) this meant their maunga Taranaki, an image of which formed the fifth photograph of the Prisoner’s Dream series (and on exhibition was placed in between the four defensive position images).   But this focus is not solely represented by the central image of the maunga, every firing slit in the four images flanking Mount Taranaki gives a view of what the prisoners longed for – the land.

Masonic Lodge - Laurence Aberhart

We shouldn’t forget that darkness pervaded much of early Maori built form.  No windows punctured the walls of pre-contact dwellings, the small front door opening being the only source of natural light and ventilation.  When Gregory O’Brien talks of Aberhart’s images “it is also the same blackness the eye registers on entering a dark interior from the blinding brightness of the day outside”, he could equally be speaking of existence in these pre-contact dwellings.  Being afraid of the dark, and any obsession with light, would have been foreign.

The slit window is a favourite of today’s architecture.  The urban upper classes pierce their mono-clad homes with thin slivers of windows in an attempt to restrict the ability of outsiders to gaze in.  There is no pervasive, controlling gaze out.  As a style it serves a desire to place distance between the interior and the everyday outside – creating a safe harbour away from the brutalities of everyday life (or at least everyone else’s lives).  While defensive in nature, it does not seek to create safety through any play of shadows or through the use of darkness – whenever the slit window is used in inner city town houses or coastal baches it is secondary to Le Corbusier’s dictum of the primacy of light in architecture.

What is needed is instead an architecture that is not afraid of the dark, where interiors filled with shadows are a sign of power and resilience.  The firing slit here would act as a tool to possess the earth beyond, focussing the view on where the threat will come.  Rather than Le Corbusier’s love of light, we can instead follow Jun’ichiro Tanazaki’s respect of shadow – “Darkness does not distress us; we surrender to it as inevitable.  If light is scarce then lift is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.”


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