Learning from James

Little has been written about James Ormsby’s impressive set of work, perhaps because his choice of media, style and theme are less internationally digestible than his contemporaries, or perhaps because of his ‘Ngati Whiriki‘ or outsider tag that he proudly wears.  His Maorigami series is one exception, with a catalogue essay and a few column inches devoted to the 2007 exhibition at Whitespace Gallery.

When I first saw one of the Maorigami pieces at Paul Nache Gallery in Gisborne (in its former incarnation) I was drawn to the very different way of representing a whare whakairo, a kind of ornate unfolded volume.  Once I had got my hands on the Whitespace Gallery exhibition catalogue with its essay by Ngahiraka Mason I started to see that I was viewing it the wrong way around.  It wasn’t an unfolding, but a 2D design waiting to be folded into 3D object.

Maorigami #10

James Ormsby, Maorigami #10

This was the same type of 2D that Roger Neich had talked about in his Carved Histories and Painted Histories.  Neich points out how traditional Maori whakairo (design, not just carving) was aspective as opposed to using a method of perspective to represent figures and objects.  Rather than attempt to give the designs a sense of 3-dimensionality by using single-point or another form of perspective, Maori designers were confident in a frontal presentation of their subjects.  This resonates with Ormsby’s question on his own Maorigami work – by exploring the links between Maori kowhaiwhai and Japanese origami he asks whether “each has a 3rd or even 4th dimension?”.

Ormsby’s suggested path from 2-dimensionality to 3D is the creation of physical form, the folding of flat-plane designs into a type of paper house.  Neich’s suggested path has to do with how time is represented by 2D and 3D approaches.  He says “Aspective representation aims to depict things ‘objectively and ideally as they really are’, at all times, with all their essential features showing, whereas a perspective view shows things as they are from one viewpoint and at one instant in time” (Carved Histories, p.136).  One step further, “”Aspective representation of ancestors in Maori carving continually recreated the timeless, ever-present world of the ancestors.  The Maori carver set out not so much to deny time as rather to create time as a continuous duration.” (Carved Histories, p.137).

So rather than adding depth to length and width, Neich suggests adding time to length and width.  Rather than fold as Ormsby does, we’d instead look to replicate the flat plane to try and represent the continuous duration of time.  Lets take this another step.  If a wharenui represents an ancestor (or the collection of all) and it is constructed of individual pieces of work that are framed by their aspective nature (and which form the whole when brought together), are we necessarily supposed to be experiencing the wharenui or marae as a 3 dimensional space?

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James Ormsby Maorigami #9 (detail)

The staging of activities on the marae suggests that we are not supposed to view the whole in totality at a single point in time.  This is emphasised by the use of transition zones in Maori architecture.  Manuhiri (visitors) will engage with the marae at several very strictly designated points, carefully controlled by the welcoming rituals.  Each of these points will often have a transition zone dedicated to them, from outside the marae, to stepping on, to exchanging views in front of the wharenui, to the porch, to the wharenui itself, and then to the wharekai.  Inside the wharenui the stories held within are difficult to decipher from a single vantage point – instead you must address each piece of work from the front as the designs intended (almost as though addressing each poupou replicates the sharing of the breath of life following the mihi).

Modern architectural tools and modes of representation work against such an approach.  Design, even to the detail, can now take place in 3D (rather than transformed 2D), and the standalone PC is increasingly becoming more capable of completing the sunlit renders from an aerial viewpoint (or fly-thru if you more real-estate minded).  In fact it is the set of drawings satisfying regulatory demands that come closest to the type of representation we are after.  Schedules of windows and doors set each item out in a visually unconnected manner, but the rules of such drawings tell us how they relate (if you have the knowledge to decipher the code).  Of course the consent drawings aren’t trying to recreate “the timeless, ever-present world of the ancestors.”  While they may point us in the general direction of what we are after, they don’t tell the story we need to.  Finding the mode of representation that tells this story may help to unlock the design of Maori architecture from the canon of western professional practice.

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