Learning from Shane

Its not hard to see that Shane Cotton’s work is highly architectural.  His borrowings from Rongopai, the focus on the land, and even the appearances of structures in some works, all point to an architectural dialogue operating at a number of levels.  But where we can learn the most from Shane’s work is how he has negotiated the issue of cultural clash, highlighting lessons that could be transported back to the architect’s world.

Cotton’s latest exhibition The Hanging Sky has made its way to the Wellington City Gallery after being born in Christchurch (but not shown) and venturing over to Brisbane and Sydney.  The last time the Wellington City Gallery had a major exhibition of Shane Cotton was in 2003 when it was his first major survey of his work, described at the time as his exploration of identity and historical exchanges between Maori and Pakeha.  This time around the exhibition description is very different – The Hanging Sky is instead seen as a turning away from “a concern with the land and its histories” and instead sees Cotton opening “up a new painted space”, “jettisoning many of his trademark images, removing all reference to stable horizons, and employing an uncanny, nocturnal palette of blue and black” (see here).

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Luckily the book accompanying the exhibition recognises that Cotton isn’t turning away from the issue of cultural clash, just that he is refining his exploration of what it means for him.  Some of his trademarks images are reframed, others replaced by new references – what is constant is his “scrambling” of styles and idioms.  Robert Leonard’s article reminds us that Cotton’s “crashing together Maori and Pakeha image fragments” remains the core method for exploring the “post-colonial historical and cultural unconscious”.  The fragments can be varied – baseball bats, bible verses, birds, and bullseyes (to name just the b’s) – but the focus is consistent on the “old dilemma: (how) can you be Maori and modern?”

The answer is certainly not the old-style bicultural dream of synthesis and easy blending of cultures, a kind of aesthetic reconciliation.  Instead Cotton continues to explore the uncertainty of being in-between.  There is not an end result here – instead it is about “keeping a certain problem alive”, as Leonard puts it.  “It’s more about identifying with and embracing the epistemological crisis that came with contact, a crisis that split open signs, tearing signifier from signified, turning images into traitors.  It’s about being fundamentally conflicted.”

Cotton’s conversation with curator Justin Paton on Radio New Zealand’s Arts on Sunday gives us a view on how this fundamental conflict is expressed in the works.  The terms ‘disturbing’ and ‘unsettling’ are used to describe the works.  Paton talks of the paintings delivering a dusk effect, where it is not quite dark and not quite light – it is instead neither one nor the other, but still hard to see.  Cotton talks of unease, of not know, of being in two minds.  This isn’t seen as a negative, but instead a good thing.  Dealing with the crisis that came with contact means being comfortable with a lack of resolution or reconciliation.

This is in stark contrast to how biculturalism is talked about in the architectural profession.  Christine McCarthy’s examination of Architecture New Zealand’s use of biculturalism in the 1980s shows that two main approaches are taken – that of synthesis (think Russell Walden’s view of John Scott’s Futuna Chapel), and that of balance and ongoing dialogue (see McCarthy 2009).  Not a lot has changed in 30 years, with the July/August 2012 edition of Architecture New Zealand claiming that bicultural architecture “incorporates Maori culture, values and spirituality to achieve a relationship between the two founding cultures of Aotearoa/New Zealand: Maori and Pakeha.”  The closest that the lead article gets to Cotton’s view of bicultural is a three line comment by Bill McKay on half-castes as part of his upbringing in the country.

Any sense of being in-between is left to the less accessible academic writings.  Explorations of Te Kooti’s and Rua Kenana’s creations point to architectural expressions of cultural tension.  Both Vanya Steiner and Bill McKay have spoken of John Scott’s Maori Battalion Building as being neither one nor the other and certainly not a harmonious fusion of Maori and Pakeha.  But such views stay in the architectural underworld, never to escape into mainstream dialogue.  How come the art world allows it to surface?  How can Cotton make a successful career exploring these matters whilst the architectural world seems in denial (or doesn’t find it appropriate)?

The answer must lie with the beginning of Cotton’s journey.  His shift to Palmerston North to lecture in the Maori Studies department exposed him

“to a differ­ent kind of history, a Māori colonial history – it was something that I didn’t know about in any great depth but I had to try to teach the stuff. I was learning, teaching, learning, teaching, all at speed, and it started feeding into my painting.  So a lot of the work through the nineties was dense; it was dense with biblical scripture and dense with Māori history, which was new to me. I wasn’t so much trying to teach people about this stuff as trying to understand it for myself. And because I was interested in the painting process, and because I had become interested in New Zealand history and the way that it was momentous and caused huge shifts and changes for both the Pākehā and Māori, I just couldn’t get away from it.” (see here)

Which architecture school could have an impact like this today?  Until one does, it is unlikely we’ll find ourselves with an architecture as complex as the art created by the likes of Cotton.

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