Saturday, February 25, 2012

Soap and water

The Dowse must wonder what hit it. Maori objections to the proximity of morgue water to the pataka Nuku Tewhatewha led it to cancel the installation So It Vanishes which was to have been a star turn of the International Festival of the Arts. The work by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles would have dropped bubbles containing traces of water used to wash bodies in a morgue into the exhibition space from the ceiling. Although the Dowse has dealt with the Maori challenge in this instance by cancelling the exhibition, there are some big issues here that won’t go away, and no one wants the Dowse to end burdened by a future of avoidance, second guessing and self-censorship. 

The debate has now become about the ability of the Dowse to show all kinds of contemporary art without this kind of pressure requiring a back down. Death, sex and challenging behaviour are part of contemporary art’s package and have been for some time now. They aren’t going away any time soon.

What has complicated the situation for the Dowse is the question of its identity. Originally called the Dowse Art Gallery in the 1970s, it veered into the territory of community museum in the 1980s expanding its commitment to local taonga by taking in Nuku Tewhatewha. Now it is struggling to redevelop its role as a contemporary art museum. All these different identities and expectations make for contradictions as well as conflicts.

From outside the outcome of the present fracas is surprising and feels arbitrary. Consider that most spectacular of Museum/Maori cultural meetings -- the presentation of Te Maori at The Metropolitan Museum in New York. Here the presence of death which is central to the Met’s vast Egyptian collections butted right up against Te Maori and was accommodated by both Maori and museum. If that spirit had endured in this instance we would have seen Teresa Margolles opening at the Dowse this weekend. Perhaps it would have been introduced by signage about spiritual concerns, possibly there would have been some kind of Maori spiritual guidance, but the show would have gone on and its potential audience could each have chosen whether to interact with it or not. 

As usual in these situations what happens next is far more important than what has happened up to now. Do the Dowse’s communities agree that the presence of Nuku Tewhatewha trumps all other cultural concerns? Whatever they resolve will have a major impact on the evolving role of the Dowse as a contemporary art museum. We’re not talking theory and rhetoric here. Rightly or wrongly the Dowse has dropped the exhibition of a significant and highly respected artist and given specific cultural reasons for doing so. 

Teresa Margolle named her exhibition So It Vanishes. In its role as an independent contemporary art museum the Dowse and its supporters will be finding that title alarmingly charged. It’s now their opportunity to lead the discussion.
Image: The barrier erected to separate Te Maori from the Egyptian collections at Te Papa.