A Voice for the voiceless
Walters Prize 2014
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
Edited by Clare McIntosh
Download the ebook
Kalisolaite ’Uhila told me that time stopped the day he began his perfor- mance work Mo’ui Tukuhausia. For Te Tuhi staff the passing of time was altered too – the fortnight that followed that rst day moved remarkably slowly. We were kept busy moment to moment facilitating a food bank, answering questions and de ecting verbal abuse. Two years on, it still strikes me as a period that feels much longer than it actually was. Perhaps this is because of ’Uhila’s profound ability to induce such an intense situation through a remarkably humble action.
I first met ’Uhila in 2011, while researching for the exhibition What do you mean, we? (2012). The exhibition explored the psychology of prejudice through the work of artists who employ strategies that draw out, or unveil, latent bias. ’Uhila’s emerging practice at the time tted well into this context, so I arranged to meet with him to explore the possibility of his inclusion. I learnt that he used an experiential approach in his work, rather than the head-in-book style of research which is so much more common these days with university graduates. ‘My library is my heart and my mind,’ he would later tell me. At the time of that rst meeting, ’Uhila was engaging in participatory research which involved spending the odd day or night unkempt and ‘living’ on the street. On one such day, ’Uhila attempted to enter Auckland Art Gallery, and was promptly ushered out. Being turned away was an important experience for the artist, because at this time he was working as an afterhours security guard down town and was himself often required to move homeless people off private property.
’Uhila’s institutional critique was not lost on me and my colleagues when we accepted the risk of allowing him to ‘live homeless’ around the grounds of Te Tuhi. His action challenged Te Tuhi’s core function and could have rendered the organisation politically vulnerable – as well as liable for his safety. However, ’Uhila’s inclusion in What do you mean, we? was essential. His was the only live performative work to engage with the public and place of Pakuranga – the suburb in which Te Tuhi is situated. This engagement was one of the exhibition’s driving motivations, due to recent issues of discrimination in the area.
While ’Uhila was made aware of the local social situation, the reality of his bearing witness to these tensions was something else entirely. On a daily basis the artist’s presence ignited responses worthy of a 1950s social science experiment in which the very best and worst of our local constituents were uncovered. ’Uhila was referred to as ‘that thing!’ by one visitor; spat on by another; and was even accused of not smelling enough of ‘urine and faeces’. Simultaneously, visitors donated so much food to ’Uhila that regular visits to the Auckland City Mission were required to of oad the generous excess. Overall, the most accepting people were children, who would come bounding up to ’Uhila uninhibited, while the initial reaction of many adults was a suspicious double glance.
One surprising element of these responses was that ’Uhila made no assertive effort to elicit any reaction at all. He was merely being. This deceptively simple endurance brings to mind Marina Abramović’s 2010 work, The Artist is Present, to which individuals reacted with everything from tears to indifference when seated across a table from the artist and xed by her gaze. ’Uhila, like Abramović, was a silent, still presence onto which people projected their own thoughts and feelings.
’Uhila experienced brief moments of respite when family, friends and supporters visited him, but was, for the most part, left alone to linger day and night in the open. This required ’Uhila to develop an intimate know- ledge of the area: he sought shelter from the rain and wind, found warmth in patches of sunlight between buildings, discovered reliable caches of aluminium cans that earned him cash which he then donated to charity and, above all, he located safe nooks in which to hide. Through this deeply attuned observation ’Uhila gained a perspective on the workings of society passing around him. He recounts:
A key aspect to survival is to be aware of your surroundings... I was doing a lot of sitting, a lot of observing, just listening and being aware of what was happening around the area... I would notice life happening like clockwork . . . but it is more like a shadow of time. People had the time but I was moving in their shadow. They would be moving but I was moving at my own different pace.
’Uhila further explained that through his art he wants to ‘have a voice for those who are voiceless’. His voluntary homelessness was not, therefore, motivated by a desire to act destitute; it was instead an attempt to attain a perspective similar to that of a homeless person to whom society pays little sincere attention. In this respect, ’Uhila joins a legacy of artists, including Tehching Hsieh, William Pope.L, Santiago Sierra and Krzysztof Wodiczko, to name a few, who have made works in response to the contemporary escalation of homelessness. These artists, like ’Uhila, ventured down this path accepting any controversy that their actions triggered so that they might draw attention to an issue that is readily swept under the carpet. In doing so, the artists themselves risked becoming the subjects of public ridicule, albeit in small measure compared with what the homeless endure daily.
’Uhila was motivated to gain a lived understanding of homelessness, but it was the provocation of his performance that triggered the enforcement of social order. As the title of the work implies, the action placed him outside what is socially acceptable, and due to this he was deemed an ‘unusual suspect’, someone to be corrected. This reality was evident through the many police visits he received, which were the reason his performance ended a day earlier than its planned conclusion. ’Uhila’s performance ultimately illustrated that society’s power is to be celebrated for how it bene ts the collective, but also feared for how it forces individuals to conform.
Artworks such as Mo’ui Tukuhausia are knowingly problematic for museums and art galleries to facilitate because there is no way of really gauging what might unfold. There may not be anything to see, as such, because the expectations of a conventional viewer experience are put to the side in favour of the artist engaging with the given public context. Nominated for Auckland Art Gallery’s Walters Prize at a time when the central city is experiencing an increase in numbers of homeless people, great emphasis is likely to be placed on the relevance of ’Uhila’s work in the new but familiar social situation in which he is invited to engage.
Bruce E Phillips & Kalisolaite 'Uhila, ‘Discussing Mo’ui Tukuhausia’ in What do you mean, we?, Bruce E Phillips and Rebecca Lal (eds), Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Auckland, 2012, p 47, http://www.tetuhi.org.nz/download le.php? lename= les/ downloads/What%20do%20you%20mean%20we.pdf, accessed 21 May 2014.
In 2011, Pakuranga was one of three areas throughout New Zealand chosen by the Right Wing Resistance to distribute their ‘Asian Invasion’ pamphlets. Other moments of controversy included strong Pākehā resistance to a whare wānanga (house of learning) to be rebuilt in Howick, and also the area’s new Super City ward being named after the prominent Māori Chief Te Irirangi.
See TVNZ One News, ‘Anti-Asian Lea ets Leave Community “Very Alarmed”’, 11 May 2011, http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/anti-asian-lea ets-leave- community-very-alarmed-4166648, accessed 20 May 2014; TVNZ Te Karere, ‘Ngai Tai in Howick Demolish Te Umupuia Meeting House’, uploaded 18 October 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3963bBGIwjs, accessed 21 May 2014; TVNZ Te Karere, ‘Ngai Tai Iwi Are Happy a Ward in Auckland Will Be Called Te Irirangi’, uploaded 22 March 2010, https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=tpnTUgBYtU8, accessed 21 May 2014; Lincon Tan, Howick: Name Game Over – Now Who Will Lead’, New Zealand Herald, 25 August 2010, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10668616, accessed 21 May 2014.
Phillips & 'Uhila, pp 47–8.
As above, p 52.
Mo’ui tukuhausia can be translated as ‘life put aside’.
Phillips &'Uhila, p 50.