Leaving Traces: A Review of The Room
Four rooms, four curators. Linda Tyler looks for traces of habitation in an ambitious exhibition that brings together craft, design and architecture, and asks: who might live here?
According to Walter Benjamin – epic chronicler of 19th-century Paris – the domestic interior was not only the private citizen’s universe, it was also his casing: “Living means leaving traces … The resident’s own traces were also moulded in the interior.” Who might the absent residents of the four interiors staged as The Room have been? Unnamed, but recognisable types, they emerge from this exhibition as a heterogenous bunch of 21st-century ‘Aotearoans’, keenly interested in the intersections between the disciplines of craft, design and architecture that form Objectspace’s remit.
From Ani O’Neill’s installation issues the sound of cascading multipart harmonies, the ‘Imene tuki music drawing eyes to the monitor, which shows a Cook Island church choir in full voice, wearing brightly coloured woven pare on their heads. Placed on the MDF shelving above and around the screen is a selection of black, white and blue hats woven from shiny florist’s ribbon, some encased in protective plastic bags, as if carefully put aside after church and now waiting for their next chance to be worn.
For curator Ane Tonga, O’Neill’s original installation of this work 26 years ago in the Auckland Telephone Exchange Building in Wellesley Street was a historical moment in urgent need of revisiting. Back in 1993, O’Neill was on the threshold of her career, still studying at Elam School of Fine Arts. Promise Me/Trust Me was her response to the cloakroom in the abandoned building. Visiting that installation, you could close your eyes and imagine how the building had once chimed with the sound of Māori and Pacific women operating the phone lines, connecting voices with the deft pull and plug of a cord. O’Neill visualised their hands moving over the switchboard, patching people together like the plaiting of patterns into pare. By attaching paper flowers and leaves to the floral wallpaper, O’Neill gave the furnishings a Polynesian accent and made them come to life to honour the work of those women.
Restaging this important piece of art history in Grey Lynn, once home to a large Polynesian community, serves to iterate the significance of both its maker and its ideas.
Restaging this important piece of art history in Grey Lynn, once home to a large Polynesian community, serves to iterate the significance of both its maker and its ideas. Craft skills, like spoken language, need to be picked up and passed on, connecting the threads of culture back to the ancestors. We are reminded that it was only 35 years ago that New Zealand Post Office telephone operator Naida Glavish (now Dame Rangimarie Glavish), was censured for answering every call with a chirpy “Kia ora! Tolls here.” Glavish went on a crusade, and three years later, in 1987, Māori became an official language.
If Ani O’Neill’s work gestures to an old room rediscovered, then Emma Ng’s The Edit splices a few room typologies together. In her hybridisation of the museum, shop and showroom, no one is allowed in to disturb the gestalt by entering the space. A selection of the useful and the beautiful in contemporary desirable homewares is carefully arrayed in a reprise of MoMA’s pre-war display of Useful Household Objects under $5.00. Despite the helpful signage, (“Modern Museum Again Holds Christmas Sale”), the resultant display is reminiscent of Janet Malcolm’s description of Rosalind Krauss’s loft, where “Each piece of furniture and every object of use or decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room.” It is more clinic than classroom.
These are not mere things that are on offer, but stories and human connections.
Nearly 40 objects are arranged on two tables and two wall panels, with brief notes on their provenance, ensuring that we know that these handcrafted products have been lovingly produced. A key explains where each comes from, who made it and how it came into being. It is made clear that these are not mere things that are on offer, but stories and human connections. Like a menu that explains the origin of every dish, sources are evocatively invoked: the “wild clay” of the stoneware utensil holder was “dug from Emily’s bach at Kuaotunu in the Coromandel” while Felicity harvested English freshwater bullrushes in the summer months to make her table mats. How could an ordinary home ever be worthy of such pedigreed objects? Or would the integrity of the makers somehow seep out into the surrounds to dignify them with appropriate gravitas?
The Poet’s Room, Te Whare Toikupu is both more welcoming and more nourishing than the kitchen utensils in The Edit. Warm yellow-ochre surfaces and built-in furnishings display a collection of 34 objects by 18 20th- and 21st-century Māori and Pākehā makers. A lamp is on in the window, letting us know that someone, at last, is at home here in Aotearoa. Working with jeweller Karl Fritsch, Justine Olsen, Curator Decorative Art and Design at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, successfully suggests the richness of a dual history and a shared future for craft.
Symbolising this concept are the heroes of the installation, which have been grown rather than made. Hue or gourds, Lagenaria siceraria (which are the fruit of a plant) are both practical and decorative. They can be used to carry liquids or make sound, but their smooth surfaces invite patterning. Clustered together in family groupings in The Poet’s Room, each one is unique. Together they exhibit a range of personalities and histories. Some were harvested recently, while others are older, gathered from Auckland’s material-culture expert Dante Bonica, the estate of Hamilton artist and gardener Geoffrey Fairburn, Coromandel weaver Lizzie Leckie and the Te Kuiti-based Hetet whānau collections. Some have been left plain, while others are dyed, painted or inscribed with unfurling koru. All are displayed as taonga, their organic earthiness offset by objects crafted from stone and metal, and even a photograph printed from a diamond-etched slide. Surrounded by such riches, the poet who inhabits this room has much to sustain them.
It appears to be an empty space, next-to-nothing ... yet in terms of concept, it is everything, a gesamtkunstwerk.
For Untitled (Presque Rien), the final room of this set of four, the walls and the floor were crafted on site by designers Rufus Knight and Mijntje Lepoutre from materials left over from the construction waste of the other rooms. Three thousand rectangular off-cuts were glued to an under-layer to form an unvarnished parquet floor. Sawdust from the construction process was combined with natural clay and silica mixture to create a natural-coloured plaster finish for the walls. Literally hand crafted, this room is also a readymade, constructed from found materials. It appears to be an empty space, next-to-nothing (the literal translation of ‘presque rien’), yet in terms of concept, it is everything, a gesamtkunstwerk. It is new, but it is old. Demonstrating both skilful manipulation of materials and the execution of a brilliant concept, it makes the agenda of the entire exhibition manifest: craft, design and architecture are intrinsically linked in all cultures. Unlived in, these rooms nonetheless bear human traces, moulding each interior into a room of their own.
The Room at Objectspace 5 April – 20 May 2019
Feature image, top of page: Ani O’Neill, Promise Me/Trust Me for The Room, 2019, Objectspace. Photo: Samuel Hartnett.
This piece is presented as part of a partnership with Blumhardt Foundation. They cover the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control.
Note: An earlier version of this article referred to the exhibition Promise Me/Trust Me as a response to the tearoom of the abandoned Auckland Telephone Exchange Building. This has been corrected to the cloakroom.