Our Kermadecs

Response to an Exhibition at the Wellington City Gallery

Off the Eastern coast of Asia are uninhabited islands, such as the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea and the Diaoyus (if you are Chinese) or the Senkakus (Japanese), where territorial disputes could lead to war. Fortunately we have no such disputes, so we don’t need to show the military flag. Even so, we need to take an active interest in them; otherwise someone else might. But how?

What about the Kermadecs – 15 rocks and islands 1000kms or so north of the North Island? Other than the meteorological station and a hostel for conservationist on Raoul Island –  the largest –  there are no human inhabitants. Are they really ours, even in a katiaki/guardianship role?

We dont have to show military might. In 2011 the (American ) PEW Environment Global Ocean Legacy Program enabled nine of our artists – Phil Dadson, Bruce Foster, Fiona Hall, Gregory O’Brien, Jason O’Hara, John Pule, John Reynolds, Elizabeth Thomson and Robin White – to explore the islands (they were on a voyage by HMNZ Otago on a trip to Tonga). Some of their responses are on show at the Wellington City Art Gallery (having previously been shown at the Tauranga Art Gallery).

Each artist’s work is largely familiar, but each has responded to their new experiences in a way which is both an extension of their work and which is ‘ours’.

The Kermadecs had not loomed large on my radar, and I dont expect ever to visit them. That single exhibition has probably done more to engage me with them than all the past fragmentary references. The biological statistics are stunning; they contain a third of all the fish species found in New Zealand – see I am treating them as a part of us – and one in nine of all the seabirds in the world – 3 million breeding pairs. The Islands are a part of the world’s longest chain of undersea volcanos, and were described as ‘pristine’ by National Geographic in 2010. (Alas, as Bruce Foster’s photographs record, there is human flotsam on their beaches.)

The PEW foundation wants to make them the world’s largest marine reserve. I left the exhibition asking why not?

The Kermadecs are not alone in our using the arts to claim a kind of sovereignty. We gave up our claims to the Ross Sea Dependency (dreadful name, let’s have a competition for a better one) as a part of the 1958 Antarctic Treaty, but it is still ‘ours’ isn’t it? Any claim is based on our long-term scientific research program supplemented since 1997/8 by a program taking artists and writers down there to respond to the place – just as those who went to the Kermadecs.

Similarly we used being nation of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair to extend the nation’s reach. Some of the literary community told me they were ‘pissed-off’ by the way they seemed marginalised as others took over the event. Isnt it wonderful, though, that our writing and publishing can be used for wider national purposes? Not just some icing on the top of the cake, but an integral part of it. We need to remember when the arts ask for more public funding, it is a lot cheaper than funding the military.

Alas the exhibition, which closes in Wellington in February 2013, is not going elsewhere in New Zealand; it is going to Chile. But there is an accompanying catalogue ‘The Kermadecs’ if you miss out.