Thought for the day
There are probably several good reasons why Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum shouldn’t host an exhibition by a Mexican artist in which bubbles, partly made from water previously used to wash dead bodies, are blown from the ceiling into a silent room.
The first and most obvious is that it isn’t art, at least as most people understand the term. The second is that it’s grotesque and ghoulish. But as a believer in freedom of expression, I’m obliged to support the Dowse’s right to stage pointless exhibitions that are likely to appeal only to people wearing black clothing and funny-looking spectacles.
I would not include, among the valid reasons for not hosting the exhibition, the fact that it is regarded by some Maori as “culturally unsafe”, to use a politically fashionable but decidedly sinister term. Yet Maori objections are the reason the Dowse has decided to cancel the show, which was due to open tomorrow as part of the International Arts Festival.
No one can quibble with local kaumatua Sam Jackson’s refusal to “bless” the so-called bubble installation because of Maori concerns that being around fluids from dead bodies can invite death or calamity. That's his prerogative. I would go further and suggest that the local iwi is within its rights to insist that the pataka (storehouse) known as Nuku Tewhatewha, which is housed elsewhere in the museum, be protected from possible contamination by the exhibition. After all, the pataka was gifted to the Dowse by local Maori and is regarded by them as sacred. But to insist that the bubbles installation be cancelled altogether suggests this is an instance of local Maori asserting themselves just because they can. They have learned from experience that timid public officials will quickly buckle when cultural sensitivities are raised. Never mind that it is a brazen assertion of the objectors’ rights over the right of others.
The simple answer to Maori who objected to the exhibition would have been: “Fine – don’t come”. If they stayed away, they wouldn’t be contaminated. If Pakeha wish to expose themselves to the risk of death or calamity, on the other hand, that’s their business. Maori are entitled to live by their own beliefs but not to impose them on others.
There is another important angle to this. In 1998, devout Christians were outraged when Te Papa hosted the Virgin in a Condom exhibition. Despite angry protests Te Papa stood firm, and was applauded for doing so by the very same people who I suspect are now nodding their heads in solemn approval of the Dowse’s decision to back down rather than upset the local iwi. It’s okay to antagonise mad white God-botherers, but we mustn’t get offside with the tangata whenua, or - perish the thought - be accused of breaching Treaty obligations relating to art exhibitions.
If there’s any consolation in this, it’s that the Dowse is now thinking of placing a few armchairs in the exhibition space that was to have been occupied by the bubble installation, so that people can “spend time meditating in a beautiful, quiet environment”.
Now why didn’t they just do that in the first place? It would have made more sense than the bubbles, and no one would have been culturally offended. At least I don’t think so ….