George Watson, They are cruel, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 32 seconds.

George Watson, They are cruel, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 32 seconds.

George Watson

Is New Zealand a backwater or a paradise? The answer is not, and has never been, simple. For modernist writer Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), still arguably the country’s most famous export, it was both, as it likely was for many colonial settlers oscillating between feelings of exile and dominion.

The two works in “tiro, Emepaea” (Girl, Empire), the recent exhibition by George Watson (of Ngāti Porou, Moriori, and Ngāti Mutunga heritage), were based on one of Mansfield’s early stories, “Summer Idyll” (1907). With each piece installed in its own adjoining gallery, and the layout of Te Uru offering multiple points of access, much was left up to chance. Visitors determined for themselves which of the pair of works they would encounter first, and therefore how they might interpret the chronology of events surrounding the stark architectural form around which the show crystallized.

The installation Prelude (both works 2021) recalls the scrapyards one finds across Aotearoa, filled with forlorn relics of colonial houses. Two walls intersect to suggest four rooms, except with windows that wouldn’t make sense on interior walls. One saw gestures toward beauty—light refracting through mottled lavender glass—but the overall effect was elegiac and unsettling: Something terrible happened here. Blackest soot swirls down the walls, a window is broken. Yet languid traces of desire sit alongside the grimy residue of violence. The name HINEMOA has been lovingly scratched into the wall, as has a simple, sinuous mark referencing the kowhaiwhai pattern. White candle wax is built up on a windowsill.

This skeleton of a villa reappears in the video They are cruel, now transported to a pastoral landscape, bird’s-eye drone footage revealing its cruciform shape. Here, the walls have not yet been blackened with soot, and the sun-drenched “rooms” are populated with objects: a soft bed with a decorative white metal frame, covered in branches of flowering nuka; a table laid with bread, ua (abalone), honey, enamel mugs crawling with bees, and lumps of mara (sweet potato) dyed an alien shade of blue. We hear two girls conversing on the video’s soundtrack: In response to Hinemoa’s protests that the blue kūmara is unnatural, Marina declares, “I eat it for that reason; I eat it because it is blue.” Based on their names, viewers might assume Hinemoa to be Māori and Marina a European settler, yet our natural interpretation of such roles becomes blurred and uneasy when it is Marina who teaches Hinemoa how to dive, who sleeps among the native mānuka, and who identifies and then consumes the kūmara (the most important food crop for Māori, so much so that it is considered a taonga, or treasure).

At first listen, the tone is light, childish, and sensual. Clearly, Hinemoa and Marina are lovers or about to be, and it has been suggested that Mansfield drew on her relationship with Māori socialite and academic Maata Mahupuku when writing “Summer Idyll.” Yet listen longer and a disquieting darkness creeps in. Marina’s boldness has an edge of menace, never more so than when she compares the fronds of native ferns to “beautiful green hair,” then goes on to describe how they might trap a warrior at night, wrapping around him until he is dead. “They are cruel even as I might wish to be to thee, little Hinemoa,” she continues, uttering a line that may be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the insidious cruelty enacted by colonial settlers against the Māori. Much like Mansfield’s writing, Watson’s practice shows how identities can attach to objects. “tiro, Emepaea” used the quaint aesthetics of colonialism to divulge a darker psychic undercurrent at odds with the utopian ideas of New Zealand settlement that persevere to this day, revealing the profoundly unsettled affect at the heart of Te Ao Pākehā: the world of white New Zealanders.