Dunedin steps up as substitute

21:27, Sep 15 2011

Dunedin has been a wee cauldron of controversy these past few days.

Ngai Tahu had some funding dedicated to iwi involvement in the Rugby World Cup celebrations and when it was thought that most of the major games were going to be held in Christchurch the bulk of the funding was allocated for Christchurch activities. When it was announced that the games had to be relocated the focus shifted to Dunedin and Queenstown.

There have been a number of welcomes supported as well as specific projects funded that have a connection to rugby and Maori culture. In Dunedin an art installation in the Octagon has caused a little bit of a hullabaloo. Both Ngai Tahu and the Dunedin City Council stepped up to support the art work once it was clear one of the council sub- committees was unable to fund it.

Ngai Tahu decided to support the project primarily because the artist is well- known, very experienced and Ngai Tahu. Rachael Rakena, who was raised in Hokitika but descends from the families at Rapaki on Banks Peninsula, is a highly respected practitioner who has exhibited extensively across New Zealand, Australia, the United States and, perhaps most notably, at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

The council supported it because it sees value in partnering with Ngai Tahu but also because it is provocative, topical and edgy and Dunedin knows about being on the edge of contemporary arts.

The art work is a scale replica, some 5m tall, of a Rexona Men deodorant bottle. Most of you will know the bottle. It is black and has a silver fern printed on it. The product is promoted by a number of All Blacks including Dan Carter who, in one advertisement, is filmed mountain biking down a hillside and losing his front wheel but staying very cool thanks, we assume, to Rexona deodorant.

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The large sculpture, since erected, has caused a bit of a stir because it has it is instantly reminiscent of a phallus - and therein lies one of the main points of the artwork. This replica of a male grooming product, that is generally promoted by a semi-naked All Black spraying himself, appears very sexual in itself, let alone all the other suggestive imagery in the ad campaigns.

The installation is called Haka Peepshow and the viewer is able to walk right up to the sculpture and watch a number of 3D videos. There are viewing portals built into the artwork and one can place a gold coin into a slot and then press your face up against a special screen which will show one of four different haka performed by specialist haka dancers. Not only is the haka symbolic of New Zealand and the All Blacks themselves it is also generally associated with the masculine elements of Maori culture.

Rakena's work is meant to highlight the place where sport, commercialisation, commidification of New Zealand culture collide and the very real possibility that the values and community ideals we think we have bought into are quite different to what is actually happening in front of our eyes.

The past week of Rugby World Cup activity has been spattered with interesting cultural encounter moments.

At the more banal end of the spectrum there were comments that too much Maori was spoken at an Ashburton welcome for the Romanian team. I think someone suggested that there was 45 minutes of Maori spoken and no translation. This seems highly unlikely but, even so, certainly not worth making a complaint about. I imagine if New Zealand went to Romania there would have been a fair bit of Romanian spoken, so why not have a fair bit of Maori spoken here?

And then there was the equally pointless controversy about the Prime Minister failing to speak Maori when he issued his greeting at the Rugby World Cup opening.

Honestly, the ceremony was a powerful representation of New Zealand's Maori and Polynesian heritage and other speakers, such as the head of the IRB, had made a real effort to perform a Maori greeting. I don't really think the PM had to jump in as well. He could have opened up with, "gidday mate," and struck the right Kiwi chord just as much as a hearty "Kia Ora" would have.

At the nastier end of the spectrum there were a group of waka paddlers subjected to all sorts of abuse and bad behaviour from a crowd of revellers. It may have been inappropriate high spirits as opposed to racism but it did appear to be symptomatic of cultural misunderstanding.

In the midst of all that it is promising to see Ngai Tahu collaborating, yet again with local government and holding their ground on the right to artistic expression.

Fairfax Media