Cultural confidence in eye of beholder

Someone asked me the other day what I thought about the Rugby Haka Peepshow in the Octagon and I had to confess I didn't have an opinion. I didn't have an opinion because I hadn't then had a chance, or taken the time, to have a look.

I have now rectified that, stopping by on Monday in my lunch break to check it out and, have duly formed a view - of sorts.

First, there has been an awful hue and cry from a large number of people who evidently have not bothered to inspect it - rather relied on received opinion.

Second, much of the antagonism towards the art work seems to be based on the cost of it, and the unclear processes by which it has been funded - admirably teased out by my colleagues Wash columnist Dave Cannan and reporter Chris Morris.

Third, the trite and populist characterisations of it are somewhat typical of reactions to art when it does not conform to received ideas of what is and what is not appropriate. Art that is edgy, different, confrontational or carries a minority perspective or narrative, is by its very nature challenging. And when thus challenged, many people simply resort to abuse - partly because as a culture we are not particularly good at having mature conversations about art.

Having had a good look at it, I find that the haka performed in each viewing window - except for the one that can no longer be fully seen because one lens of the viewing "glasses" has been vandalised - seems to my inexpert eye a passionate and genuine instance of cultural expression.

Challenging and confrontational, certainly, particularly when most people's exposure to the various haka has been as a prelude to the game that is keeping most of us either glued to our TV sets, or visiting stadiums around the country. But each is also hypnotic in its own way, and removed from that safe "sporting" context, has a rawness and intensity. It is not so much a matter of "liking" it as being moved - if only unsettled and made slightly uncomfortable by it.

Then, of course, there is the "context". The Octagon, that hallowed open tiled ground - did someone say barren?

Wash your mouth out - of the centre city beloved equally of art-lovers, intellectuals, the literati and the common citizen, has apparently been defiled by a big black phallic symbol.

Artist Rachael Rakena is quoted as having said at its unveiling that it aimed "to consider the commodification of Maori and indigenous sportsmen" as well as the "sexualisation" of Maori. (Heck, we're leaping into the deep end of the psycho-cultural pool, here!) Which among other things amply illustrates just how poorly academic concepts translate to the common vernacular.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so, to an extent, is the meaning of art. Rugby Haka Peepshow certainly makes a highly visible statement but is it really any more a phallus than a can of deodorant?

And does it really matter?

From the public conversations around it since its unveiling that, it seems, depends on how indignant one chooses to be.

The cost and the process are other matters and of course are appropriate for debate. The only point I would make on this is that Ngai Tahu felt strongly enough about what it saw as this representative piece of Maori artistic expression that it volunteered up to $80,000 towards the project with a council's contribution of $50,000.

It was to be an integral part of the city's response to hosting the Rugby World Cup. But perhaps we ought not to have tarnished that empty and oh-so-inviting tiled space.

You don't have to like a piece of art to appreciate it; nor fully to understand it to defend its place.

The history of art is one long procession of maligned - or worse - artists. But encouraging, nurturing, developing artists - these are the signs of an increasingly self-confident culture as it explores its identity in relation to the society around it. Perhaps, in the end, it is this - a form of cultural "penis envy"? - that irritates and finds expression in some of the more shrill pronouncements that this installation has provoked to date.

Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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