Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers – 15 November, 2010
But it is Mangan's focus on the process of entropy that complicates these exotic and absurd characterisations. His short film does not clearly differentiate between natural and artificial influences on Nauru's landscape. The remnant limestone pinnacles look like organic formations and abandoned mining equipment and old cars appear to be increasingly overgrown with fragments of rock clinging to their surfaces. This conflation of the natural and the man-made challenges the premise of purity that many of Nauru's caricatures are founded on.
Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World
6 November - 4 December 2010
Auckland’s newest dealer gallery Hopkinson Cundy opened its doors for the first time last week with a show by Melbourne artist Nicholas Mangan. The new space, run by Sarah Hopkinson and partner Harry Cundy, can be found just outside the K’ Rd gallery mile on the increasingly gentrified Cross St. Mangan is the odd one out of the gallery’s line-up of artists, which includes Hopkinson’s fellow Gambia Castle members Kate Newby, Tahi Moore, Fiona Connor, Daniel Malone and Nick Austin.
Although Mangan might be known to New Zealand viewers for his more sculptural works, his current practice explores archaeology as a mode of engaging with the social and historical specificities of place. Nauru, Notes from a Cretaceous World focuses on the extraordinary narratives, both absurd and acutely sad, concerning the small Pacific island of Nauru.
Having been strip mined for lucrative phosphate deposits for much of the last century, Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation, is largely uninhabitable. Beyond a thin strip of coconut trees clinging to the island’s beaches stretches an arid landscape of limestone rock formations. These are the dire results of a mining boom historically driven by New Zealand and Australian commercial interests in the early part of the 20th Century.
Mangan’s short film bears silent witness to the aftermath of this environmental disaster. It pans over Nauru’s craggy limestone pinnacles and other remnants of the mining process that were once covered in tropical forests. The island’s defunct mining equipment left rusting in the salty air and the chassis of abandoned cars encrusted with rocks are also filmed. Mangan clearly shares Robert Smithson’s interest in entropy in recording the effects of corrosion and regeneration both by natural and artificial forces.
The film’s abandoned cars also refer to some of the more peculiar stories associated with Nauru’s history. Having gained sovereignty from colonial protectorates Australia and New Zealand in the 1960s, Nauru’s citizens enjoyed the large profits generated by their mines. The island’s economy peaked in the 1980s during which time islanders reportedly led extravagant lifestyles. As the story goes, each Nauruan owned an imported luxury car, an apparent absurdity seeing that the island only had a single road skirting its coastline.
But by the 1990s the lucrative mines had been exhausted and the island’s economy went into dramatic decline. No longer able to trade in natural resources the Nauruan government looked to more abstract activities to generate income. From the illegal laundering of Soviet Union money to hosting detention centres built for Afghani refugees attempting to enter Australia, Nauru has been involved in a surprising number of internationally significant political events. Rich with tragicomic mythology, the island reflects all manner of contemporary political ills: colonial power, capitalist greed and environmental degradation.
Mangan’s work engages with these various historical mythologies, tracing the ways in which events lodge themselves in material. His work could be aligned with a documentary turn in contemporary art where artists are looking to documentary formats as a means of recording and representing political realities. One function of his exhibition is to reveal how New Zealand and Australia’s colonial legacies are connected with the island’s tragic condition. Much of this is outlined in a publication accompanying the show that follows various narrative strands weaving their way across the South Pacific.
Mangan offers a visual manifestation of one such story by creating a coffee table made from Nauruan rock. The artist has realised a moneymaking scheme (presumably a rather deadpan joke) - thought up by Nauru’s former president Bernard Dowiyogo - to take cross-sections of the remnant limestone pinnacles, polish these slices of rock and sell them as coffee tables. Mangan’s beautifully crafted table is made out of rock that once stood at the entrance to Nauru House in Melbourne, an enormous skyscraper built during Nauru’s mining boom of the 1980s.
Nevertheless, Mangan’s engagement with the fraught narratives of this island is potentially problematic. Reading media stories about Nauru it is hard not to think that the island is continuing to be exploited for the sheer oddity of its circumstance. American newspaper articles characterise the nation as a tropical absurdity and play off the various incongruities present in its history. Nauru is presented as a morality tale neatly encapsulated in an island: an intriguing myth that is abstracted from material realities.
But it is Mangan’s focus on the process of entropy that complicates these exotic and absurd characterisations. His short film does not clearly differentiate between natural and artificial influences on Nauru’s landscape. The remnant limestone pinnacles look like organic formations and abandoned mining equipment and old cars appear to be increasingly overgrown with fragments of rock clinging to their surfaces. This conflation of the natural and the man-made challenges the premise of purity that many of Nauru’s caricatures are founded on. These apparent absurdities are drawn from a presupposed distinction between its terrible environmental degradation and an image of the island imbued with verdant purity, tropical forests and a population untainted by capitalist greed. The story can’t be that simple. In Mangan’s film human activity is just one system among many other geological processes that are all subject to entropic change over time.
Although there are plans afoot to regenerate plant life on Nauru’s arid landscape, one suggestion also described by Dowiyogo is to leave some of the mines in their current condition as a reminder of the island’s exploitation. This was promptly scoffed at by an American journalist who proposed that visiting the ex-mines would constitute a type of reverse eco-tourism. Nevertheless, the suggestion demonstrates that Nauruans do not want to simply ignore the history of the island, but are looking at different ways to represent this tragic past. Something that Mangan’s exhibition is also trying to achieve.
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