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Describing Oceania

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Cover of Reading Room: 4. Liquid State

The strongest position that emerges is contra to Hau'ofa's idea of expansion, asking if whether looking at a Pacific embrace of smallness, insularity or vulnerability might be useful.


Issue #4: Liquid State

Edited by Christina Barton, Wystan curnow and Natasha Conland

Essays by Nigel Clark, Mercedes Vicente, Ian Wedde, Stephen Turner, Jan Bryant, Sean Cubitt, Lisa Samuels, Martin Patrick, and Stella Brennan

224 pp, b/w and colour illustratuions


Auckland Art Gallery and Marylyn Mayo Foundation 2010

Reading Room’s fourth issue is comprised of roughly four parts: a tribute of compiled texts to Julian Dashper, edited by Simon Ingram and Wystan Curnow; a section with texts about the 1976 Pan-Pacific Biennale and an archive at Auckland Art Gallery donated by Bruce Barber; a photographic and textual piece by Maddie Leach (prefaced by a helpful introduction to some of her less recent works, by Martin Patrick); a selection of essays under the title Liquid State. The introduction outlines Liquid State as an address to an idea of the ocean as the medium which connects the Pacific regions’ peoples. I wish to focus on two contributions that seem to speak to the difficulty of the brief.

Liquid State asks various writers to think thematically about the ocean. One intellectual precedent is the work by the scholar Epeli Hau’ofa who sought to reverse a colonial view of the Pacific that saw its nations as diminutive. His work urged Pacific people to identify geographically with the ocean as well as land, so that the Pacific was conceptualized as an expanse of islands rather than a cluster of small nations in ‘empty’ space. It also made the movement and migration of peoples and resources a natural occurrence of our region’s fluidity. Many of the essays in Liquid State look to expand contemporary positions on Hau’ofa’s theory. The need for revision is particularly timely in part due to the rising seal level.

Acquiescence: Fluid Realities and Planned Retreat by Nigel Clark is the most confronting in this treatment and makes for a highly moving piece. The essay speaks to the human dislocations that occur as a result of the planets fluctuations and transformations “while we try to stay more or less in place”. However, the crux is not the occurrence of others’ estrangement but its inverse; understanding our own generosity and welcome to any new ‘strangers’ who encounter us. He does this without clichés, treating these ideas with complexity.

An example is his contrast of the assessments of New Zealand’s position as a potential “lifeboat” with its contradictory treatment of Tuvaluan immigration. While New Zealand was the first country to publicly offer Tuvaluans a future home, it also uses a strict quota policy on eligibility for entering Tuvaluans, allowing only the ages of 18-45 (excluding elderly and children) and not mentioning environmental refugees. While it is not mentioned in Clark’s text, he seems acutely aware that attempts so far at “generosity” by New Zealand for Pacific migrations do not augur well and one can’t help hearing echoes of the dawn raid period. In this sense while the essay is hopeful, it is not unintelligently so. You could say it recommends hope; hope we will re-examine what generosity is in regard to the continuing and increasing needs of others.

It also ends with a kicker. No matter what preparatory steps are taken, Kiribati will be a casualty of the rising sea level, though in the face of its loss, Kiribati has decided to donate its surrounding ocean to world heritage site protection. It is described in Acquiescence as a gesture for which there can be no reciprocation.

The second item is Round Table: Rethinking Oceania Now, coordinated and edited by Peter Brunt and featuring Teresia Teaiwa, April Henderson, Jim Vivieaere, Albert Refiti, Ema Tavola and Ron Brownson. It begins by asking its table to orient where within the history of decolonisation we presently are. The strongest position that emerges is contra to Hau’ofa’s idea of expansion, asking if whether looking at a Pacific embrace of smallness, insularity or vulnerability might be useful. Ema Tavola speaks of the way the Pacific communities in South Auckland are now “generationally rooted in new soils”. She describes a “heavily localised perspective”, something I understand as being about looking and working internally within your own community to discuss and dissect the different ways people are being and doing there.

This is idea is continued by Peter Brunt who, in regard to a comment that postmodernism was a forerunner for decolonisation, states “I do have a problem with a certain view that takes the plurality of experiences and perspectives to equate with the ‘x’ billion subjective, individual points of view, where what’s impressive is just their quantity”. It seems he is trying to define the future challenges of decolonisation as how to use our dialogical strength in a more meaningful way. Rethinking Oceania Now attempts to understand insularity without acquiescing or losing any former gains. Teresia Teaiwa speculates later that perhaps this position can survive the enormity of isolation because it creates its own critical audiences. If we are going smaller, or looking intensely inwards, we want to do so with the intention of being like the space between 1 and 0. That is, small but infinitely so.

Luke Willis Thompson

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Leilani Kake, Nga Hau E Wha (2011) at Fresh Gallery Otara (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Fresh Gallery Otara.

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