AN EEL, LIKE an artist or writer, carries its immediate past around with it: if an eel wants to know where it has been, it just spins its head 180 degrees and stares down the length of its tell-tale body. At the same time, its slender, arrow-like form implies a course onwards. My painter-friend in Sydney, Noel McKenna, would probably align the unfurling cadence of the eel-body with Paul Klee's concept of the act of drawing as 'taking a line for a walk' or maybe, in this case, a swim.
With such an association in mind, Noel McKenna’s map-like painting hung in the 2013 Wynne Prize, Centennial Park, offers a detailed account of the life-cycle of the long-finned eels of inner city Sydney. An inscription, lower right, notes how, before European settlement, Centennial Park had been part of a chain of wetlands which linked the reserve’s pond-life directly with Botany Bay: ‘The eels (female) still today, usually during a rainy autumn, set off across the park, cross into Randwick Racecourse, through the suburb of Kensington, across the Australian Golf Course, into swampy Eastlakes area and across the Lakes Golf Course. After this, through swamps alongside South Coast Drive then into Botany Bay…’
Presumably a ghost-like impression of Sydney-as-prehistoric-wetland remains embedded in their fish-brains. Not only do these eels have phenomenal memory, they also have stamina and timing enough to get around the airport-bound traffic on South Dowling Road and environs. From the mouth of Botany Bay they swim northwards, as far as the spawning grounds of New Caledonia. In due course, the next generation somehow finds its way back to Centennial Park, taking a left by the kiosk, skirting the horse-track, dodging the peloton…
A comparable migration occurs amongst the eels (or tuna) of Lake Wairarapa, not far from the New Zealand town of Masterton, where artist Robin White lives. In this case, the tuna gravitate towards Tongatapu, in the Tongan Islands. In good time, the next generation comes racing back – to the same bend in the stream, the same drainpipe… (These dextrous Wairarapa eels gained a cult following in 2012 for a different, but not unrelated, reason: after unseasonal February rain, they emerged, en masse, from the town’s stormwater system, transforming suburban Masterton into a scenario that could have been lifted from a low-budget horror film – see ‘Mo farking eels’ on YouTube.)
There is much we can learn from these eel-citizens of the South Pacific. In the post-colonial world, their tenacious, migratory nature might be considered exemplary, as might their mobility, navigational skills, phenomenal homing instinct and a usefully amphibious constitution (when out of water, they breathe through their skins).
Stylised depictions of these Wairarapa tuna traverse Robin White’s mural-sized work on tapa (hand-moulded paperbark), Siu i Moana (2011), a creation much preoccupied with such a pattern of migration – ‘for the simple reason,’ she says, ‘it’s not just about fish; it’s about life on the planet and the connectedness of all things’. Made in collaboration with Ruha Fifita and a group of Tongan women, White’s ongoing series of tapa works also encapsulates the human migrations of recent decades, and celebrates the links between the peoples of Aotearoa and those of the Polynesian islands. Her iconography encompasses oceanic life forms – fish (tuna in particular), birds, crabs – while also sampling cultural and material traffic; the labels on tinned foodstuffs, flip-flops and tea bags alongside religious symbols and nationalistic emblems.
In May 2011, Robin White and I were among a group of nine artists who hitched a ride on the Royal New Zealand Navy vessel Otago, destined for Tonga, via the Kermadec region – one of the last near-pristine marine environments on the planet. Through these munificent waters, we traced the migratory route of Robin’s tuna-neighbours – from the maritime realm up through the sub-tropics and beyond. It set us thinking and talking about the ocean and New Zealand’s particular place therein. If you take into account our territorial waters (which are the fifth largest of any country in the world), only one seventeenth of ‘New Zealand’ is made up of dry land. If not exactly water-dwellers, we are a nation of watersiders – hence a responsibility towards the ocean and a need to – in a sense – claim it, imaginatively as well as in a pragmatic sense.
Robin had lived seventeen years in Kiribati so she was used to lengthy voyages and pondering such oceanic realities. Over a thousand times larger than the total landmass that drains into it, the Pacific Ocean is beyond rational comprehension. It covers nearly a third of the planet. Just north of the Kermadec Islands the seabed is ten kilometres straight down. It’s a hard place to get your head around. The challenge, for all the artists involved in the Kermadec project, was to find some way of gaining artistic purchase on this aquatic reality; to find a language that could impart something of the overwhelming oceanic experience.
Alongside the aforementioned long-range eel voyages, a different migratory narrative is worth relating here – this time stemming from the Great Crayfish Boom in the waters around New Zealand’s Chatham Islands during the late 1960s. A year or two into this unregulated frenzy of cray-harvesting, suddenly the nets and pots started coming to the surface empty. It wasn’t that the crays had all been caught (although a huge number had been), it was that the over-fishing had prompted the remaining crayfish population to ship out – to embark on a mass migration northwards across the ocean floor. A half-century later, many of these long-lived crays are probably still in transit, trudging slowly on. (Eventually the Chathams crayfish industry was able to resume, at a sustainable level – but it has never come anywhere near its earlier, ruinous glory.)
With this form of undersea foot traffic in mind, I was talking to another Sydney-based painter-friend, Euan Macleod, whose stock-in-trade for decades has been an archetypal perambulating figure, often striding across the ocean-floor (like Ulysses or any number of equivalents in Polynesian and other mythologies). I imagined Macleod’s submarine figure in transit to Raoul Island (largest of the Kermadec group), wending his way among the smoking undersea volcanoes of the Kermadec Ridge, with a formation of Robin White’s eels directly overhead and the migrating Chatham crays traipsing across the seabed around him. And I also imagined, in the ocean around this figure (who will resurface in my poem Memory of a Fish) an even slower migration of human detritus – of busted satellites, radioactive drums, shipping containers and Coca-Cola bottles as well as debris from the MV Rena, lately wrecked on Astrolabe reef.
Eel-like, an artist in the Pacific needs to be both marathon swimmer and deep-sea diver. There is an immense distance to cover and there are layers and depths to every square metre of it. The artist necessarily also becomes a map-maker, plotting a course through the unstable oceanic reality, with its infinite horizons, crosscurrents and contrariness. It was in the navigational stick-charts of the Marshall Islands and the traditional tapa-cloths of Tonga, Fiji and Niue that Robin White and Niuean-born John Pule – another artist on the Kermadec voyage – discovered a modus operandi (not surprisingly an indigenous one) suited to the Pacific, and responsive to its constantly vying realities: past and present, human and non-human, indigenous and exotic, and its omnipresent cycles of life and death.
Sometime after the voyage, it was tapa-cloth that also provided the imaginative blueprint for my documentary poem Memory of a Fish, with its weaving of different strands – elements from history, oceanography, current events, statistics, autobiography. The poem was written in the form of a letter to my son, Felix, who sailed to Raoul Island a year after I went ashore there. (We’re a lucky family: far more people make it to the summit of Mount Everest than have set foot on any of the Kermadec islands.) Although I wanted something of an eel-like movement in the cadence and, visually, in the poem’s form, it was the simultaneity of the tapa-cloth that offered the abiding creative model. Inspired by the all-encompassing tapa grid, the poem was built around proximity, juxtaposition and coincidence. It was the inconsequential fact that my son and I had sat on the same lawn on Raoul Island eating ginger slice that kicked the poem to life, that set the albatross to fly in the first line – taking skywards with it some lines of Charles Baudelaire, and onward from there.
In Polynesian traditions, the tapa is often used to wrap things that are precious: not only is it used to clothe the bodies of the living but also to enshroud and honour the dead. Tapa can be used as mats off which food is eaten; or it can be hung to provide shelter. Within the formality of its grid, it contains wisdom, family and village structures, religious beliefs, histories, recipes and genealogical information. In the spirit of the tapa, Memory of a Fish seeks to cover great distances while, at the same time, rendering them intimate (therein lies a paradox at the heart of Oceania), to navigate simply the complexities of the Pacific while touching upon issues currently facing the region.
Since the Kermadec voyage and subsequent visits to Tonga, Rapanui (Easter Island) and Chile, my notion of the Pacific has changed. Instead of being a vast, silent nowhere, it has become a sentence stocked with a multitude of verbs and nouns, all of them contained within two geographical parentheses: on one side the curvilinear form of New Zealand and, on the other, the ribbon-like nation of Chile. Looking horizon-wards from either extremity, we might contemplate what artist Phil Dadson refers to as ‘the pulsing current of the intelligence we’re part of’. About 60 to 70 per cent of the human body is made of water, he reminds us, hence ‘the tidal rhythms that connect us to the oceans’. Accordingly, we might consider the ocean as an animating principle as well as sustaining presence – ‘the ocean within us’, to borrow a phrase from Epeli Hau’ofa.
At this point we might bring together all the strands of human culture, history and voyaging that we can gather along with strands of non-human life: flight paths of sea birds, currents of ocean and air, migratory routes of tuna… On the intersecting tapa-matrix of these plotted lines, we could then locate ourselves as beings deeply rooted in a place (or space) but also migratory, transient, in flux. Integral to this permanent state of unfinishing, the ocean, our ocean, has no end – as Robin White told me, on the aft deck of HMNZS Otago – only loose ends.
‘Memory of a fish’ can be read in the e-book Pacific Highways: Volume 2, available free at test.griffithreview.com