If the exhibition title Te Aryan raises one or two eyebrows, this is fitting, considering the controversial text that is its inspiration.
Paul McLachlan's 2014 collection Te Aryan takes its title from The Aryan Māori, the 1885 thesis of New Zealand scholar Edward Tregear. Based on his impressions of similarities between Māori and Sanskrit, Tregear's work concludes that Māori were descended from the Indo-European 'master race'. Even at the time, this hypothesis was criticised by many of Tregear's fellow anthropologists, yet still gained popularity and acceptance over the next thirty years among both Māori and Pākehā. For a colonial nation still finding its feet, this hardly seems surprising; the human need to mythologise goes hand in hand with the search for identity. One imagines the comfort that might have been taken by two distinct groups at the possibility of sharing this common story:
I now proceed to assert—
1. That the Maori is an Aryan,
2. That his language and traditions prove him to be the descendant of a pastoral people, afterwards warlike and migratory.
3. That his language has preserved, in an almost inconceivable purity, the speech of his Aryan forefathers, and compared with which the Greek and Latin tongues are mere corruptions.
4.That this language has embalmed the memory of animals, implements, &c., the actual sight of which has been list to the Maori for centuries.
1. That he left India about four thousand years ago.
2. That he has been in New Zealand almost as long as that time.1
Despite its questionable origins, the Aryan Māori theory had some positive influence on race relations, as it allowed European settlers to view Māori as fellow members of the ‘noble race’ (ārya, the Sanskrit origin, means ‘noble’). On the other hand, the idea provided additional fuel for the racism perpetrated against the Chinese and other immigrants, who were now seen as inferior to the Māori as well as to the Europeans, in a "widely accepted Pākehā distinction between Māori and other non-white races"2.
From afar, the viewer is at first presented with a collection of portraits: classically beautiful, smoothly rendered – perhaps unsettlingly so. A closer inspection of their too-perfect contours reveals detailed adornment on the skin of the figures. These moko and tattoos are based on artworks by Isaac Coates and other artists of the period whose works were sympathetic with the Aryan Māori theory.
The images created for this exhibition have been constructed using digital sculpting software, but rendered as analogue photo-intaglio prints. The underlying sculptural form is based on photographs of classical and ancient sculptures photographed by the artist on a recent trip to Europe. McLachlan has ‘fleshed out’ these forms using textures from the photographs to create a pseudo-realistic image.
McLachlan’s bringing together of these two rich histories asks us to look more closely at our own cultural story and the stories that have influenced it. In this way, the collection is reminiscent of the recent work of two artists in particular. The most obvious parallel to be drawn, at least where form is concerned, is with Fiona Pardington’s exquisite and spiritually-powerful photographs of lifecasts made by the 19th Century phrenologist Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier during his travels of the Pacific on Dumont d’Urville’s last exploratory voyage of 1837-40. Another analogous œuvre can be seen in Marian Maguire’s lithographs blending classical Greek and Māori myth – simultaneously light-hearted and enlightening. Considered together, the similarities and contrasts that come to light in the work of Pardington, Maguire and McLachlan may prompt in the viewer some sympathy toward Tregear’s romantic notions.
By recontextualising cultural artifacts to create the unsettling aesthetic in these works, McLachlan illustrates the problems and the beauty in Tregear’s assertions on the origins and history of the first settlers of Aotearoa. These images – idealised fantasy based on dubious historical references – reflect on a curious theory that shaped race relations during the colonisation of New Zealand. The ideas of “embalmed memory”, the common human story: these may be romantic notions but is to be hoped that Te Aryan will cause not a controversy, but a celebration of the similarities that can be found just beyond the obvious differences.
2. Bennett, James. 'Maori as honorary members of the white tribe'. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 29:3, 33-54. 2001.
From thick edged panels of paper hanging in the empty spaces of the gallery, young men appear deep in thought. In military uniform, amidst romantic swathes of brush-stroked, vaguely gothic gloom, the soldiers of Paul McLachlan’s Home Ground portraits appear steadfast, noble and heartbreakingly young.
McLachlan imbues his works with empathy and gravitas while maintaining a lightness of spirit and technique that ensures the images aren’t didactic or overtly sentimental. In the quiet intensity of these works he explores an atavistic response to bereavement and memory far more powerful than mere nostalgia; populating our understanding of our nation’s history with characters we can imagine we know and communicating a sense of loss around this tragic part of our history we might otherwise feel disconnected from.
To give some context to the works we must explore the concepts of memory and history. History is an objective inquiry into the past, whereas memory is a conviction about the past. In this vein, we can define memory as the key to personal and collective identity, to defining ourselves as individuals, and to defining ourselves as a nation. What we choose to commemorate (and what we choose to erase) creates our personhood, a key component to the experience of self-identity. Throughout history, art has been a way to preserve those memories, perhaps most obviously in public memorials.
The story of these works begin with the thirty-eight marble statues of soldiers commemorating the Great War, which were carved in Italy, and erected throughout New Zealand.Some of the statues were produced from photos of particular soldiers, in an attempt to capture a New Zealand likeness within these soldier figures. Each statue is usually created standing at attention, with rifles reversed and their faces lowered. Though there are some brave exceptions, such as the digger in Kaiapoi, or the aggressive stance of the soldier in Te Aroha, most of these statues maintain a conflicting and ambivalent line between pride in “our brave lads” who had upheld the myth of ‘the glory of war’, and the grief at the loss of so many young men (Todman, 2005). These are young men who are depicted in a blandness of expression, in an almost faceless quality which allows the viewer to imprint their own loved one onto the statue.
Using digital sculpting software McLachlan has digitally remodelled ten of the soldiers from the South Island, fleshing out the forms to create a pseudo-realistic interpretations of the forms. The process of creating these images is aptly described as digital taxidermy. A smooth virtual sculpture is digitally constructed, then coated with a texture or flesh, or hair, or a more ambiguous texture that eludes to the landscape and the origins of the source: the organic lichens, mosses and debris that have formed a skin over the memorials. The tactile nature of the photo-intaglio prints reflects the textured quality of the virtual sculpture.
Therefore, McLachlan has become a virtual Dr Frankenstein, bringing the monuments back to life, investing them with personalities, narratives and emotions. In these newly awakened characters it is possible to feel a stronger sense of kindred and familiarity. Here now, they are people. The brothers, sons, husbands, friends and comrades now stare out unflinchingly from their papered homes as men we can recognise as our own.
Home Ground is technically masterful, McLachlan’s consummate skill in the craft of printmaking provides a clear image both handsome and profound. The connections drawn between personal grief, collective consolation and imaginative representation are suggestive, but seldom conclusive. In this series, McLachlan has continued his exploration of interior spaces, allowing room for the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to what is being shown or hidden.
New Zealand’s war memorials commemorate an event that is now absent from living memory and the memorials themselves suffer from neglect, existing on the peripheries of the towns they inhabit. With the centenary of WWI almost upon us, McLachlan’s work seems both vital and timely: stimulating a sense of national recognition and encouraging an awareness of the history that has shaped us. Home Ground is an innovative, affecting and sensitive exploration of the history of emotion and memorialisation in New Zealand and a beautiful evocation of memory come to life.[i]
Suzannah Newton 2013
Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. The Great War in European cultural history. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Gregory, Adrian. The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946. Berg, Oxford, 1994.
Todman, Dan. The Great War: Myth and Memory. Hambledon and London, 2005.
Stephen, M. The Price of Pity: Poetry, History and Myth in the Great War. London, 1996.
2011, School of Fine Arts Gallery, University of Canterbury, Christchurch