Artist Murray Hewitt enters Te Urewera National Park, armed with his video camera, assorted props, and a willingness to engage with the political events and acts of injustice, resistance, and protest that continue to shape this sacred place.
Hewitt plays out the Pākehā mythology of the ‘man alone’, knowingly following the footsteps of others into this contested terrain. Colin McCahon made paintings in, about, and — in the case of the Urewera Mural (1975)— for this site. These paintings were based on a forged identification with the land, its people, its spiritual dimensions and political histories, all elements Hewitt questions through a compelling blend of activism and absurdism.
The title of this exhibition arrives via Anthony Stones’ 1971 essay on Colin McCahon, referencing R. G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art. Collingwood states that the artist ‘tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist is to speak out’. But while Hewitt draws on both the legacy of this place and of activism in New Zealand art, he does so with a certain contemporary wariness, especially in regards to ‘speaking out’. Hewitt abandons the authoritative voice of the artist in favour of adopting a more ostensibly remote position; one that permits the viewer to retain their autonomy and discover for themselves that which lies in their own hearts.
One video work consists of seven individually projected black and white waterfalls, filmed in Te Urewera. Cascading in reverse, the waterfalls again hold the promise of revelation and illumination that spoke so strongly to McCahon. In Smoke rises around the silent sea Hewitt performs a ritualistic act—replanting a potted plant, a motif which recalls both the paintings of artist Shane Cotton and Te Kooti’s efforts to retain land. The black crash helmet that Hewitt regularly wears in his performances as a symbol of protest and resistance here bears the acronym UDNRA, referencing the Urewera District Native Reserve Act of 1896—an ultimately unrealised agreement between the Crown and Tuhoe designed to recognise powers of self-governance, which was eventually repealed in 1922.
Hewitt’s extended stationary camera shots, image reversals, pointed actions, and reworking of symbols of power encourage the viewer to look and think again, in this case to confront the complex histories and mythologies of this place and our relationship to it.