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MFA, July 26-1 Aug 2021

Artist Talk Stella Corkery; Understanding Criticality in Art; Review of Lake in the Sand Country by Geoff Park

1. Stella Corkery and Criticality in Art

Theme for a Science Fiction Vampire Installation by Stella Corkery, 2017. Michael Lett September 2017

NZ painter, musician and feminist/punk artist Stella Corkery shared her journey as a drummer and musician in the 1980's NZ art scene, her prolific expressionist painter during her time at Elam School of Art (2008-12), and her painting and noise art practice of today. In contrast to her quick improvisational style while at Elam, Stella's current practice strives to "slow down and stretch out time", something she explores both in her art making and her improvisational music performed with partner Alan Holt in their band White Saucer.

Stella discussed her complex engagement and negotiation with New Zealand art institutions given her political leanings toward feminism, anti-neoliberalism, and anti-bourgeois. She explained that attending university has allowed her "to understand the criticality of (her) art practice".

Criticality - what is that? The dictionary offers a circular definition - "a critical quality, state, or nature". Not that helpful. When I asked Ben, he said it is an exploration of the underlying political, social and unconscious factors that influence and contextualise your art practice. That's a bit more helpful!

Marina Vishmidt, a Cultural Studies lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London, writes in her article, The cultural logic of criticality (2008), of "the emergence of ‘criticality’ as a technology of legitimation and power in contemporary art institutions and proximate discourses".

Vishmidt describes criticality as "a cultural logic", borne from "the art theoretical asset of critique". She argues "an enthronement of critique [...] approached through either the sociological or political modalities of ‘institutional’ and ‘immanent’ critique", means criticality "is now hegemonic, the sine qua non for discursive legitimacy in the circuits of art production and mediation".

Phew! Here's a thought provoking comment from Geyer: "As much as I am drawn to artworks that operate to open up spaces of thought […] as a way of generating important challenges to political debilitation, I also think such works risk generating a kind of confinement to or by these sorts of spaces of thought" (Geyer et al. 2005).

And another from Viktor Misiano:

"Thus, it is important to keep in mind that the dynamics of the system have been maintained due to its ability to reflect upon itself critically. Therefore, the more critically you alienate yourself from the system, the more you’re an artist. The more you reveal that contemporary institutions are not relevant to your experience (even if your experience is the experience of art), the more you become a bearer of aesthetic values." (Viktor Misiano, from ‘The institutionalization of friendship (S23M remix)’ posted to Sarai Reader-List 27 Aug 2008 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Raqs Media Collective).


2. The Land in the Sand Country by Geoff Park

For the last 15 years my family has shared an old bach with five other families in Waikawa, located along the Horowhenua coast that runs parallel to State Highway 1 just north of Wellington and Kapiti. It is south of Levin where my father's paternal grandmother first lived when emigating to New Zealand from Ireland in the late 1800s.

Horowhenua means 'shaking or rippling earth' which is happening now below the surface; slow-slip earthquakes occur along the Hikurangi Trench as the Pacific plate subducts westward beneath the North Island.

The scale of sea and landscape here has always captivated me, but until reading the second chapter of Geoff Park's Te Ururoa :The Lake in the Sand Country, I had not understood Horowhenua's extraordinary place in Aotearoa's history. Prior to colonial settlement in the late 1880s, the land from the Manawatu River to Wellington was entirely covered in ancient forest. It was the last great forest in Aotearoa before succumbing to colonisation. Now the plain is all agriculture and farmland. I suspect my ancestors were a part of this deforestation.

Park describes the beauty of this lost forest: "The first European to capture an image of it, Charles Heaphy, painted it from a shipdeck in 1839: a green, unbroken seam between sea and mountains. Covering everything but the sand dunes and the wetter swamps, it survived Europeanisation longer than any other forest of its kind... Right into the 1870s, keen eyes ... saw 'one solid forest' from the Manawatu River until its low-lying flats met the steep, rocky Wellington coast... Nowhere in New Zealand is there still such a forest... the Horowhenua lake country which the Europeans saw was the 'most picturesque' in the North Island" (Park, pp 165-167).

Quoting from W.L.Buller's 1888, 'Banded Rail", Park brings the forest to life again: '"'Shaded with a lofty forest...banks clothed with beautiful evergreens to the water's edge...a pair of papango, having emerged from a bed of reeds, are floating on the placid waters, a small black shag settling itself in for the night in a kowhai bough... a solitary pekapeka flitting silently overhead, chasing in zigzag lines the minute insect life upon which this bat subsists'" (Park, p167).

Having re-imagined the forests of old for his reader, Park then shatters this image when he writes, "Never before or since has a New Zealand landscape been so quickly and ruthlessly 'cleared'" (Park, p 167). He describes how the last forested area to be prised from Maori in the 1880's quickly succumbs to bush fires and scrub clearing so as to make way for sections 'of a rectangular form' as described in the 1877 Land Act and Levin Village Settlement Plan. Sharing his sorrow for the loss of 'a moist, ancient forest...its myriad plant and animal species constantly crumbling leaves, accumulating nutrients and keeping decay in pace with growth", Park laments, "as one with an eye for nature, I find it lonely and full of melancholy" (Park, pp165-169).

And it is not just the loss of the flora and fauna that Park describes, but also the decimation of Muaūpoko, who were the indigenous people living here prior to the 1820's invasion led by Te Rauparaha from Ngāti Toa. Park asks why this act of genocide was allowed to happen. Retracing the Muaūpoko's way of sustainably living with the forest, he writes: "Muaūpoko or their predecessors could have incinerated the whole plain at any time, but what is now fashionable to call 'biodiversity' was crucial to their quality of life, and they treasured it... As one settler explained before Muaūpoko's landscape vanished, they knew 'berries grow mostly on the outskirts, rarely in the centre of the forest'. Over centuries, they left patches of old-growth forest intact, and opened up and cultivated others. A consciousness of limits, creating, so to speak, a country of edges - lake against harakeke, swamp forest beside dune forest, open areas for moving through from one fruitful forest to another" (Park p 184).

Muaūpoko's pa was sited within a grove of planted karaka and ti kouka on the island in Lake Papaitonga; a lake formed 9,000 year ago by geological forces that caused land to rise, sea to recede and 'the brackish lagoons freshwater lakes" (Park p 166). A patu "dragged up in nearby Lake Horowhenua" suggest some of Aotearoa's earliest people had lived by these lakes in the forest, and "middens found in the Tararua forests indicate they were crossing the Tararua ranges by the 13th century" (Park p 185).

Park's storytelling of Horowhenua's history as a place where many have walked is captivating, and as always, Park has managed to change my viewing of this landscape. His rendering of the land's fertility and the subsequent coveting of Lake Papaitonga by Buller through deceitful methods is told, but not without an awareness of the irony that Buller's actions enable the last remnants of the virgin forest to survive.

Park reminds us that our present encounters with Aotearoa's flora and fauna are now heavily sanitised experiences that lack the vigour and vitality of biodiversity felt by those living in the Horowhenua forests of old. Like Park, this makes me feel sad.

Photograph of Lake Papaitonga, by Billens, A circa 1930. Image sourced from Horowhenua kete

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