The Sacred Objects: In Conversation with George Nuku

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As we are preparing for LAB, our experimental summer tour program, in conjunction with Paradise Lost? Contemporary Works from the Pacific, we met with artist George Nuku in his workshop at the Museum of Anthropology to discuss his plans for an intervention in the Great Hall. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation with the artist.

Karen Benbassat Ali: While you’ve worked with carving Plexiglass before, in choosing to work with re-cycled Plexiglass cases—typically used to display the Museum’s collection—there seems to be an implicit critique of the museum. Tell us about the ideas that are informing this work.

George Nuku: Here, for example, are two very sacred objects [Note: George takes an iPhone and a flute and places them inside a Plexi box that he’s working on].SONY DSC We are supposed to appreciate the sacred objects. This Plexiglass case represents the ultimate containment technology. Their containment technology approaches are about maintenance and conservation. We are supposed to pretend that the case is not there. With an iPhone and a flute, your first desire is to touch them, but you can’t because you have this containment device here, the ultimate containment device. So you have to start telling yourself that this case does not exist. But it does exist and it doesn’t allow you to have a relationship with those objects. And that causes problems. It causes problems for the people whose objects are in there because they feel they have no connection to them. It makes you feel that the objects are at least 200 years old, disconnected and irrelevant.

So why don’t we treat the case as sacred as the objects inside? I say, in fact, maybe this case is more bloody sacred than what it contains. We put all these sacred objects into the case and we only look at them through the Plexi. The case is more truthful. So I started looking at this idea of sacred things and sacred places. I thought about this being sacred, everything being sacred. You see, if you don’t have that, all this stuff can get lost and stolen; that is sending a message to me that that is important—it contains—and so I start looking at the plastic as sacred.

The thing with sacred things and objects and places is that they get stuck behind something like this and they become static, preserved. If you’re going to get into it, I say downtown is the most sacred. That’s where you have lots of people, bustle, life, desperation, greed.

KBA: So will we be able to touch this work?

Nuku: Yes, of course, that’s the whole point. That’s why I’m gluing things on the outside so that you can touch the ancestors, put your sticky hands all over them. Because you know, in the museum they are always going on about the character of something, but you only get that by crying on it, your snot going on it, drool, dropping it, hitting someone with it, bleeding on it. That’s what gives it all this amazingness. Like us, you have to live a bit.

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So I’ve come to the Museum to work on the Plexiglass cases. This is one of the only places in the world where you can get this stuff for free; they actually throw it away here. And it speaks to the idea that you have a show, it goes up—show’s on, folks!—and then it’s over, show’s over. And I am possibly wondering about my role in the show and my role in the box. You go to a museum and you see—not all museums, but some—the culture you come from; see the old things, and you can’t help but ask yourself how you’re connected to all this.

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I think about this a lot: Why am I not inside this, or am I inside this? Or am I on the outside of it trying to get in? I think I’m on the outside trying to get back in. So it becomes this spiritual situation. If all these treasures held in this and other museums were able to come and go on their own volition, all the spirits like the Thunderbird or the whale could leave the museum whenever they bloody well feel like, and then come back… but then all this will lose its maximum-security-prison feel.

So I think that artists like myself are charged with trying to find a win-win situation, because the audiences come first. They come first, and then the communities, and then the museum.

KBA: How did this project come about? Carol Mayer, the curator, invited you and then what happened?

Nuku: Wait, you don’t know who I am?! I’ll tell you, I am the Brad Pitt of the ethnographic museums, mate!

But it usually takes about three years from “Hey, you should do something!” to actually getting here and working. Carol and I had a chat about this a few years ago. I didn’t know what I was going to do yet, but I knew I wanted to use these Plexi cases. I asked her to put them aside for me.

Then when I got here and walked through the hall I saw all these mortuary boxes, decorated on all sides. Boxes everywhere. And the carved totems. I knew I had to pay tribute to them somehow.

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So in these boxes you can see the reflection of the face. One half carved on the back and the other on the front, they are mirror images. These faces are something that is gone and we will never get them back; we must accept that and move on. I’m making nothing into something. Because emptiness is acceptance of the possibility that the sky is the limit—what comes next? It’s a new stage in life.

Interview transcribed by Zoya Mirzaghitova

Photography by Jakub Markiewicz and Zoya Mirzaghitova

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