There goes the Moon
Commissioned by TVNZ and New Artland: Series 2, episode 12.
Longing for the moon
In 2009 the television series New Artland commissioned Reuben Paterson to produce a temporary work which he made on Bethells Beach on Auckland’s West Coast. After careful planning, the work’s undulating grid was dug into glistening black sand within one 12-hour tidal cycle, before it was enveloped in the advancing froth of the ocean to disappear in the night. As sand turned to sea, and day turned to night, it briefly glimmered under the light of a nearly-full moon, whose lunar pull causes this ebb and flow between land and ocean.
Except for the team of people who helped with its production, Paterson’s There Goes the Moon was only ever seen on screen, much like some of the earliest land art, which was similarly produced specifically for a broadcast series, to be viewed remotely via television. Or, more specifically, it recalls Robert Smithson’s interest in entropy and processes of time, not to mention his early use of glass to form refractive crystalline structures.
While still intact, There Goes the Moon formed a Narcissus figure with the moon gazing at its own reflection. Its circular form, inscribed in the sand in a modulated grid of alternating sections recalls the black and white optical illusions that emerged in Paterson’s practice with Whakatata mai: do you see what I see?, his 2004 SCAPE commission for the ground outside Riccarton House in Christchurch, and his subsequent 2005 Narcissus exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery. The pared-back colour scheme and resultant optical effects draw from early 20th century German Gestalt psychologists’ studies of perception and illusion, which identified our innate contradictory desires to visually sort and assimilate objects as being part of a larger group, and to identify or distinguish units within that perceptual field. These abstract forms reflect and refract into fragmented configurations that challenge the eye to resolve issues of depth with deceptive perspective effects and contradictory use of foreground/background colouring.
The optical energy in these works refer to the underlying power that ripples beneath the land we occupy, with its ever-changing layers of history. The swirling, kaleidoscopic forms suggest the magnetic pull that held the hypnotised Narcissus as he tried to catch his own reflection in a pool of water. It is in these buried details, concealed in the land, that Paterson’s work signals an energy beneath the surface, picked out from the darkness:
“Narcissus is about the reflection of us on land, or the reflection of what exists today and what the land has truly absorbed; the histories of Māori people and how they inhabit New Zealand in a memory that doesn’t exist for anybody.”
Historian and anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond has spoken of discovering the Māori world in a less studied, more visceral way, through her skin – through the soles of her feet. Whether on land or canvas, in glitter or foil, Paterson’s paintings have a similar effect on the eyes. It is impossible to look as a detached observer when the paintings look back, shifting and changing as you shift, absorbing, reflecting and actively transforming the light with which you see them, challenging you to fix an image in your mind while the reflective surface shimmers and shifts over oscillating fields of black and white (or colour) that morph into contradictory dimensions, forcing you to look again. Paterson had said:
The act of looking twice has always inspired and intrigued me; it’s the act of seeing, and of not being able to see, of knowing, and of yet to learn, of being drawn into, and out of, to discover multiple layers of visual truths – those images that are obvious, and those that are hidden. Optical art will distil these principles to use them singly, with force and commitment.
This black-and-white opticallity also challenges binary legal views on issues such as Māori land ownership and history, with the fragmented perspectives also opening up a multiplicity of readings. With this in mind, Paterson has noted the rich history of Matata, the ancestral home of Paterson’s Ngati Rangitihi rohe (sub-tribe), as the location of the last land war conflicts and a burial site for many who fell in those battles, now subject to substantial urban beachfront development. There Goes the Moon was intended as a tribute to Matata. As the rising tide gradually filled hollowed out sections of the work, it gently eroded and caressed away the shapes; a soft destruction that commemorates Matata’s 2005 flooding and land-slides that left a prominent scar in the landscape and exposed sacred burial sites.
Clifford, Andrew. Reuben Paterson : Bottled Lightning. The University of Auckland, pp- 9-10.