Corsica is one of my favourite places on Earth. This Mediterranean island combines rugged mountain and coastal scenery with a wild, indomitable culture and history. Corsica had a revolution even before the French, who copied their constitution of liberty and equality. Part of that culture is their tradition of sacred polyphonic singing which has lingered on in secluded mountain valleys. While on holiday walking the mountain trails, we bought a CD of a contemporary singer Jacky Micaelli, who continues that tradition (1). She writes: “I needed too much fresh air to be able to stay at home. Instead I delighted in weaving sounds of tenderness on the weft of space. And the freedom of my voice made the whole neighbourhood quiver.”
I have listened to that CD many times since and on every hearing I marvel at how its sounds manage to capture so well the essence of the place. This is not a voice of velvet clad concert halls. Its raw edge echoes the pinnacle ridges of soaring peaks, fading down the misty gorges. Its lingering sadness brings up a wellspring of past suffering and stoic endurance, nuanced with hope. I am fascinated at how she achieves this and grapple with trying to understand the artistic process that produces such deeply moving results . . . mostly in vain. It is not unique; such symbiosis of human creativity with place (by ‘place’ I mean both land and time) has been a fundamental part of every culture since our species first evolved.
You can see it in adobe buildings in African countries like Cameroon or Mali, where impossibly beautiful, but practical forms are built as bodily expression of only hands and mud. Or in Persian carpets, or Aboriginal art, or many many more examples. You can see it in Maori carvings, in the spiraling, pierced forms of the great waka that seem to reflect the stars and galaxies of the heavens that guided them to this land, and the closely bound communities of whanau and hapu. Totara is easily incised with obsidian and jade tools, and its bland texture encouraged added patterns, unlike the dominant wood grain of most tropical woods.
Lyonel Grant, artist and master-carver, has written about the great historical taonga displayed in the Te Maori exhibition of the eighties, and believes that today we are not capturing that deeply powerful magic in our art (2). Why not? I suggest the answer lies in our disconnect from the natural environment, and with it the loss of a sense of devotion. Western society has made staggering technological and intellectual achievements of which we can be proud. But we are learning now that they come at a price, evident in a ravaged environment and disempowered peoples. This forces us to reassess, and look at what we have lost.
There is a species of African monkey that, when it gets sick, will travel many miles through the forest to a lone tree. It will carefully strip the toxic bark off the twigs and suck out the juice of the pith. Scientific investigation has proved that this is an effective medicine for that precise ailment that we knew nothing about (3). How did the monkey know? – where to find the tree and how to use it??! If you got sick would you instinctively do that? No, even if you “knew” what to do, your rational brian would intervene. The animal world is full of such stories.
There are theories that our language evolved out of the environment (4). Early humans echoed the sounds they heard around them. They were utterly immersed in their surroundings and could intuitively read what they heard. Every different whisper of wind in the trees meant something to them. The Corsican language evolved between the echoing walls of bare rock valleys which spoke those sounds, so Micaelli’s singing can only be from there.
Long, long before Europeans stumbled around the oceans in their clumsy ships, with little idea where they were, the Polynesians were colonising vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean. Generations of accumulated knowledge and wisdom were concentrated in the one lone navigator who barely slept for days as he focused all his being on bringing up the island in front of him. Every different ripple in the water surface, every variation in the twinkle of a star or sough of the wind, every movement of bird or fish, all these meant something to him, as he positioned himself under the rotating cacophony of stars he knew so intimately. The human world is full of many such stories.
In so many past cultures nature was not usually something to be conquered, it was not a source from which riches could be wrested. Those who dwelt there were absolutely a part of it. The navigator only succeeded if he yielded himself fully to the ocean – any vestige of ego would cause him to lose his place in the wider picture. With this immersion and dependence came a respect and a sense of devotion. All early forms of spirituality were directed at nature and were at one with it. As we have lost our connection to nature, so also we have lost our sense of devotion and our true spirituality.
The carvers of the taonga in Te Maori would have lived a very different life to today’s artists. All their physical and spiritual energies would have been focused entirely on their work, overseen by clearly structured protocols that had evolved to increase that focus. They were absolutely a part of their place, to the extent that all the their carving chips were carefully returned to the forest from where the tree came. How can carvers of today match that focus when they are deluged by so many distractions that dilute their concentration?
We talk about seeking a New Zealand identity. But pakeha society has no relevant past culture, only sentimental European links. It has no language and sacred songs born out of its surrounding mountain valleys, or buildings formed out of its earth. Its thin lipped settler society is predicated on a total destruction of the previous ecology to replace it with imported farming (5). It is culturally destitute and lacking in nourishment. In the saturated and distracting global stream of instant and self-centred gratification how can today’s artists connect to meaningful depths?
Talking to Kim Hill, Don McGlashan stressed the importance of stories: “Existing isn’t enough . . . You have to tell stories, otherwise we disappear.” Many old stories remain in a culture because they provide some of its identity and because they contain morals that have enabled it to survive. Maori creation myths include the tale of Tane receiving the three baskets of knowledge from the gods in their heaven. Kete Aronui contained the knowledge of the natural world, of the forests the oceans and our bodies. Kete Tuauri contained our rational knowledge and Kete Tuaatea contained our spiritual knowledge.
I designed a lighting installation based on these three kete which we first showed in Milan last year (6). My intention was to bring something of Maori culture to the world and to show that it contains morals relevant to everyone. I suggested that Kete Tuauri has become too big and is drowning out our connection to the natural and spiritual worlds. Only when we get these three back in balance will we have hope for a better future . . . and only then will artists begin the long path to creating a true New Zealand culture and identity.
- Corsica Sacra by Jacky Michaelli, Auvidis label.
- Keynote lecture at Cumulus conference at Unitec, November 2009.
- Biomimicry by Janine Benyus.
- The Spell of the Sensous by David Abram
- Theatre Country by Geoff Park