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Robert Leonard
In 2003, Shane Cottons big exhibition at Wellingtons City Gallery was in two minds. The gallery
wanted a curated show with all the key works, summarising Cottons development, explicating
his imagery, themes, politics and achievement. But Cotton didnt want the museum-retrospective
treatment. He wanted to do a project show of new work. Museum and artist both got their way.
Downstairs, curator Lara Strongman assembled a tight, greatest-hits selection of Cottons works
from the previous decade. Upstairs, Cotton presented a cycle of seven large diptychs that were
wildly new in imagery and treatment. The show felt like two shows in counterpoint, as if two artists
were being presented: downstairs, the Cotton the gallery and the culture expected, even demanded;
and upstairs, the Cotton Cotton wanted. You could take your pick, or compare and contrast.
In retrospect, the shows polarised quality seems symptomatic of a dilemma Cotton faced. In
the ten years since his 1993 breakthrough show at Wellingtons Hamish McKay Gallery, Cotton had
tapped the biculturalism zeitgeist, becoming a key gure in the paradigm-shifting new generation
of Ma ori artists that Jonathan Mane-Wheoki would call the young guns.
Feted by curators and
collectors alike, Cotton seemed to tick all the boxes: as much as his work was rooted in local
history, it also offered a new spin on the most current of international art concerns (appropriation).
However, being typecast as an ambassador for Ma ori causes proved to be something of a trap for
this artist, still in his thirties. Prevailing cultural politics were overdetermining readings of his work,
casting it as illustration and instruction, and bypassing the exploratory, speculative nature of his
practice as a painter. By 2003, Cotton was no longer riding the waves of biculturalism, they were
riding him.
While the downstairs part of the City Gallery show locked Cotton into a pious and by now
familiar discourse about history, place and identity, the diptychs upstairs, with their pop-art quality,
were unexpected. Style and imagery felt utterly experimental. Rifng on their place in Ma ori lore,
birds suggested harbingers of death, emissaries from the beyond, intercessors between earth and
the heavens translators, Cotton called them. Meanwhile, bulls-eyes recalled archery targets and
Royal Air Force insigniaalthough Cotton said he saw them more abstractly, as vortexes. Their
juxtaposition seemed visually vital, yet fatalistic. But, given the cultural anxiety surrounding them,
Cottons images of Toi moko (Ma ori preserved heads) were far more morbid and provocative.
Preserving heads dates back to pre-contact times. Ma ori kept the heads of important men
who had died, from their own tribe (to venerate) and from vanquished enemy tribes (to lord over).
However, following contact, Toi moko became curios, trophies, ornaments for the Pakeha tourist
art. During the inter-tribal Musket Wars, slaves were tattooed and killed so their heads could be
traded with Pakeha for guns and ammunitionthese heads are known as Mokomo kai. Having
never previously been tattooed, slaves were now inscribed carelessly with a jumble of meaningless
motifs, contributing to the desacralisation of the moko and its decline as a status symbol and art
Fast-forward to the 1990s and Toi moko have become a sore point. On the one hand, Ma ori
condemn museums for their insensitivity in continuing to display their tapu heads, and petition them
to repatriate these ancestral remains to relevant iwi. On the other hand, the same heads are also
evidence of indigenous brutality, Ma ori insensitivity to their own cultural values, and shamefully
at odds with popular feel-good representations of the tangata whenua as children of nature and
noble victims.
Presented repeatedly, frontally and in prole, Cottons Toi moko took on a cut-and-paste,
decal-like quality. His heads were not exactly tattooed: some were camouage-patterned or rainbow-
striped. The camo-heads seemed to nod at once to military fashion and to Andy Warhols camp
1986 pop-goth self-portraits, in which Warhol superimposed camo-patterns over an image of his
own disembodied, white-wigged, toothless, pasty face. (Interestingly, he died the following year.)
But, what was at stake in Cotton subjecting Toi moko to Yellow Submarine or Warholian graphic
treatment? Was this some somewhere-over-the-rainbow redemption of the heads, or blithe disregard
to their sensitive nature insult added to injury? Was Cotton pointing to a problem or a solution?
Whose side was he on?
Although Ma ori references permeated the new work, Cotton seemed to have largely dispensed
with customary Ma ori stylisations; his birds could have been lifted from an encyclopedia. His images
were not organised on trees, feast scaffolds or shelves, or integrated into bold emblems, as they
had been previously. Now, they were more like tokens, provisionally placed on at black void-
elds and spray-painted skies, less organised than disorganised lost in space. Cottons diptychs
were inscrutable, cryptic. Sure, his earlier works had dispatched critics and curators to the library
to double-check the citations and to brush up on their history and their Ma ori language, but the
diptychs were beyond obscure, they were positively deranging. They begged for interpretation, but
deed it. They made you wonder not only if you understood what Cotton was doing now but
whether you had even understood what he had been doing before. As much as the diptychs could be
seen as continuing Cottons previous concerns, they could also be read as a dummy-spit, with Cotton
shrugging off the worthy expectations weighing down on him and cutting himself some slack.
With the diptychs, a surrealism previously implicit in Cottons work had suddenly become
explicit and urgent. Now Cotton was clearly not being prescriptive or normativemaking signs and
symbols for people to live by, as Colin McCahon had put it
but was free-associating with images,
crashing together Ma ori and Pakeha image fragments in the manner of Lautramonts notorious
chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.
If the surrealists had
clashed codes to explore the repressed, unnished business of the psychosexual unconscious, Cotton
was doing the same with the post-colonial historical and cultural unconscious. The surrealists
had been disinclined to analyse the latent content of unconscious imagery, preferring to bask in
its manifest poetryits non-sense. Where psychoanalysis sought to heal the patient in order to
reintegrate them into society, surrealism declared society itself sick and their unconscious, automatic
imagery a revolt against it. So, perhaps at this point, the idea that Cotton was advocating some
sane bicultural reconciliation should have gone by the wayside.
In the years that followed the City Gallery show, Cotton would continue to explore the
directions opened up by his 2003 diptychs, rening and expanding his speculative cultural-surrealist
approach. With his increasingly acrobatic, reckless, even suicidal birds, he took to the skies, largely
leaving the land (and any safe hermeneutic footing) behind.
In 2011, Cotton acknowledged the inuence of the surrealists in titling his Hamish McKay Gallery
show The Treachery of Images; Cotton borrowed this title from Magrittes famous 19289 painting
of a pipe that is not a pipe.
Cottons work owes much to the Belgian surrealist. The links to Magritte
are obvious in Cottons endless plays of substitution and displacement, in his disorienting and illogical
scale shifts, in his puzzling mismarriages of images and idioms, in his penchant for frames and frames-
within-frames, and in his witty title play. Both artists exploit chains of association and analogy within
works and between works, making interpretation interminable, postponing closure. Their puzzle
pictures foreground the machinery of representation while transporting us into poetic other worlds.
Magritte keeps it simple; in each work, he tends to isolate a single trope, to tease out a particular
ambiguity. Cotton, by contrast, prefers complexity, hybridity and excess. Consider Back Words (2011,
see page 127), from Cottons Treachery show. The painting is divided into eleven horizontal sections:
at black bands inscribed with scribbly Ma ori spirals alternate with deep spray-painted skyscapes that
provide backgrounds for exhibits. These exhibits include stuffed birds on stands, dead, yet frozen in
different stages of ight (recalling Eadweard Muybridges animal locomotion studies); tall ships, the
same size as the birds and also on stands; a billboard (or is it a drive-in movie screen?); that famous
Ma ori carving from the 1840s of a mokoed Madonna and Child (now in the Auckland Museum),
a Western-style Madonna sculpture; two red Arnold Wilsonesque Ma ori-modernist
sculptures; and a couple of blue pitted rocks, also on museum stands (are they pebbles or asteroids?).
There are also some freestanding letters, which recall both Colin McCahons text paintings and the
Hollywood sign; they spell out the title of a Christian hymn Beneath Thy Protection. (If this derelict
signage acknowledges a caring God, it seems to be one who has left the building.)

Not only does Cotton mix imagery here, he also scrambles styles and idioms. References to
printing, painting, Ma ori carving, Western sculpture, model ships, moko, kowhaiwhai, hymns and
taxidermy collide. The silhouetted ships look like shadow puppets while the birds and stones are
painted to look like they were printed old-school style, with black-and-white line work lled in
with solid spot colour. The way the skyscapes are stacked recalls McCahons serial landscapes.
They could represent sections of a continuous scene or different places and/or times (a history, a
narrative)or not. One can only ponder the relationship between the skyscapes and the inscribed
black bands that insulate and link them. Are we to understand those bands as labels or shelves,
supporting and distinguishing the exhibits above them? In relation to the skyscapes, are we to read
the inscriptions on the black bands as source, translation, crib or critique?
In Cottons works, images seem sometimes to belong to obscure or obsolete frameworks,
sometimes to exist in-between various frameworks, and sometimes to have come adrift from any
framework whatsoever. Adding a twist to Magritte, Cotton exploits the ways that images can move
in and out of plural, even antagonistic, cultural value systems, connecting and disconnecting with
alternative signieds. This idea informed a suite of painted baseball bats that Cotton also included in
his Treachery show (perhaps intending to recall the way Magritte had painted on phallic objects
rendering nudes and clouds on bottles).
While the bats suggest partisan politics, the need to take
sides in conicts, be they sporting or violent, these sides are not explicit. On the bats, Cotton
painted his characteristic mlange of historical and contemporary, Ma ori and Pakeha imagery. One
bat features an image of the Ma ori Madonna and Child carving. Is Cotton suggesting that such
imagesand the ideologies they refer toare symbolic weapons, which might do violence upon
us (or for us) without touching us? Or is he suggesting that those images are actually frail and
endangered, for one would surely not swing the bats for fear of damaging their exquisite surfaces?

Similarly, as much as Cottons line of bats suggests an arsenal, implying we might take our turn to
pick one up in defence of the realm, they also suggest a colonial-history museum display of pathetic,
retired spoils of war. Perhaps these conicted bats are at war with themselves.
To an audience anxious for answers, Cotton offers allegorical impasses and frustrating
interpretive feedback loops. His works radiate an enigmatic quality, like yet-to-be-deciphered Rosetta
Stones. Cotton piles language upon language, reference upon reference, trope upon trope, scrambling
different modes of representation, offering too many clues (and perhaps a few red herrings), generating
cross-cultural moir patterns. There are simply too many, contradictory ways to read his works, so
that any clear interpretation seems wishful. Theres no advocacy hereconfusion reigns. Cottons
pictorial imbroglios recall the awesome snowballing wreckage famously contemplated by Walter
Benjamins angel of history: His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of
events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.
The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a
storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel
can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is
turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
For Magritte and Cotton, images (signiers) are slippery. They are slippery because they dont
behave in the way their signieds do, and because they dont stay attached to their signieds. You
can do things with an image of a pipe or a bird that you cant do with an actual pipe or an actual
bird. Images rhyme and relate in ways their referents dont, and you can picture things that have no
parallel in reality. Its as if, in Cottons paintings, real-life conicts that may have long ago ended
continue to play out in a parallel world of images, perhaps with different results. For instance, in
Cottons 2010 painting Son(s) of Gods, a musket discharges a disembodied moko pattern in place
of gunsmoke a visual non-sequitur. Even if we could draw some conclusion from this image,
what would we do with it (now)? How might we apply it to the real world?
The title of Cottons showThe Treachery of Imageswas more than just a nod to Magritte.
It was a manifesto of sorts, one that distanced Cotton from the prescriptive identity rhetoric that
was settling around his work a decade or so ago. In the Ma ori meeting house, we are told, images
are not ambiguous, only familiar and reassuring. They situate the locals within the family, within
the community, within history, within the land, within the universe. They tell the faithful who they
are. However, in arguing that images are traitors, Cotton turns his back on this idea. Saying that
images are treacherous implies that they have agency, lives and projects of their own, and that they
are duplicitous not to be trusted. As much as his art is about meetings (collisions more like), it is
the antithesis of meeting-house art.
Cottons work broaches an old dilemma: (how) can you be Ma ori and modern? This has long been a
vexed matter, not just because what is commonly considered authentically Ma ori predates exposure
to Western modernity, but because Ma ori culture is inherently traditionalist, being based in ancestor
worship and whakapapa (understanding people and things in terms of their origins). Ma ori and
modern may be chalk and cheese. Responses to the Ma ori-modern dilemma polarise. Some argue that
contact was catastrophic for Ma ori culture, others that the culture is dynamic and that foreign ideas
and values have been absorbed and adapted into its framework. Both ways of thinking are wishful.
Cottons breakthrough works, like those shown at Hamish McKay Gallery in 1993, were explicitly
keyed to the dilemma. They drew on the creole iconography of Rongopai, the novel meeting house Te
Kooti built in 1888 in the wake of the Land Wars, when the people were dispossessed, disillusioned
and disoriented. It remains hard to know if Rongopais carefree appropriation of European materials,
motifs and manners was a canny, empowered response to encroaching modernity or a symptom of
cultural breakdownclutching at straws. This ambiguity intrigued and transxed Cotton.
In the early twentieth century, the Ngata Revival would sidestep this chapter of Ma ori art
(sometimes called Ma ori folk art), asserting classical art styles in its programme for cultural survival
in modern times.
However, in the 1960s and 1970s, the pendulum swung back, when the Ma ori
modernists promoted the idea that Ma ori and modern could be blended: Arnold Wilson conating
Henry Moore with pou and Paratene Matchitt scrambling Victor Vasarelys op art with tukutuku.
the 1990s, it seemed that Cotton might be pursuing precisely this kind of merger. But, since his City
Gallery show, it has become ever clearer that he is grappling with the Ma ori-modern conundrum in a
very different way. Neither a conservative revivalist nor a utopian blender, Cotton has created a new
idiom, which he has called Ma ori Gothic.

I was once told that Cottons favourite lm is F.W. Murnaus Nosferatu (1922), and its telling
to compare his recent paintings with that lms source, the classic Gothic vampire novel Dracula. Bram
Stokers talepublished about ten years after Rongopai was builtalso had a conicted relationship
with modernity. Stokers Victorian characters were modern, they were neophiles: they rode trains,
practiced stenography, used typewriters, sent telegrams, dictated their scientic observations onto
wax cylinders and transfused blood. But, for all their scientic and industrial nous, they were both
plagued and excited by a dark occult gure from an earlier, aristocratic, pre-enlightenment time. This
vampire was a remnantthe last of his kind. Dracula was not the past as appropriated by the present
to explain and legitimise itself, but a past that couldnt be assimilated, couldnt be reada past that
exercised its own excessive claims on the present. Stoker was explicit about this. At Castle Dracula, a
twitchy Jonathan Harker famously observed: unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and
have, powers of their own which mere modernity cannot kill.

Vampires are a sign that modernity is a house built on sand. As Jeff Wall explains: The vampire
is neither alive, nor dead, but exists in an accursed state of irremediable tension and anxiety he
embodies a certain sense of cosmic grief the vampire signies not simply the unwillingness of the
old regime to die, but the fear that the new order has unwittingly inherited something corrupted and
evil from the old, and is in the process of unconsciously engineering itself around an evil centre. The
presence of the phantasm of the vampire in the consciousness of modern, liberal men signies the
presence of an unresolved crisis in the creation of the modern era itself.

In coining the term Ma ori Gothic, Cotton acknowledges the haunted, vampiric quality of
his paintings. With their glaring severed heads, suicide cliffs, tormented skies, grafti written on
the wind and plummeting birds, they seem spooky and ominous. Its as though, in the course of his
iconographic enquiries, the artist, like some latter-day Lord Carnarvon, had unwittingly prized open
a Pandoras box, releasing ancient, dark, disavowed forces into the world. Under their corrupting
inuence, familiar items now behave in unfamiliar ways. Passages from the good book, lava lamps
and baseball bats begin to mean something else entirely. Everything is haunted; nothing can be trusted.
But how exactly is Cotton positioning himself in relation to Ma ori-as-vampiric? Does he see
the Ma ori vampire as pathetic or powerful, as provoking sympathy or dread? To what extent is he
on the vampires side and to what extent is he invested in the new world that the vampire threatens?
Many interpreters presume Cotton sides with his historical Ma ori imagery, but the reality may be
more complex. After all, Cotton came to that imagery late, largely as a result of the research he
conducted in order to teach Ma ori art in the early 1990s.
His historical Ma ori imagery may be
less familiar, less natural and more mysterious to him than his modern images of digital clocks and
PlayStations. Perhaps his position is not simply that of a Ma ori insider, but simultaneously that of
insider and outsider. When interpreters align Cotton with his Ma ori imagery, as if he were simply a
booster in matters Ma ori, they neglect and override his works experimental, surrealist imperative.
Cotton thrusts images together to explore the outcome, not to illustrate a point or argue a case.
They say that the meeting house locates and grounds its community, providing some
tu rangawaewae, some place to stand. If so, Cottons work does the opposite. Its all about uprootedness,
uncertainty, nowhere to stand, being up in the air. For Cotton, being Ma ori is not conservative; its
not about a sense of cultural certainty, the succour of tradition. Its more about identifying with and
embracing the epistemological crisis that came with contact, a crisis that split open signs, tearing
signier from signied, turning images into traitors. Its about being fundamentally conicted. And
perhaps Cotton nds a certain pleasure and freedom in this, where all meanings and frameworks,
Ma ori and modern, might come unstuck, or, equally, repossess and plague each other. Rather than
reconcile the indigenous and the modern, Cotton revels in their terric, caustic, game-changing
antagonism, reaping its dark abundance as that pile of debris before him grows skyward.
For Cotton, it seems, biculturalism is not about nding a bureaucratic solution, not about
policy and partnership, not about reconciliation, but rather, as Ian Wedde once put it, about keeping
a certain problem alive,
and, if not alive, at least undead.
1 Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Toi Hiko: Maori art in the electronic age, in Hiko: New Energies in Maori Art, Robert McDougall Art
Gallery, Christchurch, 1999, n.p.
2 Christian Palmer and Mervyn L. Tano, Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization, International Institute for
Indigenous Resource Management, Denver, 2004 (nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-PalMoko-t1-body-d1-d3-d1.html).
3 Colin McCahon, Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition (exhibition catalogue), Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland, 1972, p. 26.
4 Comte de Lautramont (Isidore Ducasse), Les Chants de Maldoror, 18689.
5 The French title La Trahison des Images is sometimes also translated as The Treason of Images.
6 This carving is thought to have been made in the 1840s by Patoromu Tamatea of Ngati Pikiao for a new Catholic chapel in the
Bay of Plenty. The carver indicated the Virgins spiritual status in Maori terms by giving her a full moko. The piece was rejected
by the local priest.
7 Back Words is permeated with references to the Virgin. The hymn Beneath Thy Protection addresses her. And, according to
Cotton, the image on the billboard is based on Jean Fouquets Virgin and Child (circa 1450).
8 Incidentally, Magrittes The Future of Statues (1937) with sky and clouds painted on a commercial plaster reproduction
of Napoleons death maskoffers another precedent for Cottons camo-heads. Magrittes work suggests transcending death
through dreaming.
9 Cottons painted bats also recall Marcel Duchamps notes on the idea of the reciprocal readymade: use a Rembrandt as an
ironing board in The Green Box (1934).
10 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII, 1940.
11 Although, I note, Cotton did paint kowhaiwhai panels for the wharekai at Motatau Marae, which opened in 2009.
12 For more on Ngata, see Jeffrey Sissons, The post-assimilationist thought of Sir Apirana Ngata, New Zealand Journal of History,
Vol. 34, No. 1, 2000, pp. 4759.
13 Thinking here of Matchitts 1965 mural Niho Taniwha.
14 Cotton titled his 2005 Hamish McKay Gallery show Maori Gothic.
15 Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897), Penguin, London, 2003, p. 43.
16 Jeff Wall, Dan Grahams Kammerspiel (1985), in Gilda Williams (ed.), The Gothic, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2007, pp. 21112.
17 From 1993 to 1996, Cotton taught Maori art at Te Pu tahi-a-Toi, School of Maori Studies, Massey University, Palmerston North.
As Cotton explains: I shifted to Palmerston North and took up a lectureship in the Maori Studies department, and all of a sudden I
was exposed to a different kind of history, a Maori colonial historyit was something that I didnt know about in any great depth
but I had to try to teach the stuff. I was learning, teaching, learning, teaching, all at speed, and it started feeding into my painting.
So a lot of the work through the nineties was dense; it was dense with biblical scripture and dense with Maori history, which was
new to me. I wasnt so much trying to teach people about this stuff as trying to understand it for myself. Shane Cotton: stamina,
surprise and suspense (interview with Justin Paton), B.170 Bulletin of Christchurch Art Gallery, Summer 2012/13, p. 14.
18 See Weddes The Delft effect, Midwest, no. 3, 1993, p. 16.
19 For all its supposed darkness and disruption, the Gothic is fundamentally romantic and reassuring: its a mode of enjoyment, a
way of taking pleasure. And thats why it will never be part of a utopian bicultural solution. Because in preferring the Gothic, we
prefer the problem. Robert Leonard, Hello darkness: New Zealand gothic, Art & Australia, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring 2008, p. 95.