Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland-based artist John Vea’s show at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is both provocative and elegant. The first work encountered is a spookily accurate workplace tearoom, all cheap plastic chairs and garish colours. Section 69ZD Employment Relations Act 2000, 2019, is chained off like a room in a historic mansion (although look out for scheduled participation opportunities). It’s an oppressive, bare-bones amenity for people with little agency over their working lives. But cheesy tropical island posters attempting to be decorative, reveal texts speaking of Pacifica hope, pride and self-determination.
Vea’s practice is rooted in socio-political critique of seasonal work undertaken by Pacifica peoples without the rights or protections of citizenship. Often using his own body as a tool for labour performances, Vea’s videos and installations are descriptively deadpan but can also carry metaphoric weight.
Small photographs in the exhibition document the artist’s parodic promotional stall held at a Carriageworks Farmers Market. Sadly missed by this writer, the stall aimed to entice the largely middle-class marketgoers to pick fruit in New Zealand. A wall of cardboard cartons – seasonal worker survival kit, 2015 – references the Pacific community’s travel between homelands and New Zealand.
In 29.09.09 Tribute to Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga, 2013, the artist builds a wall of concrete breezeblocks in the shore break of a beach. Buffeted by waves and undercut by the rip, the blocks repeatedly collapse only for Vea to rebuild. There’s a slightly comical quality as Vea surveys each disintegration, hands on hips, before getting stuck back in, but the collapse/rebuild cycle has darker implications. In our culture, the beach is usually a place of leisure, but this liminal space between sea and land is now politicised for Pacific communities as the climate crisis causes encroachment by rising seas and further aggravates tsunami impact. (The title’s date references the 2009 Pacific tsunami.) The video ends optimistically though: the wall holds, a Brutalist sculpture lit by golden late-afternoon sun.
The five-channel video piece Finish this week off and that’s it!, 2014, communicates the vulnerability of precarity. While subsisting on the poverty line for five weeks, Vea recorded five performances in which he gripped a chunk of building rubble for as long as possible. Slight differences in lighting and screen casts clue the viewer to the timeframe. The weight Vea lost from living on a few dollars a day has echoes of Eleanor Antin ‘sculpting’ her body through weight loss in Carving: A Traditional Sculpture,1972. While Antin’s approach was a feminist and institutional critique, Vea critiques neoliberal employment practices with disastrous consequences for workers.
In Concrete is as Concrete Doesn’t, 2017, Vea references a painting by New Zealand modernist Colin McCahon. His six-channel video matches McCahon’s landscape grid, cleverly echoing its varied landforms within a single site. Artist and co-performer move slowly through the grid’s frames, using pavers to lay a path never more than two metres long, since the front pavers come from the back of the path. This should skew slapstick, yet the pair work with dance-like fluidity and rhythm. It’s a poetic allegory of labour, flux and belonging.
Vea’s work harnesses contradictions: his performances are made both as live participatory works and for the camera, embracing historically opposing camps. His strenuous performances signpost Pacific cultural resilience and rebirth. Author and designer Poul Henningsen famously declared that all political art is bad and all good art is political, and it’s the beauty, complexity and intrigue of much of Vea’s work that brings his critique home.
If I pick your fruit, will you put mine back? was exhibited at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art from 25 October –15 December, 2019.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.