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Afloat in Shifting Seas

Nathan Pohio, Phantom Sea Rider, 2009, Digital video.
Spyglass Field Recordings Volume 3, 2011, Digital Video. Image courtesy of the artist
Two works by Nathan Pohio in different galleries in Wellington at the same time leave Mark Amery pondering the art of creating coincidences.

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Two works by Nathan Pohio in different galleries in Wellington at the same time leave Mark Amery pondering the art of creating coincidences.

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To be all at sea is one of my favourite expressions. Meaning to feel confused, in a state between things, it originates from a time when, out of sight of land, a ship could be uncertain of its position. I love how it equates the stomach seasickness you feel any time you are disorientated, and just a little afraid, with that feeling of being tossed in turbulent seas, the wind out of your sails, things taken out of your control.

Now I’ve found a work of art that encapsulates this beautifully. Christchurch video artist Nathan Pohio’s Phantom Sea Rider is but a couple of minutes in length but is entirely bewitching. Screening as part of the exhibition Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart beating? it does feature cannons – an uncomfortably close up, grainy moving image of a grand wooden ship in high seas.

The image could date from the 18th century, yet neither film nor photography go back that far. This is part of the magic Pohio conducts here. He’s long been interested in how moving image alters our perception of the world. It has been made (I think) by filming a small lenticular photograph. Lenticular is where you slice two images together to give the illusion of movement. Here Pohio’s camera swirls in tightly knit knots, like water or wind, across its surface.

The distorted effect is ghostly, as if seeing fleeting traceries of spirits caught within time (a white paper bird for example appears to fly alongside the ship). It is constantly looping, as if the film is both as trapped and as free in this moment, as the ship is in that sea. Pohio treats the image more like an object. I’m reminded of turning a paperweight in my hands, or a ship in a bottle.

Phantom Sea Rider has no story of its own yet it opens itself out to yours. For me this colonial-era ship makes me think on how we, these shaky isles, may still sometimes feel at sea. We can feel unresolved in our place in the world, both enjoying that freedom and nervous of our bearing in it.

There’s another superb work by Pohio just down the road at the Film Archive, and they speak beautifully to each other across the space in between. Spyglass Field Recordings Volume 3 features two portrait shaped moving images of the artist reading to us from a book. The two screens resemble bookends.

Pohio is a smartly dressed, sharply lit and softly spoken storyteller, akin to a charismatic ‘70s television evangelist. In the left screen Pohio relates a conversation with a taxi driver whilst driving into Melbourne to see the New Zealand group exhibition Unnerved (of which he was a part). In the right he relates a taxi conversation leaving the same show, but this time in Brisbane.
The Unnerved work is based on the same image of the ship as the one at Enjoy but was shot differently.

In Brisbane Pohio’s driver turns out to also be a ship designer. He expresses his experience of “unsteady environments”. In Melbourne his Egyptian driver is adept at moving into the spaces as they move along the motorway. Pohio himself expresses unsteadiness in a place he has never been before. There are sweet coincidences here in different experiences, intimated by Pohio to us through knowing looks - much also like seeing these two works by the artist in the same city at the same time.

Pohio is Maori, and resolved early in his career to create work that didn’t look Maori but spoke of his wider cultural perspective. Both works do this beautifully, speaking of the strength of mobility and being able to find your own position in shifting seas.

The Film Archive show features three Maori moving image artists exploring distinctive new ways to express a sense of unease of place in the world. Phantom Sea Rider at Enjoy sits within a broader, beautifully thought out exploration of the relationship between art and cinema, featuring local, national and international artists.

It also explores the way we try to experience the totality of things through cinema yet find, as Mary Louise Browne’s work states, that ‘comprehension of the whole escapes us’. Ingeniously placed on the roof above Pohio’s work is a looped projection of fast moving clouds by local Mike Heynes. In a corner Mexican artist Artermio’s editing sees Russell Crowe’s enemies in Gladiator deleted. Made to fight himself, Crowe yells in frustration, “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?!”

  • Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding? Enjoy Gallery, until 4 August
  • Te Hiko Hou, New Zealand Film Archive, until 11 August

Written by

Mark Amery

23 Jul 2012

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.