JOE SHEEHAN

The Quick and the Dead, 30 July - 24 August 2013
The Quick and the Dead is a collection of remote controls - whole units and broken pieces - carved in a variety of stone. These sculptures are presented in museum drawers in the manner of a traditional typological display - an arrangement of similar objects to demonstrate variation of the 'type'. The comparative analysis of artefacts is a principal method of ethnography, though the presentation of objects in this way is less popular in contemporary museology, which privileges narrative (provenance) over ethnographic interpretations.

On one level, these sculptures could be read as science fiction, an archaeology of contemporary culture as seen from the future. In this way, these fossilised objects represent the common tools and, by proxy, indicate the lifestyle of peoples in this era. By carving these artefacts in stone, however, Sheehan makes an uneasy relationship between Stone Age and modern cultures. These anachronistic forms close the distance between these points and acknowledge the constant cycle of invention, use and redundancy.

When considered in a New Zealand cultural context, these sculptures pose a different challenge. This exhibition immediately recalls museum displays and collections of toki: stone adzes made by Maori and other Polynesian cultures. These taonga locate the origins of Maori to Eastern Polynesia and chart the development of a distinct Maori culture in Aotearoa. With the exception of the oldest and most prestigious toki - particularly those associated with the building of migratory waka and associated leaders - toki were everyday tools.

Within the context of museums, toki are afforded a higher status than equivalent Pakeha material culture and regarded as evidence of an extinct way of life. Moreover the story of Pakeha culture is largely defined by objects of rarity and distinctiveness, which has contributed to an ambiguous understanding of Pakeha cultural identity in comparison to Maori. The Quick and the Dead works to redress this imbalance, suggesting that everyday objects are better and more valid representations of contemporary New Zealand culture.

This notion of 'value' is consistent with Sheehan's larger project as an artist: to contribute museum-quality Pakeha taonga to national art discourse. In fact, he is one of only a few New Zealand artists to engage in the difficult process of auto-ethnography. This self-conscious process is indicated by the title of the exhibition, The Quick and the Dead, a biblical phrase that is broadly used in popular culture to refer to an in-between state: 'quick' being an old English word for alive. By making this reference, Sheehan suggests that these sculptures exist in the tenuous space between functional object and symbolic artefact.

Anna-Marie White
July 2013

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