The Influence

For Angela Tiatia, the performance art of Latai Taumoepeau was revelatory. By Kate Holden.

Angela Tiatia

Tongan–Australian artist Latai Taumoepeau’s work i-Land X-isle outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Angela Tiatia (below).
Tongan–Australian artist Latai Taumoepeau’s work i-Land X-isle outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Angela Tiatia (below).
Credit: Heidrun Löhr (above), Kieren Cooney (below)

Angela Tiatia is a Sāmoan–Australian multidisciplinary artist best known for her video works such as The Fall (2017-18), which references the fall of Singapore and features 30 performers; Walking the Wall (2014), in which she confronted a cultural taboo by showing her sacred malu tattoos; Narcissus (2019), a slow-motion revision of Caravaggio’s painting; and Holding On (2015), in which Tiatia lay on a concrete platform on the shore of Tuvalu while being dragged and deluged by incoming waves. Tiatia uses her art to open questions about colonial systems, female incarnation and environmental crisis. Her new work, Liminal Persuasions (working title), will premiere at ACMI in Melbourne this year. Her works Hibiscus and The Pearl are on show as part of Matisse Alive at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until April 3.

She chose to speak about Tongan–Australian artist Latai Taumoepeau’s artwork i-Land X-isle (2012). Ten years before this year’s THAW Cam by Legs on the Wall at the Sydney Festival, Taumoepeau bound herself to a giant melting iceblock to evoke the coming crisis of climate change.

Tell me about the work i-Land X-isle.

On first glance it’s quite monumental in terms of the way it’s structured. It’s a big steel frame with four steel legs, and a square frame above that; then on top of that are two one-tonne blocks of ice. What’s holding the block of ice is rope, and then the rope comes down beneath the steel structure, and then Latai is bound underneath and suspended under the melting ice. She’s wearing a fluorescent-orange wetsuit, and she’s hanging there.

I remember the day being fine, sunny, absent of wind; it was quite a beautiful day, so the ice slowly melted on top of her and then slowly – as more of the drips fell on the ground – you could see the concrete ground becoming dark as it got wet but also ... the reflections of the audience underneath her.

It evidently stands in the canon of endurance art…

She performed in one-hour blocks: one hour on, then in the green room warming her body up.

I think it was during winter too, and there is that connection to water torture in the piece, almost like a soft violence. Because Latai is performing to a large group of people throughout the day it’s also a way for the audience to connect to her.

I think it spoke of two things: empathy – was there empathy being translated across to her in terms of connection through the bodies of the audience to the body of the artist? And the second was complicity. The audience is standing there, letting this happen. Those two things were really powerful and spoke to me. Those are the two emotions or actions that are relevant when we’re speaking of climate change: empathy for those who are at the forefront of climate change and are losing their homes, and also the complicity of us just standing by and letting it happen. So it really questions our value system and empathy in terms of formulating action and agency around assisting those who are at the front line and slowing global warming.

What I found really beautiful about this work was that she really was, for me, an artist who’s at the forefront of using art as a medium to speak about climate emergency at the time. This work is 10 years old. She spoke about an issue that was quite abstract at the time, even a bit uncool; artists weren’t engaging with issues like this at the time. From my understanding it took her a long time to come to this idea, the construction and the performance of the work: I think it was a process of four or five years. When she first started learning about climate change it was about 2007, so it took a long time to arrive at the steps of the MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art].

Her piece is of course a metaphor and a synecdoche: the iceblocks standing for the polar caps, the binding for the ineluctable situation of island nations bound to the fate of their disappearing lands. Your work shares a similar elegance of economy, for example that piece with the hibiscus where you appear like a classic dusky maiden but then implacably eat the flower.

For me I think they’re representative of power: who has power and who is disempowered. That’s the same way I relate to Latai’s performance, power in the broader conversation of world economies and Indigenous people. In the same sense, you brought up Hibiscus – it’s a work along the same interrogation of power: who has the power to speak about Pacific Island women’s bodies, the complexities and the nuances and the ways Pacific Island women’s bodies have been seen historically through the colonial gaze. Distilling that down into the metaphor of the here and now. I think that’s what is the essence of these two works, capturing in time this very particular moment in the turning of the power, the turning of the gaze of those who have in the past been disempowered.

You and Latai both use your female bodies of colour as the place of challenge.

I’m thinking about the drips of water on Latai’s body. Each drip is – we were talking about time – a continuation of time, a recording of the passing of time onto her body. Body torture. I’m thinking of how the Hibiscus work is a one-minute film continually on loop, so there’s an uncomfortability in viewing the work. I guess there’s an essence of us still being powerless, which is its own form of torture?

I spoke recently with Amrita Hepi about Adrian Piper; we’re discussing Latai, all of you artists using your personal bodies, an intimate and possessed self. Can you speak about that? Do you feel the personal female body has a special urgency?

When I was at art school I naturally gravitated to female performance artists of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s – Yoko Ono with her Cut Piece, Marina Abramović, Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta: beautiful, amazing, visceral, emotional, very heavy works, so their integrity, bravery and vulnerability are what really spoke to me. But they weren’t bodies of Pacific women. When I saw Latai’s work I was like, “She’s it! This is it!” And there was a moment of celebration in that. In terms of intersectionality there was a female, strong, amazing artist whose sensibility and aesthetics are so beyond their time but also very ancient. So the contradiction between her use of time and her connection back to her culture just spoke on so many powerful levels to me. She says the more ancient and far back she goes in her research for ideas and connectivity to her ancestors, the more contemporary her work becomes. I see that in this work: in all her works.

It absolutely guided me and opened the door into my practice too, enabling a female Pacific vulnerability and strength being displayed at the same time – all of us together making these works that speak of representation and climate change and all the other vital issues. The other side to it is that the body is a very immediate resource and I don’t need to pay any money for it; I don’t need to pay for other people’s labour. So in terms of access and ability to make works that use less resources and are very immediate, which can be impactful and poetic, using my own body was the most sensible thing to do.

Then all of us together have this understanding that we’re creating works for the younger generation of artists to connect to. In that same way, Latai was the first that I really resonated with. We’re great friends now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Angela Tiatia".

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