“Uncle Tasman: The Trembling Current that Scars the Earth” by Natalie Robertson

  • ©, , Uncle Tasman: The Trembling Current that Scars the Earth


    Uncle Tasman: The Trembling Current that Scars the Earth

Artist(s) and People Involved:




    Image Projection

Artist Statement:

    Multi-screen moving image projection describing the mise en scene of a dynamic volcanic geothermal environment in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, at the extreme southern edge of the Pacific ‘Rim of Fire’. Hissing sulphuric yellow fumeroles, an active marine volcano, bubbling mud pools, caves and warm streams depict the location while Maori cosmological and ancestral stories intertwine with environmental impacts of a pulp and paper mill. The soundtrack derived from digital storytelling will draw out multi-strand narratives from local Maori, mill workers, townspeople, and environmentalists telling of the destruction of the eco-system and desecration of sites of significance.

    This made travelling painfully slow; so slow, that the sun caught him where he now stands. In the full light of day he could not go on and advertise his intentions to the world. He looked back and saw his wife weeping for him. This made him more ashamed. He could not go forward and he could not go back; so he stayed where he still is, at Kawerau, with his child. Tarawera still weeps for him and her tears filled his footsteps and formed the Tarawera river. The child is the foothill to Putauaki.

    Much later, the Maori chief Tuwharetoa and his people settled in the area attracted by the geothermal activity which provided constant warm water for bathing and hot steam for cooking. And much later again, newcomers from over the seas, also attracted by the geothermal steam, established a different kind of puffing trembling giant that would scar the land anew.

    Born in Kawerau at the foot of the mountain Putauaki, I grew up with the smell of sulphur in my nostrils, playing in the steaming mud and sulphur pits on my way home from school. The fragile crust of the earth could burst open at any time, sending forth vents of steam and reveal the boiling world below. The stories of my childhood were populated with the gods and goddesses of Maori cosmology and with the knowledge that volcanic mountains were prone to running off in pursuit of distant lovers. There were caves once inhabited by historic ancestors and on the mountain, caves that held the bones of past occupants. As teenagers, we swam at night in enigmatic warm steaming streams and now, the smell of sulphur triggers a pang of homesickness. I learnt that the unborn child of Papatuanuku the Earth Mother, was Ruaumoko, the God of earthquakes and all geothermal activity. The name literally means the Trembling Current that Scars the Earth. R’ is an earthquake, while Moko is the art of tattoo.

    The volcanic plateau of this activity is the extreme edge of the Pacific tectonic plate and is the most southern end of the Pacific Rim ‘Ring of Fire’. On the other side of the Pacific lies California and the San Andreas faultline. We share volatile environments that can erupt with great trembling should Ruaumoko, stamp his foot. Our Maori cosmology recognizes through the stories of mountains that move, the scientific understanding of seismic activity and the relational of all things above and beneath the earth.

    The romance of the place of my birth was always overshadowed by the giant Tasman pulp and paper mill that provided employment – and ironically poisoned our river and our bodies with dioxins and organochlorines. The site for the mill was selected in 1952 for its geothermal reservoir of steam and the Tarawera river water supply. The hot pools that once were a local bathing place of Tuwharetoa’s people are now polluted with waste, and downstream from the mill the river is referred to by locals as the Black Drain and is the most serious dioxin contamination of any waterbody in NZ.

    The mill is identified on the Greenpeace toxics-map as a dioxin polluted site and has both historic dioxin pollution and ongoing dioxin emissions.

    The seismic activity below the earth was matched by the labour and employment volatility above ground, with union strikes stretching out from days into weeks and months, at times threatening an end to the small town of 8000 where I lived. The Single Men’s Village established it’s own modern myths, common amongst temporary workers in a precarious labour force. The mill with its billowing chimneys was also the Great Provider, not only of jobs but also of clothing and many other perks, and so the benevolent title of Uncle Tasman was bestowed.

    The project I wish to bring to San Jose is a multi-screen moving image projection that describes the scene of this dynamic environment. The mise en scene is compelling, a site of great beauty, and masses of international tourists come to New Zealand to look at bubbling mud and to see the local Maori people utilize the environment in their daily lives. The viewer will be offered poetic and luscious images of hissing sulphuric yellow fumeroles, scenes from an active marine volcano, bubbling mud pools, of caves and warm streams. Suggestions of cosmological and ancestral stories may make their way into the final work as visual metaphors for the environmental impacts. However, it is the sound tracks will draw out narratives from local Maori, mill workers, townspeople, and environmentalists who can tell of the destruction of the eco-system and the desecration of sites of significance. Greenpeace has documented evidence disproportionately high cancer deaths of young people of the region.

    The soundtracks could be discrete and available though headphones. This is a new work under development therefore not all details are resolved at this stage. Some of the imagery has been shot but the soundtrack is yet to be undertaken.

    Kaitiakitanga or guardianship is Polynesian concept integral to the caretaking of land and sea. When taonga, or cultural treasures, including artwork, travel to a location outside of the home territory, this is enacted through the appointment of cultural guardians to look after the representations of the ancestors. In San Jose, I would want to work with both the First Nations People of California and with people of the Pacific diaspora, who would become the guardians for the work for the time it was there, fulfilling cultural role of kaitiakitanga. The Pacific diaspora communities of California is one of the highest Polynesian populations in the world and Auckland, New Zealand has the largest Polynesian population the world. Making connections between these communities will contribute to the success of this project.


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