South Pacific (2007), Stella Brennan

The term South Pacific encircles widely scattered Pacific Islands; is a notion of place constructed by trade routes, colonial fantasy, and of course the events of World War 2 which connected the Islands physically and imaginatively. Framed by grainy footage of the Pacific Ocean and overlaid with subtitles which flow across the screen in the rhythm of a net chat, Stella Brennan’s South Pacific explores the historical conjunction of visual imaging technologies with specific narratives about place that have impacted upon the region she describes as home.

The evocative imagery of South Pacific layers a number of materially linked sources, continuing Brennan’s ongoing interest in antiquated technologies – their revelation and precise dating of utopian thought, the effect of their re-presentation in exploring persistently operative modernist frameworks for seeing and reading places, histories, artifacts. Footage captured from the nose camera of a passenger jet, as videoed off the plane’s inflight entertainment system, is juxtaposed against images from an antiquated harbour radar machine at the Auckland maritime museum. The work’s seeming underwater battle footage is composed from a series of ultrasound images achieved by immersing a model B-29 bomber in water. The Bockscar, the particular aircraft depicted, is the plane that bombed Nagasaki, and came to the artist replete with a model atomic bomb. The water creates images resembling sonar pictures, the explosions are handfuls of sand being dropped in front of the probe – a suggestion from Brennan’s husband and collaborator David Perry, a practicing radiologist.

I love the effect of the poetic teletext that writes across the work at bottom of screen – switching from one kind of omniscient narrator position to another (plane passenger, Islander, the non-human landscape) in different ways sympathetic and sensitive to a diverse set of actors, observers, and ecologies involved in the periods and events invoked. Brennan dedicated South Pacific to her neighbour, who was an aerial photographer with Australian forces in Rabaul during WW2 and who showed her the photos he took of the Japanese surrender there. While of only ten minutes duration, South Pacific took 18 months to create. Brennan struggled with the aesthetic challenge of retaining the integrity of the factual information her researches revealed, while avoiding the project becoming primarily a social history project. The text that remains is a gathering of fragments, stories people have told her about the war, including Clyde Steward, the former aerial photographer, and Bill Sevisi, a famous Samoan/NZ Hawaiian Steel guitarist who described his wartime dance band learning tunes off the shortwave radio. Also drawn drawn into the work is image and document research such as the translated U-boat log Brennan found in the New Plymouth Library collection and examination of personally puzzling artifacts from the period, such as the unexploded sea mine displayed at Mokau, a small town on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island and the radio station at Auckland’s Musick point. All are linked by narrative and language play that have been extended or interpolated for poetic effect. The simple, “fairly obvious” (Brennan’s words) device of a dream sequence successfully ties these many voices, histories and imaginings together; the plane passenger traverses South Pacific space in an episodic, fitful temporality of dreaming and waking.

Thanks to Stella for speaking about the work with me. There are two great essays on Stella Brennan’s practice by Robert Leonard and Sean Cubbit in the monograph O—-10. Robert’s essay, ‘History Curator’ is available here.


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