Tyson Campbell & George Watson, @MAY FAIR

Written by Francis McWhannell

Photographed by Kate van der Drift

Date 31 July 2020

Appropriately enough, Tyson Campbell (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Maniapoto) and George Watson (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Mutunga, Moriori) first connected online rather than in person. Their May Fair presentation builds on a number of mutual interests. Both have engaged in collaborative work in the past (Watson, for instance, has previously partnered with Alex Laurie, also showing at the fair), and both have used décor and ornamentation to explore the enduring effects of colonisation on the cultural and natural worlds of Aotearoa. The artists lean into the fantastical possibilities of the digital context. The floor of their booth features squares of inlaid pāua, in a sort of luxe, local reimagining of chequered tiling. A butterfly is present as well. Campbell explains that it alludes to patupaiarehe, fairy-like forest beings. The walls are lined with wood panelling that makes reference to the villa (typically formed from ‘native timbers’), a symbol and symptom of settler domestication. Different registers of expression—the kitsch, the prestigious, the contemporary, the ‘traditional’ — collide, inviting reflection on the ways in which culture in this country is and ought to be produced and consumed.

Campbell and Watson’s project is extraordinarily multifaceted. Mud slopped and splashed about their space—intended in part to suggest an abattoir—recalls the innumerable connotations of earth. I think of the media list for a 2018 work by Campbell at Artspace Aotearoa, which included ‘Tapu Ngāpuhi Mud’ and ‘unfired seemingly apolitical clay’. Horseshoe-prints evoke the horse as an element of agricultural and military projects, and as an animal valued by Māori (as it happens, the word ‘pāua’ can signify hoof). Campbell tells me that the prints indirectly allude to the cult tabi shoe by Maison Margiela. The overall vision is wryly dark, messing with clichés of nihilistic internet culture and the New Zealand Gothic alike. There is also earnestness and poetry, an embracing of the diverse and consonant forms of meaning-making in which we engage. Enchantment has many incarnations. A butterfly might hint at an aspect of te ao Māori, appear in a viral meme, or take the form of a tattoo fading on the wrist of a woman with an amethyst necklace. Campbell sums things up well, noting, ‘The concepts are quite large and the outcomes whimsical.’

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