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History and Imagination in the Art of John Pule

2022/05/10 Views:16

History and Imagination in the Art of John Pule

Text by Peter Brunt[1]
Abridged by Maggie Sur-Han Chang

In 1976 Albert Wendt published a watershed essay for contemporary Pacific artists, and for Pacific Islanders in general, entitled ‘Towards a New Oceania’ at the height of decolonisation and national independence movements in the Pacific. The essay was a bold affirmation of the central role of the imagination – more specifically, of new art forms appearing in the region – in the realisation of this utopian ideal. The implicit relationship between the ‘new Oceania’ and an ‘old Oceania’ in the essay drives further investigation. The two are inextricably related since there can be no new without an old, without some sense of the Oceania that is past or passing. Yet, he was not referring to the Oceania of history books, museums and excavation sites, but rather to an Oceania in us, a subjective proposition addressed to the consciousness of modern Pacific Islanders.
A theoretical account given by F. R. Ankersmit of what he calls ‘sublime historical experience’ reveals some related existential insight. According to Ankersmit, this is the apprehension by an individual consciousness or collectivity (a ‘me’ or an ‘us’) of a new historical identity whose main characteristic is that it is ‘constituted by the trauma of the loss of a former identity – precisely this is its main content, and that this is the ineluctable truth announces itself in the realisation (agonising, resigned, or otherwise) that this loss is permanent and can never be undone.’ Ankersmit adumbrates four paradigms in which ‘identity’ struggles with the tensions between forgetting and remembering. The first paradigm is the rationale underlying most histories, which are written or recorded on the assumption that we are our past, and the past must not be forgotten lest we lose ourselves. The second paradigm complicates the first by suggesting that sometimes it is necessary to forget the past in order to act effectively in the world or to summon the creativity, will or imagination necessary to live in the present or build a future. The third and fourth paradigms complicate the relationship in a different way. In both, radical historical change or profound historical events shatter identity to its core so that there is a traumatic sense of loss and/or forgetting in which the relationship between present consciousness and the past becomes problematic. In elaborating the third and fourth paradigms, Ankersmit defines the former by its desire to ‘reconcile’ experience and identity. In the third paradigm, ‘closure of the trauma is possible’. This may be so ‘only at the price of the greatest effort and of a most painful descent into the past of an individual or of a collectivity – but it can be done.’ In the fourth paradigm however – and this is what he means by ‘sublime historical experience’ – it can’t, and the trauma of the loss feels permanent. ‘And what loss could possibly be greater – for is this not as close to death as one may come?’
The significance of John Pule’s work derives from the way it explores the gamut of possibilities for historical consciousness outlined by Ankersmit: from the imperative to remember the past to the painful confrontation with the irrevocable nature of history.  Four examples his work will be examined: first, a sampling of paintings from the 1990s and 2000s; then an epic poem entitled The Bond of Time, written in 1983 when Pule was twenty-one years old; then an autobiographical novel called The Shark That Ate the Sun, published in 1992; and finally, what we might call a ‘readymade’, a suit given to the artist by his father on the occasion of his baptism as a young boy.
Take these with you when you leave, 1998, is one of the more explicitly autobiographical paintings in Pule’s work and features numerous iconographic motifs that refer to the autobiographical narrative told in his novel. The painting is structured by a rough grid, filled with a medley of improvised patterns, symbols, signs and pictorial narrative vignettes, some of them smudged and smeared into the surface of the canvas. The compartment to the upper left sees various silhouettes and outline drawings which can be decoded biographically. But the readability of the painting in terms of a coherent autobiographical narrative – or indeed any kind of narrative – begins to break down in other sections. The seemingly familiar scene of the ‘lamentation for the dead Christ’ scene is composed as if to emphasize its strangeness. And the rest of the painting becomes entirely cryptic, as if memory had shifted into another register, unmoored from personal experience, family stories, and familiar cultural narratives.

John Pule, It is not yet dusk, Enamel, oil paint and ink on canvas, 200 ×200 cm, 2006.
Credit: John Pule. 


In Pule’s work from the 2000s – the so-called ‘cloud’ paintings – the emotional tone shifts to something more violent and apocalyptic, a terrifying vision of what the German philosopher Hegel called the ‘slaughter bench’ of History. These paintings put the high stakes of cultural memory in the perspective of history, which they view from the small end of the emotional telescope. Here, as graphic marginalia to amorphous ‘cloud worlds’, Pule renders scene after scene of Herculean efforts to transfer various embodiments of cultural and religious meaning across the empty space between one floating ‘cloud world’ and another in a modern cosmos of ceaseless violence, suffering and disaster (in, for example, I will carry anything that you want, 2006).

John Pule,  will carry anything that you want, 2006.
Credit: John Pule.

If the trauma of personal and historical loss is at the core of Pule’s work, their paradox is their Promethean inventiveness, their extraordinary graphic and imagistic fecundity. Images abound in Pule’s work, a quality that is inseparable from a broader, postcolonial preoccupation with issues of memory and remembering. In modernism a blot was a blot, not an invitation to free associate. In Pule’s paintings, the reverse is the case. Blots, smudges, drips and stains serve precisely to conjure images into being and to unlock the realms of memory and imagination.

John Pule, I had a mind as invisible as light,
oil paint and ink on canvas, 200 ×180 cm, 2001.
Credit: John Pule.

The best word for this protean quality about Pule’s imagination may be ‘Oceanic’ as water pervades his work. Water is the agency by which ‘the first man’ comes into being, according to a myth recounted in The Shark That Ate the Sun. But besides these images of water in his work, water is also, more importantly, an image of imagining. In its ceaseless movement and transformation, its elemental power to generate new life in a multitude of forms, its protean shapelessness yet ability to assume every possible shape, to fill all negative spaces, water is the metaphor par excellence of metaphorisation, which is the driving mechanism of Pule’s poetic imagination. And yet, there may be limits to this capacity for endless imagining which originates in and ceaselessly circles back to the hard core of ‘sublime historical experience’, which signifies irreparable change. The tension can be found in Pule’s poem The Bond of Time, subtitled An Epic Love Poem, a sprawling, youthful poem written in the early 1980s. It is composed as a lyrical address by a lover to his beloved in which the former expatiates at length on the subject of the hapless character of their ‘great sad love.’ As the poem unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the beloved, is not simply the object of his love but his counterpart in grief, his melancholy muse, his narcissistic double.

The Bond of Time.


The Shark That Ate the Sun. 


The subjective structure of The Bond of Time is also echoed in Pule’s novel, The Shark That Ate the Sun, whose narrative transpires between two main characters: Puhia and his son Fisi. For the personal narrative of their individual experience of migration from Niue to New Zealand resonates with the collective experience of Niuean and other Polynesian migrations to the metropolises of New Zealand and other parts of the world after World War II. As Pule’s novel shows, that migration was driven by a sense of historical necessity.

As Puhia flings himself into a profligate new life, his private mantra is to forget. However, in reminding himself to forget, he is bound to remember, and therefore stuck between the spiritual meaninglessness of the life he indulges in in New Zealand and a melancholic fixation on a lost or passing world he cannot forget. But if Puhia’s identification with ‘old Niue’ acts out a kind of death, ultimately his literal death, a few things run counter to this descent. One is the garden he planted in the front yard of the family home in Otara, including vegetables like taro brought over from Niue. Pule cites this garden and the family’s practice of replanting shoots carried in bundles of soil as a metaphor of his artistic practice. Art is a way of ‘making soil to stand on’, ‘establishing a ground’, maintaining ‘roots to home’ – an imagery that acknowledges the reality of a new land, new plantings and a new way of life, while carrying over precious threads from a former way of life that makes the new one both endurable and possible.
The final example reiterates Pule’s paradoxical theme. A ‘readymade’ suit which Pule’s father gave him on his baptism, and which today hangs in the studio like an ironic reminder of what he is all about. The baptism itself was of no religious importance for Pule, but the metaphor of the ritual in which an ‘old self’ is ‘buried’ in the water and washed away and a ‘new self’ is brought out of it ‘reborn’, is at the heart of the identity transformation at issue in Pule’s work. Moreover, the suit adds another layer to that transformation. Purchased from a chain store which undertook to ‘dress every man and boy in New Zealand’, the suit bears a label on its inside collar with the words ‘Young Sir/Made in NZ’. It symbolises the new identity he has assumed.


A ‘readymade’ suit which Pule’s father gave him on his baptism.


The tensions of the attempt to reconcile the past and the future have shattering effects on the artist, ‘liquidate’ his being and plunge him into a surreal, mythic, metaphorical mode of being that is the signature character of the artist’s work. The significance of this liquidation is at least twofold. Pule was ‘made in New Zealand’ – but by the experience recounted in The Shark That Ate the Sun in all its complexities of living, imagining and remembering, not by the label of a branded commodity or the official stamp of a government document. Pule’s liquidation slips these moulds and he thereby becomes a kind of poet-critic of all symbolic ‘ideals’ – of all the ‘cloud worlds’ that attempt to govern and control who we are. Yet there is another sense in which this mythic, poetic mode of being arises in the aftermath of a storm of history, which has changed him and his ‘world’ (and ‘us’ and ‘our world’) irrevocably. The mythic fills the hole of what has gone. And for all its ‘infinite’ imaginings, myth too is the sign of History and the finitude of human identity in time. But the fact that the past has gone brings with it in Pule’s work an ethical obligation to remember what has been forgotten, for it is in him and part of him.

The article first published in PAN Zine.


[1] This article is first published in Hauaga: The Art of John Pule, ed. Nicholas Thomas. Dunedin: Otago University Press and City Gallery, Wellington, 2010.To read the complete version, please visit this link:


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