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Public pots

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

A five-storey-high Shane Cotton mural has become part of the cityscape in Auckland. Janet Hughes casts a commuters seasoned eye over it.

Shane Cotton, "Maunga". All images courtesy of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Shane Cotton described his conception of Maunga as, simply, “a collection of pots”, and what he does with the idea is very complex and allusive, but at the same time highly accessible.

The work is a big permanent mural covering a five-storey wall. It is one of several public-space works commissioned to accompany Auckland Art Gallery’s huge exhibition of contemporary Māori art, Toi Tū Toi Ora. My downtown bus-stop is just a few steps from the mural, and this is about Maunga as public art, from the point of view of a user of buses who has almost missed several of them under its spell.

Pots are ubiquitous, sometimes just useful, but often treasured and decorated. Even the most basic clay vessels have often been depicted by artists for their beauty, their formal properties. Here twenty-five cut-out classic pot shapes on a light ground are arranged among the irregular window openings in the wall; it’s composed, a formal display curated as if by a collector or in a museum.

They are all two-handled pots, but variously shaped, proportioned, and detailed – a visual ode on the urn, if you like, but this red ochre and charcoal palette is clearly Māori rather than Grecian. So are nearly all the decorative motifs and repeating patterns, and even the shapes of some of the handles. These elements, like the silhouettes, vary from pot to pot, in the geometry of their curves, in the interpretation of familiar indigenous forms, recalling the vast, diverse exhibition of which Maunga forms a part. The treatment varies from flat sharp-edged graphic to calligraphic (there are stylistic nods to Walters and McCahon among many artistic forebears), from rectilinear to fluid, from symmetrical to chopped-off and skewed on the symmetrical urn form. Māori making is positioned in an old and enormous context.

The work is huge, but it is modular, having been scaled-up from multiple small discrete works depicting single pots. They float separately on a flat cream ground. You can’t help making comparisons, compelled by that simplest of formal devices, a set of variations on a theme. Exploring differences, connections, echoes, and rhythms, you are pulled into the mass of detail as you get closer.

Pots are forms expressly intended to contain stuff, and Cotton’s nuanced play on the idea of content is enchanting. He speaks of them each containing “a reference to a place or mountain” of some personal importance to him. And quite a few bear geographic names, hand-lettered on bands or fields of contrasting colour.

But the mountains are not just named; they rise or erupt from the rims of their pots, so small-scaled you could miss them from a distance, rendered in 3D in a subdued painterly monochrome, contrasting emphatically with the largely flat treatment of the pots themselves. Each landscape reads as the surface contours of a plug of earth filling one of these pots, tiny or gigantic depending on whether you take your cue from the vessel or the landform.

Scale has everything to do with the way you encounter this work. Once you spot the mountains, distance and point of view undergo a tectonic shift. Connections to place become implicitly portable; you can scoop up the earth of your home place, take it with you and nurture new plants in it in another place, and it will still ground you in a plug of the earth’s crust as big and immovable as, say, the volcanic plateau (its mountains figure on the pot bearing the title of the work) – or as small as a root or a cutting. Macro-geology is elided with domestic ware.

Cotton has mentioned house plants as something happily adopted from settler culture, and plants figure in the detail of Maunga: between the hands of a carved figure, where you might have looked for a mere; and as naturalistic surface decoration in fresh blue and green, softening the severe earth and black and white palette and the preponderance of geometry. At a train-station, it’ s poignant – I can’t help but imagine someone arriving in the city with a some plants or seeds or cuttings from home in their luggage, perhaps even a little container of earth.

I’ve pieced together my understanding of Maunga over multiple visits to Britomart, watching it spread over the wall of the Excelsior building, crossing the road just to see it whole, standing below it to take in the scale, climbing to the top deck of the bus purely for a better view. I started reading the mural before I read anything about it, or even knew for sure that Cotton was the artist (his style is distinctive around and through the allusions and echoes). Every visit I have spotted something I had missed before, in the detail, or in the web of connections that lace the whole thing together.

Visiting Toi Tū Toi Ora at Auckland Art Gallery furnishes a rich context, but this mural has its own life as elegant, subtle public art. It rewards a distant glimpse or a glance from the bus window, but it will also sustain close and repeated looking. It works as architectural adornment and as cultural exploration and visual music, staking a persuasive claim to public and cultural space. You’d miss some trains and buses before you half exhausted Maunga.

First published ArtZone #86


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