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I AM - MAU & Lemi Ponifasio
6-7 March 2015, ASB Theatre - Auckland

Reviewed by Raewyn Whyte




A monumental slab of what appears to be black rock fills the stage at the opening of Lemi Ponifasio’s I AM, the latest in his 20-year series of large scale works which explore the fate of humanity in the South Pacific. Pale grey striations play across the rock face, with a Pacific star map twinkling faintly amongst them, and at the foot of the rock, like a black sand beach at high tide, there’s a narrow strip of land for human activities. Low level grey noise quietly hisses and rumbles, hinting that all is not well with this world. . .

A crackly version of the New Zealand national anthem takes our attention away from the rock as people start to emerge from the darkness, and as the futile plea to “guard Pacific’s triple star from the shafts of strife and war” rings out, a very formally dressed man (Charles Koroneho) begins to deliver an extended series of karakia. His elegiac chanting and singing tell of the perils of the oceanic crossing from one world to another, the process of settling into a new land, the song of the tui. Behind him there’s continuous movement across that narrow strip of land – first, black boxes pushed by bent over people dressed in black, then a seemingly endless stream of the Passing Crowd of Humanity who are ever-present in MAU productions – figures in black clothing repeatedly gliding by as if on a conveyor belt, variously representing functionaries, officials, mourners, protestors, soldiers, policemen, men, women, indigenous people.

As the work continues, played out against the rumbling, thundering score first created for Paradise (2003), with vibrating sub-sonics invading the bodies of the audience, other familiar cosmological figures take their pivotal places. The seemingly ancient bent-double walking Monkey Man (Helmi Prasetyo) provides a symbol of human evolution, the destructive power of bombs, and human resentment of the power ascribed to the Gods . Leaning Backwards Man, previously a quietly witnessing elder, is now a tyrant whose raucous, booming voice initiates havoc, doom, apocalyptic events. An irrational, aggressive Bearded Man (Gabriel Castillo) starts several fights to no avail. A naked Christ Figure (Ioane Papali’i) hangs against the rock of ages as if on The Cross, by turns washed by waterfalls and defiled by thrown eggs. A shaven-headed, white painted Sacrificial Figure (Nina Arsenault) has her neck wrung like a chicken, then is  propped up on an altar for the cast to spit mouthfuls of blood upon. Truth-telling Woman (Ria Te Uira Paki) delivers angry, passionate oratory that addresses war and loss, and the need to hold together in valuing the breath of life, a challenging counterpoint to the rumbling soundscore.

The rock tilts, and splits into two sections for the projection of McCahon’s famous I AM (Victory Over Death 2), reinforcing the stark black and white palette chosen by Ponifasio, and the subtly nuanced play of darkness and light created by Helen Tod, always such a magical feature of Mau’s work. Running text from McCahon’s I applied my mind (1982) is also projected, obliterating the passing bodies and reminding us that ultimately we are all subject to the same fate: death. 

Ponifasio’s highly immersive I AM is his most thoroughly integrated production to date, and well-deserving of the acclaim it has earned around the world for foregrounding the futility of war and its corrosive effects on humankind.

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I AM Review

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