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Sunday, 18 March 2018 08:35 pm

Gareth Watkins says Farewell as Nga Taonga launches new era


GARETH Watkins’ fourth and final exhibition as Curator-at-Large at Nga Taonga explores recordings of wartime departures found in New Zealand media archives.

Farewell uses 150 different clips curated from Nga Taonga collections, spanning from the Boer War to World Wars I and II.

The exhibition coincides with the WWI centenary, and the merging of the country’s major film, television and sound collections revealed scenes such as our war prize Pamir setting sail and servicemen marching down Lambton Quay.

Farewell runs for three months.

Its exhibition space uses screens showing “fragments of departures” including official troop farewells and home movies of World War II departures, interspersed with other travels typical of the time.

Clips include flying ships, elephants aboard a cruise liner and on board entertainment including men whacking each other off a log with sacks.

Watkins says he found dramatic goodbyes surprisingly scarce.

“Whether it was because people didn’t want to show vulnerability, the lack of technology or that they valued their privacy more, I began to think on the way events can take on greater significance if captured.”

A camera will live capture audience reactions and display it on a projection screen, becoming a part of the exhibition.

A special 40 minute screening of exhibition clips marked the opening of Farewell, accompanied by live piano music by Susan Alexander.

A tradition where a streamer was held between travellers and people seeing them off produced images of a sky full of streamers flying, before slowly breaking apart from their well wishers on shore.

The cheerful gaudiness of streamers decking out the room takes on new meaning put together with the edited film of past goodbyes.

Watkins intends the setting to “jar with the serious mood of the content”.

CAPTURED TIME: Visitors become part of the history around them.

“I have to be aware that everyone reacts differently to what they see, but there’s no worse thing than no engagement.”

His first exhibition PET confronted people with organised dog-fighting and chimpanzee tea parties – exploitation in an otherwise light hearted topic.

Tricks n’ Treats had a makeshift peep-show which drew viewers into the world of rent boys as depicted by short film Boy.

The second exhibition, 30, centered around the 30th anniversary of the first AIDS-related death in New Zealand.

Every screen in the archives played 30 at random while the exhibit was on.

“I wanted to give the viewer a sense of not knowing what will come, or which way to turn, or where to look next.”

Watkins found new ways to not only get viewers engaged in his project, but also fellow staff members.

“He was responsible for our disco ball,” says Mark Sweeney from Nga Taonga, who has big plans for the archive’s acquisition.

Nga Taonga colleague Mishelle Muagututi’a, sings a specially recorded Samoan song, “Tofa My Feleni”‘- ‘goodbye, my friend’ – which plays as part of Farewell’s soundtrack.

Mr Sweeney says Watkins is thorough in his approach, and has brought a new audience to the archives.

Watkins says his radio experience helped shape the exhibition.

“You have to keep it snappy. Most people only stay for a short while so you only have three minutes to give meaning to what they see.”

“It’s all about what you leave in and what you leave out.”

“Being allowed to play in the collection as much as I liked, and the ability to discover all these gems in the physical media was a highlight of my time,” he says of his role as Curator-at-Large.

The public can access the archives for a fee, which contributes to the preservation of material, but Watkins enjoyed the freedom of resources that came with his 2014 role, if not necessarily a lot of spare time.

“Each exhibition has a six-week turnaround,” says Mr Watkins.


FESTIVE FAREWELL: Streamers and bunting add a sense of occasion to the exhibition space.

While a team worked to put a project on display, Watkins had already moved on to the next one.

He worked on exhibitions while juggling his day job as radio collections developer for Nga Taonga.

“Getting to grips with the archive’s catalogue was a learning experience.”

While there was plenty to explore, not everything is catalogued or usable.

Watkins grew up here in his hometown of Wellington and studied at Wellington High School.

He immediately joined Radio New Zealand after finishing college, staying involved in the radio industry.

“I’ve been learning on the job ever since.”

A love of the personality-driven radio shows of the 80’s instilled a drive to be part of the same industry.

His father, Phil, is Welsh which also passed on a rich background of storytelling and use of voice as a tool.

Watkins helped realise New Zealand’s Access Radio’s internet platform in 2006 while he was Wellington program director, a role which he particularly enjoyed.

“It was a real loss to Wellington Access Radio when he decided to leave,” says Victoria Quade, who was a member of its council while he worked at Access.

She remembers him as a ‘gentle giant with a beautiful voice’ but was not surprised to hear he took up the curatorship.

“It seemed like such a natural fit, I thought he really found his place, one where his many interests come together.”

Despite his claims that he is lacking in musical ability, Watkins produced Carmen I Am Here, I Am Me which won Best Music Feature at this year’s National Radio Awards.

The feature was commissioned by Radio New Zealand Concert and explored the life of social pioneer and personality Carmen Rupe.

He won the same award in 2005 after producing Douglas Lilburn: The Landscape of a NZ Composer with Roger Smith.

“In radio or in film there’s a certain flow you just know where things go,” he says.

Learning the violin for nine years and attempts at the bass guitar as a teenager convinced him he did not share the same skill with music.

“I think for that side of the arts, [rhythm] is something I haven’t developed – which is sort of essential.”

Kate Mead, production manager for RNZ Concert, says he has the “ears and sensitivities of a composer.”

“There’s a lovely sensitivity about him and he can draw people out who wouldn’t normally open up.”

“He’s not afraid to let people just talk. It’s a brave and strong style of programming which I really admire.”

She also remembers him as the “go-to guy” for all things technical.

“We used to be in the control room together, and he would call out ‘zip-zap’ after every sentence I was dictating to him because he is so fast at typing.”

Once his tenure as Curator-at-Large finishes, he continues his work as radio collections developer for Nga Taonga, as well as various media projects.

“I actually just bought a harmonica,” says Watkins.

“I can picture men sitting around a campfire at night and telling stories. There’s something so evocative about the sound.”

Similarly, his work often captures the moods and emotive portraits of people.

Watkins was a 2007 Winston Churchill Memorial fellow and travelled to California researching broadcasting from minority groups.

He established in a mission to document voices otherwise unheard of and is passionate about continuing to keep stories alive.

An accomplished photographer, he owns a set of authentic tintype and cabinet cards which are early photograph formats, showing unique portraits from 120 years ago.

He has “600-ish in his collection” and is considering someday putting together poetry or stories centered on these portraits.

“I go through them musing about these people and the lives they had. There are still all these implications to think about from making up stories about strangers. ”

Watkins says he is looking forward to seeing Farewell a month from now, when he can view it through different eyes.

“If it’s moving for me, I have to trust that it will be for others too.”

“I have a feeling that I said what I had to say and accomplished what I set out to do.”

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