The Clinic / Te Whare o Rangiora

It is death that fixes the stone that we can touch, the return of time, the fine, innocent, earth beneath the grass of words. In a space articulated by language, it reveals the profusion of bodies and their simple order.1
Michel Foucault

The aim of all life is death.
Sigmund Freud

If you go to the European hospitals you never come out again. Some go, but all those who go never return. Hospitals are a bad institution, as people there never recover. In Otago, all our people sent to hospital never recovered.2
Te Kahu

The hospital is a stage for life and death. It is the parenthesis marking the beginning and the end of our lives—while the maternity ward may be witness to the wonder of the gift of life, and an operating theatre a stage for hope and recovery, the morgue can surely only deliver us to face death itself.

Medicine and the arts have long been co-joined by their shared interest in the body. In the Renaissance cadavers provided physicians and artists with an understanding of human anatomy. Later the act of anatomical dissection became a subject itself in works such as Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632). And during the Age of Enlightenment the pace of experiment and discovery within medical science inspired elaborate publications illustrated with anatomical etchings and engravings.

Today medical imaging has largely moved away from these traditions with the advances in radiology and other hi-tech imaging techniques. Medicine, however, still remains an inspiration for artists, writers and filmmakers. And the reason is simple really. It is a subject that engenders strong reactions and emotions, because whatever happens, it is about life and death, and we know the stakes could not be higher.

‘The Clinic/Te Whare o Rangiora’ is a photographic series that documents the interior spaces of hospitals. This project continues my interest in public spaces, as seen in my previous exhibitions ‘Elsewhere’ (2000), ‘Skylight’ (2002) and ‘Hīkoi’ (2003). Here the photograph acts as a metaphor: although not present in the image, traces of events or people somehow remain in the spaces represented, and consequently the images seem like stages set for unseen stories already told, or about to unfold.

Two works made for the exhibition ‘Hīkoi’ provided the initial inspiration for this series. Te Whare o Rangiora (Chair) and Te Whare o Rangiora (Hall), were shot in ‘Te Whare o Rangiora’—a disused psychiatric ward in Porirua Hospital. Te Whare o Rangiora (Chair) shows an institutional vinyl chair with kowhawhai designs drawn onto its wooden arms, while Te Whare o Rangiora (Hall) shows an empty hallway with a number of the secure unit’s doors swinging open.

The name ‘Te Whare o Rangiora’ is clearly the result of some well-considered bi-cultural thinking by the Hospital authority of the time. ‘Rangiora’ is a small native shrub with large leaves that were used for everything from wrapping babies to covering food, and is associated with life and well-being. In a ngeri—a traditional dance song sometimes performed at funerals—the rangiora (symbolising life) was contrasted with the kawakawa (a tree symbolising death). The singers stand in two rows, the first wearing chaplets of kawakawa and holding its twigs, and the others wreathed in rangiora and holding it in their hands. At first those with kawakawa are in front, and sing of death. In the last stanza the singers with rangiora come forward and sing.

He aha te tohu mo te ora?
He rangiora!
E tuku ki runga kia ora
E, kia arahia!

What is the emblem for the living?
The rangiora!
Lift it up so all is well,
Oh, lift it up!3

Unfortunately, there is little sense of life and well-being in the photographs—the kowhaiwhai etched into the chair arm suggests a cry for help from within an asylum with no spiritual hope of any kind4 .

The establishment of hospitals in New Zealand provides an interesting history. Reading about the effects of colonisation on my own iwi—Ngāi Tahu, I discovered that hospitals were a central part of the negotiations for land sales to the British Crown in the mid-nineteenth century. Between 1848 and 1853 Henry Tacy Kemp and Walter Mantell purchased large areas of the lower east coast of Te Wai Pounamu (South Island). As outlined by Claudia Orange in her book An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi, these purchases were by no means fair dealings, and the subsequent disenfranchisement of Ngāi Tahu resulted in decades of debate between Ngāi Tahu and the Crown.

The [Waitangi] Tribunal’s three-volume report, released in 1991, told a sorry tale of government ineptitude, lack of care and appalling injustice. Twenty-five years after the signing of the Treaty, Ngāi Tahu were an impoverished people, largely subsisting on uneconomic plots of land, on the margins of a developing European society, and neglected by both national and provincial governments. Reserves were either non-existent or inadequate; many food sources (mahinga kai) had been lost as settlement expanded; the promised hospitals and schools had not been provided; and pounamu (greenstone) had not been protected (as undertaken in the Arahura purchase).5

It was not just the non-delivery of these promises that insulted Ngāi Tahu mana, but the fact that they had been used as bargaining tools by Governor Grey and his agents to lower the price of the settlements.

[Grey] argued that Mäori could be persuaded to sell ‘unused’ land at a very low price. He then proceeded to buy the Wairarapa and most of the South Island, encouraging sales with promises of schools, hospitals and other benefits.6

The Crown’s tactics to secure the sales included not only promises, but also threat. Tiramorehu’s testimony at the 1879 Royal Commission to investigate the Ngāi Tahu claim outlines out the duress the Ngāi Tahu leaders were put under by the Crown’s representatives:

Kemp said, ‘Well, if you choose to keep Kaiapoi, I shall take this money, and pay it over to Ngati Toa.’ He said, ‘If you are still obstinate, I will bring soldiers to occupy your land.’7

Walter Mantell’s own testimony at the same hearing confirmed the Crown’s inaction in the delivery of promises made to secure the sales:

The Maoris then thought the matter over, believing it was a promise made in all honour: they thought it was an honourable promise—the same as all promises made by great chiefs. The Maoris have since found that they did not get what had been promised, and it has given them food for reflection ever since.8

Weakened by epidemics, fearing further attacks from the north by Te Rauparaha (Grey had earlier, in 1847, purchased Kaikoura from Ngäti Toa—land which Ngāi Tahu considered rightfully theirs), and under threat of the introduction of British troops, Ngāi Tahu land was finally sold at well below market value. Ngāi Tahu leaders soon realised that the promises made by the Crown would not fulfilled, and appeals were made to government officials. Matiaha Tiramorehu wrote in 1849:

This is the commencement of our speaking (or complaining) to you … we shall never cease complaining to the white people who may hereafter come here.9

Ngāi Tahu’s complaints were finally answered more than a century later in the form of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998.

It is ironic that European medicine was touted by the Crown as a pinnacle of European achievement and one of the chief benefits of European colonisation. In the nineteenth century there were no actual cures for the epidemics of Measles and Tuberculosis decimating Māori—diseases that European settlers had themselves introduced to New Zealand, and to which Māori had no natural immunity. Even today statistics show that Māori health and life expectancy still falls well below that of Pakeha (European) New Zealanders.

While this collision of European and Māori cultures provides an historical precedent for this project, inspiration for this series also comes from my interest in contemporary photographic practice, philosophy and theory. I believe that the strength of the photographic image is that, through metaphor, it can express ideas and histories that belie its formal, contemporary appearance.

The title ‘The Clinic’ is taken from Michel Foucault’s seminal book on medical practice in France The Birth of the Clinic. What I found inspirational in Foucault’s text was the way he traced links in the development of art and medicine. Foucault’s analysis of the ‘clinical gaze’—the ability to view and understand the body, and subsequently disease through observation—captured my imagination because of its parallels in art.

Foucault writes:

The clinic was probably the first attempt to order a science on the exercise and decisions of the gaze.10


The clinical gaze is a gaze that burns things to their furthest truth.11

While postmodern art theorist Craig Owens says of the Lacanian gaze:

The Lacanian gaze is punctual: it both punctuates (arrests, suspends) and punctures (pricks, wounds).12

The use of the words ‘prick’ and ‘wound’ in Owens’ description is more than fortuitous. The ‘Lacanian gaze’ and the ‘clinical gaze’ are both presented as a way of looking through, or into a subject to discover other meanings manifest in its form. Foucault considered that the uncharted ‘space’ revealed by the clinical gaze could equally be opened up by new ways of looking (with new technologies for example), or by new ways of reading signs and symptoms (new understanding). The microscope may have made visible disease at a cellular level, but until this new ‘view’ could be interpreted correctly it had little value. Here, the gaze operates within a strict vocabulary, and without an understanding (or invention) of a ‘language’ no meaning is discernable. The ‘reading’ of the subject (or image) is achieved by way of symptom, sign, or metaphor. Foucault writes:

The symptom is the indispensable morphological support of the sign. Hence ‘no sign without a symptom’.13

And Owens:

Allegory can no longer be condemned as something merely appended to the work of art, for it is revealed as a structural possibility inherent in every work.14

While an appreciation of the importance of observation and metaphor underpin my current practice, of equal interest to me is the personal experience an audience brings to the act of viewing. In simple terms, when making these images, I try to look past the obvious, the fact of what is in front of me, to how the image will fit into other lives and other stories. Part of the strength of these images is the way they tap into personal experiences, and knowledge—and this will be different for each viewer. This again reinforces the photograph’s ability to function as a symbol, rather than a mere representation of what is before the camera.


  1. Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, Routledge Classics, London 2003, p.244.
  2. Harry C. Evison, Te Wai Pounamu: The Greenstone Island, a History of the Southern Maori During the European Colonization of New Zealand, Aoraki Press, Chrischurch 1993, p.445.
  3. Margaret Orbell. The Natural World of the Maori, David Bateman, Auckland, 1996, pp.98–99.
  4. Porirua Hospital is currently under investigation following allegations of past patient abuse.
  5. Claudia Orange, An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2004. pp.223–224.
  6. Ibid. p.56
  7. Harry C. Evison. op.cit., p.444.
  8. Ibid. p.443.
  9. Quoted in: Claudia Orange, An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi. op.cit., p.61.
  10. Michel Foucault. op.cit., p.108.
  11. ibid. p.147.
  12. Craig Owens, ‘Posing’, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, eds Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, Jane Weinstock, University of California Press, Berkely 1994, p.211.
  13. Michel Foucault. op.cit., p.110.
  14. Craig Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, Part 2’. op.cit., p.73.