Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, why came ye here before your time? This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother?[1]

Recently a photograph taken by mountaineer Nirmal Purja of the summit of Mount Everest went viral around the world, not for its documentation of breathtaking views, or the celebration of an amazing feat, but rather for the reality of summiting Everest that it revealed. A traffic jam of people in line to reach the summit snakes its way down the mountain. People died while standing in line, from altitude sickness and hypothermia. Others stepped over bodies of the sick, dying, and dead to finish their climb. Just this climbing season the death toll on the mountain has reached 10.[2]

I have never made this soil for thy feet.

The Western desire to explore and possess the natural world, to cross oceans, scale the highest mountains, and imprint themselves on the environment is examined in this series of work by Conor Clarke (Ngāi Tahu), Ground Water Mirror. Through these works we travel between Berlin, Auckland and Whanganui to interrogate human relationships with the natural world.

Ground Water Mirror is a literal translation of the German term Grundwasserspiegel, which means groundwater level. Berlin is increasingly affected by a rising water table, due to the decrease in water use in the city since the fall of the Berlin Wall.[3] Canals and rivers weave their way through the city, while groundwater rises from below. The constant, everyday presence of water in this urban environment was the impetus for the series.

Based in Berlin since 2009, Conor Clarke has returned to New Zealand to take up a teaching position at Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch. In 2017, Clarke completed the Tylee Cottage Residency in Whanganui, where she developed further the series initiated in Berlin.

So let’s begin in Germany, on the river Rhine, or more specifically The Lorelei, a steep rocky cliff on the banks of the Middle Rhine in Sankt Goarshausen. Clarke’s photograph of this famous landmark is titled Where the river begins to look like itself, referring to the way we look for views that reflect our preconceptions, often based on photos in tourist guidebooks, blogs, and on Instagram. We’re satisfied when the landscape begins to look like it ‘should’, like we expect it to. Clarke doesn’t give us the satisfaction, however. Gently blurred, our postcard view could be anywhere, anything.

We go now to Whanganui, home of New Zealand’s third-longest river. Once titled ‘the Rhine of Maoriland’ by ship owner and entrepreneur Alexander Hatrick, he ran steamboat tours up the river for tourists looking to replicate a Romantic European experience. Clarke alludes to this history in the work Hatrick’s Window (Tongariro), 2018 providing us with a viewfinder through which to contemplate Mt. Tongariro, source of the headwaters of the Whanganui River. This work is also an illusion. No such viewing point exists. Rather, this composite image takes a window from Hatrick Raceway in Whanganui, layering it upon a misty image of the Tongariro Crossing, a popular tourist destination.

Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood, water and rock.[4]

In March 2017, the year Clarke was in Whanganui for her residency, Parliament passed a bill that granted the Whanganui River legal personhood. For Whanganui Iwi, their relationship with the river is not one based on Romantic ideals of beauty and the sublime. Rather, it reflects the inextricable link between Māori people and the natural world: Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au[5].

Within Māori culture, Papatūānuku is the earth mother, from whom all living things were born and continue to be linked to spiritually. Te Reo Māori, the Māori language, also illustrates the reciprocal nature of the relationship between people and the land. For example, the word whenua translates as both land and placenta, and after birth the placenta is buried in the earth, to reinforce the relationship between the child and their turangawaewae (literally a ‘place to stand’, the land to which a person has the right to belong according to whakapapa/ancestry). In the work Travel without moving, 2018 Clarke references a Māori tradition of shielding the eyes when passing significant mountains (such as Tongariro). Out of respect for the mountain as a living ancestor, some Māori would use a string of leaves or a woven object to cover their eyes, to avoid the temptation of looking up at the peak[6].

Why seek me where I have not called thee?

The role of New Zealand Company and Crown surveyors is significant in the history of colonisation of New Zealand, and in the subsequent categorisation and interpretation of the New Zealand landscape.[7] The surveyor’s chain, or Gunter’s Chain, was a tool of measurement first used by surveyors in the early 17th Century. One chain, divided into 100 links, is equal to approximately 20 metres. A chain and its links became standard measures in England and its colonies until the adoption of the metric system. In this series Clarke uses the chain as a symbol of the earliest commodification of land in New Zealand, the tool used in the division, confiscation and possession of land in New Zealand during colonisation. Giselle Byrnes writes, ‘the surveyors’ naming, taming, marking out and mapping of the land were assertions of colonising power’.[8]

In Veil of the Soul the subject wears a chainmail veil, a physical symbol of the way socio-cultural understandings mediate an individual’s experiences of the natural world. The title is a reference to Romantic writer Edgar Allen Poe who in 1844 wrote, ‘Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul’[9].

In many of these works, what we see, or think we see, may not be the reality. The rolling clouds in Lonely as a Cloud (named for poet William Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud) are reminiscent of the dramatic atmospheres of Romantic painters such as Constable or Turner. In reality, this photo, taken along the industrial part of the Rhine, captures clouds of steam, spilling from cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant.

So, if you’re visiting Ground Water Mirror, take the time to look carefully and closely. Look for peaks: in the architecture, through a window, in the sand. Look for chains: falling through fingers, caressing the skin, leaving a mark. Look for grids: defining space, framing and reframing. Close your eyes just a little, and soften the images, as Clarke does with her camera. Reduce them to form and colour. Stand in front of Waterfall on the Upper Reaches, and take yourself to that waterfall. Close your eyes, and listen to the rushing of the water.

Feel the weight of the chains over your eyes.

Choe Cull, 2019

[1] Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods (1864), in Henry David Thoreau (New York: Library of America, 1985), pp. 640-41.

[2] Bhadra Sharma and Mujib Mashal, ‘British Climber Dies on Everest as Traffic Jam’s Toll Rises to 10’ New York Times, May 25, 2019 accessed 9/6/19


[4] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, (London and New York: Random House Inc, 1995), p. 61

[5] Whakatauki translation: I am the river. The river is me.

[6] The headpiece worn by the subject in Travel without moving is an interpretation of that tradition, made by Whanganui weaver Maehe Ranginui ( Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi).

[7] Giselle Byrnes, Boundary Markers: Land Surveying and the Colonisation of New Zealand (Wellington: Bridget William Books, 2001)

[8] Byrnes, p. 8

[9] Raymond Foye (ed.), The Unknown Poe: An Anthology of Fugitive Writings, (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1980), p. 51

Conor Clarke (Ngāi Tahu, Irish and Welsh) grew up in rural South Auckland and has a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. She has exhibited regularly throughout Aotearoa, using the medium of photography to explore ecology, colonialism, land use and landscape representation. Based in Berlin since 2009, Clarke has recently relocated to Otautahi, Christchurch to begin as Lecturer in Photography at Ilam School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury. She is represented by Two Rooms Gallery, Auckland.

Chloe Cull

Chloe Cull (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāi te Ruahikihiki) is a teacher and writer based in Otautahi, Christchurch. She has a Master’s Degree in Art History from Victoria University of Wellington. Previous positions include Assistant Curator at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Toi Māori Curatorial Intern at The Dowse Art Museum. Chloe now works as a teacher, and continues to write for arts publications. She is currently Deputy Chair on the Physics Room Board of Trustees.


Krzysztof Wysocki, Chris and Andy Clarke, Eve Clarke, Peter Ireland, Tia Ranginui, Roberta Thornley, Greg Donson, Jessica Kidd, Andrea Gardner, Richard Wotton, Maehe Ranginui, Creative NZ, Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui, Whanganui District Council, Two Rooms Gallery.


Essay by Chloe Cull

Design by Issy van der Leden

Produced by SoFA, Ilam Campus Gallery, University of Canterbury. To accompany the exhibition Ground Water Mirror 21.06 - 19.07.19

Using Format