HETA: POWER AND FRAGILITY
Mark Cross, Liku, NIUE, March 2004
On the afternoon of January 5, 2004 everything went horizontal. Or maybe the world outside our “Hurricane House” went vertical as we plummeted at 300 kilometers per hour through space while the lighter fragments of our world, the palm fronds, the sheets of corrugated iron and whole roofs whistled and roared past us at unbelievable speed. We might as well have been falling vertically, as in a cyclone, in the middle of the rainforest there are no coordinates to aid orientation, no definitive horizon.
But on the coast there is a horizon. Only, at around 1pm, this had elevated itself suddenly from its usual position to well above the window frames of the people who lived cliff top, 40 feet above the normal sea level. Their orientation was also confused for what they were seeing was not the horizon at all, but the tops of 60 foot waves coming directly toward them.
This was the first of many large waves – the storm surge – that smashed itself into the normally placid West coast of Niue, taking with it many homes, the hospital, the Hotel and the lives of two people. The winds were the flailing limbs of Heta while the waves were her dark and dangerous heart.
In this exhibition I have tried to convey the power of this storm through images of the aftermath. Although experiencing the wind first hand, I, like so many others were mesmerized by the incredible damage done by the waves and by the stories of the people who were involuntarily thrown into the gnashing teeth of Nature, some literally clinging to trees for hours desperately awaiting that lull so that they might glimpse the Angel of Deliverance. How can static images of the day after, a sunny, breezy, tropical day grasp any sense of the amalgam of energy and horror of the proceeding afternoon?
I came to realize that this power and horror was fossilized in the remnants of the buildings and the hearts of the people whose lives where so cruelly affected by the storm.
So I set about photographing the general aftermath. After a day or two it dawned on me that there was ironically a strange beauty in the devastation of the architecture as though nature had inflicted its own aesthetic criteria on our pragmatic but ugly constructions. There was something gentle and pleasing in how the waves had re-arranged the debris in their deconstruction of these man-made objects. Cars where rolled around, their sharp edges taken off; much the same way as the sea would do to a beach pebble.
In traditional photojournalism the image is a fragment of the whole whose reality cannot be experienced directly in its entirety. The whole world is there but we cannot see it. In this sense my endeavor was to represent the sense of the force of nature of the day before through the compositional aesthetic of the images. The world I am depicting here is not that of the moment of the photography, but those few moments when the waves overwhelmed these buildings and the lives of the people who lived and work in them.
My own history was imbedded into the blocks and mortar of these buildings where I have worked and played for a quarter of a century. From my 90cents per hour job at the Public Works Department in the seventies to my shareholding in the Hotel Niue up until the storm, I have laughed, cried and caroused in most if not all these houses that are now just concrete slabs. Two children were born in the Hospital, one dying there.
As an element of Nature themselves, humans are not separate from it and their beauty will always shine through despite the most savage of heartaches and injustices. It’s only their ego inspired constructions that give humans a bad name.
A beauty mixed with grief and disbelief was all apparent in the friends who had suffered the most extensive damage to their lives, their houses swept away within a few minutes.
These could be journalistic or portrait images, but they contain the added intrinsic factor of my own history and my relationships to the subjects – our shared lives on this rock. The light-hearted mutual antagonism with Jefferson, the beers in Oz’s workshop (where he is standing) and the indispensable computer support and friendship of Dessyo.
There are also some images of those less emotionally affected and therefore able to find themselves more productive in the cleanup process. After viewing the West coast devastation once, the women of my own family choose to remain cloistered at Liku in the East, productive in stripping the fronds of the windfall and weaving them into myriad utilitarian products. Where the obtaining of the coconut leaf is normally an occasional event mastered only by the rare youthful tree climber, the windfall turned a disaster into a goldmine. Ahi, Falina and Eneli busied themselves in this way while artist Moira also from the East, helped rummage through the rubble of her beloved Huanaki Museum in search of the artifacts of Niue’s past. History gone.
In the sea along the worst hit stretch of coast from Alofi South to Halagigi Point there lives an evil god named Limaua. Several residents of the area, some unacquainted with the legend, reported seeing a humanlike figure in the form of the waves before they struck. Has this god appeared before, beyond the living memory of our time? Did the oral history with its emersion in superstition hide a pragmatic warning for future generations? Is Limaua synonymous with the periodical devastation of this area?
Above all, this exhibition is about the interface between nature’s worst and humanity’s complacency. It is about the forgetfulness of the generations and the arrogance and anthropocentricity of humans in the understanding of their significance on this earth – their orientation within this global cyclone. It is about building houses on sand, but realizing that even building houses on rock isn’t always safe.