Curated by Sophie O’Brien, The Polyphonic Sea was housed at Bundanon in the Dharawal Country of south eastern Australia. Languages, both spoken and embedded in nature, are used as anchor points by the twelve artists from Aotearoa New Zealand: Antonia Barnett McIntosh, Andrew Beck, Ruth Buchanan, The Estate of L. Budd, Sione Faletau, Samuel Holloway and et al., Sarah Hudson, Sonya Lacey, Nova Paul, Sriwhana Spong and Shannon Te Ao. Curator and writer Emma O’Neill considers how the exhibition attempts to build multi-sensory, culturally layered harmonies.

I’m hurtling down a hill that doesn’t seem designed for roads. We’re late, still brushing off the remnants of nine-to-five. I call ahead to make sure the site is accessible, my mild panic at odds with the slow descent of the sun. A kangaroo leaps away as I park. A chorus of unbothered birds, prattling cicadas a welcoming party. The impressive drama of Bundanon Art Museum grounds sets in. Here, there is little need for rushing.[01] 01. The author stayed onsite as a guest of Bundanon.  

It’s my first visit, but the scene looks familiar. Since its public opening in early 2022, anyone with a faint interest in the art of the region will probably recognise images of Bundanon Art Museum’s slick architectural design nestled in the lush land of the Wodi Wodi and Yuin peoples and overlooking the Shoalhaven River. Gifted to the public in 1993 by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, the Bundanon property is located on 1,000 hectares of bush and parkland. Beyond the exhibitions of its subterranean museum built into the hill, it offers the largest creative residency programme in the country, alongside educational and conservation programmes.

But how does this place sound? How are these sounds interpreted through the perspective of artists from elsewhere? How can their artistic languages be heard in a place that is not their own? 

Curated by Sophie O’Brien, Head of Curatorial and Learning at Bundanon Art Museum, The Polyphonic Sea seeks to “explore the wealth of languages around us, from speech and writing, gesture and music, to the ongoing flow of communications from the natural environment.”[02] 02. “The Polyphonic Sea,” Bundanon, This ambitious undertaking is distilled by its focus on twelve artists from Aotearoa. Existing artworks from eight are accompanied by new commissions created while in residence by Sione Faletau, Sarah Hudson, Antonia Barnett McIntosh and Sonya Lacey reflecting, “Bundanon’s guiding principles to create a working environment for artists through its onsite residency program, and to support a diversity of art forms.”[03] 03. Ibid.  

Let’s begin in the exhibition’s back room. Here, The Polyphonic Sea is anchored as an exercise in listening. In the vast, darkened room the five-channel audio work Unspoken (2023) by Antonia Barnett McIntosh (Kāi Tahu, Pākehā) uncouples Bundanon’s sonic landscapes from one’s visual experience of the environment immediately outside. Hoisted to eye (or ear) height, five speakers broadcast the artist’s chattering field notes of the Shoalhaven riverbank. The hum of cicadas is overlaid with a spoken monologue of the artist’s diaristic observations of her time spent in residency at Bundanon. A composer-performer, sound artist, editor and curator based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Antonia often employs chance-based and procedural operations to interrogate the specificity of sound gestures and their variation, translation and adaptation. A highly personal sensory experience, the work moves jarringly from gentle observations, “down by the river, here an almost glass reflection of the landscape,” to more everyday conversation, “Would you like another glass of beer?”  

From the epicentre of Unspoken, the exhibition visitor is both in conversation with and inhabits Antonia's sonic reading of the landscape. With the artist’s voice and natural sounds playing at equal volume, the work is a sonic portrait of an individual within non-human surrounds, evoking the various levels of attention through which we project our experience onto the environment. Within the polished interiors of the museum, the messiness of Unspoken is refreshing, revealing process and letting listeners into an unfiltered autobiographical marker of the artist’s time in residence.

Just as the darkness enhances the auditory experience of Unspoken, so too does it heighten the adjacent poetic spectacle of a black-and-white three-channel audio-centric moving image work. Conceived by Shannon Te Ao (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Wairangi, Ngāti Te Rangiita, Te Pāpaka-a-Māui), Ia rā, ia rā (rere runga, rere raro) Everyday (I fly high, I fly low) (2021) wraps around the corner opposite the cacophony of Unspoken. Though the work is markedly more orchestrated, it also takes a non-linear approach to storytelling. Te Ao leans into the aural element: slow-turning images are moored by a tender song in homage to the Tīwakawaka waiata—the song of the fantail, that foretells death in te ao Māori. 

Thirty-six still images of blurred monochrome faces and limbs in soft focus shift slowly in stop-motion. These images recall Mā te wā, a 2020 photographic series by Te Ao of an anonymous moving figure sourced from the artist’s filmic archives. Upon discussing the work in 2021, the artist suggested, “These images have spurred on the kernels of my next project … I wonder if the figure in this is turning into a bird.”[04] 04. “In Conversation with Artist Shannon Te Ao,” South South, 15 April 2021,   Unfixed in time or space, the resulting figures of Ia rā, ia rā embody the tīwakawaka allegory of loss. 

Working in the expanded field of poetry, film and sound, Te Ao seeks to capture interior experiences that cannot be seen or spoken, that are only felt or intangible. The whakataukī (proverb) of “Ka mua, ka muri” is threaded through both his work and his worldview. It can be understood as “Walking backwards into the future” and, in the artist’s words, “helps us relate our ancestral ties as a foundation for progress and moving forwards.”[05] 05. Ibid.   

Past, present and future exist on a single continuum. In alignment with this philosophy, the artist often draws from existing archival footage in the creation of new works, and many, including this one, Ka mua, ka muri (2020) and Mā te wā (2020), geographically belong to a small stretch of road on which the artist travels to visit his late father’s burial site. The road is much like the one his father travelled to make the pilgrimage to visit his own father’s grave. The history of grief repeats and runs in parallel across generations. Though the mourning song is firmly grounded in Te Ao’s language and place, its pathos in combination with the anonymity of the figures invites audiences to connect their own experiences. 

Beyond the shadows of the back room, one emerges into a more sprawling, bright expanse of light, screens and lustrous surfaces. The largest of these is a visual rendering of the heartbeat of Sione Faletau’s daughter. Fonua / Embedded in the land (2023) was recorded by the artist when his daughter was in utero at six weeks. Computer programming translates the audio frequencies of the recording into their own kupesi that is projected periodically across the wall. Kupesi is the traditional practice from Faletau’s native Tonga of patternmaking used for ngatu ngatu, a tapa or decorated bark cloth. Flashing chartreuse lines bounce off an intricate arrangement of small, angled mirrors on the wall to create a triangulated geometric shape that expands and contracts with the sound of heartbeat. Fonua, in the work’s title, is an all-encompassing term that translates directly to the mother’s womb, the landscape, those who inhabit it and the graves that eventually hold them. Protection, shelter and nourishment are through-lines in all its meanings. Here three bodies (mother, father and unborn daughter) mark their own inner rhythm in a gentle act of preservation and contemporary reinvigoration of the age-old Tongan practice of kupesi.

Angled across three screens placed throughout the same room, Heretaunga Hastings-born artist Sonya Lacey’s atmospheric Chlorophyll (night-vision) (2023) also records the unseen. Designed for surveillance, the thermal camera has been co-opted by Lacey as a visual translator. Operating as an extra-sensory tool, the camera captures the infrared spectrum, rendering the chlorophyl of flora in bright pink. A mercurial series of Bundanon’s plant-life captured at night plays in quick succession and vivid detail. The colour and pace of the moving image aestheticises scientific visual language and highlights the vital materiality of her subjects. ​​For Lacey, plants mirror human growth and development. They share chemical, metabolic and emotional processes with people, while also manifesting the energetic properties that govern all life. Facing towards the room’s entrance and hung in the centre of the room, the three floating screens become sculptural, inviting visitors to circumambulate. Behind each, wires and USB cords are visible. Perhaps the intention is to reveal the systems that took part in their making. Still, for a work that makes visible the unseen natural world, I’m left feeling its presentation doesn’t seem to consider all angles of its gallery encounter. 

Turning the camera around, Nova Paul (Te Uriroroi, Te Parawhau, and Te Māhurehure ki Whatitiri, Ngāpuhi) collaborates with plant life in the making of the film Ngā Pūrākau Nō Ngā Rākau – Stories from the Trees (2023). The film plays across two large screens angled towards one another on the floor of the adjacent room—the museum’s largest space and the first that visitors enter into. Panoramic views of bodies of water, mountains and forests are interlaced with oversaturated and unscripted scenes of children gathering fallen branches and weaving beneath an ancient pūriri tree. Ambivalent to their spectators, together they create their own Hawaiki. This Hawaiki is a powerful place of birth, life and return to death; a place where people transform into birds or descend into the underworld.[06] 06. Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, “Hawaiki,” Te Ara: The Encylopaedia of New Zealand, 8 February 2005, updated 1 April 2015, In the making of the work, Paul processed film using a developer created from the leaves and bark of the trees featured. The artist’s cinematic photosynthesis posits environment as both subject and collaborator. In this, Paul undoes the colonial adage of plants and people as separate entities, and foregrounds mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledges) of nature as guiding force. In the words of the artist, trees “can be tūakana [elders] … we have a whakapapa [ancestral] connection to them.”[07] 07. Tim Higham, “A Story of the Land,” Aotea Great Barrier Island,  

Filmed between Aotea and Whangārei, the visible grain of the 16mm film calls on the artist’s own childhood memories. Here, again, history repeats and folds onto itself. Alongside other cinematic chapters, the work envelops and expands on Paul’s short film Hawaiki (2022), which premiered at Sundance Festival this year. Ngā Pūrākau Nō Ngā Rākau – Stories from the Trees practises collective learning and shared cultural lineage, ultimately envisaging tino rangatiratanga, Māori sovereignty. 

A reading exercise shares the same room. Ruth Buchanan’s (Taranaki, Te Ātiawa, Pākehā) large, peach-pink banner of diagonal, wavy white lines backgrounds a series of vitrines titled For the openness to remain on all sides at all times a form of loneliness may emerge (2018). Within are selected pages from a 2017 exhibition catalogue from Bad Visual Systems, first presented by Buchanan at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Like Te Ao and Paul, Buchanan recontextualises and reformats existing and collaboratively made material. However, the connections to the broader curatorial statement of listening and many voices are tenuous at best. Nor does the self-reflexive piece fulfil the brief to engage with the place where it is exhibited. I float away, disengaged. 

Closer to the entrance, two silent instruments await their players: Upright Piano Bundanon (2023) by Tāmaki Makaurau-based Samuel Holloway and et al., and Sriwhana Spong’s Instrument H (Monster Chicken) (2021). I’m particularly drawn to the latter. Spong’s biography reads as mine in reverse. The artist is of Pāhekā and Balinese descent, raised in Aotearoa. I am of Pāhekā descent, raised in Bali. An awkward clanging echoes through the space as a long chain of silvery-bronze chicken bones is dragged across a smooth matt-black surface. Each day the chain is trailed across the gallery’s concrete floors in the hands of staff before being re-configured on its ankle-height home. The complexity of belonging takes shape from chicken bones: scraps of the artist’s fractured biography. The work’s title Instrument H (Monster Chicken) references the extra h in her Balinese name—a typo that, along with the inability to speak her mother’s tongue, compels her to create and offer her own collaborative and sculptural language.

I return to exit through a passageway adjacent to Faletau’s heartbeat. The space is affectionately referred to by staff as the womb. Here, Sarah Hudson’s (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Pūkeko) two-channel video is framed by swathes of canvas that have been marked with pigments mixed from the topsoil above the museum. The title, The hill inside (2023) acknowledges both the underground space that the museum occupies and the stuff of landscape—soil, as both subject matter and protagonist across all elements of the work. Beneath the pigment-soaked canopy, a slow, ritualistic bathing of the artist, rubbing slate-grey mud from skin and scalp, plays alongside feet planted firmly in sun-dappled mud. Sounds of nature in Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Pūkeko territories reverberate through the passageway. Visceral and compelling, across both videos earth slips down body; pebbles are swallowed; candles burn and feet sink deeper into muddy shallows in a ceremonial connecting between artist, place and artistic lineage. 

An artist and researcher, Hudson is co-founder of Kauae Raro Research Collective, which focuses on the reconnection to Papatūānuku (Mother Earth). Established in 2019 with Lanae Cable (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Maru ki Hauraki) and Jordan Davey-Emms (Ngāti Pākeha), the expanding collective is dedicated to researching whenua (land) as an art material, a component of ceremony, for personal adornment and as rongoā, the Māori healing system. Their research consists of spending time in whenua, moving slowly, consciously, gathering resources where appropriate, with gratitude and intention. Here, earth is collaborator, voice and connector to place. Unfolding beneath fabric charged with the history of the place beyond (and above) the museum doors, the work offers a sacrosanct moment of pause. 

At the exhibition’s threshold, Sione Faletau calls on the sounds of the Shoalhaven River that runs through the site. For Fou ki moana / By way of the ocean (2023), the artist recorded the ambient ebb and flow and coded a colourful kupesi that vibrates across a screen. As a backdrop, a moment of the visual recording has been immortalised across the wall by a local sign-writer. Bright hues of green and blue gesture to the expanse of the river beyond the exit.

I’m not the only visitor who has been here a while. An art exhibition that focuses on the act of listening and dialogue with the immediate environment takes some time to soak in. It also requires complex curatorial decisions around how the architecture can or should hold, alter or disperse sound for visiting listeners. These decisions are made more challenging by the fact that, despite its multi-million dollar budget, the museum’s design privileges visual rather than audial separation of the artworks. Though movable walls create distinct presentation zones, sonic bleed between each is unavoidable. “Buildings do not return our gaze but they do return sounds back to our ears,” Finnish architectural theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa once wrote.[08] 08. Paul Schütze, “Audio Visual,” Frieze, 19 October 2013, Given this, despite the vast space, the volume of actual listening that can take place is limited. In answer to this problem, O’Brien cleverly intersperses moving-image and sound works from Barnett-McIntosh, Te Ao, Paul, Faletau and Hudson with the periodically activated instruments of Spong, and Holloway and et al. These are mixed in with the unmoving works by Buchanan, The Estate of L. Budd and Andrew Beck that are markedly more oblique in their connection to the curatorial brief. Among all works, it is those that are given sufficient real estate, especially artworks created in direct response to the landscape, that left their mark. 

Overlapping and unfolding over the vast expanse of the space, photographic documentation eludes the complexity of such encounters. Beyond language and sound, on the whole, exhibiting artists consciously endeavour to reconnect and preserve the intricacies of their own place while inhabiting another. While some translate the ecosystem that immediately surrounds the museum, others hold a mirror to their own lineage, histories and inherited systems of knowledge. Working with the challenges of exhibiting and translating sound and language, The Polyphonic Sea still manages to hold up the complexity of these varied narratives. The exhibition creates quiet pause for a somewhat motley group of visitors before we spill out to ascend the hill and return to the tempo of our lives.

01. The author stayed onsite as a guest of Bundanon. 02. “The Polyphonic Sea,” Bundanon, 03. Ibid. 04. “In Conversation with Artist Shannon Te Ao,” South South, 15 April 2021,  05. Ibid.  06. Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, “Hawaiki,” Te Ara: The Encylopaedia of New Zealand, 8 February 2005, updated 1 April 2015, 07. Tim Higham, “A Story of the Land,” Aotea Great Barrier Island, 08. Paul Schütze, “Audio Visual,” Frieze, 19 October 2013,