I do not like to burn

I do not like to burn, 14:11

A ghost, a comet, a flash in the archive. In 1882, Edwin Harris sketched the tail of a comet, forever frozen on the page. In 1885, Emily Harris headed for the Port Hills to watch a solar eclipse, a moment recounted in a diary entry and captured in a painting of an orb hanging in a grey sky.

I do not like to burn imagines the artist and poet Emily Harris as a celestial body, burning in the archive and glimpsed through notes, letters, fragments and paintings. Slow and poetic, the video draws on archival theories of haunting, burning and gaps. A palimpsestic archive emerges in its visuals and audio, which indexes Emily’s own desire to record her life and art making. Selected text fragments from Emily’s diaries also lend a narrative unity to the video. These fragments focus on Emily’s childhood growing up in the bush (‘Notes on Frances Emma Harris’), detail the intensive labour involved in the making of her books, narrate her struggle as a working artist and evoke the solar eclipse of 1885 (‘Drawing Lines’). However, these fragments necessarily gesture to gaps; the darkness of the settler-colony is present in its absence, as the geo-historical context within which Emily paints and writes.

Like Emily herself, the plant-subjects of her paintings are ephemeral, yet memorialized in the extant editions of her three botanical books: New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns. The books (published in Nelson in 1890) comprise thirty-six lithograph drawings of native flora, hand-coloured by Emily. While the drawings remain consistent across the extant editions of the books, the colour varies – a visual remainder that reinscribes the body of the artist. The video incorporates selected images from these books, which are layered (using multiples of the same image from different editions of the books) to show the variations in colour. The use of multiples places emphasis on Emily’s repetitive labour of hand-painting each image. The images are combined with still images of the Harris sisters – a ghosting, or visual haunting. Footage of the Pouakai circuit in Taranaki and the flora endemic to this area is layered under the ghostly images, to add context to the botanical and textual material: flowers scattered like stars or a tightly sewn veil, ferns unfurling into green, a berry held in the palm of the hand.

The Pouakai circuit winds through the saddle between Mt Taranaki and the Pouakai range, climbing Henry peak in the process. The botany and geography of the area is unique, ranging from native ferns, to deciduous cedar groves, to ancient swamps and an alpine tarn. Many of the fern, berry and flower species that Emily painted can be found either in Taranaki (Egmont) National Park, or in Nelson where she lived from 1865. The Harris sisters grew up in Taranaki, spending their formative years in the coastal settlement. Emily’s paintings were no doubt inspired by the diverse landscapes and plant-life found in this part of the north island.

The video has a tripartite structure, to reflect the three books (Flowers, Berries and Ferns). The transition between each section is signalled by a title ghosted over the footage. Each of the three sections possesses a specific atmosphere, based on the associations of each plant-part. The video diverges from the conventional order that the books appear in, so that ‘Ferns’ stands out in the middle of the video as the moment of narrative conflict. ‘Berries’ is the first section, which begins with a reflection on childhood: “It was before the War when we lived in the forest.” ‘Flowers’ ends the video, to highlight the fleeting and ephemeral quality of Emily in the archive. The video ends with a ring of ourisia, white against dark like a celestial body.

The transition between each of the three sections is also demarcated by a short piano arrangement, as the Harris sisters counted music among their many talents. Aural elements are important in the video, where two audio tracks are layered like the visual aspects of the work. The first track is composed of the text fragments, read by Dasha Zapisetskaya, Brianna Vincent and myself. The second track is a textured soundscape: bird song, running water, wind. This track runs for the work’s duration, rising in intensity towards its conclusion. The video ends with the sounds of the forest.

Thanks to the Emily Harris research team: Professor Michele Leggott, Brianna Vincent, Dasha Zapisetskaya. Thanks also to Tim Page for audio assistance, Professor Helen Sword, Cole Cochran and, of course, the Harris sisters.

The creation and development of this project was undertaken with the support of a University of Auckland Summer Research Scholarship, December 2020-February 2021.

Toyah Webb
February 2021