Peoples’ passion – wairua, affect and national days

Tim McCreanor

In a world gripped by a rising tide of populist nationalism, high emotion and desperate passions often seem to drive global movements, tensions between countries and policies. Politicians feed off the outpourings of rage, resentment, fear and sorrow while social media magnify the most extreme voices to fever pitch.  

We don’t talk a lot about emotion and feeling in this country. New Zealanders have even been dubbed “passionless” by critics, yet it is clear that, aside from fascination with sport, there are still plenty of live issues that can polarise the nation. There is a mix of pride, defensiveness and denial arising in discussions, challenges and conflict over questions of national identity. This is very clear on the two main national days that New Zealand observes – Waitangi Day and Anzac Day – which are powerful moments in the life of the nation.

Curiosity around these tensions inspired our research team to study the role of affect (emotions and feelings) and wairua at play among those that attend (and some who don’t) events such as dawn services at key memorials. We are interested in how wairua and affect arise in acts of commemoration and celebration and how this influences identity, community relations and national life. National days, even in small communities, bring together many threads of histories, tensions and futures, allowing us to see some of the ways New Zealanders feel, talk about and experience our national identities.

WW1 memorial, Mesopotamia Station, Rangitata Valley, Canterbury.

All around the country people gather, often at monuments, pou, buildings, carvings and statuary to participate in events that include speeches, religious elements, songs, flags, military presence, cultural displays and public activities. Many feelings may be evoked - affect and wairua - that can be seen in how people think about themselves and others. This includes how we see the nation, our place in it and our sense of community. We may talk about difference and disagree as to how we should think about ourselves and how we should mark these days. Events might be organised to manage these differences, to bring them out or to bury them. National days remind us of our coming together and coming apart as a nation.


Memorial at Kohukohu, Hokianga, Northland

Over the last few years our project has collected multiple forms of data; individual and group interviews as well as video recordings as people experience events. We have looked at the ways in which what we experience is created at these events and how these activities influence the ways we are ‘moved’ at national commemorative events. Participants share with us their fear, rage, hope, joy, despair, frustration and excitement as they reflect on or participate on Waitangi Day or Anzac Day. What emerges are rich, diverse, challenging and passionate accounts of what the events mean to ordinary citizens and how affect and wairua play out in their relationships, identities and community life.


Waitangi Day at Waitangi

We see bodies, brains, spirit and meaning as entirely entangled. We are interested in complex mixes and patterns of affect and wairua across people and groups over time; it is clear to us that this has social implications.

We approach these patterns through the application of Margie Wetherell’s notion of social practice and Helen Moewaka Barnes' wairua approach – this means we look not only at what people say but at what they feel.


Anzac Day, Ataturk Memorial, Wellington Heads.

How New Zealanders position ourselves and others in national life, both reflects and drives everyday nationalism, outlining what belonging to the nation means to people and what the nation can mean to its citizens. Feelings are not often talked about in research or, when they are, we might see them as something we experience for a moment and then they are gone. Wairua may be seen as important but too difficult to include as a focus of research. Our team is interested in how these experiences play out, how they work as drivers of everyday nationalism. Our research is enabling us to look at the implications of the many ways we experience and feel about these days; the nature of social relations between Māori and Tauiwi, our attitudes towards war, ideas of our country that we feel comfortable with and those we want silenced.


Waitangi Day with whanau at Milford Domain, Takapuna

Waitangi Day 2017 has come and gone with the usual deep uncertainty about social justice in the nation.  For Māori the anguish of the history of loss and current disparities seem clear. Expressions of this distress are often seen as that of a few ‘angry activitists’; however our research shows many layers of feelings and experiences as individual Māori, whānau and hapū mark the day. For Pākehā we see a broad mix, from irritation and anger at being reminded of our injustice, and defensiveness over differences in Māori and non-Māori positions in this country, to a determination to work for social justice.


Anzac dawn service, Fielding

Anzac Day lies ahead with its utopian vision of national unity. While our research sees a common understanding of Anzac Day as a solemn time of respectful remembrance it also points to much diversity.  While we might see the day as a series of commemorations where we are bound together with a shared sense of grief and loss, this is not felt in the same way across citizens, families and communities. Our differences of culture, class, gender, age and life experience contribute to varied meanings and responses from proud adherence to ‘birth of the nation’ and the necessity of war in order to obtain peace to troubled thoughts over the futility and waste of war. The current focus on Gallipoli acknowledges the extreme losses and suffering of families but, it has given rise to the comparative silence on other key times in our history, notably the New Zealand Wars that only finally ended in 1916 with the attack on the Tūhoe community of Rua Kenana. We pick and choose what we remember and too often ignore the memories and moments that might challenge us to think and act differently, the memories we might learn from and build a better future on.

Gallipoli, Te Papa, Wellington

Jade Le Grice

I have to confess I am writing this reflection on my experience of Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibit seven months after a visit where I penned my initial thoughts, and ten months after my first visit. With some distance from the visit, on the eve of ANZAC day 2016, it seems a timely opportunity to remember, and reflect on the abject horror of war, and the palpable audio-visual narratives I encountered through the exhibit. If you haven’t been yet, I’d strongly recommend going to see it. Not only to admire the gigantic yet curiously detailed soldier giants, constructed by local craftsmen at Weta workshop, but for the carefully curated artistic zones that draw in all of your senses to allow you to experience moments when you feel like you might actually be in a war zone.

You may end up spending a substantial amount of time in the queue, politely waiting, listening to music and playing on your phone, alongside mostly middle aged people with children, as I did. The banal phase of the exhibit is almost like a palate cleanser, preparing you to experience the full ambience and range of emotion the exhibit will evoke in you. The first signpost presenting somewhat lonely white text on a solemnly black background highlights ‘parental guidance recommended’ and cautions those waiting in the queue on the possibility of being ‘disturbed’ by the graphic content drawn from words and images of ‘real’ New Zealanders. The sense of the ‘real’ is often highlighted through the exhibit, evoked by the primary source material that was created by those who were present in Gallipoli during the war, and enhanced to full effect through a realistic yet fabricated assemblage of audio and visual material.

The first soldier encountered is Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott in gigantic proportions, nursing a bloodied hand, while his face is contorted in a pained grimace, reaching out with a gun in sheer determined desperation. His narrative is communicated through projected written text and audio conveying a grim tone and accompanying grim music. While recovering from the initial affective changeover from boredom to quiet horror in the presence of depictions of raw pain and desperation, the darkness in the room beset a curious sense of morbid fascination. I found myself wondering, ‘are those actual hairs on the soldiers face and hands? The uniform must be heavy to wear, it looks so starchy. How did they get those perfect wrinkles on his sleeve?’ Pulling my attention away from this focus on the detail in order to focus on the ‘spirit’ of the exhibit, I moved over to the next zone, chastising myself for not taking it as gravely serious, as I should. Further exhibits document the story of Lieutenant Spencer, someone I have come to understand as a clearly articulate person with an authoritative title, who has pulled a sense of sympathy from me as a consequence of learning the horrors he had to endure.  Written in partially emboldened, capitalised text, a somewhat unexpected sentence jumps out in front of me – “So ended THE MOST GLORIOUS DAY of my life”. I can’t recall the context of this statement, but reading it brings on a sense of confusion, at understanding how delight can manifest in the most horrific of circumstances. I suppose victory and achievement is the goal of each side in a war, and despite a likely constant affective battle with a sense of persecution and victimisation, there are still affective breaks brought about through opportunities for triumph and glory.

It might be useful to mention here, how the affective power of these displays were cushioned, enhanced, or reduced by the presence of other spectators. Many of my fellow spectators were walking around quietly and respectfully as stories and war logs were broadcasted to foreboding accompanying orchestral music. At various stages I heard men behind me noting how young the boys were going to war, and watched as children snuggled up to their parents in the more intimate audio spaces, noting one child crying. In the presence of the morose yet respectful emotional tone of those around me, coupled with the dimly lit setting, the space felt cavernous. I also noticed moments of awe, particularly palpable on one child’s expression in response to their mother explaining that 'these were real people' motioning towards the displays of giant soldiers, which was highly amusing. I could just imagine being a child and telling my teacher and friends at school that I went to Te Papa and found out there used to be huge giant soldiers at the war in Gallipoli.

Affective resonances were not confined to boredom, horror, awe, morbid fascination, misery, quiet contemplation, amusement, and confusion – the physically interactive displays brought about a further range of affect. Compelling snippets and emotionally evocative quotes conveyed the soldier’s experiences and sense of complete abjection, and questioning life itself. At one stage of the exhibit, a corridor was developed to look, feel, and shake like a life sized trench, with life sized video projections of soldiers darting across the wall – utterly thrilling! The speakers were vibrating to mimic the sound of cannons or gunfire, with haunting echoes. This audio, visual, and physical sensory onslaught was simultaneously compelling, moving, and brought about a distinct sense of total chaos. Another particularly visceral physical display depicted the account of someone being so weak, ‘they fell into the latrine (basic toilet) and couldn’t get out’ – shadowed images of men, the emboldened text, and physical structure of a well-used latrine evoked a sense of abject disgust in me, and prompted me to recall an experienced of having campylobacter, and falling asleep on the toilet floor. A much less extreme experience, but the most I could relate it to, nonetheless. There were interactive drawers that you could pull out and see a mixture of original and recreated items from the war experience – including meagre food and beverage supplies, complete with requisite flies, ants and mould. Forgetting the exhibit context, and thinking more of my stomach, I thought ‘eww.. is that it?’ then it dawned on me that soldiers would not have had any other choice and I was prompted to feel slightly listless, and forlorn, before moving to see what further meagre supplies were in the next box, waiting as the person beside me had moved on to another and there was no chance I would step on their toes. Opening a box to see hand knitted woollen hats and scarfs carefully packaged for their recipient brought about a pang of sadness, in feeling the level of care and effort someone had gone through for their special someone, who may not be alive to receive it.

Moving through the latter stages of the exhibit, red poppies were quietly introduced to the background imagery, marking a shift in phase towards depictions of battle, and abject living conditions, towards those responsible for nursing the wounded, the men who died, and those who were left behind. Leaving the exhibit I was moved by the images that depicted a sense of quiet despair, and moved towards a greater sense of reverence for the hardship and struggle these men endured, but also felt quite bitter at the futility of war, greed, power, and domination that circumscribes the conditions for war to occur in the first place.