On January 9 last year, Auckland-based photographer and film-maker Alex Monteith was on her way home from a holiday on the East Cape, where she'd had no radio contact. She'd been driving for seven hours when she heard on the car radio that huge shipping containers from the Rena shipwreck on the Astrolabe reef had started washing ashore on Waihi beach. Monteith, a senior lecturer at Elam School of Fine Arts, swerved her car towards Waihi, took out her camera and started filming diggers very slowly moving the containers off the beach.
It wasn't the first time Monteith and her collaborator, Natalie Robertson, had documented the aftermath of the Rena disaster, which has turned into one of the most costly salvage jobs in the world. They filmed and photographed the Defence Force and civilian response at Papamoa on October 16, 2011, about a week after the wreck occurred. At Papamoa they witnessed hordes of volunteers and territorials dressed in white Tyvek suits digging out by hand the heavy-fuel granules in the sand and trying to save oil-covered birds.
"We often work in a pack," says Monteith of Robertson, a senior photography lecturer at AUT.
"We do work which does have some ecological leanings, politically interested leanings."
With the Rena leaking 230 tonnes of oil, that was bad enough. But what Monteith saw when she arrived at Waihi was, she says, "staggering".
"The sight of those containers coming in was completely unreal, the scale of things in play. A lot of stuff had washed up already on the inside coast of the East Cape and then something changed in the currents and it brought a lot of the debris back in, sprayed it across the bay. In both cases, at Papamoa and Waihi, there was a beautiful clean, clear swell and not one surfer in the water. There was a complete eeriness. There were a lot of people on the foreshore but it had a completely quiet vibe apart from all the diggers moving around."
Irish-born Monteith is an avid surfer who won the Irish National Women's Championship in 2001, and has represented Ireland in the ISA world surfing games in South Africa and the European Surfing Championships, as well as competing on the New Zealand national circuit (her family moved to New Zealand when she was 10). Her affinity with the sea means her work "would always be focused and interested on foreshore and immediate water stuff".
"Normally my art work is in a contemporary art world but when we went down to Papamoa it all went a bit broader than thinking about whether something will be art or not. It was more like this is happening, it's frightening in its scale, it's affecting the foreshore and coastline.
"In the Papamoa context we were there really early on and Greenpeace hadn't had time to formulate their camera crew. They asked us to go to the wildlife centre and follow that line through so, uncharacteristically for me, we did do that. They had just set up the animal cleaning centre - there were a lot of penguins, an albatross, and that was a really sad aspect of it. But it was quite amazing, the scale of response and the cleaning facilities. If the animals were brought in and they were still alive, they got quite a perfect hand buff and a clean and came out fluffy and went into nice clean pools."
Monteith's two-channel footage of the response in Papamoa and Waihi screened in the Tauranga Art Gallery last October, the first anniversary of the wreck.
It also screened at the Gow Langsford Gallery last January. Now a four-channel version of The Rena Shipping Container Disaster 2011-ongoing will be projected after dark outside The Cloud during the Auckland Art Fair, which opens next Wednesday night. Ironically, the images will be displayed on the exteriors of shipping containers.
"It's in a shipping and boating area, it was the obvious choice of work to put down there and engage with what was a shipping problem. With four channels I can show a bit more of the foreshore context at Waihi. It was very dramatic having those large objects dragged around the foreshore."
Watching the Waihi footage is almost like being there for the viewer. The diggers move close to the camera at some points and, with the tide coming in, Monteith's tripod was destabilised by the sea, tilting it sideways.
"As the diggers were coming up, the tide was still encroaching," Monteith recalls. "They got picked up and hit on the sides by waves that came at least half a metre up into the machinery. It was staggering seeing salt water and large machines."
Aside from surfing, Piha-based Monteith is an accomplished motorcyclist. Her film, Passing Manoeuvre With Two Motorcycles and 584 Vehicles, showing two powerful bikes "lanesplitting" along a busy Auckland motorway, was a Walters Prize finalist in 2010. Now she has swapped her bike for a small runabout boat, which she used last Sunday in a Waitemata Harbour call against the Government ban on protests against ocean oil drilling and exploration less than 500m from the site.
The action was initiated by the Local Time art collective as part of the 5th Auckland Art Triennial; participants included the Vega, which led the 1972 Mururoa Flotilla.
Key to the event, says Monteith, were the words on banners saying "This is not a protest", as radioed in 2011 by Opotiki skipper Elvis Teddy from a flotilla of boats opposing deep sea oil exploration off the East Cape.
"You can imagine in the future that the Rena disaster is actually one of the smaller events that could befall us in terms of a clean-up and it did expose how limited our resources were," she says.
"It was amazing the free time people put in. Now people aren't allowed to go out and protest. It's about the silencing of a school of thought and that's a pretty sad moment.
"I feel really strongly about that, especially when you see how far 500m is.
"Ordinary people have no effective power to have that conversation out on the water. It was an incredible moment when ordinary New Zealanders thought through the implications of nuclear power and you could protest - it was making a statement out on the water, everyday people out there on boats saying what they thought. So to not have that potential seems extraordinary for a country like New Zealand.
"We have a perspective that is formed out of a different ethos and we want the right to express that."
Auckland Art Fair Projects also include works by Israel Birch, Dan Arps, Niki Hastings-McFall, Rohan Wealleans, Scott Eady and Seung Yul Oh.