Saturday, November 14, 2009

"The New Museum is my Bitch"

Oh dear. As soon as I saw this brilliant cartoon by artist William Powhida regarding recent developments at New York's New Museum [click on text link for a big detailed version], I couldn't help but imagine what the equivalent in the New Zealand art world might look like. If anyone draws it, it had nothing to do with me, OK?

Via William Powhida's drawing appeared on the front cover of the Brooklyn Rail.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sea of night

A gratuitous night-time self-portrait, Lartigue-style.

Yesterday evening a friend and I drove into town to photograph Fiona Pardington's new illuminated billboard, installed a couple of days ago on the Worcester Street facade of the Christchurch Art Gallery. The image is Pardington's photograph of a small hand-blown glass ship, enlarged to monumental public scale. It looks strong in the daytime, but enters another dimension by night.

Fiona Pardington (Ngai Tahu) came across the glass ship among the collections of Canterbury Museum: it's a model of the Charlotte Jane, the first to arrive of the First Four Ships which brought out the British colonists to the Canterbury Settlement in 1850. The model was made by one of the descendants of the original settlers. When I was growing up in Christchurch in the 1980s, there was still considerable concern -- in a certain quarter of town at least -- over whether your ancestors had come out on one of the First Four Ships. Like going to Christ's College or casually mentioning that you were planning to take the Range up to the snow in the weekend, having a family connection to the First Four Ships was a decisive shorthand for being posh in Christchurch: more than anything it denoted old money, political power and the distinct probability of driving down major arterial roads bearing one's family name.

Living here again in 2009, I sense that the First Four Ships fetish seems to have receded a bit as history sails inexorably on; but it lurks there still, hoving into view like a Lovecraftian ghost ship every now and again.

I took the photograph below looking up at Fiona Pardington's backlit billboard from the pavement.

The first person to push past the steerage passengers and stagger down the gangplank of the Charlotte Jane at 10am on 16 December 1850 after 99 days at sea was the man who became the first Superintendent of Canterbury province, James Edward Fitzgerald.* Fitzgerald was later involved in national politics, and advocated equal civil and political rights for all New Zealanders regardless of race, including the right for Māori to be involved in government and to retain their own lands. Oddly enough, he had previously been Assistant Secretary of the British Museum; an appropriate enough profession, one might argue, for one of the founding fathers of a deeply conservative and dusty city often described by the credulous or untravelled as more English than the English; a city which since Fitzgerald's time has increasingly been developed as a themepark of itself, its willow trees flanking the shallow river, its punts, straw boaters, striped blazers, Devonshire teas and Gothic Revival architecture creating not only a visual identity but a steady income from tourists.

The founder of the Christchurch Press, Fitzgerald was later able to use his newspaper as a vehicle to attack the plans of fellow colonist William Moorhouse to bore a rail tunnel through the Port Hills to link the city and the port, largely because of the enormous costs involved. The Press is still commonly used by its citizenry to scupper significant civic projects today.

Here's a photograph of Fiona Pardington's image The Prow of the Charlotte Jane with the night closing in around it. There is a strange effect whereby the image, spectral white on black, looks at first glance to be a negative. On the monumental scale of the street, the delicate glass rigging of the model appears like real ropes encrusted with ice, like one of the early Antarctic explorers' ships which left from nearby Sumner. The ghosts and shadows of the early years of the colony, the precarious voyages and provisional structures and scale models of elsewhere still present in the fabric of the city, are summoned by Pardington's work.

This shot above is taken from across the Boulevard. Yesterday evening the lights in the newly revamped, not-yet-open collection galleries were on, and the oriel window was illuminated. A stack of gallery furniture waited in the window, upturned chair legs silhouetted like a four-masted black schooner. A pirate hulk on one side, and the pearly white ship of the British colonists on the other. For a moment as darkness fell, the illuminated window and the backlit billboard appeared like positive and negative versions of one another.

Neil Pardington kindly allowed me to use his photographs (numbers 3 and 4 above) of Fiona Pardington's billboard for this post. His exhibition 'The Vault', a series of large-scale photographs taken behind the scenes in New Zealand museums and art galleries, is currently on display at Christchurch Art Gallery before it tours nationally.

*Characteristically enough, Fitzgerald's sharp elbows were in play again for the opening of the winding hill road connecting Lyttelton with Sumner, when he was the first to drive over it, in his dog cart.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Actually it was just me"

Image via Worth1000

How was your day at school? I asked the small guy.

Today, said the small guy, I had to break up the Fang Gang. J. stopped being our enemy, and it's only fun being in a gang when you've got an enemy and then you can have a war. When you haven't got an enemy there's not much to do. After J. stopped being our enemy we played Star Wars for a bit, and then the gang broke up at the end of lunch.

This afternoon W. and I tried to put a spell on J. We tried the farting spell, where you have to make a farting noise with your mouth or under your arm and point at the person and say the magic words which cause the person to fart. W. thought the spell had worked, but actually it was just me.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cass and the colour of New Zealand history

Rita Angus, Cass, 1936, oil on board, Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

On the way back from the West Coast, we took the turn-off to Cass. In the Craigieburn Ranges between Arthur's Pass and Castle Hill, Cass is about 120 kilometres from Christchurch and feels utterly remote. You take a turn-off from State Highway 73 and drive along a shingle road for nearly a kilometre until you reach the tiny settlement which has grown up around the railway stop Rita Angus made famous. You can't hear the main road: the place is quiet and still. The sun is hot on your back, and the air is cold. You feel like you're walking into the pages of a Frank Sargeson story.

More than seventy years on, the young macrocarpa trees Angus painted are now enormous and venerable, casting long shadows over the tussock. The station platform is long gone, as are the stacks of timber and the open shed pictured to the left of Angus's work. The small house in the background is still there.

The view along the tracks towards Arthur's Pass and the Coast.

Looking towards Christchurch.

The station building is much the same as Angus pictured it. The door to the right is still locked: the waiting room to the left is still open. The lettering on the sign has slightly altered from that Angus depicted: the contemporary version of standard railway signage is fatter and more squat than the more airy and elegant 1930s style.

The station building is in good repair, painted a glossy brownish red, as are several of the sheds and houses in the settlement. It is much the same colour that Maori carvings and architectural members were painted by museum staff in the first half of the 20th century: a colour known in the sector as 'museum red'. It's the reddish-brown colour of dried blood and freshly-turned fertile soil and of rust in the rain. Museum red: the colour of history in New Zealand.

The waiting room at Cass Station.

'Kiss the ground you walk on', exhorts the graffitti scratched into the wooden walls inside the waiting room.

The view out to the railway line from the waiting room: looking at the place Angus stood to make her painting in 1936.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The West Coast: Not as bad as it used to be

It is no secret that the West Coast and I are not friends. Our dislike of one another is entirely mutual and goes back almost thirty years. It was born out of various family holidays from which I was delighted to return; the sort of depressing minibreak on which one family member is coming down with something nasty, someone else has forgotten to pack something essential, two people are ignoring one another and everyone has the hump with someone else. Although this kind of break usually only lasts a couple of days, at the time it seems interminable. A vague air of anxiety closes in with the weather. The days cannot end quickly enough. The night sounds include the rumbling of the coal trains, an unidentified drip, and distant howls. At the half-way point it appears likely that the toilet paper will run out before the end of the stay; dinner consists of corned beef and mashed spuds with grey lumps; there is no TV; and the only thing to read in the mis-named 'holiday house' is a dog-eared copy of Papillon with the final page ripped out.

I know that there are some people who enjoy the long slog across the plains and over the mountains, whose idea of a pleasant getaway is a weekend in an uninsulated wooden cottage with a longdrop toilet 50 yards away up a hill; people who are unconcerned by relentless rain and sandflies as big as small dogs; people who positively thrive on the challenge of a day-long muddy hike up a scrub-clad mountainside in order to have a vile cup of tea with Germans in a small hut. I know there are people like this, and to them I say: you are most welcome to the West Coast.

I am not one of those people, and so for many years now I have been more than happy to stay firmly put on the eastern side of the main divide. In the weekend, however, I took a drive over the mountains to the Coast for the first time in more than 15 years. It was a family occasion, and it may be that my expectations were not high, but in the end I was quite pleasantly surprised: the West Coast is not as bad as it used to be. It still doesn't meet my definition of civilisation, vis: a place offering (a) the ability to buy a good cup of coffee, in conjunction with (b) the chance of being able to speak to someone who has read the same books as oneself, but on this trip at least there were no sandflies, the rain let up every now and again and there was a copy of Lawrence Durrell's Complete Antrobus in the bach.

At Moana, in the playground of a school by the edge of Lake Brunner, I photographed this concrete wall. The wall, if not my photograph, reminded me of images by Peter Peryer, as well as Julian Dashper's drumskin target paintings.

There isn't a lot of art to be found on the Coast, of course: that's not the point of it, I suppose. There's an art gallery at Otira (which has 'Contemporary' written sideways on it in a sans-serif font, Shed-11-in-the mid-80s-style). It seems so unlikely that it commands attention, and if it hadn't been shut, we might well have stopped. But it would be hard to compete art-wise with the experience of driving through the Otira Gorge these days: the new roadway engineering (a gigantic viaduct over a scree slope hundreds of feet high, a waterfall channelled across and over the road, a concrete rock shelter) is genuinely impressive and reduces not only the duration of the journey but also both the spew factor and the chance of death, which always used to feel quite considerable. If they ever set a James Bond film in New Zealand, the Otira Gorge would be the perfect backdrop for some very foolish stunt driving and perhaps a parachute chase.

On our way back across the plains heading towards Springfield, there were roadworks. At one point we were led through the works by a 'pilot car'. I've never come across this before. It seemed so utterly ridiculous that we couldn't stop laughing at it; we felt as if we had been co-opted into some peculiar work of relational aesthetics dreamed up by the road crew, cars following close in an Austin Powers-esque conga line on the Canterbury plains. 'Poot poot! Follow me.'

Or maybe I was just happy to be on the home road.

At Springfield we slowed to see the remains of the giant doughnut, erected a couple of years ago to celebrate the release of The Simpsons Movie. The fibreglass doughnut has been, like any work of public art, quite controversial: it has divided the small town between those people who think it amusing and a positive drawcard for tourists, and those who consider it an eyesore. It now resides on private land beside the main road, after its temporary resource consent ran out and the council gave it its marching orders. A little while ago, someone -- presumably someone in the 'eyesore' camp -- set fire to it. The locals have threatened to rebuild it in concrete to foil future vandals, but for now the doughnut stands as it is, battered but triumphant.

As we passed, I applied my usual test as regards the worth of a public artwork: Is it better than nothing at all would be in the same spot? And in the case of the Springfield doughnut, after a great deal of consideration, I think yes, it is.