A slight angle to the universe, David Eggleton

The Arts in Aotearoa New Zealand
Peter Beatson and Diane Beatson
Sociology Department, Massey University, $59.95, ISBN 0 908665 83 0

Another 100 New Zealand Artists
Warwick Brown
Godwit, $75.00, ISBN 0 908877 74 9

Hotere — out the black window
Gregory O’Brien
Godwit, $49.95, ISBN 1 86962 012 7

Quite a crowd the Beatsons have gathered. Their purpose: nothing less than a wide-sweeping statement of where it’s at as far as “culture” is concerned in this country. They are, then, culture cops, gatekeepers, bouncers at the ballroom blitz.

Homi Bhabha and his ilk have persuaded us that a colony, or ex-colony, has no memory. It’s lobotomised, amputated, surrogate, secondhand. Pacific-drifting and busy staving off bicultural schizophrenia, New Zealand has Maoritanga as the mystic centre of Aotearoa, as its ultimate reference point, helping legitimise a (healthy) bastard culture. But for everyday use The Arts in Aotearoa New Zealand, a good, keen, nationalist tome, refers to the quotidian demotic experience: the ordinary day beyond Kaitaia, Taumarunui on the main trunk line, living in the Maniototo.

Inevitably, identity is their watchword and, equally inevitably, any such ideological commitment has an emotional component. In the era of extraterritorial digital television beamed in from God knows where and concomitant cultural anxiety about who, what, how and why, the authors call on all concerned New Zealanders to join them inside the circle of covered wagons, while mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Crafted in a softcover, large-textbook format — New Zealand Arts 101 this book, in the authors’ words, “aims to bring together in one place the entire artistic heritage of this nation.” We know — don’t we? — from close encounters with Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, etc that rote-learned, gauzy, filmy, theory can net anything and make it part of some robotic, totalitarian whole. Such knowledge is a useful subtext here, when we discover, or remember, that both Mr and Mrs Beatson are persuasive academics at institutes of higher learning in Palmerston North.

Not that they have been altogether infected by the French structuralist virus, though they do employ at least one of its more benign inventions: the cultural relativism syndrome. That is, they make as few distinctions as possible between different kinds of cultural work: all are kept on the same plane, seen as part of the same continuum — senior painter Milan Mrkusich and junior rock group Head Like a Hole, for instance, are mentioned in the same sentence, linked by the notion of “pleasure”.

The Beatson team write for the most part in the intellectual vernacular, steering clear of high-faluting language, of low-flying jargon: no semiotic spaghetti is served here. “Accessible”, then, and amusing with it. The overview is punctuated by quotes from all kinds of sources by all kinds of artists, writers and bureaucrats — sorry, cultural workers — from Witi Ihimaera (“I took Pounamu Pounamu to a number of publishers and the second publisher was Albion Wright at Caxton who asked me the question: ‘ Who will read your book?’ I said ‘Maori people would’ and he said ‘Maoris don’t read books’) to Hamish Keith (“When local councils hear the word culture they reach for their drainage estimates”) to John Barnett (“ Why the flaming hell should I publish the sod when I despise him? Because he’s good and he must be published and I can afford to and not many people can.”). Thus the maggoty underbelly of Arcadian bliss.

The Beatsons have produced a loose-limbed, casual yet lively cultural directory (no index, though), an all-stars jamboree in which the location of the least person in the local artistic firmament is acknowledged, explicitly or implicitly. It’s a bit of a gossipmonger’s gazette, a slow-motion stale bunfight at times, but also an act of consolidation, confirming the mythologies of Mansfield, McCahon, Lilburn and Curnow — of Grace, Duff, Hulme and Merita Mita: kaumatua of a kind for younger artists. It identifies those responsible for inventing a style, for creating a country of the mind. It names those who are the embalmed emblems of “Kiwi kulcha” and thus suitable cases for treatment by Tom Scott or A K Grant or for a quizzical probing by Brian Edwards or Iain Sharp. The genealogical naming of names is at times almost familial — a hapu with a circularity of reference which can be reduced to Christian names: the Fionas, the Maurices, Lauris and Cilla, Albert and Karl.

2

Warwick Brown’s Another 100 New Zealand Artists, with its equal opportunities graphic art, photography, sculpture, assemblage and multi-media, is a museum in a box, a virtual republic, a pictorial record. A gallery of 100 expositions in handy, short essay form accompany the 100 illustrations, one on one.

These artists manipulate chimeras (Denise Kum, Di Ffrench) and illusions (Neil Dawson, Jeff Thompson); sow dragon’s teeth (Chris Booth, Elizabeth Thompson) and, as in the case of Len Lye, reap whirlwinds, harvesting and harnessing cyclonic forces. They conduct dialogues with international styles using local idioms (Andrew Drummond, Brett Graham). They employ various kinds of politics: identity (Selwyn Muru, Michel Tuffery) and gender (Fiona Pardington, Anne Noble, Christine Webster). They authenticate the trash aesthetic (Don Driver, Frank Womble). They acknowledge a craft heritage (Barry Cleavin, Bronwynne Cornish). Some of these artists, too, (such as Vivian Lynn and Ronnie van Hout), being protean, elude neat encapsulation. Others are engaged in constant self-invention: L Budd in particular has left a confusing trail of personae.

Brown’s short texts have trouble summing up and sometimes even outlining what various artists have been up to. He cannot always do their esoteric ideas, their conceptual parlour games, their transient images full justice. The sheer proliferation of material he has to exemplify in a single photograph can mystify rather than de-mystify. Brown is a quantity surveyor, a generalist if not a completist. In an age of specialisation, of zealously guarded roles as artists’ interpreters, he’s there at the point where criticism blurs with public relations, or where theorists quarrel and fall out.

The Beatsons discuss this postmodern, or perhaps perennial, phenomenon of relativism with a certain sardonic relish. They enjoy tales of internecine rivalry and skirmishing. Brown’s main fault is that he is too earnest, too anxious that we should understand just how good these artists are, his adjectives borrowed from a used-car dealer. His main virtue, as with his previous 100 New Zealand Paintings, is his goodwill, his generosity, his beating of the village drum in celebration.

3

Which is where Gregory O’Brien’s Hotere — out the black window comes in. It’s the book launched as an auxiliary to the Wellington city art gallery exhibition, itself launched in a blaming and counter-blaming blaze of publicity over funding.

Hone Papita Raukura (Ralph) Hotere’s working relationships with poets Cilla McQueen, Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare and Ian Wedde and the way he makes their art part of his art are examined by O’Brien with the forensic flair, to use Russell Haley’s phrase, of a “surgeon-conjuror”. O’Brien, himself no mean imagist, explains and delineates the inner workings of a cabal of master-imagists. These artists play with paradox like a convention of medieval theologians.

Hotere, making a thing out of black, is a dandy, a mannerist, fastidiously flicking paint flecks on and dust flecks off. He can put a frame of elo-quent silence round right-eous rage and make rage sing, as in his pieces about South African apartheid, nuclear testing, or threatened industrial pollution at Aramoana. He’s a tough-minded artist: fragile texts about light and water, scribbled on glass or paper, have marmoreal strength. Hot-ere turns Hone Tuwhare’s words on weather into inscriptions made by rain and snow; Cilla Mc-Queen’s sur-realistic, back-yard word-pictures are rendered in the kinds of silver trails that might have been left by snails. Hotere paints white over black to resemble hail going into a hot pool, pips of ice melting into steam.

On canvas painted to resemble the mottled bark of a pine tree, from which lines of colour seep out like sap, he will place one of Bill Manhire’s windchime songs about “pine”. Ian Wedde’s poem title “Pathway to the Sea” inspires more weathered canvas, on which, as if seen through fogged windows or reflected back in foxed mirrors are always the islands of memory — north and south — measured by ruled lines of rain. Using only vision, Hotere proves true Cilla McQueen’s poem about synaesthesia, where sight stands for sound, taste, touch and smell and the whole adds up to a wonderful probing collection of emotional tones. Such delicate atmospheres should be ours and they are when we gaze on a Hotere.

O”Brien’s book has all the background detail you could wish for, given Hotere’s reticent nature. Hotere is in a sense as elusive as a quark, seldom directly quoted and then quoted only saying something already many times recycled in the media. Hotere takes the mystery of the human personality and pares it back to its essentials: being and nothingness. Hotere is an artist of the world who still believes in the transcendental urge, while being witty enough to deflate any would-be pomposity: reading those words writ upon a windowpane is a bit like walking over ice — a certain faith is required that you will be sustained.

Hotere — out the black window (the lacquered vernacular of that title — taken from a McQueen poem — strikes just the right note) has diligent dates, conversations with art dealer Rodney Kirk Smith, gumshoe sleuthing after works held in private hands in different towns and a left-on scaffolding of footnotes and references so that we can do our own detective work. Hotere always stands at a slight angle to the universe, allowing him to see possibilities others might miss. He does the same with the poems he uses, turning them to reveal hidden facets and enriching his work, the work of his chosen poets, and us.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin writer and critic. 

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