Rethinking the past, Melissa Laing

Re-inventing New Zealand: Essays on the Arts and the Media 
Roger Horrocks
Atuanui Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9780992245382

As I opened a blank document to begin this review, a tweet popped up in my feed from Morgan Godfery: “Sure,” Godfery writes in response to The Spinoff’s Monday excerpt from Roger Horrocks’s essay “A Short History of the New Zealand Intellectual” on the climate for public intellectualism in New Zealand, “this country doesn’t take ideas as seriously as it might, but I also think intellectuals overcook the problem.” Ironically, Godfery is a “public intellectual” in the sense Horrocks uses, someone who “engages in hard thinking … works comfortably with ideas … thinks independently … and is dedicated to serving something larger than ego or career.” However, in this dismissive tweet, Godfery performs the very yeah-nah move which Horrocks argues is required to survive as a public intellectual in New Zealand: a conscious balancing of the speaker’s credentials as an “ordinary” person, down-to-earth and pragmatic, against the intellectual credentials that authorise them to speak on a subject. According to Horrocks, we in New Zealand have internalised a “scornful listener at our back (or in our own heads)”, accepting as true and immutable “a pattern of associations or stereotypes” that fuel the general prejudice against intellectualism. In response, we developed strategies to downplay our intellectualism when speaking in a public forum. He confesses that he is not free of this scornful listener, responding to it by making “sure I avoid big words and never associating myself with the problematic term ‘intellectual’ ” outside of the environs of academia.

Horrocks is better known outside of literary and academic circles for his extensive and influential work on Len Lye. As a former assistant to the artist, he is now one of the foremost experts on Lye, disseminating information about the artist through biographies, librettos, films and edited selections of Lye’s own words. His biography of Lye, Art That Moves, sits on my shelf beside Zizz!, the smaller edited anthology of Lye’s journal entries, letters and poems published last year. Re-inventing New Zealand, Horrocks’s recently published anthology of essays, shows us the breadth of his interests. The collected essays span literature, cultural studies, film, television, visual arts and music, relating them all to the formation and reformation of New Zealand culture. His style is clean, plainly yet cleverly worded, gently weaving into his essays the influences of 20th-century critical theory from authors such as Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Gramsci, Lacan and Wittgenstein.

There is much to like in Horrocks’s collection of essays – its breadth, historical contextualisation, engaging language, unashamed advocacy for individual artists and the political possibilities the arts contain. Essays like “When Fringe Writers are ‘Warmly Invited’ ” make strong arguments for the importance of the arts engaging with the political and social, as well as concerning themselves with the formal aesthetic concerns of their field, taking the 1980s Landfall editorial board to task for neglecting this. The essays “Turbulent Television: The New Zealand Experimentand “Documentaries on New Zealand Televisiondraw on Horrocks’s time with New Zealand On Air to outline how government funding can support strong and diverse public television. They also discuss the narrowing effect of the free market ideologies, ushered in by Rogernomics, on what is commissioned or shown in New Zealand. Indeed, the subject of cultural shift due to the intersection of political, social and creative change runs through most of the essays.

The first republished essay in the collection is the 1983 “The Invention of New Zealand which, as he writes, “introduces a major theme of my collection, the arrival of new ways of thinking about literature and the arts.” The essay begins with a discussion of Allen Curnow’s The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse and examines a shift away from the realism the book champions. Identifying our history of regional realism as a process of fabricating a semiotic vocabulary for New Zealand drawing on the land, the people who worked it, the light and the ongoing act of settlement, he critiques the very idea of an unmediated truth reflecting a singular national identity. Writing that “what strikes me about the Penguin Book today are its myths, its quests, its icons”, Horrocks explores how we build the narratives of New Zealand culture through specific points in the history of literature and visual arts. The essay was written at an ideological turning point in the arts and society driven by internationalism, post-modern and post-structural theory, feminist, queer and Māori activism. In this moment, it is vocal in its rejection of a homogenous and consensual understanding of New Zealand culture in a way that provides important contextualisation to contemporary developments in the arts.

However, the volume isn’t without its problems. Read sequentially over a short period, the essays can feel repetitive. This is particularly visible in the section on film and television: they were all written within a narrow time-frame and work over the history of a field to make slightly different points about the structures which underpin and inform the development of an industry. While dipping into the book and putting it back down, spreading out your reading over a number of months to simulate the original real time gaps between publication can mitigate this effect, this approach does not address Horrocks’s preference for using a narrow set of artists as examples. Horrocks evidently knows their work well but, in later essays, the inclusion of more contemporary practitioners would have strengthened his argument. This persistence in holding to examples drawn from the 1980s and 1990s, coupled with a glaring absence of an essay which addresses the significant changes to the cultural semiotics, the “shaping of word, image and sound” in the last 15 years by the following generations (in both age and ethnic diversity) dates the publication. The more recent essays feel older than they really are.

The essays on literature and the visual arts situate themselves in the tension between the regional realism of the 1950s and 1960s, and the changes brought about in the 1970s and 1980s by the influence of both a modernist internationalism and post-modernist cultural contingency. Essays published between 1991 and 2014 focus on artists whose careers began in the 80s – Et al., John Reynolds, Julian Dashper and Leigh Davis – and are balanced against the earlier careers of Tom Kreisler, Frederick Page and Douglas Lilburn. In many of these essays, he performs an advocacy for what he thinks are careers and practices that “deserve to be better known or understood”, similar to that he so successfully undertook with Lye. The earliest is the 1992 essay on Et al.’s work from Pleasures and Dangers, a film and publication that deliberately redressed the lack of profile for women in the arts at the time. As a high school student at the time, the film and book did have a significant impact on my knowledge of women in the arts, and the publication still stands as a significant political and artistic document. The feminist politics of the book is echoed by his 1986 essay, “Reading and Gender: Watching Them Change”, that addressed the demands feminist theories of reading and subjectivity make on interpreting and teaching film. Moving forward to 2016, his persistence in referring to Et al. by a name they no longer use is jarring. It indicates a disconnection between his historical understanding of their practice and the ways in which they have extended their interrogation of identity and authorship. Similarly, Horrocks’s later choices of artists to advocate for demonstrate a stepping back from his earlier consciousness of gender and awareness of the importance of bicultural and multicultural politics in the shifting formations of New Zealand’s creative culture.

Perhaps we’re all doomed to slowly drift away from the “contemporary”, to forget what we have learned along the way. Probably, when I and my contemporaries publish our anthologies of essays in the 2050s, our points of reference will be similarly dominated by the era we find ourselves in now. That in mind, read the anthology as a document of a specific perspective on a near-gone time of cultural upheaval in both the semiotic and social senses. Read it alongside the recently published anthologies of his named peers, Wystan Curnow and Murray Edmond, alongside Francis Pound’s The Invention of New Zealand. Because all of these books show us the radical actions and careful arguments that went into creating the terrain of the arts that we are now busy rethinking, sometimes contesting, other times finding ourselves in sympathy with.

Melissa Laing is an Auckland-based artist, writer and curator.

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Posted in Art, Essays, Media, Non-fiction and Review
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