Demystifying the process, Siobhan Harvey

Insights: New Zealand Artists Talk about Creativity
Gareth Shute (ed)
Reed, $29.99,
ISBN 1869418247  

“The more you reason,” counselled Raymond Chandler, “the less you create.” Before he began working on his latest book, Insights: New Zealand Artists Talk About Creativity, New Zealand artist and author Gareth Shute should have been reminded of Chandler’s words. For Chandler’s astute summation of the dilemma posed by the artist who seeks to understand his or her muse is equally relevant to a book, like Shute’s. Not that Shute’s intentions are misguided. At a time when New Zealand is a veritable artistic Mecca, fostered in no small measure by a government which believes in the connection between a nation’s international “branding” and the success of its artists abroad, Shute’s collection of 54 interviews with writers, actors, painters, photographers, musicians, sculptors and dancers offers the potential for deep scrutiny of our convergent and divergent cultural practices.

What’s more, such a book is undoubtedly well overdue, for the last time something similar was attempted was when Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams edited In The Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers (1992), a thorough and perceptive series of dialogues with some of the country’s most prominent authors. Added to this, Shute’s previous books, Hip-Hop Music in Aotearoa (2004) and Making Music in New Zealand (2005), show him to be a competent interpreter of the dynamics at work in a specific field of contemporary arts. However, the scope of Insights is far broader and, in its author’s aim to “demystify the process of being an artist”, more illusory. In the shift from the defined landscape of Shute’s previous books to the illusive core of Insights, something’s been lost.

First, as a self-defined author (rather than, as with Alley and Williams, an editor), Shute allows focus upon the subject matter – creativity – to drift markedly between the grounded and the wayward, the pithy and the sprawling. Whereas Peter Wells gives voice to the hiatus involved in scriptwriting, Murray Edmond informs us of the literary festivals he’s recently attended. Witi Ihimaera and Tze Ming Mok deconstruct the enigma of the isolated writer, leaving Carl Shuker to repeatedly proclaim the genius of his first novel, The Method Actors. And this is just the writers. Time and again, such irregularity is repeated among Insights’ multifarious practitioners. Artists Dick Frizzell and son Otis each speak of their epiphanies, while Jacqueline Fahey analyses her paintings rather than her working processes. Whereas actor/director Oliver Driver recreates the sense of letting a character inhabit him, writer/director Taika Waititi discusses funding constraints.

The resultant mêlée isn’t the artists’ fault. They were asked questions, and provided honest answers; this much is clear. Rather, as the reader ploughs through Insights, we become aware that one of the biggest constraints upon each artist achieving a lucid depiction of their creativity is the format of the book. With its impressive cubic form, divine front cover and luscious photographs, Insights tries hard to be a coffee-table tome. However, put it up against In the Same Room, for instance, and its shortcomings are exacerbated. What In the Same Room lacks in terms of presentation (a series of grainy black and white photographs, a rather nondescript cover and so forth) is more than overcome by interviewers’ insightful questions and the meaningful answers offered by the interviewed (all of which are transcribed in their entirety). By contrast, each artist in Shute’s book has but a single page (much of it taken up with his narration) to theorise their inspiration. Repeatedly, the reader experiences a sense of disappointment at being denied access to the far wider and more engrossing discussions that must have gone on between author and subject. Perhaps, in an age such as ours which worships the sound-bite, this shouldn’t surprise us (even though it might depress us); nevertheless, of an anthology that its author declares “examines how local artists go about creating their work”, such concision leaves us feeling short-changed.

A further issue which curbs Insights’ potential is the composition of the artists on show. In the introduction, Shute tries to head off concern over his choice of artists when he writes:

[Insights] attempts to be as inclusive as possible, but the sheer number of creative outlets through which New Zealanders express themselves means that any extensive coverage of the art forms operational in this country is doomed to fall short. I have therefore sought to focus on artists whose work exemplifies imagination and hard work.


When seeking to distinguish the essence of New Zealand creativity, though, this kind of qualification is anathematic. Invariably, one only gets the answer to a problem if one asks the right person.

In the case of Insights, many of the “right” people are obvious by their absence, leaving one perplexed by some of those chosen. For example, poet Anna Smaill’s position as an artist of “imagination and hard work” isn’t in dispute; but, given that she’s only published a single poetry collection, The Violinist In Spring (2005), her place here beside prominent and prolific writers like Ihimaera and Wells is puzzling, especially when far weightier poets (such as Bill Manhire, Vincent O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither etc) aren’t included. Could it be that Shute wanted to garner responses from artistic couples, enticing comparable and contrasting thoughts about creativity from different sides of the same relationship? Given that Smaill’s entry follows that of her partner, Shuker, this might be the case. Then again, it might not. Either way, the reader’s required to second-guess Shute’s modus operandi, which undermines our enjoyment of the book.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch over the watchers themselves?) asked Juvenal. It’s a sentiment which resonates with the reader of Insights. Though Shute’s desire to deconstruct how today’s artists construct is admirable, his adherence to his subject-matter is variable. A cogent contemporary understanding of how New Zealand’s creativity operates has yet to be written.


Siobhan Harvey is an Auckland writer and reviewer.


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