The aesthetics of mockery
In much the same way, the opening ceremony diminished the event it was supposed to celebrate. The militarised yet absurdly sentimental spectacle was a sort of nightmarish fusion of a Stalinist mass rally and a Disneyland film, and thus undoubtledly appealed to the corporate 'communists' who have run China since D'eng Xiaoping rose to power at the end of the '70s. It was a relief when the Olympic athletes were finally allowed to enter the stadium, and their unscripted ebullience went some way towards the salvaging the night.
New Zealand has a rather different design tradition from China - where the architects of the Middle Kingdom have a reputation for gracefully harnessing chi, we have always been a nation of proudly rough and ready shed builders. And the new, Olympic-sized Westfield Albany megmall on Auckland's North Shore mocks our noble tradition just as surely as Beijing's bird's nest mocks the work of Chinese aesthetes. Where the bird's nest blows a traditional Chinese motif out of all proportion, the mall at Albany takes the good old-fashioned Kiwi backyard shed and blows it up into a Ballardian nightmare.
The smell of chemicals, the absence of windows, and the headache-coloured walls might seem charming when you're visiting the place where your mate stores his homebrew, or tinkers with his motorbike, or paints her masterpieces, but they quickly become oppressive when you're hundreds of metres away from the nearest egress, and desperate for a breath of fresher air, or simply for some proof that the outside world has not ceased to exist.
In John Boorman's essential but half-forgotten film Zardoz - it's the one where Sean Connery runs around for three hours in a red jockstrap playing a character called Zed the Destroyer - a utopian society of immortals ages its artists and dissidents until they become senile, and forces them to live ad infinitum in a dilapidated old folks' home in the middle of the woods, where they pass time by playing in a shambolic brass band. After gratefully discovering an fire exit at the back of the giant shed at Albany, I came upon a brass band of old men playing to a non-existent audience. Something in their bearing reminded me of the band in Zardoz.
I forgot my desire to flee far from the mall and hung about for half an hour, thinking, for the first five minutes at least, that the band was tuning up, and that a crowd would soon gather to applaud politely and drop useless ten cent pieces in a tattered tophat. Nobody appeared, though, to keep me company in the audience. Even more strangely, perhaps, no member of the band ever made eye contact with the sole member of the crowd, even when he began taking photos. The band did not pause for a moment between its songs, which sounded to my inexpert ears like frayed and over-long versions - strictly instrumental, of course - of minor Brat Pack hits from the late 1950s. I also thought I heard the theme from Dad's Army at one point. When I finally fled the scene, it was out of an obscure sense of embarrassment, rather than mere boredom.
Why do these old men play? Who, if anyone, pays them? Are they performing some strange penance? Do the owners of the monster shed pay them to perform outside an obscure fire exit where no sensible person ever loiters, simply so that twenty-first century capitalism's contempt for all artists and all aesthetic standards can be celebrated? Has anyone else seen the old men play? Were my camera and I merely hallucinating?