Raiding Act's art farm
One of New Zealand's richest men is opening his property to visitors this weekend - though entry comes at a price. Alan Gibbs' farm near Kaukapakapa, in the southern part of the Kaipara harbour region, is famous for its sculpture park and its strange animals, but few Kiwis have had the opportunity to visit it. Now, for a mere two hundred and fifty dollars, 'standard' visitors can wander about Gibbs' place on foot. 'Premium' guests, who will have forked out a cool grand, get a guided tour by jeep. Both sets of visitors will be free to examine the series of massive sculptures which Gibbs has commissioned for his property over the past decade. Guests will also get to hear Gibbs and Roger Douglas give talks on the topic 'What I would do if I were dictator of New Zealand for a year'.
Gibbs made his fortune in the eighties and early nineties, when he was intimately involved in the privatisation of assets like Telecom and New Zealand's exotic forests, and he remains an enthusiastic advocate of the neo-liberal economics that made him wealthy. He has had a close association with the Act Party, and in the lead-up to the 2008 election he donated two hundred thousand dollars to the organisation, helping it scrape back into parliament. The money raised by the 'open day' at Gibbs' property will be thrown at two right-wing websites, the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, which is run by former Act MP Muriel Newman, and the Centre for Resource Management Studies, which is headed by climate change 'sceptic' Owen McShane.
Fortunately, readers of this blog don't need to hand over large sums of money to the far right to enter Gibbs' secret kingdom - two of our regular readers, Maxine and Muzzlehatch, recently raided the place, and returned with images and analysis. I've interviewed them, and reproduced a few of their pictures.
Maxine: You can call it an art raid.
Muzzlehatch: But we weren't armed.
Maxine: No. Only with a camera.
Maps: Was it hard to get in?
Muzzlehatch: I think that Alan Gibbs as a principled capitalist believes in paying minimum wage to as many of his employees as possible. The security guards who are supposed to patrol the edges of his domain aren't exactly, y'know -
Maxine: Motivated. Imagine a fat guy with a walrus moustache slumped snoring over a half-eaten pie...
Maps: Falling asleep on sentry duty? That could get you shot in wartime...
Maxine: We just wanted to have a look. It's a big property. Four square kilometres. Hills rolling gently down to the harbour, their grass mown and manicured, occasional herds of strange animals like alpacas and zebras, and these huge sculptures, most of them in a minimalist style - well, minimalist but monumental, simple forms and immense size...
Muzzlehatch: Gibbs likes to boast that he only wants the biggest work an artist has ever produced -
Maxine: The sculptures are distributed quite evenly across the property, from the hills down to the sea. The work which particularly interested us, Richard Serra's Tuhirangi Contour - a subtly curving two hundred and fifty-seven metre wall made of carefully rusted steel - is visible from the road that runs south beside the Kaipara harbour on the way to Auckland. Once you sight that strip of deep red unfurling itself over the low hills to your right - well, if you're an aesthete, you're going to be tempted to stop...but then you park the car, you get out, and you find a high fence, and signs warning you away -
Muzzlehatch: Gibbs is sending out mixed messages -
Maps: But isn't that the nature of prestige objects, like luxury cars or expensive artworks? In order for these things to function as status symbols, they have to be displayed and protected at the same time. They have to be obtrusive, and they have to be exclusive. You get them flashed in your face, so that you know you can't have them.
Maxine: Alan Gibbs is a tease!
Maps: He's a tease. He wants you to know that he has this collection of massive, expensive artworks, and he wants you to know that he won't share his toys with you -
Muzzlehatch: Unless you want to fork out to his favourite charities...
Maxine: And that is what is disappointing about his so-called 'open day'. He's using the artworks he has commissioned and bought to support a narrow political agenda.
Muzzlehatch: Less than four percent of Kiwis voted for Act. They shouldn't even be in parliament. They're not exactly popular in the arts community, which tends to vote left.
Maps: I would say that even some Act members would have worries about some of the stuff that the New Zealand Centre for Political Research and the Centre for Resource Management Studies - what absurdly anodyne names they are! - turn out. The NZCPR promotes an extremely conservative line on moral and social questions - a family equals Mum, Dad and two and a half kids, New Zealand is a Christian nation, feminism, secularism and atheism are mortal threats - and also advances bizarre conspiracy theories about New Zealand history.
Muriel Newman, for instance, has published stuff on the site defending the theories of Martin Doutre, the Holocaust denier and 9/11 Truther who claims that historians and archaeologists and of course 'radical Maori' are working together to suppress evidence that New Zealand was settled thousands of years ago by peaceful white people who created an advanced civilisation but were subsequently wiped out by brutal and bestial Maori. Newman has also gone into bat for Gavin Menzies, the pseudo-historian who thinks that Chinese discovered New Zealand, and who claims that Maori are the descendants of Melanesian slaves who escaped from their Chinese masters and took their masters' Chinese concubines as wives. Newman is the editor of the site, so her defence of this sort of racist pseudo-history has to be taken seriously.
The NZCPR forum is infected with paranoid anti-semites like Clare Swinney, who thinks 9/11 was an inside job, and Sid Wilson, the leader of the neo-Nazi National Front. Swinney alone has made hundreds of posts to the forum advertising her views and various anti-semitic events. I see no sign she's ever been restrained by Newman...
Muzzlehatch: The site sounds like a dating agency for right-wing oddballs...
Maps: Act still bills itself as the 'liberal party', even though it's been making attempts to appeal to the redneck vote for years, and I think its remaining liberal members - I mean the people in Epsom and Karori who think that the free market is great, but don't have a problem with civil unions or the Treaty of Waitangi - would feel pretty uncomfortable with a lot of the stuff on NZCPR. And then there's the Centre for Resource Management Studies, the other outfit Gibbs is raising money for, which claims that global warming is a huge commie conspiracy! But I wanted to get back to the art. As you two know from first-hand experience, Gibbs' farm contains one of New Zealand's largest and most expensive collections of sculptures. There is work by leading Kiwi artists like Ralph Hotere, as well as big international names like Richard Serra. Maxine: Excuse me. You shouldn't talk about big New Zealand names and big international names as though they're mutually exclusive categories. I consider that Ralph is a major international name, as well as one of New Zealand's greatest living artists -
Maps: Sorry. I was going to point out that, even though it is as important and as substantial as some of collections of our larger galleries and museums, the Gibbs hoard exists beyond the reach of trust boards, and curators, and art critics, and even the vast majority of the art-loving public. It can only be accessed at Gibbs' pleasure. Does Gibbs' decision to use his collection to promote his own ideology, which we can perhaps charitably call eccentric, raise questions about the fundamental rights of artists, and perhaps also of everyone who loves art? Do the creators of the work at Gibbs' farm have any right - I'm talking about moral rights, rather than legal ones, here - to object to the way it is being used? What about the wider public? Or can Gibbs do as he pleases? Maxine: I'm sure he'd say he can do as he pleases. But I can acknowledge he can do as he pleases and still disapprove of what he does...
Maps: I wonder, though, what some of the creators of the work which adorns Gibbs' property would think of the purposes to which it is being put? I mean, here we have people paying money to what can fairly be described as a Maori-bashing site like NZCPR for the privilege of seeing, amongst other things, a sculpture by Ralph Hotere, a man whose work is filled with tributes to his whakapapa and to the struggles of Maori against discrimination and marginalisation. Maxine: Well, Ralph Hotere has always had a slightly ambiguous attitude to his Maori identity. He moved far away from his place of birth in Maori Northland. He has often worked in a very abstract style, and he has said at least once that he doesn't want to be considered a Maori artist, as that label is somewhat limiting. As I said earlier, he really is an international figure. On the other hand there is no sign he is ashamed of his Maori ancestry, and I doubt whether he would appreciate the ravings of rednecks who think that the Maori seats in parliament are a threat to democracy...
Maps: But I think that works like the Black Phoenix installation, where Hotere took the remains of a wrecked and burnt ship and constructed a sort of marae out of them, alluding in the process to events in the history of the people of the far north, show that he is engaged with Maori experience and history. Many people saw Black Phoenix as a commentary on Maori experience in the nineteenth and twentieth century - despite the destruction brought by colonisation something new has emerged...Moving on, though, I wanted to discuss the case of Richard Serra, whose Tuhirangi Contour obviously impressed you when you visited Gibbs' farm.
Maxine: It was the only work that impressed us, and it impressed us very much.
Maps: Serra has strongly left-wing political views. He has criticised the 'greed' which he thinks characterises modern American society, and in 2004 he produced a crayon drawing of an inmate of Abu Ghraib prison along with the words STOP BUSH. I think it'd be fair to say that Serra's politics are inimical to those of Act, which calls for a flat tax rate and wanted New Zealand to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Is it a problem that this man's work is being used to raise money for the extreme right?
Muzzlehatch: That's a pretty vague question. What sort of problem are you talking about, and who do you think has it?
Maps: Well I think it might be a problem for Serra's approach to art - I'll come to that later - but I also think it raises ethical questions relating to the treatment of commissioned artworks.
Muzzlehatch: I've been meaning to ask: how many conservatives are going to want to see the modernist and postmodernist sculptures on this farm? Serra is a very uncompromising modernist. He doesn't make any concessions to old-fashioned ideas of beauty. In my experience, people with conservative views of the world also have conservative views of art. They still haven't caught up with modernism, let alone postmodernism. They think that Picasso was a fraud, they think that poetry should rhyme -
Maps: I was googling up some stuff on Gibbs' farm, and I ran into a blog post by Peter Cresswell, who runs the libertarian Not PC site. Cresswell had seen some images of the works on Gibbs' property and become upset that his hero had wasted so much money on these things that weren't 'real art'...
Maxine: And the people who would appreciate the work on the farm are not likely to be in a position to pay a thousand bucks to see it. Let's face it - artists live on the bones of their arses...
Maps: I don't know of too many artists or writers who would fall over themselves to hear Roger Douglas fantasise about what he'd do if he were dictator of New Zealand, either -
Muzzlehatch: Cruel and unusual punishment! The people with the money and desire to attend the event will probably be Act supporters. Hardcore Act supporters. Libertarians, too, I guess. And they'll probably cough politely when they see those huge sculptures that don't look much like Laocoon or David, and wait impatiently for the Douglas speech...
Maps: I still think it's worth raising the question of the rights of an artwork's creators, and of the wider community, over that artwork, even after it has disappeared into the clutches of a private collector. Would it be acceptable for Alan Gibbs to charge money to see 'his' sculptures, if the money went to, say, a neo-Nazi group? Would it be acceptable for Gibbs to destroy 'his' collection, if he got bored with it? I think that if there's a possibility that an important artwork held in private hands will be either egregiously misused or destroyed, then the state has not only the right but the responsibility to step in.
Muzzlehatch: I don't think a libertarian would agree with you.
Maps: But there are only a few of those strange creatures in the whole country. And we regularly see the state intervening to protect pieces of land - urupa, other historic sites, places of beauty, and so on - from desecration or outright destruction at the hands of developers. Often these interventions occur as a result of public pressure. Can't an analogy be made with art?
Maxine: Alas, the public doesn't have the same affection for avant-garde art that it has for pohutakawa-shaded glades... Maps: I wanted to ask you two a little more about your view of what we might call the social function of Richard Serra's art. Despite his politics, Serra has often been perceived as a sculptor who is indifferent, or even hostile, to the people who have to live and work amidst his creations. In 1981 he created a huge black wall called Tilted Arc and installed it in New York City's Federal Plaza. This piece upset the office workers who liked to eat their lunches in the plaza, because it created shadows, and because it cut up their precious open space. Despite many complaints, Serra refused to relocate Tilted Arc. In interviews he talked of wanting to create 'anti-environments' in places like Federal Plaza, and attacked people like the office workers for thinking that they have 'proprietory rights' over the landscapes they inhabit. In 1989, Tilted Arc was pulled out of the Federal Plaza and turned to scrap metal.
Other works by Serra have created controversies similar to the one ignited by the wall in Federal Plaza. By its very nature, minimalist art is devoid of explicit reference to social and political realities. It is perhaps the most abstract form of abstract art. Some detractors of minimalism have argued that, because of its lack of reference to anything outside itself, it is liable to be co-opted by wealthy individuals and big corporations who might be disturbed by other types of contemporary art. 'Corporate minimalism' has become a derogatory term for a certain type of artwork that adorns many office interiors around the world. Is there a sense in which Serra's career bears out the critique of miniamlism I've been describing? Is the appropriation of Tuhirangi Contour by Gibbs another example of the dangers of minimalist art? Maxine: The trouble with your question is that it assumes all of Serra's work is cut from the same cloth, and - more seriously - that the uses to which an artwork is put define the essence of that artwork. Artists change and develop - even minimalists like Serra! As an aside, I don't think Serra would say his work had no reference to the 'real world'. I think he is trying to use very simple shapes and very strong materials - walls made of steel, for example - to express some of the primal qualities, some of the most basic and yet most elsuive qualities, of the natural world. A lot of minimalists have a mystical edge. Serra is probably more like a mystical Abstract Expressionist painter like Mark Rothko than a postmodernist jokester like Andy Warhol.
Maps: So you think it's unfair to try to connect Tuhirangi Contour with Tilted Arc?
Maxine: Tuhirangi Contour may be a step sideways. It may be step away from the uncompromising, unfriendly nature of that early work. But you have to disassociate Tuhirangi Contour from Alan Gibbs. Gibbs commissioned the work, he is using the work for politcal ends - but he does not define the work. The work transcends him. Gibbs does not understand art. Gibbs likes Tuhirangi Contour because it is a) really big and b) a little bit cryptic. It gives him a sense of power and exclusivity to own such a work. But artists have always needed a pay cheque. Don't assume Serra was serving Gibbs' agenda when he created the work.
Muzzlehatch: This size thing does make you wonder. Is Gibbs trying to compensate for something...
Maxine: Serra's work is powerful enough to transcend its origins and its misuse. It will live on long after Gibbs is dead and forgotten. Not only is it beautiful - it is super-durable! We're talking about two hundred and fifty-seven metres of steel. It's strong. It's ballsy, and not in the empty macho way that Gibbs probably likes to think he's ballsy. It defies the manicured lawns and careful partitions of Gibbs' farm. It follows the ancient contours of the landscape, of the Kaipara hills, and not the artificial order of the farm. It is like the wrecks you see sticking out of the sand at the north head of the Kaipara harbour - it is already ancient and ruined and eternal, even though it has only existed for a decade or so. It doesn't create an 'anti-environment', like Serra's American work supposedly did - it fuses itself with the environment, with the landscape. You put your hand on it and you can feel the flow of the hills, and also the warmth of the sun. It is organic. It reminds me of the ancient stone monuments of Britain. They've been tidied up, they've had their surroundings weeded and mown, thanks to history societies and the tourist industry - but they will still exist when the grass is long again, when weeds are growing out of the roads the tour buses run down...
Maps: So art is more powerful than money?
Maxine: Great art is. As I say, the other stuff on the farm isn't memorable - it looks gimmicky, it looks like it's been dropped on the landscape, it hasn't found a place in the landscape -
Muzzlehatch: A lot of them look like the toys dropped by forgetful infant giants. Huge but garish - and childish.
Maps: I wanted to ask about the way Gibbs is treating the farm as a whole. Reading accounts of his efforts to shape his private kingdom - of the vast amount of mowing and manicuring he pays for, to keep the property looking like some English country estate, and of his importation of species like the zebra and the peacock - I'm reminded of the way that members of the bourgeoisie treated places like Kawau and Motutapu islands in the nineteenth century. I think of Grey stocking Kawau with wallabies and peacocks and bringing in hundreds of foreign plants, and of Auckland's upper class establishing buffalo herds on Motutapu so that they could go shooting there.
Sociologist Bruce Curtis gave an interesting paper a few years ago in which he argued that in the nineteenth century the new owners of New Zealand attempted to transform it, by altering the landscape and introducing new species, in an effort to make it less alien, less 'other' -
Muzzlehatch: To feel more at home.
Maps: To disguise the fact that they were intruders in a land which had been settled by another people many hundreds of years ago, and which had been empty of humans for an almost inconceivably long time before that - to escape the otherness which our early Pakeha literary nationalists recognised and described, the otherness Ian Hamilton described when he wrote of the 'soft rainy silence' of the bush, the otherness that Allen Curnow wrote into his agraphobic early poetry -
Muzzlehatch: But why would Alan Gibbs feel so ill at ease here?
Maps: Isn't there a sort of perverse utopianism at work on Gibbs' farm - isn't he trying, with all his weeding and mowing, with his exotic species, with his alien sculptures, to expatriate himself, to forget he is in New Zealand?
Maxine: You don't feel like you're in New Zealand when you're on his farm. The miles of manicured lawns, the grids of gates and fences, the herds of exotic toy animals...it's a relief when you reach the top of a hill and look west out to the Kaipara harbour and to hills of scrub on adjacent properties, and ragged herds of mangy sheep - it's a relief to be able to see your way out of this artificial landscape.
Maps: There is a sense of disappointed utopianism about the whole political project represented by Act. Roger Douglas predicted the party would win over half the votes cast in the first MMP election, but it has always struggled with the 5% barrier, and it is now, in the words of Douglas himself, in danger of 'going out of business'. Douglas, Gibbs and their ilk frequently seem frustrated by the ingratitude and backwardness of Kiwis - why, they wonder, don't we want to revisit the halcyon days of Rogernomics, why do we vote again and again against a new programme of privatisations, why do we cling to the welfare state, why have we failed to become a thriving nation of entrepeneurs, the Hong Kong or Singapore of the South Pacific?
Douglas and Gibbs will be speaking at the fundraiser about what they would do if they were dictator of New Zealand, and in a sense this is what Act has been reduced to - fantasising about circumventing the constraints of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois legalism, about fearlessly and brutally remoulding society against the wishes but in the interests of ordinary recalcitrant Kiwis. In a sense, Gibbs' attempts to transform his farm into something bizarre and foreign are an expression of his loathing for this country he is stuck with -
Muzzlehatch: Well, he's not stuck here. He's got lots of money to travel -
Maps: Apparently he's spent the last few years travelling the world by helicopter! He says he loves the voyeurism of seeing the world from five hundred feet in the air...
Muzzlehatch: The dirty old man!
Maxine: It's the perfect expression of that peculiar alienation that the very rich often experience, isn't it?
Muzzlehatch: Above the world, but not of it...There's something else I'd like to mention. The Kaipara is a strange region. It is full of eccentrics. The night before we raided Gibbs' farm we stayed on the end of one of the peninsulas that pushes out into the centre of the harbour. There was a guy who was living in a hut, waiting for doomsday, drinking cheap beer, loading his shotgun. There was a bunch of hippies along the road who seemed to be obsessed with Lord of the Rings - they had built themselves a house which resembled in every respect the digs of the hobbits in the movie...The Kaipara seems to attract people who can't really live easily in the world. Perhaps it is the nature of the landscape - it doesn't overpower you like New Zealand's more mountanous, bushy regions, it is quite subtle, low hills and a grey smooth harbour. Perhaps it leaves a lot for an overactive imagination to do? Maybe Alan Gibbs is a just a high-rolling eccentric? Maybe his farm is really no different from the hobbit house we saw?