Derek March's ghosts
When I was a small boy I was given a large book about the history of the world. The early chapters in the book were adorned by small black and white images - copies of engravings and line drawings, and a few primitive photographs. When it reached the middle of the twentieth century, though, the book suddenly offered large, glossy colour photographs.
I don't think the bias of the book I pored over as a boy was unusual. Partly because of the development of photographic and film technologies, and partly because of the arrogance which the living habitually display towards the dead, we are used to thinking about the modern era as one of the colour and sound, and the past as something murky and silent.
In Landscape of Ghosts, an exhibition at Titirangi's Lopdell House gallery, Te Henga-based painter and photographer Derek March tampers with the ways we normally think about the relationship between the present and the past. On a large screen attached to one of the walls of Lopdell House, a film shot by March's daughter Briar in an apparently pristine forest plays ceaselessly. Birds call out from tall, ancient kahikatea and float over the clear water of a swamp lagoon. This bright, noisy scene, which was apparently filmed somewhere in the Ureweras, contrasts with fifty-eight small black and white photographs of pieces of the Hauraki Plains, that region of sodden dairy farms which separates the southern fringes of Auckland from the Coromandel peninsula. The photographs are arranged in a horizontal line, so that they resemble, from a distance, a reel of negatives from a black and white film. When James Cook visited the Hauraki Plains two and a quarter centuries ago the region was an unremitting swamp where kahikatea grew as tall as seventy metres. Cook's praise for the 'lofty trees' of the 'great forest' eventually drew the attention of loggers, and after the invasion and conquest of the Waikato Kingdom in 1863-64 the axemen were followed by settler-farmers, who began work on a system of canals and drains that turned swamp into plains.
In the mid-'90s the late great naturalist and writer Geoff Park paddled his way through the Hauraki Plains' plumbing system, pushing past thickets of willows and woolly nightshade and searching dolefully for remnants of the indigenous ecosystem that Cook had admired. Park wrote up his journey in a chapter of his masterpiece Nga Uruora, and it seems to be this book which led Derek March to the Hauraki Plains. March exhibited a series of paintings of the Plains several years ago, and the photographs on display at Lopdell House were taken between 2003 and 2007.
In all of his depictions of the Hauraki Plains, March is preoccupied with the chasm between the region's present and its past. In the photographs at Lopdell House he focuses on the small number of kahikatea which survived the fires, axes, and drains of colonists, and which today provide some visual relief amidst the paddocks, cattle races, and milking sheds of the Plains. Some of the kahikatea stand in heroic solitude, but most are part of the small groves which Environment Waikato has in recent years been working to ringfence. March apparently took his photos while parked beside roads through the Plains, and at first glance they appear casual, even desultory, with their views of tatty kahikatea, mucky paddocks, sagging sileage heaps, abandoned machinery, and traffic. On closer inspection, though, the images reveal all sorts of subtleties.
Like Peter Peryer, March is fond of discovering large structures made up of incongruous objects. He shows how indigenous and exotic trees can form a single pattern against the horizon, despite their different histories and often contradictory needs; he finds odd echoes between the shape made by a grove of kahikatea and the outline of a distant dairy factory; he shows us the carcass of an old car or tractor, decomposing into the long grass beneath a tree.
At other times, though, March counterposes the exotic and the indigenous, the natural and the human-made. A solitary power pole is shown surrounded by native trees, which seem to be advancing on it like hunters; cows shun a grove of kahikatea.
In a number of photos March uses angles which ennoble the Plains' kahikatea groves in an almost surreal manner. By disguising a bend in a road, one photo seems to show traffic disappearing into a distant grove of trees; another image makes a farmhouse look in imminent danger of being swallowed up by kahikatea. Perhaps, like the relict oak forest of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood novels, the kahikatea groves of the Plains have certain ancient magical qualities, in spite of their modest size and precarious existence.
While Briar March's film brings to life the prehistoric Hauraki, with its loud birds and kahikatea pillars and endless water, Derek March's small colourless photos give the present-day region a curiously distant feel. We have to squint at his images, in the same way that we squint at the small murky photographs near the beginning of old family albums. The Marches seem to be asking us whether the old Hauraki might be, in some mysterious yet essential way, more real than the landscape which has been constructed in its place.
Near the end of his journey across the Plains in Nga Uruora, Geoff Park pondered the future of the region, and wondered whether its dairy farms might be ecologically if not economically unsustainable. Farmers had lived for more than a hundred years off the rich soils the kahikatea had left behind, but soil fertility was likely to decline disastrously, given the near-disappearance of trees from many farms. Would the Plains become some sort of wasteland, denuded of forest and yet unfit for farming? If Park were revising Nga Uruora today he might be tempted to discuss the dangers that global warming poses for the Plains. The region already experiences regular floods, and it barely rises higher than the choppy, muddy waters of the nearby Firth of Thames. Will the rising sea levels and increased rainfall foreseen as consequences of global warming turn the Plains back into a swamp?
In his classic novel The Drowned World, which showed reptiles recolonising large parts of a suddenly wetter and warmer world, JG Ballard showed that a vision of the deep past could also be, for an artist with sufficient daring, a credible vision of the future. Can we interpret Briar March's film not as a sumptuous vision of prehistoric Hauraki but as a look at a future that would be - for human beings, at least - apocalyptic? Do Derek March's photographs show us a landscape and a civilisation which are less robust than we imagine? Will humans become the ghosts, the next time the Hauraki is transformed?
[Posted by Maps]