Travel time and time travel
Perhaps we should not be surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for Auckland's newest motorway. Roads in general, and motorways in particular, have for some time been out of fashion in this country. The protracted campaign against the Wellington motorway bypass symbolises the suspicion with which the motorcar and its habitat are now regarded by many Kiwis. At best, motorways are an irritation, with their obnoxiously monumental architecture and staccato music; at worst they are, in the words of one leader of the anti-bypass campaign, "a dire threat to the planet".
New Zealanders used to feel differently about motorways. The openings of successive stages of Auckland's Southern Motorway in 1953, 1956, and 1965 received massive media coverage, and brought excited crowds onto the fresh tarseal. The opening of the harbour bridge on Auckland's Northern Motorway generated even greater excitement, as a hundred thousand or so people took the opportunity to walk across the water.
For Aucklanders of the fifties and sixties, motorways represented much more than transport routes. Like supermarkets, television sets, and jet aeroplanes, the motorway symbolised the excitement and optimism of a time when technological innovation and economic growth seemed ineluctably linked. With their soaring overpasses and perpetual hum, motorways were seen as twentieth century monuments to rival the great railway stations of the Victoria era. It is appropriate that Julia Gatley included Auckland's motorways in the celebration of New Zealand's twentieth century architectural heritage she published in 2010 under the defiant title Long Live the Modern.
But even in those postwar decades the new motorways made some Kiwis nervous. One evening in the winter of 1965 Kendrick Smithyman found himself driving home from the Waikato along the new stretch of the Southern Motorway which extended into the dairy farming and horticultural country of Ramarama and Drury. In the poem he called 'First Steps Into a Private Bestiary' Smithyman described the new route into Auckland:
Dismembered, the Beast — not comfort to see
the City discharged into fragments,
the fragments severally broken as in nightmare:
Reason cannot cope with this. Nor may faith...
Saw: the Beast articulate again, segment by segment,
car by car, hurtling from, carrying
its own darkness. Eyes of pain impersonal
but the lights, of menace.
For Smithyman, a critic of many features of modern society, the massive traffic flows of big twentieth century cities seem to have symbolised a chaos that was private and psychological, as well as social and political.
Smithyman's attitude might have seemed eccentric in the mid-sixties, but it is widespread today, in New Zealand and in the rest of the West. The boom years of the fifties and sixties, with their low unemployment rates and steadily rising wages, have long since gone, cars are expensive to run and hazardous to the environment, and in the era of CCTV and government databases the sinister applications of technological advances have become clear. A widespread longing for a return to an idealised pre-industrial society has replaced the old belief that modernity would bring ever greater prosperity and happiness.
A couple of days after the opening of Hobsonville Motorway, Skyler's parents arrived in Auckland for a short holiday. We made the mistake of trying to drive them from the west of the city, where they had holed up, to the Wallace Arts Centre in Mount Roskill. A series of roadblocks made from slabs of orange plastic and manned by men in orange vests held us for three quarters of an hour on Stoddard Road. As we sat in the traffic, smelling the meat cooking in kebab bars and hearing the call to prayer wafting from Auckland's largest mosque, Skyler's father took inordinate pleasure in contrasting the efficient traffic flows of his adopted home of Hamilton with the "utter chaos", "dangerous drivers", and "hopeless congestion" of the city where he raised his kids. For Skyler's father and for countless other Kiwis, the roads and motorways of Auckland have come to symbolise frustration and fear, rather than prosperity and modernity.
After struggling along Hillsborough Road and avoiding a series of motorway on-ramps, we reached one of the grandest of Auckland's grand old homes. Pah Homestead's tower offers views north to One Tree Hill, and southwest across the Manukau to the Awhitu Peninsula. Magnolias, oaks, and Moreton Bay fig trees are arranged across its undulating grounds. For Skyler's parents the homestead was an overdue respite from the roar and blur of Auckland's traffic.
A year ago Pah Homestead became the rather unlikely location for New Zealand's largest display of contemporary art, as a trust created by long-time collector James Wallace opened a gallery and a cafe there. Looking about the place with Skyler and her parents, I wondered whether the groups of pensioners taking tea on the homestead's vast verandah had been attracted by the Victorian architecture and bucolic surroundings or by the McCahon and Cotton canvases that hung inside. James Wallace has always been better at buying art than displaying it, and the walls of some of the rooms of the old homestead seem almost to sag from the weight of all the canvases hung from them. It would be all too easy, then, to miss the relatively small painting by Robert Ellis that currently sits rather too close to a grand wooden door in one of the homestead's downstairs rooms. But Ellis' painting, which is part of the Motorway series he created in the sixties and early seventies, does not deserve to be overlooked. Despite its inauspicious location, it can tell us a great deal about the place that Auckland has become in recent decades.
Robert Ellis was born in Northampton at the end of the twenties. He was drafted into Britain's armed forces at the age of eighteen, but the Second World War was by then over, and he found himself attached to a photographic unit of the RAF and riding unarmed bombers over German cities in broad daylight. Ellis, who had already spent a couple of years at art schools, was charged with snapping photos of the ruined factories and cratered roads of modernist metropolises like Berlin and Hamburg, so that postwar cartographers had something to work from.
A decade later Ellis came to New Zealand to teach and paint. He took a job at Elam Art School, bought a car, and learned to drive on Auckland's new motorway. Although Ellis' photographic raids on Germany had given him a fascination with the 'God's eye view' of landscape that aviation makes possible, he only began to paint 'from the air' after visiting Australia in the early sixties.
In the years after World War Two a number of young Australian artists had begun to take to the air. Sidney Nolan, for instance, flew across vast areas of the Outback with mail service planes in the late forties, and then brought the orange and red spaces of the Outback to Bohemian Melbourne and Sydney in a series of exhibitions.
Excited by Nolan's work, and perhaps also by the mythological cartography of traditional Aboriginal painting, Ellis began in the sixties to produce aerial views of his adopted hometown. He was particularly preoccupied with Auckland's new motorways, and with the networks of smaller roads which fed and drained them.
Ellis' portraits of Auckland were remarkable not only for their aerial perspective but for their monumental quality. With its thick orange and red and black lines and its obscure tracts of white, Ellis' Auckland reminds us of the Australian Outback's dry riverbeds and wastes of salt, or the ruins of some ancient Middle Eastern city viewed from a great height. In the painting on display at the Wallace Art Centre, a number of dark-coloured roads - are they 'ordinary' roads, or full-blown motorways? - flow close to one another, like the channels in a river delta. They appear to drain into, or perhaps collide with, a mysterious white suburb or wasteground.
Ellis' vision of Auckland was particularly audacious at a time when many Pakeha artists were still depicting human settlement in New Zealand as something fleeting and small-scale. Ellis' monumental Auckland looks strange indeed beside the shearing sheds and hunters' huts that Woollaston and McCahon occasionally located on the margins of their landscapes. Critics have disagreed about the tone of Ellis' Motorway paintings. Some have seen the works as celebrations of Auckland's postwar expansion; others, though, have found in them prophecies of turmoil and ruin. In the catalogue essay for the first exhibition of the works, Hamish Keith presented them as evidence that the 'arteries' of the young city of Auckland were already 'hardening', and would one day become dangerously clotted. Keith was writing in the same year that Smithyman had his vision of Auckland as a 'beast'.
Painting from an Olympian height, and preferring broad outlines to details, Ellis left space for both readings of his works. Looking at these paintings we can move between the optimistic vision of the future that was dominant in the postwar decades to today's fearful scepticism about industrial society. Like Monet and Magritte, Ellis is a painter who can make us into time travellers.