Tuesday, July 29, 2014

RAK Mason and the taste of kava

[Poets often have small audiences, but their words can end up defining reality for large numbers of people. It can be argued that most twenty-first Pakeha New Zealanders understand their country and its place in the world using a set of images that were created in the 1920s and '30s by a handful of obscure young Bohemian versifiers.

When RAK Mason described New Zealand as a 'perilous hostile place' at the 'outer edge of space' in his 1923 'Sonnet of Brotherhood', he was expressing his sense of isolation, as a young intellectual living a long way from centres of culture and ideas like London and New York and Paris. In interwar New Zealand superphosphate was a much more important topic of discussion than literature, and Mason once grew so angry at his failure to find an audience for his work that he threw hundreds of copies of his poetry collection The Beggar into Waitemata harbour.

In the 1930s Mason's sense of the isolation and philistinism of New Zealand helped endear him to a set of younger writers, including Allen Curnow, who insisted, in his poems, essays, and anthologies, on the radical distance of his country from the rest of the world, and John Mulgan, whose novel Man Alone showed a young man wandering, mostly in solitude, through the stump farms and mute forests of the North Island, before fleeing for Europe in search of fraternity.

By the 1950s and '60s the image of New Zealand promoted by Mason and his admirers had been canonised, and was being absorbed by a new generation of Kiwi intellectuals and artists. In his history of cinema in New Zealand Sam Neil brandishes a copy of Man Alone, and talks about the influence of the novel on the actors and auteurs who created a professional New Zealand film industry in the 1970s. Today scholars of our culture talk about a 'New Zealand gothic', and find themes like isolation, loneliness, philistinism, and violence in everything from the films of Jane Campion, Vincent Ward, and Peter Jackson to the music of the Tall Dwarves to the novels of Ronald Hugh Morrieson. 

The notion of New Zealand as a radically isolated society can, of course, be expressed in a sanguine rather than a gloomy manner. In their song 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat', for instance, Split Enz imagine their homeland 'shining like a pearl at the bottom of the world'. Many Kiwis like the notion that their country sits at the 'outer edge of space', because that seems a safer place to be than, say, the Middle East.
And yet New Zealand is not, in geographical terms, as isolated as many Kiwis would like to believe. The same Pacific Ocean that poets like Curnow saw as an enormous barrier is also a road that can connect us, in surprisingly short time, with the tens of thousands of islands of Polynesia and Melanesia. The same writers who bemoaned the isolation and philistinism of New Zealand society in the 1920s and '30s periodically fantasised about escaping from their cold latitudes and exploring tropical societies like Fiji and Samoa and Tonga. 

RAK Mason is one of the few who went beyond fantasising, and visited New Zealand's nearest neighbours. In 1931 and 1932 he travelled to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Although Mason gathered a lot of information about each country, and wrote some important newspaper articles about New Zealand's repression of Samoa's nationalist movement, his tropical adventure does not seem to have altered his understanding of literature or his belief in his homeland's isolation.

I've written an essay about the relationship between Kiwi writers and Tonga for the forthcoming issue of Poetry New Zealand, the long-running journal that has just been taken over by Jack RossI won't put the whole of the essay, which details the visits that the poets Murray Edmond and Richard Von Sturmer made to the Friendly Islands last year, up here now, but I thought I'd quote the first few paragraphs, which indulge in a little counterfactual speculation by wondering how differently the history of Pakeha literature, and by extension Pakeha identity, might have played out, if RAK Mason had been served kava during his visit to Tonga in 1931. Brett Cross thinks my musings are 'outrageously romantic'. He might be right...]

In 1931, when he was twenty-six years old and had already published a couple of volumes of poetry, RAK Mason visited the Kingdom of Tonga on the Tofua, a steamship that connected Auckland with the ports of the tropical Pacific. Then as now, Tonga teemed with punake, or poets, whose works, which typically feature dance and music as well as lyrics, were performed around kava bowls and at events like weddings and festivals. Punake were part of the ornate culture that had developed over the three thousand years since humans had settled the Tongan archipelago. 

Although Mason enjoyed his short stay in Tonga - in letters home he described the kingdom as a 'delightful place', and reckoned that its people were 'the happiest' in the world - he does not seem to have sampled the local literary culture. It is fascinating to wonder what Mason might have made of his Tongan counterparts, had he encountered them at a kava circle or festival. Frustrated by his distance from the literary centres of Europe and by the indifference of his countrymen to his books, the young Auckland poet had often complained that he was trapped in a remote and philistine corner of the world - a 'perilous hostile place' at the 'friendless outer edge of space'. 

In the late 1930s and the '40s, Mason's vision of the South Pacific as a remote, rawly new, and philistine egion would be accepted and advertised by younger writers like Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, and Monty Holcroft; by the 1950s it would be an orthodoxy. 
Might the history of New Zealand literature be different, if Mason had been ushered into a kava shack on the shore of a Tongan lagoon, and found the work of the kingdom's esteemed caste of punake being performed there? Might the young poet's conviction that he lived in a remote and philistine corner of the world have melted, as he drank bowls of narcotics in the warm Tongan evening, and joined the clapping and foot-stomping that often accompanies kava songs? Might he have realised that a rich and highly valued literary culture could be found not just in faraway Europe, but in New Zealand's nearest neighbour? 

And might the punake of Tonga, rather than the Georgian poets of England or the verse propagandists of the Soviet Union, have become Mason's literary models? 
Tonga is a place that prompts this sort of counterfactual speculation. The only piece of the Pacific to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has evolved unusual and surprisingly robust economic and political systems. The kingdom's constitution bans the sale of land, and most of its people still work small farms land granted to them by the state. From the air even Tongatapu, the largest and by far the most populous island of the archipelago, resembles a forest of coconut, banana and mango trees. Palangi make up only a sliver of the Tongan population. A visit to Tonga can feel, then, like a journey into an alternative version of New Zealand history, where Polynesians were never robbed of their land and language, and where Wakefield never planted capitalism...

Read the rest in the issue 149 of Poetry New Zealand. You can hear Jack Ross talking his plans for his new possession on Radio New Zealand

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Felice Quail's truncated journey

A couple of months ago I posted a long and occasionally amicable dialogue I'd had with the writer and cartoonist Rachel Fenton about a character named Felix Quail. As the employee of a World War Two radar station, Quail had listened perhaps too obsessively to the crackling and blipping that flowed through his earphones, and had developed an obsession with poltergeists and alternative dimensions. Later, with the help of a fellow inmate of Tokanui Mental Hospital, he'd invented and - allegedly - visited a series of alternate versions of our world, where history, and in particular the history of New Zealand's nineteenth century land wars, had worked out differently.

Many of Quail's alternate worlds converged on the Great South Road, that route pushed bloodily into Maori territory by an avaricious colonial government in the 1860s, and I had briefly wanted to make him the focus of the film-art project-book that Paul Janman and I have been working on intermittently. As Rachel Fenton observed in her tenderly merciless way, though, Felix was an uncomfortably romantic character, a piece of wish-fulfillment.

Although Paul and I quietly marginalised Felix Quail, we replaced him with Felice Quail, who briefly seemed to us a more credible character. Felice was a young driver for an antiques dealer who was thrown through the windscreen of her yellow lorry at Rangiriri, where the Great South Road runs over the ruins of the pa on which the greatest battle of the New Zealand Wars was staged.

As she recovers from her injuries, which are mental as well as physical, in an Auckland hospital, Felice discovers the pleasures and obligations of books, and becomes fascinated by the literature on New Zealand's nineteenth century wars. Pushing Auckland's fifty-five public libraries and her hospital's mail system to the limit, she reads, in the clarifying haze provided by generous doses of dihydrocodeine, everything from the diaries of homesick Yorkshiremen shivering in redoubts beside the Great South Road to the megalomaniacal memoranda of Governor George Grey to the heretical anti-war tract prepared by Grey's one-time agent, John Gorst, to the historiographical manoeuvres of contemporary scholars like Jamie Belich.
Felice becomes obsessed with the notion that the apparently random and apolitical violence that flows through the modern history of the Great South Road as routinely as traffic - the fights in roadside bars and the botched bloody holdups of roadside dairies and pawn shops and the buckled and glassless cars pushed onto kerbs by dutiful cops - is connected causally to the great, meticulously prepared acts of violence that accompanied the building of the road in the 1860s.

Felice's peculiarities were based partly upon my own. At the end of 1999 I was involved in a serious car crash, and while recuperating I exchanged my undergraduate interest in philosophy and airy art and literary theory for a fascination with New Zealand history. Like Felice, I bothered librarians.

Paul and I decided that, once she had recuperated, Felice must make some sort of pilgrimage down the Great South Road to the site of her 'accident', and do something incomprehensible over the tarmacked ruins of Rangiriri. Paul talked about gelignite. Our documentary, which had become a mockumentary, would show Felice reconstructing her journey in the presence of an avuncular yet sinister police psychologist named Lloyd Wright.

We shot the opening segment of our film in the Auckland Domain, with the dancer Megan Ilgenfrentz playing Felice, but I soon realised I knew nothing about scriptwriting, and Paul realised that he would need two million dollars to tell the story of Felice Quail properly. We've reverted to the documentary, and Felice, like her ancestor Felix, has gone into quiet retirement. Here, for the sake of documentation, is a fragment of script.


Before you made this little journey of yours down the Great South Road –

A pleasant little historical ramble –

Not so pleasant. Before you started down the road, you visited the Auckland Domain.

I wanted to go back.

You spent a bit of time there when you were younger –

When I was a kid?

When you were a patient. I know about the therapy programmes the hospital runs for patients recovering from trauma –

The Domain is an overflow ward. Take your lorazepam and sit on that bench and be a good girl and feed the ducks. Here’s a piece of bread, some stale stuff from the hospital galley, don’t waste it, crush it between your fingers, crush it and spit on it, then feed the little pills of bread to those ducks, one at a time, one at a time, one pill per bird, that’s the rule –

You didn’t like the therapy? Wasn’t it pleasant to be out of doors, with trees and the birds and some water –

It’s funny. I kept thinking something terrible was about to happen.

That sort of feeling is common amongst trauma victims, but it doesn’t have to –

Doesn’t have to what?

Let’s think back to last winter. You went back to the duckpond?

I stayed as long as I could bear it, then went through the bush, down the hill, to the ruined railway station, the wrecked workshops – that’s where I used to go when I ran away from the therapy sessions –

You didn’t think of going in the other direction, to the museum? With your interest in history –

I hate history. I’m interested in reality. Museums make the past unreal, and call it history. The rust on the old carriages, the smashed windows and bird shit in the workshops, the winos and escaped psych patients bedding down there –

You felt at home?

We live in wreckage. We are wreckage.

I don’t understand -

It’s your job not to understand.

I’m trying to be patient, Felice. I could be a lot less patient. I could send you to talk with a detective, if you’re bored with doctors.

I sat on that bench, in my civilian clothes, not my hospital gown, in that bohemian duffelcoat, those boots – I sat on my bench and fed the ducks and felt the sun on my face and heard the wind in the trees – and I remembered that the Domain, this place where kids learn to run by chasing birds and teenagers root and old men walk dogs…well, there’s a small, dirty plaque beside the bench where I used to sit, there’s a plaque that commemorates commemorating the construction of this pond and the nearby gardens by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, which marshalled its army – its gorse bushes and willow saplings, its blue ducks and Jersey cows – in the Domain, on the eve of the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom. It was these forms of life which would continue the work of the solider, in the decades after the conquest of the Waikato, by occupying and subduing native ecosystems, until the only autochthonous creature in parts of the Hauraki Plains was the eel, which hid deep in the mud of the canals which had drained its old swamp home.

Did you memorise all that? It sounds like something out of a book. It sounds like something you didn’t need to be worrying about. Your injuries – that’s what you were in the Domain to heal. The car crash –

The past is a car crash. Rangiriri, Rangiaowhia, Orakau: listen carefully to those names and you can hear brakes screaming, you can feel metal tearing, you can taste shattered glass –

Why did you go back to the Domain last winter, then? And why did you go on down the Great South Road? Surely you knew it was a bad idea? Couldn’t you have stayed there, in your room – We can’t avoid travelling. I can. I haven’t had a proper holiday in years. You should talk with my wife, she’s always complaining –

You sit at that desk with that pile of textbooks and pull the curtain and think you’re safe. You’re not. You sit at that desk and the earth rolls at your feet. The earth travels ten thousands kilometres in a minute. It carries you with it, whether you want to go or not –

Alright, very poetic. But surely I’m travelling into the future, away from the past? Those things that obsessed, that have gotten you into trouble – they’re history.

Time is like the Greek serpent – it eats its own tail. We rush forward into the past. We run away from ourselves into ourselves.

What time is it now, then? I think it’s time to break. You’re on a manic –

It is July the 11th, 1863, and the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom will begin in a few hours, when Cameron’s army jumps the Mangatawhiri. The signal’s been sent by George Grey, who’s drinking whiskey in Government House with Thomas Russell. The signal’s been sent. Can’t you feel the earth throbbing like a telegraph wire? Can’t you smell Martyn’s cottage burning, beside the Great South Road?

[A rustling noise, and then a crash. The tape cuts out]

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Legalise P, but ban the Koran? The politics of Act's number six

Act leader Jamie Whyte has been promising voters that his party can have a stabilising influence on a National-led government. Act will stand solidly beside National, Whyte says, and can work constructively with Peter Dunne's United Future outfit, with the Maori Party, and with Colin Craig's Conservatives.

Whyte might like to check, though, whether all of the candidates on Act's recently-announced party list share his ecumenical philosophy. Stephen Berry, a former deputy leader of the Libertarianz Party who has been awarded the sixth slot on Act's list, has had some less than complimentary things to say about the organisations Whyte wants to work with. In a 2012 post to the Libertarianz-aligned blog Solo Passion, Berry condemned both the National and Maori parties as collections of 'talentless scumbag parasitical busybody politicians' who were forcing an ideology of 'pure fascism' on New Zealanders. Berry had been upset by National's support for Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia's call for more regulation of the tobacco industry.

When he ran as an independent candidate in the 2011 Tamaki byelection, Berry used a press release to promise that, if elected, he would refuse to support any government that included Peter Dunne. For Berry, Dunne's attempts to regulate legal highs made him an 'enemy of freedom'. In a blog post he made last year, when he was running for Auckland's mayoralty, Berry condemned Conservative Party leader Colin Craig as a 'village idiot' and a proponent of 'Big Socialism'.

Even the Act Party has at times seemed too much for Stephen Berry. In a press release written in 2003, when he was a member of the Libertarianz, Berry described Act as 'classically illiberal stinkers' with a 'Nanny-knows-best' attitude to politics. Berry had been outraged by Act MP Muriel Newman's warning that New Zealand was suffering a 'methamphetamine epidemic', and her call for more police resources to be given to the problem. Berry believed that Newman should have been supporting the 'individual freedoms' of P manufacturers and dealers, rather than sending the police after them.

There is a curious contrast between Berry's desire to legalise P and his apparent enthusiasm for a ban on one of the world's most popular books. In a post last year to Solo Passion, Berry mixed metaphors to warn that a 'plague of Islamic poison' was spreading across Europe, and suggested that followers of Mohammed's 'horrendous philosophy' might soon bring 'threats, violence' and 'sharia law' to New Zealand. Berry expressed his solidarity with Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who has famously demanded that the Koran be banned from Europe's libraries and bookshops and that mosques be closed down across the continent.
Islam is not the only religion that Berry considers a threat to freedom-loving Kiwis. In a 2012 blog post he denounced the Catholic church as an 'evil' organisation; in a statement issued during his fight for the seat of Tamaki he praised Guy Fawkes Day, which for centuries involved the burning of effigies of the Pope and the singing of anti-Catholic songs, as a 'celebration' of freedom.

Stephen Berry's sympathies for P dealers and hostility towards Muslims reflect his time in the Libertarianz, a party that has traditionally contested outfits like Democrats for Social Credit and McGillicuddy Serious for last place in New Zealand elections. Now he suddenly has a high spot on Act's list. If the party wins the Epsom electorate and grabs four percent of the vote, then Berry will enter parliament.

There is an embarrassing contradiction between Jamie Whyte's rhetoric about constructive partnership with other parties of the right and Stephen Berry's condemnations of the fascists, idiots, and other enemies of freedom in National, United Future, and even Act.

In different ways, both Whyte's rhetoric and Berry high list spot are products of the crisis of the Act Party over recent years.

As scandals and poor leadership have seen Act plunge in the polls, most of its more moderate, opportunistic members have defected to National or to Colin Craig's Conservatives. The defectors have left a vacuum which has been happily filled by Berry and other libertarians.

But Act's weakness has deprived its leaders of the ability to distance and differentiate themselves from National. With seven or eight members of parliament on his team, an Act leader like Richard Prebble could urge a radically right-wing programme on his National ally. Today, when his party is polling in the margin of error and dependent on National's charity for the seat of Epsom, Act's leader is forced to present himself as a guarantor of stability in a centre-right government.

If he wants his message of moderation to have any credibility, then Jamie Whyte might have to keep Stephen Berry away from the internet.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Occupying, not abandoning, the gallery

Over at EyeContact I've published a review of a recent exhibition at the Mangere Arts Centre by the Tuvaluan collective Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa, and an account of the ideas of that exhibition's co-curator, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai. 

In a series of papers delivered at conferences of Pacific scholars and museologists in recent years, Mahina-Tuai has argued that mainstream New Zealand art galleries, critics, and curators use a set of false distinctions - between art and crafts, between tradition and contemporaneity, and between individual and collective labour - to delegitimise the work of many Pacific Island artists. Because they are deemed to be mere craftsmen and women, who work inside static, pre-modern traditions, rather than creative artists responding to the contemporary world, Pacific Islanders who paint on tapa or carve wood or tattoo are denied grants, space in galleries, and critical attention. 

Mahina-Tuai is determined to force upon the doors of art galleries to Pacific creators like the members of Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa. But in an industry that revolves around individual 'art superstars' who sell their work for fantastically high prices to institutions and collectors, her championing of obscure Pacific Islands arts collectives that produce gifts for their communities rather than commodities for sale is not always understood, let alone appreciated.  

Mahina-Tuai’s determination to bring new communities into the austere white spaces of the contemporary art gallery was reflected in the launch party for Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa's show. To ensure that a significant section of Auckland’s Tuvaluan community was on hand to celebrate the collective's work, Mahina-Tuai and her co-curator Marama Papau hired a bus that drove to remote parts of Auckland's suburban archipelago, collected whole families, and brought them across Mangere bridge. Dancers adorned with kolose performed for these guests, who sang and beat time on the gallery’s walls and floor.

As I read Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai's polemics against the art establishment, I was reminded of a controversy started by the young Christchurch artist and political activist Jared Davidson, who in 2009 published a manifesto called Give Up Art.

Davidson's text condemns art galleries as squalid institutions where money is worshipped and creativity crushed. Instead of making commodities for the wealthy patrons of galleries, Davidson vowed to create an art of 'the barricades', by working to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a better economic and social system. For Davidson, the 'Red' Federation of Labour, whose working class members tried to seize power from New Zealand's capitalists during the Great Strike of 1913, was an exponent of the art of 'the barricades'. The manifesto's conclusion was uncompromising: 

A tree that has turned into a club cannot be expected to put forth leaves. Any artistic practice short of advocating the abolishment of capitalism and replacing it with logic, frankly, should be left to die.

Give Up Art was a deliberately provocative text, and it provoked negative responses from a number of art-lovers, including the poet and literary critic Ross Brighton, the Marxist scholar of Latin American modernism Tim Bowron, and me

I thought in 2009, and still think today, that Davidson's manifesto is a curious mixture of nihilism and utopianism. The text was nihilistic, because it asked us to abandon art altogether, when it could have differentiated between the positive and negative aspects of our art tradition and our arts institutions. 

Because of his justifiable anger at the abuse of art by wealthy, self-interested collectors like Alan Gibbs and his justifiable exasperation at the pretentiousness of certain inner-city galleries, Davidson wanted us to turn our backs on the taonga created by our greatest artists. 

Davidson seemed to lurch from nihilism into a sort of utopianism when he demanded that we begin to practice 'the art of barricades'. As Tim Bowron and Ross Brighton both pointed out, barricades are not being built in the streets of New Zealand in the early twenty-first century. No mass organisation like the Red Feds is leading the working class into battle with the bourgeoisie. Our trade union and our left-wing parties are weak and moderate. Davidson was fascinated by the radical years of the early twentieth century because they offered such a contrast to the uninspiring situation of the left and the trade union movement in the twenty-first century. 

Like Jared Davidson in 2009, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai is challenging some of the official tenets and procedures of the New Zealand art industry. But where Davidson wanted to abandon art galleries, Mahina-Tuai wants to democratise them. And where Davidson could offer no living movement as an alternative to the art establishment he despised, Mahina-Tuai can point to and champion groups like Fafine Niuato i Aotearoa and the communities they represent. For me, at least, Mahina-Tuai's campaign seems both more progressive and more realistic than Jared Davidson's enterprise. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Through the portal to Tongatapu

[This text began as yet another attempt to write something for the new online arts zine Hashtag500. Once again, I've rambled on past the five hundred word limit set by Hashtag's estimable editors, Lana Lopesi and Louisa Afoa. I can no more write five hundred words for Lana and Louisa than I could write haiku for Richard Von Sturmer...]

In the extended investigation of the magical powers of art he called The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, Martin Edmond suggested that paintings can emanate light and heat and even health. Edmond described visiting the homes of several very elderly owners of canvases by Colin McCahon, who sat beside their taonga the way other people might sit beside fires on a cold night. McCahon's miraculous arrangements of paint were, Edmond explained, nourishing and protecting their owners.

Outside my Glen Eden home the temperature has dropped to nine degrees; lamps stain the evening mist a mixture of yellow and green, so that it resembles a vast cloud of poison gas. I am protected from the Auckland weather by a heat pump, and by a series of artworks that I bought on Tongatapu, that flat ancient island where winter is no more than a tall story told by returning travellers. It is a quarter to eight, and I know that, two thousand kilometres away, in a shack that leans tipsily over Fanga'uta lagoon, the artists, musicians, and kava addicts of the Seleka Club are beginning their night's work.

I am sitting under a painting by Tevita Latu, who began his career spraying revolutionary slogans on the walls of Nuku'alofa, was tortured and charged with treason after the riot that levelled much of the business district of that city in 2006, and a few years later founded a kava club for Tonga's cultural and political avant-garde.
Seleka is a play on one of the Tongan language's more scatological verbs, and the Selekarians, as they like to call themselves, are notorious for drinking their kava from a toilet bowl. A disco ball hangs from the roof of their clubhouse, near a Tongan flag defaced with a swastika. The club's walls are covered in large, colourfully drawn lists of the names that the club gives its members and guests - my Seleka name, 'Sipi'i', which can apparently mean either 'Sheep' or 'Septic', sits close to that of 'Sosisi', or 'Sausage', which was awarded to the brilliant, troubled rapper Siua Ongosia, who records under the name Swingman. Ongosia recently returned to the kava houses of Nuku'alofa after finishing a stint on Tongatapu's prison farm. 
Some of the posters produced collectively by Seleka members - I remember a strange dragonwoman, who had emerged from the sea to confront Tonga's patriarchal ruling class - will be pinned to the walls, and a few prints of Picasso and Cezanne torn out of old art books will be scattered about a long table, in between pots of glue and a rubble of crayons. A stereo will emit an unpredictable mixture of death metal, rap, and reggae, some of it recorded at Seleka by Ongosia and his friends.

Tevita Latu will be moving up and down the long table, watching the club's young artists draw or paint or paste. Occasionally he will pause to offer praise or advice, or to grab a crayon or paintbrush and add a fish or star or halo to a work in progress.

Outside the shack moonlight and smoke from umu fires will lie over Fanga'uta lagoon, disguising the sight and smell of the sewage that flows endlessly out a pipe from Tonga's national hospital.

I am sitting beneath an untitled image - a mixture of collage and crayon work - by Tevita Latu. Like many of Latu's images, this one is disturbingly ambiguous. Three women stand on a piece of earth, beneath a sky that begins in a peaceable shade of blue and slowly grows purple with cyclonic rage. The women are topless, in defiance of the last one hundred and seventy years of Tongan history, but they are not the erotic South Seas maidens beloved of the palangi imagination: their breasts hang as heavily and ominously as war clubs.

The women's eyes are huge with wonder or alarm, and their three-fingered hands reach towards the sky. Are they waving at me? If they are waving, are they asking me to rise and step forward, into their warmer world, or do they mean to warn me of the storm that is turning their sky the colour of rotten talo? Are the women dancing, and, if they are, do they move in celebration, or for the pleasure of a powerful audience, like the ancient kings of Tonga, who pulled nubile dancers out of palace performances and stowed them in royal bedchambers?

What are not ambiguous, what do not require interpretation, are the heat and light that pour from Latu's image. This work was made in the midst of a permanent summer, where warmth is as reliable as the tapa makers who beat their bark in every village or the waves that wreck themselves on the rotten teeth of Tongatapu's reefs.

The heat has stripped clothes from Latu's women; the light has bleached their wide eyes.

The Selekarians will work until dawn, breaking only to step onto the gangplank at the edge of their shack and piss into Fanga'uta lagoon. They will sleep through the morning, and through the useless hot hours that follow noon, and then rise, and load their art onto the truck they have salvaged, repaired and painted. They will circumnavigate Tongatapu, pausing to swim, to buy bags of peanuts from Chinese shopkeepers, and to hawk their paintings, drawings, and collages to any palangi tourists or middle class Nuku'alofans they encounter. Tomorrow night they will be back in their shack, pouring the heat and light of their island into new images.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Note from a Martian lake

Hi Paul,

because we were talking recently about the aesthetics of pollution, I wanted to show you these photographs, which were taken from the road that slouches between the eastern shore of Lake Waikare and the muddy ramparts of the Hakarimata Ranges. Lake Waikare is New Zealand's answer to the Aral Sea: always shallow and turbid, it has for the last century been robbed by pipes and poisoned by the run-off from dairy blocks. 
As you can see, the surface of Waikare is now as red as the surface of Mars. In the distance, to the west, the history-burdened strip of land called Rangiriri separates Waikare from the abandoned highway known as the Waikato River. It was at Rangiriri in 1863 that the Kingitanga chose to build their largest fortress, and to make their most ambitious stand against the invading army of General Cameron. Farmers pulling up turnips for cows sometimes still discover musketballs, or the fruit stones that the defenders of Rangiriri reputedly fired during the last hours of their stand. 

In 1863 some of Tawhiao's fighters escaped from their overrun pa by swimming or paddling waka tiwai across Waikare. Today they could wade comfortably through even the deepest sections of the lake. Note that duckshooter's shut, which sits half a kilometre from shore, and yet lacks a jetty. Michael Fay will never found a yacht club here. Auckland weekenders will never park their SUVs beside two-storey baches.
The veterans of Rangiriri are not the only outlaws to have sought and found sanctuary in this region. When Sid Holland's National government used bayonets and jails to break the Waterside Workers' Union in 1951, the wharfies' legendary leader, Jock Barnes, was made to break rocks in Mt Eden prison. After his release, Jock and his wife Fuzz left the occupied city of Auckland and found a home in Taniwha, a tiny village just northeast of Lake Waikare, where they set up a drycleaning businesses.
Let's shoot some footage from that duckhunters' hut...


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A brief argument with myself about twitter

[I posted this a few hours ago as a dialogue with Hamish Dewe. I did talk with Hamish about twitter recently, but he's pointed out (see the comments box) that the text posted here sees me arguing more with myself than with him. I've adjusted credits accordingly...]

SH: I've joined twitter.

SH: Fool.

SH: Why? You don't appreciate the medium?

SH: I was speaking generally. But, now you mention it, no.

SH: You're such a technophobe.

SH: But my problem is really with the way twitter is used.

SH: The fact that so much twitter traffic consists of gossip and jokes?

SH: That I can tolerate -

SH: I've got one hundred and fifty followers so far, but I don't know many of them -

SH: Followers! Followers! Can you hear yourself? You speak as though you stand like a prophet at the front of some millenarian medieval army! Do you think these people are going to 'follow' you into battle against the Dark Lord Sith in the hills outside Huntly? Followers...

SH: Is the Dark Lord Sith another name for John Ansell? Seriously, though, there's been a tendency for several years, across the internet, for a lot of discussion to move from blogs and other long-format sites to social media like facebook and twitter. I'm writing a series of pieces on Tongan art for the online journal EyeContact. Not a single person has commented on these pieces at EyeContact - and yet there have been multiple discussion threads, some of them quite long, on facebook, and a few on twitter. This is a pattern.

SH: Quite possibly a lamentable pattern.

SH: I think that twitter is the internet equivalent of a formula one racing car. Size, comfort, and politeness are all sacrificed in pursuit of speed.

SH: There are different types of speed.

SH: I think of twitter as a chaotic, sometimes snarled up multi-lane motorway connecting various relatively quiet parts of the internet -

SH: A workable fancy. But the main problem with twitter is its antediluvian nature. You mentioned poetry. Did you know that Ezra Pound, a century ago, invented the digital technology we know today? And he did so in a London garret, with a pen and paper.  No frills. Pound smashed the nineteenth century superstition known as narrative, and put in its place a literature that jumped instantly from one image and throught-fragment to the next -

SH: So 'The apparition of these faces in the [metro station] crowd/ Petals on a wet, black bough', with its famous leap from one image to another, is a sort of hyperlink -

SH: Yes and no. Pound and other key modernists created technology like the hyperlink, by experimenting on, by rewiring, their own brains, so that they could leap from one image, from one idea, to another. But the internet, and sites like twitter, haven't caught up with the innovation. Most of the links you find on twitter are entirely obvious. John Key tweets 'Having fun in the White House' and offers a link: you click on it, and find a photo of Key shaking hands with Obama. It's pathetic. The hyperlink, which Pound and other modernists intended as a new way of thinking, as an exhilarating aleatory ride from one to another revelatory idea, as way of connecting distances, of bring farness near, has been subordinated to the logic of narrative, of linearity. Plod, plod, plod. Is it any wonder why so much of the content on twitter and similar sites is so banal?

SH: Is this in some ways a complaint about certain patterns of contemporary life, as well as about aesthetics? There are some lines by Tomas Tanstromer that I love: 'I went to bed that evening/ I woke up at three am, under the keel/ At the bottom of the sea/ Where the bones of the dead coldly associate with one another.' Those lines make an astonishing leap, a leap we are unprepared for, a leap, or rather a fall, from the comfort and security of the bed to the cold unbreathable strangeness of the ocean. They might seem surreal, but they communicate something of the fragility of human security, the sense that something is waiting for us -

SH: There's no need to labour the point. Linear habits of mind breed linear ways of living.

SH: Perhaps, then, we should take to twitter and reclaim the hyperlink, by using it connect surprising images and ideas and people?

SH: That has already been done. Have you heard of Rickrolling? Look it up. Oh, I forgot: you already have. The radical potential of the hyerlink is satirised rather than exploited. I guess I feel kinda ambivalent about twitter. Hamish Dewe, on the other hand...

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, July 04, 2014

Ozymandias on the Great South Road: three notes about Brett Graham's redoubts

[I wrote this review for Hashtag500words, the forum for art criticism recently set up by the impressive young Auckland artist-critic-curators Louisa Afoa and Lana Lopesi. Louisa works at Papakura Art Gallery, and I met her when I exhibited work there with Paul Janman and Ian Powell. We both grew up in and around Papakura, and were soon swapping fragments of local lore.

As its name suggests, Louisa and Lana's site is designed to carry texts of no more than five hundred words. When Louisa suggested I write something for the site I happily agreed, forgetting how difficult I find it to say anything at all in less than about five thousand words. This text is short by my standards, but still far too long for Hashtag500words. I intend it, nevertheless, in a spirit of solidarity with Louisa and Lana's site. Pay them a visit and, if you're less tiresomely long-winded than me, write something for them!]

Ozymandias on the Great South Road: three notes on Brett Graham's redoubts

1. Brett Graham has made a fool of me. Over the past couple of years I've been intermittently researching the history of the Great South Road, rifling archives, turning the complaining pages of colonial newspapers, and talking my way onto farms where battles were fought and graves dug. I've studied the uniforms of the British soldiers who marched down the Great South Road into the Waikato Kingdom, read telegrams from George Grey and letters from Wiremu Tamihana, and held a small, cold musket ball dug out of the mud of Rangiriri in my trembling hand. As the staff at an art gallery looked on dubiously, I recently filled a long table with documents and artefacts gathered during my research. I've assumed that accumulation equals insight. Brett Graham knows otherwise. 

While I have been hoarding details, Graham has been sculpting a series of simple patterns on limestone, that softest and most articulate of minerals. Graham's sculptures, which were recently exhibited at Bartleby and Company under the name Plot 150, reproduce the outlines of six of the scores of redoubts raised along or near the Great South Road before, during, and just after the Waikato War. Together, they trace the path of the British Army and its local allies from the southern outskirts of Auckland, across the aukati, or border, that King Tawhiao had proclaimed near present-day Mercer, through the coveted plains of the Waikato to Pirongia, at the mountainous southern edge of the region.

Graham's show has coincided with the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the conquest of the Waikato, and it says as much about the meaning of that event as a table-load of wordy documents and weighty artefacts. 

2. When Brett Graham sculpts our redoubts, he is depicting much more than a few temporary military fortifications. Empires expand by dividing smaller societies into pieces, and consuming each piece in turn. As they marched south from their Auckland citadel a century and a half ago, Britain's imperialists established islands of control and familiarity amidst an alien, autochthonous landscape of forests and swamps and thatched kainga. 

Behind the high earth and wood walls of a redoubt, the Union Jack could be safely raised, wells could be sunk, grain and mutton could be hoarded, and theodolites and rifles could be aimed. Coaches escorted by cavalrymen moved like ferries through the invaders' archipelago, keeping one island fortress in touch with the next. 

Redoubts were filled with reminders of the colonial homeland. Drury's redoubt, which is today covered by a service station, featured a library of English literature. When he excavated the Queen's Redoubt in Pokeno, which held six thousand men in the tense weeks before the invasion of the nearby Waikato Kingdom, Nigel Prickett found hundreds of broken brandy bottles. 

The redoubts were eventually abandoned, as the peace of the conqueror spread south from Auckland and other colonial strongholds, but the method they represented persisted. The late nineteenth century system of country inns connected by coaches and trains allowed property speculators and traders to island hop their way through a still-alien Te Ika a Maui. The gated communities of twenty-first century Auckland have substituted security cameras for the sentries of the redoubts, and the comforts of the six bedroom home for the comforts of the inn. 

3. Brett Graham's sculptures show us the redoubts along the Great South Road from a point high in the air, from which only their barest outlines are visible.

Aviation is, we must remember, an ancient invention. The Nazca lines that run for kilometres through the Peruvian desert, the giants that pursue herds of deer across English hillsides, and the Polynesian vision of the North Island as an enormous fish are all the works of conceptual aviators, who were able to imagine what their world looked like from the heavens. The mechanical achievement of flight at the beginning of the twentieth century seems almost anti-climactic, beside the adventures of these ancient aviators. 

From very high in the sky, human civilisation looks both monumental, because it has been reduced to a few bold shapes, and fragile, because it has inevitably been juxtaposed with the vast areas of unregenerate nature - oceans, forests, deserts, mountains - that still cover our planet.

Brett Graham gazes down at the redoubts of the Great South Road and sees a few fragile white lines on fields of white. He might be looking at the ruins of ancient Babylon, surrounded and sterilised by sand, or at Himalayan monasteries overrun by avalanches. The British Empire, with its determination to expand across the globe and its claim to divine blessing, seems as absurd, from the perspective of these sculptures, as the doomed kingdom of Ozymandias. These redoubts, and the empire that made them, are simply another quixotic attempt to impose order on space and time.

In his 2008 exhibition Campaign Rooms, Graham protested the United States-led War on Terror, which involved unprovoked, imperialistic invasions of places as distant and different as Iraq and the Ureweras, by covering symbols of American militarism - the ugly and sinister Stealth bomber, for example - with Maori decorative motifs like the koru. 

The sculptures in Campaign Rooms were big and aggressive, the weapons of an artist angrily preoccupied with the injustices of his era. The manner of the sculptures collected in Plot 150 is distant and ironic, rather than direct and impassioned, but Brett Graham's staunchly anti-imperialist message remains. Look at his works, ye mighty, and despair. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Martians, landships, and other irrelevancies

Dear Paul,

 I know I'm supposed to be searching, in a relentlessly methodical manner, for images that we can use in our movie about the Great South Road, and avoiding what I think I may have called, with appropriate scorn, 'fascinating irrelevancies'. It is amazing, though, what fascinating irrelevancies one can find, apparently by accident, during even the most motivated, methodical search of that Borgesian archive, Papers Past.

This image appeared in the Auckland Star in 1940, a year when escapist fantasy was perhaps a necessity for New Zealanders, and for many other peoples besides. The caption read: 'If human beings live on Mars, they would have to have enormous chests to hold outside lungs and hearts...they might also be very hairy'. Martians and their more elegant cousins, Venusians, are surprisingly common guests of both Victorian and early twentieth century New Zealand papers.
Here's a photograph that turned up in the New Zealand Herald on the 2nd of October 1936, together with a caption explaining that it showed 'a Mr L Beavis of Silverdale' attempting to sail his ship, which was named the Israel, from Auckland to Wellington. Beavis apparently wanted to raise money for a more seaworthy vessel, so that he could bring God's good news to benighted corners of the Pacific.

I haven't looked at any statistics, but I suspect that the 1920s and '30s were a time of heightened religiosity in God's Own Country. Widows and parents of some of the seventeen thousand local men killed in the Great War crowded into new spiritualist and pentecostal churches, straining to hear messages from their loved ones through the murmur of glossalia, or rolling on the ground after being spiritually  'pole-axed' by the British Israelite healer-preacher AH Dallimore, who created hysteria at an overloaded Auckland Town Hall decades before the Beatles.

In Man Alone, his picaresque novel about loneliness, rioting, and road trips in the Great Depression, John Mulgan describes the unemployed men who were exiled from pubs and hearths of suburban Auckland to that high, thickly forested ridge known as the Waitakere Ranges, where they were made to work with picks and gelignite on a half-finished, cruelly named Scenic Drive, and to sleep off their exertions in tents raised over roadside mud.
No suffering is evident in this image from 1936, which was produced by the magical and mechanical process called posterizing, and thus lacks both the jaundiced colour that cheap paper acquires in old age and the weary ambiguity we associate with the colour grey. The vehicles on a newly-completed section of Scenic Drive look immobile: the sunshine, which has been strengthened by posterizing, holds them as securely as a bleb of kauri gum or jar of aspic holds a flock of long-dead immortal insects.

Sorry. I'll get back to work.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]