Monday, September 12, 2011

Derek March's ghosts

[Regular readers of this blog will know that the Hauraki Plains region of New Zealand is one of my obsessions. I irritate friends and family by insisting that they drive slowly across the Plains, and I wrote about the region in this 'anti-travel' essay, which was republished in a recent issue of the literary journal brief. I was delighted, then, to visit an exhibition about the Plains by Derek March and his daughter Briar, whose film about Takuu Island was reviewed on this blog last year...]

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]


Anonymous Edward said...

Good post Scott, that exhibition looks great, how long is it on for or is it finished already? I've got a deep interest in questions of the past-modernity relationship and how we percieve the past. Throw in photography and I'm sold.

9:29 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Alas, Edward, the show ended last weekend! I have a bad habit about writing about art which has disappeared from the shelves...

It's a real pity you didn't make March's exhibition, because he was flogging off his 58 photos for $50 apiece. That constituted, I think, an extraordinarily good deal. Skyler and I three acquired three of the beauties.

Do you fancy an expedition to the Plains when they dry out in a couple of months' time? Besides the scenic splendour of the Kopuati Peat Done and the wetlands which surround it, there is the matter of the plane that vanished in World War Two:
print&thread=1766 (scroll down)

1:54 pm  
Anonymous Mr Puzzled said...

'disappeared from the shelves...'


2:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

am a person who accepts that most scientists appear to believe the climate is changing, at least some reasons for these changes are due to humans and pollution levels needs to be decreased. I also accept that a much lesser number of scientists say that climate change isn’t occurring. However, I would rather the first group be proven wrong than the second.

However global warming is a communist plot.

8:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Oceanic Out-gassing due to temperature or salinity changes directly affects CO2 levels in the atmosphere. As calculations show, an increase in ocean temperatures, (well within the normal ocean temperature fluctuations of 28 F to 96F), will cause the Surface Ocean (defined as down to 200 feet) to off gas CO2 greater than 300 ppm. The data also shows that a simple change in salinity (31,000 ppm to 41,000 ppm), which is also within the normal variation range, will cause the surface ocean to off gas more than 300 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere. Together, these variations could swing CO2 level in the atmosphere plus or minus 600 ppm beyond “normal” CO2 levels. The total amount of CO2 available in the oceans is so immense, that the minor changes in the atmosphere are inconsequential.

9:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott, work on your bad habit. A lot on here might have wanted to see the art and your friend may have got more people looking and buying his photographs.

11:30 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I'm dubious of this nonsense about global warming. Its getting colder where I am. Doomsday theorists used to say that we were entering an new ice age and I recall in the 60s to 70s they were frantically saying the world would end in the late 80s with massive wars and riots because of overpopulation. (But the most densely populated places (e.g. Europe) were mostly (and logically!) the richest in most cases.)

So none of this "catastrophic shutdown" happened or anything disastrous when 1999 turned to 2000.

Some people were disappointed I think!

I recall one fellow thinking that if computer clock's were upset the power generation would stop!

He didn't understand that power generation has nothing to do with computers. (And was confused about computer clocks.)

(As an example. High voltages and metering to local substations ( say 100 kv to say 500 kv systems) are regulated and coordinated in the upper NI at the Otara-Otahuhu Power station (where they do use computers in a big way- as well as PLC systems and much else-) but they, while very important, are not essential for power to "get out" so to speak. Telephone exchanges use computer programs extensively.)

And after 2000 dawned nothing bad happened except perhaps later in 2001 9/11 happened, but for some that was a "wake up call", and for others it was utu...or it could well have been a jack up by security forces and right wing elements inside the US. But it wasn't caused by the date.

No-one knows, but nothing too bad happened, putting that event in perspective.

11:56 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Mind you, in geological time frames (millions of years) NZ (esp. the NI) has been "submerged" at various prehistoric times.

11:59 am  
Blogger Sanctuary said...

Nowhere between the northern tip of Ponui Island and Onepoto bay in the Coromandel does the depth of water in the firth of Thames exceed 35m. Given the very poor environmental state of the water in firth I have always been of the view that a land reclaimation along the lines of the Zuiderzee Works would produce an outstanding economic outcome, creating many tens of thousands of hectares of valuable new farmland, mining opportunities and urban development.

THAT is the sort of public works project that would be good for the working people of this country!!!

12:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your post Scott,I also love to read about the geography...
jobs in new zealand

11:23 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

Uncultured swine that I am, I always seem to just miss good exhibitions. I probably do fancy a trip to the Plains actually, so long as it's not before November.

Oop. The climate denialists have arrived. Granted, I can respect a view that the science is not complete, and that important and large questions remain, but draw the line at silly attempts to use pseudoscience as a wedge against legitimate research. I've often heard variations on how the ocean is the biggest emmiter of CO2, which is funny seen as the ocean acts more like a giant reservoir. Ocean chemistry and physics, and the geological processes which operate on the ocean floor, are quite well known, and the CO2 capture and cycling processes are quite measurable (literally, from dating to environmental reconstruction), so it is odd that denialists would try and use this particular issue. I can only assume it's because these google experts need to read more reliable sources.

9:53 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Climate on the earth has varied over millions of years. As I said this is a political thing not a reality.

Even if it were, the whole thing is vastly over exaggerated in its effects. The Greens have a political stake in keeping it all "true" (and hugely more problematic and scary than it is, we are only looking at glitch in the indifferent flux of (for us) endless Time) and if you say to them (I recall doing so about 20 years ago!) that they might, say, very easily, reduce industrial pollution by simply approaching industrial companies (to install scrubbers etc);they always would say: "Oh but..." and reel off all kinds of reasons that we were all doomed, nothing could be done.

You may as well watch Dad's Army and hear the Scotsman on there say:

"Were all doomed Mr Manwering, we're all dooomed! Dooooooooomed!"

As I said the Dooms Dayers predicted the world would end in the 80s and that included prominent scientists such as Pauling and Erhlich!! (Now they've shifted our Appointment with Destiny a few years on into the future...we all die and disappear in any case so what does it matter?) The Science World is as crazy and and mixed up as the art or poetic world...face it Edward. Scientists are mostly all mad.

You are young and still believe in things which, while charming to see, is rather sad and quaint, and your honest and fervent sanguinity is much of your problem. If you are not thirty you can be a communist or a Greeny, or believe in things, and that is required; but after thirty: forget it, or you are stupid...

As the innovative poet and art critic & curator Wystan Curnow said in a memorable lecture I attended about 1990 "Let's all get cynical, there's no social contract." (And so on, words somewhat along those lines...)

And don't call them "deniers". They have valid points...

For God's sake Edward:
"You're in your sixth year!"

3:11 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Anyway, Maps is probably off to Tonga or somewhere...I thought I saw something about it on Face Book...

But most of Tonga is over here at the moment, I would say!!

3:14 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

yes, scientists are mad, but i prefer madness based on evidence and rational argument to nonsense, wishful thinking, and ignorance. I did not say the science was perfect, or that there wasn't important questions still to ask, but those of us who have studied the science, even in a cursory manner (I'm well aware of past climate change, having a background in archaeology, geology, and now environmental science) find the same old denialist arguments both strange and tiresome. I don't think the world will end. That's hyperbole. But i do think the climate is changing whether one attributes this to nature or humans or both. I'm not interested in the politics of it but the effects.

12:10 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

I might add that while I rather enjoy Richard's nihilistic challenges and repremands of my youthful naievite, I do find you to have a bit of an axe to grind against the scientific establishment, which I suspect taints your perspective on a lot of things. I think you're right in some ways when you say science is no different to the arts (or humanities). Often a false dichotomy seems to prevail from both camps against the other. As someone plonked straight in the middle I think there are many more similarities than people think, and I get to enjoy both. But then there are important differences also.

Using one example of science's 'failure' (the millenium bug) as evidence that the science of global warming is similarly flawed is illconceived. They are two different phenomena, using different methods, underpinned by different philosophies. One was based upon an untested hypothesis but using rational enquiry, the other is based upon a series of observations and measurements from a number of different sources using a number of different methods. It is simplistic to associate the two.

As for me personally, there is enough cynicism in the world as it is without me adding to it. We each of us have internal struggles with nihilism and cynicism (bedfellows, if you ask me), but I'd rather stick to trying and learning and failing and striving than surrendering to contempt of the human spirit. Idealistic as I am. But it is good that you keep me on my toes Richard.

12:58 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Professor Edward: "I like your style! I like the cut of your jib!"

(From a Dudley Moore and Peter Cook skit...)

Why didn't you mention you were built like two AB forwards before! This changes everything!! Of course you are right...

The only thing Edward, you are a bit too serious?

[You realise I have taken you out of your cold, calculating inhuman steel "objective" and machine view of things... and that you are in fact now entering the fraught world of the emotional and the longer can you merely stay as your detached and clinical Vulcan self...]

My interests have always been between science and art and other things. When I was young I thought science and the "scientific approach" would solve everything...

But for example, recently reading Richard Dawkins's latest book on evolution (and that is an excellent book) I could see how he is very much onto it all BUT it left me very depressed...much as I felt after reading "Civilisation and its Discontents" by Freud.

As a teenager one of my favourite things was an electricity set which taught me much about electricity and magnetism etc and also I had (still have) books about astronomy (I'm reading a book about the sun just now), a huge Time Life book about Darwin and evolution, a book by Schaller on Gorillas, (I still have that also and a book by Tinbergen) and various others of the Scientific Book Club I was in. My brother used to get The Scientific American (when it was rather more abstruse than it is now). (He did chemistry and biochemistry and is now an industrial chemist).But we both read Dickens and all that. And my father being an architect and an artist had bridged the worlds of the practical and the artistic... I, my mother and my brother all used to read Gerald Durrell's great books.

Most of my life I simply worked in factories and later was a Lineman / Cable Jointer (think of digging mud or pumping water out of man holes to work in) then a Tech in Telecommunications (I had a Cert in Engineering and a BA so I bridge the worlds (somewhat) Edwardo....

(I have to admit that I probably would never have made a very good scientist however...I could never do any of the practical work and beyond a certain "level" I am lost...But I am interested in the ideas of maths and science etc in so far as I understand them.)

I am allowed to be mad as I am old and crazy and ready for God's chop but you and Tiso have to be revved up!!

Despite all you have been through, you still believe in things...You withstood my withering nihilistic blast of cynic fire...!!

I value science but know its limitations sub speciae aeternitatis...we'll make a postmodernist out of you yet Edward...

4:05 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But Maps is probably living it up right now in a luxury resort with some beautiful wahine or teine in Tonga or one of those sun-drenched Islands under the fabulous Pacific sun....while (others) slave away here in NZ in the real world.

4:10 pm  
Blogger Sensa said...

Lovely photos.

5:17 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes this guy Derek March seems to be an intelligent photographer. Maps always has interesting topics on here...

6:41 pm  
Blogger Greg said...

It is so depressing that the average NZer still believes climate change is a scam.

2:43 am  
Blogger Richard said...

You mean by climate change "Global warming" I presume? Has there been a census on that? Do they believe it is scam or are they just skeptical in varying degrees?

Why is it (even if true) depressing? I don't necessarily believe in God but millions do I believe but that fact doesn't depress me.

If you are depressed then get professional help.

12:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

With God being declared (presumed dead or dying) perhaps 'Belief that Climate Change is a Scam' could replace belief in 'God'? !!

Whatever way the weather goes none of us can do fuck all about it, so why worry!!

Mind you all those pretty mountains in Switzerland might melt ...

Maps doesn't need any Global warming as he's (I believe or guess) in a bloody hot, humid and terrible place called Tonga or somewhere...

The Islanders are mostly living right here in Auckland to get awy from what is a pretty boring existence. Most of theem are dangerously overweight...

I know as I live where there is a huge Polynesin population. Even 12 yearolds or youner as faat .. and imean evry fat. It is getting like the US here. (Has been for years really.) Too much to eat. Too much junk food. Motorcars everyhwere. Violence. High cirme rates.

Some crazy young jokers fired a gun of some kind at me the other night in Newmarket.

NZ is fucked.

12:47 pm  

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