Thursday, September 01, 2011

Travel time and time travel

The recent opening of the Hobsonville Motorway attracted only a few hundred Aucklanders, and received only cursory coverage in the national media. Much of the online discussion about the motorway has focused not on the two hundred million dollars it cost, nor on the commuting time it will save West Aucklanders, but on the colour of the noise barriers erected along its edges. The barriers have been painted bright orange, a colour which some blogging motorists evidently consider garish, if not downright ugly.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

all modern art is a con.

a little kid could do these.

4:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crisis coming in the US

7:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So...the end of the modernist dream in the country - the US - where it was founded...

7:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'The German Army was once not just a military organisation. In a country which valued it’s regional differences, it was the one universal, successful and credible institution. It’s very existence brought about unification and the army was central to the idea of a united Germany and to the exceptionalism of German identity. In the end, this conflation of patriotism, militarism, and exceptionalism paradoxically proved almost fatal to the German people. It isn’t difficult to draw parallels with the nature and extent of German militarism between 1866-1945 and the changing role of the military in public and civilian life in the United States. My worry is the US military is increasingly being seen as the one functioning Federal institution in an otherwise completely schlerotic and dysfunctional Federal government. If you combine that with “Brasilianisation” of US society and it seems to me the inexorable logic points to the US system of democratic government completely collapsing, an enormous economic disaster precipitating a final politcal crisis, and the last respected, credible and functioning institution stepping in to restore order – in other words, a military coup, justified in terms of protecting the “deep state” ideals of the founding fathers (yes, I understand the contradiction of a military coup to protect the US constitution…), and perhaps with an associated civil war/insurrection thrown in.'

7:19 pm  
Blogger Sanctuary said...

Anonymous at 7.19 - if you are going to pinch my post in toto at least acknowledge me sir!

I didn't even know Pah homestead existed. I will check it out as soon as I can.

Thanks again for this blog BTW!

7:43 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Good post Maps -Ellis is great.

When you said James Wallace I was thinking of Warwick I was going to quarrel with you a bit. But Warwick Brown I think has done a lot of good for art. (If art didn't sell for big money it just would not keep going (as well) is a reality I think). I have his 100 NZ Paintings and also 100 NZ Artists as well as I have looked at his "Seen this Century"
While "aimed" at collectors it still introduces some fantastically creative and ingenious N.Z. artists. (One I know (from Poetry reading days etc) is the poet-artist Liz Maw). He is enthusiastic about Ellis in "100 NZ Paintings."

Smithyman has a point but I feel his vision is charged by his own inner emotional reactions, his own personal torment (which still means his poem has validity and is a great poem).

Motorways like all "technological" things or things of progress can "murder or create" They are both good, even wonderful and beautiful, or bad and terrible.

I recall the early 60s when indeed the motorways seemed to me quite wonderful. I was excited about Southern Motorway and the Harbour Bridge but missed the vehicular ferry (to Devonport). (But I also miss steam trains and trams!) When the Harbour bridge was built it (sometimes) took ages to get across and also you had to slow down and pay a toll for years. But it sped up travel North immensely.

Cars are a curse or can be but (but they are also beautiful! as are aircraft). I really prefer car travel to bus. In fact I have just bought another car! I am getting it painted etc

I hadn't heard of the Pah homestead either.

Good images of the paintings also.

1:03 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

have a shit in the toilet and then look at the marks left on the bowl after you flush.

that's modern art.

8:08 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard and Sanctuary,

I hope my slightly sarcastic comments about Wallace's 'quantity over quality' approach to the collection and display of art don't put you off visiting the old homestead: it really is a marvellous place. I've been five times now, and every time I've found things to get excited about.

As well as the old guard - McCahon, Woollaston, Ian Scott, Killeen, and so on - there are some fascinating youger artists with work in the Wallace. I've been particulalry struck by young Pasifika-Kiwi artists like the painters Glen Wolgramm and Andy Leleisi'uao (google his 'Ufological paintings if you want your mind blown!) and the photographer Ane Tonga, who works in Richard's kingdom of Panmure.

There's an artist in residence in the old stables of the homestead and a fledgling bookshop in the main building, and the whole complex is an asset for the arts in Auckland, especially at a time when the 'old' public gallery in the city centre is shut for renovation.

I like the fact that the Wallace Centre is sited in what we might call 'provincial' Auckland, far from the dealer galleries of K Rd and Lorne Street. For some time both public and private galleries outside the central business district have complained that it is hard for them to attract critics used to beating the inner city 'circuit': the Wallace Centre might help to correct that habit, because it is so big and so full of superb art that it simply can't be ignored.

It's a shame that Robert Ellis' visionary painting is displayed so shabbily at the Wallace, but the Motorways series can be found in many other public and private collections, and can also be viewed online.

9:46 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous said...

have a shit in the toilet and then look at the marks left on the bowl after you flush.

that's modern art. "

No Anonymous, that is a description of how God created your brain.

6:09 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:17 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But I must check the place out.

Is your brother still into art in a big way Maps?

6:18 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"It's a shame that Robert Ellis' visionary painting is displayed so shabbily at the Wallace, but the Motorways series can be found in many other public and private collections, and can also be viewed online."

But tell Wallace himself he might well act on your view. (Polite and reasoned) feedback always helps...

I don't know Wallace but I am sure he is not a fool as he clearly ash an appreciation of art.

(Poetry doesn't sell so well though...I wish that say Saatchi would "collect" my EYELIGHT !! Or my poem The Red? Worth 4 million like say something by Damien Hirst!)

6:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Blogger Richard said...

Scott - Andy Lelei's art I have seen at his own house! He joined my Panmure Poetry Club but when that disbanded I haven't seen much of him.

He had an exhibition at the Nathan Homestead in Mangere...but also an exhibition with Mark Cross at the Aotea Centre where I drank so much free punch I got very inebriated and got lost walking around the outside stairs! was a Kafkaesque nightmare...

I also saw something about his work in a recent Listener.

But we were blown away by his art when we first saw it. There were two blokes in that "Club" called Dave and one used to read Yeats the time..and he swore violently (in strong appreciation) when we saw some of Andy's art...

6:32 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Fascinating connection, Richard. What was Leleisi'uao's poetry like? There's a long profile/interview of him called 'Kamoan Mine', which is googable: it makes him seem a very eloquent guy. His explanation of one of the Ufological paintings is gloriously strange and poetic...

11:31 pm  
Anonymous Vivienne said...

Really interesting post - I didn't know about the Pah Homestead and will definitely go visit. Love Robert Ellis' paintings - who is this anonymous troll who keeps posting? Go back under your bridge, triptraptriptrap.

10:42 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott. I cant recall but Andy was is very imaginative. He and a certain Dave Fowlie and another Dave were keen "poeters" or poetasters. We all went to the museum once! D Fowlie was keen on movies so I got to see a lot of interesting movies with him.

Andy I saw a few years back when he wanted to sell books via my online "business" but I wanted 50% which may have annoyed him (but it only an offer). He himself had got into that area (perhaps via Ron Riddell who he knew also).

But there was a poem I read out at one meeting called "The Thing" which was one of my early poems. When he came here one day he said he couldn't get it out of his mind.
Now I was thinking of that the other day when I sent some of my "Museum of Silence" series to Jack and in one I had fragments of The Thing...and then I say in media res "And it drivels on." (A little Ashberic touch)!

But he also mentioned he liked Dryden who I have never read (I do like Pope and Swift etc though) and Evangeline by Longfellow. So he has clearly read quite widely. I was thinking of Andy then and in fact I was reading Manhire's intro to Janet Frame's "The Goosebath Poems" )I liked some of them, but found them a bit uneven and sometimes too obscure (!): and he mentioned how Frame used to type out the opening to that poem over and over again when inspiration failed momentarily and or she saw Sargeson was coming past her hut:

"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like the Druids of Eld, with voices sad and prophetic..."

'Evangeline' by Longfellow.

The and so on. So I thought of Andy then and his interest in that poem and I started reading the intro to my edition of Longfellow's life but the print was rather small even with my new glasses... but he was indeed an interesting and very talented man. A great linguist.

Then by chance, I saw Andy had "made it" to the Listener...
I was a bit surprised.

I thought he had abandoned art...

So I looked online (yesterday) and there is some fantastically good art by Andy on there for sure.

I also see John Pule is on there also. I have read his novel (based on his youth in South Auckland) and I used to talk with him a lot in the old days of Poetry Live. Later I went to a lecture he gave on his own work.

But as I say, Andy had great insight (and a good sense of humour) and I am not surprised he writes well.

3:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

At a guess by the way, knowing Andy's sense of humour "Ufology" has a lot of semantic being the Samoan word for the human rear end "ufa" ... also it has UFO in...and so on...but I don't really know. Be interesting to be able to see those very long works.

In some there is sense of a (somewhat) "Lord of the Rings" fantasy as in the start of Evangeline ("the Druids of Eld") or maybe echoes of Bosch as well as surrealist elements and mixed with certain ironic or "realist" or social or Polynesian cultural elements more and I cant see online easily but he also critiqued (but obviously didn't reject) the fa'a Samoa (as it says on there. So he is a Kamoan!

3:42 pm  
Anonymous clues said...

is richard taylor by any chance a bald man.

5:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you fucking cunts. fuk you!

9:51 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Artists such as Ellis point to the ambiguous nature of technological advances (if they can be called that);but he would see the beauty of aircraft and beautiful motor cars and even motorways but see the downsides. Interesting artist.

10:00 pm  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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