Monday, April 13, 2015

A gun turret, an airplane, and an imaginary obelisk

My mates Paul Janman and Ian Powell will be appearing on a panel between six and eight o'clock tomorrow evening at Papakura Art Gallery, as they help Martin Langdon and Jonathan Jones discuss an exhibition called Shared Endeavour. Paul and Ian shot some of the film that accompanies Shared Endeavour along the Papakura stretch of the Great South Road, and Paul will apparently talk tomorrow night about some of the studies of the road and its history that he and Ian and I have been doing over the past couple of years.

Paul sent me some of Ian's marvellous photographs of the Great South Road and its environs this morning, and told me he was thinking of showing them tomorrow night. Here are three of the photographs (click to enlarge them), along with my annotations.

The Mercer memorial
The Pioneer was a paddlesteamer that spent parts of 1863 and '64 shelled the fortresses of Meremere and Rangiriri from the Waikato River, and supplying the British and colonial troops who had invaded the realm of the Maori king Tawhiao. The ship was wrecked shortly after the end of the Waikato War, but its turrets were preserved, and one of them was eventually planted in the middle of Mercer, a settler town built close to the border that Pakeha forces had crossed at the beginning of the conflict. The names of local men who fought in the First World War were carved into a plaque, and the plaque was welded to the turret. A badly carved and unhealthily pale soldier, clad in the functional khaki of twentieth century warfare, slouches over the turret like some exhausted sentry. 
The Mercer memorial embodies some of the contradictions of New Zealand history. It was made from a relic of the Waikato War, yet it names and celebrates the veterans of another, distant war. 
This country's contributions to the global wars of the twentieth century are remembered with ever-increasing piety on Anzac Day. Like Papuan storekeepers and loggers donning old masks for a festival or tourist ship, accountants and Kiwis who have never handled rifles stand to attention in their grandfathers' medals. 
But New Zealand would never have joined the famous battles of the twentieth century if it were not for the skirmishes and sieges that were fought on half-forgotten ridges and riverbanks in regions like the Waikato. The first Anzacs died not at Gallipoli but at Mauku, a settler village near the mouth of the Waikato where Australian volunteers joined colonial troops in a shootout with one of Tawhiao's guerrilla units. The New Zaland army was built during the New Zealand Wars, and the men who joined its ranks in the twentieth century were often sons and grandsons of the soldier-settlers who founded towns like Mercer on land they took from Maori. 
Just as the struggle between Pakeha and Maori is the half-acknowledged foundation of modern New Zealand, so the gun turret at Mercer is the barely acknowledged foundation on which one of the sacred events of modern New Zealand history is recorded. 
Paul Janman, Ian Powell and I had gone to Mercer looking for the Railway Hotel, where the prophet and guerrilla warrior Te Kooti spent a night in 1889, during his police-supervised journey between Auckland and the backblocks of Te Ika a Maui. Te Kooti, who had just been released from Mount Eden prison, was old and sick; as he left Mercer local Pakeha children chased his carriage, gawking at his heaving chest. 
We soon learned that the Railway Hotel had been removed across the Koheroa Hills to a former farm - a flat, treeless place - where parachutists like to land. Backpackers recovering from skydives have inherited the room where Te Kooti tried to sleep. 
After the departure of the hotel, Mercer's drinkers resorted to the Last Post Tavern, which seems to have been less a tavern than a few bar stools propped against the back of a liquor shop. When we visited, the Last Post had just been renamed Podge's Place after its new owner, a fat and joyless migrant from the somewhere south of the Waikato. Paul asked whether we could photograph of the signboards of the old pub, before Podge repainted them; Podge sneered and shrugged. 
Ian Powell's photograph makes Mercer's war memorial suddenly strange. He ignores the list of war veterans and the khaki soldier, and instead shows us the metal of that forgotten gun-turret curving away towards those soon-to-erased words Last Post. Powell makes us wonder whether the name of Mercer's boozer referred to the old British tune that buglers play beside war memorials every Anzac Day, or whether it might have held a memory of Mercer's history as a settlement on the borderlands of the British Empire. 
The grounded airplane at Ardmore 
Whenever I see Ian Powell's photograph of this air freighter, which was born too late for the greatest conflagrations of the twentieth century and had to content itself with carrying diplomats and politicians between the occupied cities of Japan, I think, a little sadly, of the Italian Futurist Marinetti, and his belief that modern engineers and aviators had created mechanised and aerodynamic incarnations of the angels described in the Bible. 
Ian, Paul and I found this obsolete angel in an unkempt paddock near the main runway of Ardmore airport. Kendrick Smithyman arrived at Ardmore in 1942, shortly after that runway had been laid. The young poet was supposed to learn how to shoot down planes, but after watching a silent, savage film in the base's rec room he converted, and requested a transfer to the air force. In a poem written four decades later, near the end of his life, Smithyman remembered that the film had been made by pilot who strapped a camera to his plane and then flew into a dogfight. As the camera jumped excitedly and the sky filled with flak and falling planes, beauty and horror suddenly fused, and Smithyman, like Marinetti before him, imagined war as a new and superior form of art. 
Smithyman would soon witness a series of deadly crashes, and develop a lifelong fear of the air. After retirement, the freighter was apparently used for the meetings of a group of Air Scouts, but was eventually abandoned. Ian's photograph contrasts the stolidly rusting metal of the grounded angel with a sky where clouds are performing manoeuvres. On internet fora, the sort of folks who show off microlight spitfires and mosquitoes at air shows have sometimes discussed the logistics of restoring and relaunching the plane. 
Today it is antiquarians rather than Futurists who enthuse about flight. 
The 'Bombay Obelisk'
Using the infinitely flexible unit of measurement he calls a 'geomancer's mile', Mormon missionary turned 'archaeoastronomer' Martin Doutre discovered that the 'Bombay Obelisk', a pile of volcanic rocks that adorn a hill on the southern edge of Auckland, was part of a chain of ancient and supersophisticated solar observatories that covered the length of New Zealand and extended to Easter Island and South America. The 'obelisk' was raised, Doutre insists, by the whitefolk who were New Zealand's true tangata whenua, and who were later driven from their cities and farms by a few vakaloads of Polynesians. Doutre's ancient and erudite New Zealanders supposedly gouged and scratched the sides of the 'obelisk' with the letters and words of their inscrutable language. 
Ian Powell's photograph deflates Doutre's speculations as surely as any archaeological report. Where Doutre's photographs of his 'obelisk' tend to remove it from its surroundings, and make it appear impressively tall and wide, Powell takes several long steps backwards and shows the object in its context. Instead of the monument of a lost civilisation Powell gives us a few stones on a low hill. The 'obelisk' is scarcely more impressive than the telephone poles that stride down the hill toward a shard of motorway. 
Powell's photograph has a pathos that reminds me of Laurence Aberhart's portraits of the decaying halls and churches of New Zealand's countryside. Like the colonial architects who gave mock pillars and miniature gothic spires to their modest wooden buildings, Doutre is desperate to see Europe in New Zealand. With their age and scale and white authors, the monuments of Europe comfort him, especially when they are imagined against the strange hinterland of New Zealand, with its razorback hills and silent bush and brown swamps and inscrutable, rain-eroded earthworks. But colonial replicas of the Old World only emphasise the colonial's distance from that world. They are as sad and fragile as the diorama villages of museums. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Paul Janman said...

This is great Scott. Thanks for the plug! Everyone is welcome to join us tomorrow evening at Papakura Gallery on Averill Street from 6-8pm. I'd really like this to be an acknowledgement of everyone who has pitched in so far and a discussion of the way forward for this project. I've got a couple of little surprises in store! Ha ha!

4:35 pm  
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