Saturday, December 23, 2017

After the apocalypse

I've written about my trip to Dunedin for the arts journal EyeContact. Apologies in advance to Presbyterians.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Nuking the Kaipara

The South Kaipara Peninsula is, I now realise, a provisional, unstable piece of New Zealand. Made from sand dunes, undulating sandy loam and clay, the peninsula separates the Kaipara harbour, with its warm shallow waters and mangrove archipelagos, from the ultramarine sprawl of the Tasman Sea. Cook called the peninsula a 'desert coast'. When Hongi Hika led his army south through the Kaipara to Tamaki Makaurau in the 1820s hapu of Ngati Whatua and Te Roroa fled before him, trusting dunes and winds to conceal their villages and gardens.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Pakeha colonists planted millions of radiata on the peninsula. Dunes retreated behind the green wall. Enough grass to feed sheep and deer grew on the conquered territory.

In the twentieth century a series of fantasies were projected onto the peninsula. In the sixties the Holyoake government proposed building a nuclear power station at Mosquito Bay, near the northern end of the isthmus and the lower jaw of the Kaipara harbour. The station’s pumps would be fed the water that flowed in and out of the harbour; Australian uranium would glow in its reactor.

The nuclear fantasy was abandoned, but in the nineties a series of politicians and scientists imagined a tidal power station at the harbour heads. Opinion pieces and position papers were published, but the project was stymied by environmentalists and fishermen.

The Kaipara Air Weapons Range is a more successful fantasy. It occupies the northernmost stretch of Muriwai beach, on the west coast of the peninsula, and is strewn with the remnants of munitions. New Zealand’s air force lost its jet fighters more than a decade ago, but massive Orions still fly low over Muriwai, dropping bombs onto their bloated shadows, and sappers detonate their own explosions from hides in the dunes and tussock. 
The explosions can be heard in Auckland, where they have been mistaken for terrorist attacks, and for the audio effects of film crews at work in the Waitakeres. For the crews of the Orions, Muriwai’s dunes and lupins become the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan; the fairmounts and datsuns that boy racers dump at the tideline become the black husks of some ISIS or Al Qaeda convoy.

I have been talking about the South Kaipara Peninsula because it is the setting, and perhaps also the explanation, for a violent and enigmatic work of conceptual art. Last month I visited the peninsula in search of something I knew could not exist. I was driven by a friend, who does not want to be named, in a citroen whose rear windows had been covered in black masking tape, as a precaution against a disaster we knew was impossible. The day was warm, but I wore a balaclava; my friend relied on a keffiyeh to cover her nostrils, tongue, lips. You could say that we were playing parts, and that, through our actions, we were endowing a fantasy, an unpleasant proposition, with a semblance of life. 
Eight days before we boarded the citroen and drove from Auckland to Helensville, the river town at the southern end of the peninsula, I had received a book – it was less a book, in fact, than a set of documents, each brusquely truncated – by an organisation, or an individual, that called itself, him or herself, Artists for a Non Governmental Arms Programme: ANGAP, for short.

The documents arrived by e mail, in pdf format, but they seemed to belong, aesthetically, to the era before the internet, before digital communication, before high-resolution rendering. They appeared to have been spread out repeatedly on a failing photocopier, then scanned, then mixed randomly. Their texts had faded; their images had crumbled into cryptic blocks of dots, crosses, columns. 

The documents had titles that suggested they were the work of an impersonal body, pursuing a meticulous, even pedantic, strategy. There was a ‘Report on Progress’, a ‘Bulletin of Caveats’, a ‘Note on Vision’. But the voice of the texts was urgent, almost hysterical. The voice preferred repetitive assertion to argument or narrative. This passage, which I have taken from a document called ‘The Question is finally one of Word and Deed: proposal for an electromagnetic pulse’, could stand for a dozen others:
For too long in these islands!/ we are artists living after the death of art/ revolutionaries after the death of revolution/ O KILL KILL KILL THOSE WHO ADVERTISE YOU OUT/ Modernism was not a movement: modernism was a prelapsarian paradise/ once it was possible to imagine a new world/ Malevich dropped new colours from his biplane/ The Paris Communards made art/ Now the proletariat has become a mental peasantry, fed on cow mulch, fed on Tokien’s sickly sweet semen, images of feudal content/ New Zealand is Middle Earth/ Our artists are sentimental artisans, molesting the looms of their computer screens

ANGAP’s texts reek of frustration. They complain that, at some unspecified moment in the late twentieth century, the promises of both avant-garde art and revolutionary politics expired. The visionary modernist artist became the sly, self-parodying postmodernist; the revolutionary socialist became a Blairite careerist. 

ANGAP quotes Mark Fisher’s complaint that, in the twenty-first century, the future has been ‘cancelled’, so that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a post-capitalist world. (After obituarising the future in a series of pellucid essays, Fisher killed himself at the beginning of 2017.)

And yet politics and art have, according to ANGAP, come together in contemporary New Zealand, in the service of a new national myth:

Today peace is our state religion. OUR SOUTH STINKS PEACE! Art galleries throughout Pig Island commemorated the 30th anniversary of our nuclear-free policy. Mayors give out peace awards, the way doctors in asylums hand their inmates tranquilisers. Doves flutter on public murals…

This state of affairs might not seem like something to complain about. For ANGAP, though, the ‘cult of pacifism’ is a ‘calculated denial’ of New Zealand’s history, as well as its present:

New Zealand is founded on blood/ the land was taken from Maori with blood, not axes or muskets or blankets/ young men were blood sacrifices at Gallipoli and El Alamein/ Trucks loaded with cattle and sheep (YOU FOLLOW THEM WITH YOUR BLOODSHOT EYE) roll through the Waikato and Horowhenua towards animal Dachaus/ New Zealand troops rampage across the world disguised as peacekeepers/ Willie Apiata slew scores of Afghans in the name of peace/ PEACE IS THE FINAL, MOST EXTREME FORM OF WARFARE

Despite the occasional left-wing flourish, there is a strong hint of Futurism – shrill, steely Italian Futurism, not the more eccentric, ruritarian Russian variety – in ANGAP’s prose. Like Marinetti and other accomplices of Italian fascism, ANGAP associates artistic and technological potency, and is in danger of aestheticizing war:

Art is magic or it is nothing. Wyndham Lewis wrote poems with a machine gun. Art matters when an artist wields a pistol or a depth charge. An artist with a paintbrush is an artist disarmed. An artist disarmed is a dead artist. A dead artist is fertiliser, for a municipal rose garden. McCahon Angus Hotere Apple: the bright blind eyes of flowering camellias.

A document called ‘Where we come from is where we are going’, includes a blurry photograph of young men and women offering clenched fist salutes. A red beret teeters on a blonde Afro; a Stalinesque moustache droops lugubriously; a Kalashnikov decorates a flag pinned to a roll-down door. Is the image a glimpse of ANGAP’s members? Of precursors? The document both celebrates and mocks revolutionary politics and modernist art:

They took the field in an alphabet’s soup of organisations: SAL, WCL, MLF…Revolution was an art. The artist was the vanguard of the vanguard. Now the struggle has been lost. It must begin at the point where contradictions gather. All power grows from the barrel of a test tube, Comrade Miaow wrote.

My friend had warned that she might not talk much during our drive to the South Kaipara. As we drive up the peninsula from Helensville, towards the massed rockets of the radiata forest, the silence in the citroen became steadily more uncomfortable. After studying ANGAP’s documents I had decided that I needed to visit the site – the approximate site, at least – of the group’s first ‘weapons test’. 

In an unusually terse document, ANGAP had taken responsibility for ‘detonating a low-grade nuclear device’ on ‘the margins of the Kaipara Air Weapons Range’. By doing so, the group claimed to have ‘reminded New Zealanders of their blood inheritance’ and ‘reasserted the importance of the artist’. The document was illustrated by a black and white photograph, which showed row upon row of pine trees laid low. I recognised the photograph: it had been taken in 1927 by Soviet scientist Leonid Kulik, during an expedition to Tunguska, a remote section of Siberia where a meteor had exploded nineteen years earlier, levelling an entire forest. 
My silent friend parked the citroen beside a large signboard that warned we were about to enter the unfenced air weapons range. Bombs of various shapes and sizes were illustrated on the board, like the toxic fungi that populate Siberian forests. It was late afternoon, and as we walked towards the pines the sky was suddenly sealed by steel-grey clouds. My friend knew the peninsula; as a child she had explored its craters and dunes while her drunk uncles excavated toheroa from wet sand. I walked behind her, obedient as a dog. The pines were surprisingly thick, and the light that worked its way through them seemed old and tired, like the images in ANGAP’s documents. Dead needles muted our steps.

Suddenly the ground opened; we stopped at the edge of a pit with walls of red clay. Pine needles cascaded silently over the edge of the pit. At the bottom, six feet or so down, was a lump of twisted metal: the fender of a Ford Escort or Datsun. It reminded me of the mutely writhing figures dug out of Pompeii’s lava fields. A trail of burnt earth, no wider than a rope, connected the pit to the ragged seaside edge of the pine forest. Beyond the trees dunes glowed darkly, the pyramids of some alien civilisation. I could hear the Tasman murmur like a distant motorway. 
I knew the air force only bombed north Muriwai for a few days every year, and I had not heard anything louder than a seagull above the pines. But I was pleased when my friend turned, and started back towards the signboard, the citroen, the road home to Auckland.

ANGAP’s weapons test is a fantasy. ANGAP itself must be, in some sense, a fantasy. But when I entered the site of the group’s fantasies I began to think in new ways about a secluded, apparently bucolic piece of my homeland. I remembered that the pine forest, like a nuclear power plant, is an alien imposition on the Kaipara. I feared the bombs of my own air force, in the way that a Taliban or Viet Cong fighter in a dugout might have done. And I kept adjusting my balaclava, in a hopeless attempt to stop breathing radioactive dust.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Here be dragons

I spent much of today with TV's Heritage Rescue team at Port Chalmers museum, where manacles from local slave ship the Rosalia - mistakenly named the Don Juan by museum staff - are proudly displayed next to a pair of egg cups. Artist Jasmine Togo-Brisby is an Australian South Sea Islander - that is, a descendant of Pacific people brought to Australia as slaves - and after we'd done our interviews at the museum she and I hunted the Rosalia along the shore of Otago harbour, where wrecks rise from the mud at every bend. 

It was a strange journey: my pleasure at finally meeting Jasmine, whose art I have long admired, was mingled with the memory of the instruments of restraint and torture at the museum. 

At Carey's Bay Jasmine and I found a wreck. Two rows of splayed, sharp-ended timbers poked out of the mud. The wreck was at once pathetic and fearsome, like the ribcage of a legendary dragon.

I'm flying back to New Zealand's humid zone tomorrow. Heritage Rescue are taking a Xmas break, then filming more episodes at more struggling museums in the New Year. They are a great team of scholars, renovators, and educators; I hope they can help the volunteers at Port Chalmers.