New Zealand Report
October 21. I touch down at 'the land of the Long white cloud', as the Maoris, whose Polynesian culture and ceremonial life once flowered here - remote and self-sufficient and unmolested until the forward plunge of white civilization appeared 150 years ago - used to call these islands. Christchurch, the first of four major centers I shall be visiting as part of my New Zealand Arts Council-sponsored lecture tour, looks a typical colonial city - at the moment, raging with rhododendron. It's England all over again, except for the cathedral whose design is modelled on that of Caen in Normandy. A feeling comes over me that I really am at the bottom of the world, the end of the track, indicated by details like the fact that, although it's late in October, the most recent magazines for sale are dated July and August. If there is little current reading matter to be had, however, there is plenty of prehistoric landscape, in the form of glacial mountains, fiords, volcanoes, geysers and boiling thermal pools (in which early Maori tribes cooked their food).
My hotel overlooks a winding English brook called the Avon, bordered by willows which, according to Mark Twain, are the most impressive to be found in the world. A cold wind tears across Cathedral Square as I wait for Ian Hunter, an Irish sculptor living in Australia. We chat over a meal about his recent project coordinating ANZART, probably the biggest international arts event ever to be held in New Zealand - an encounter between Australian and New Zealand artists that took place in Christchurch last August. The idea emerged in response to a need for better communication between artists from the two countries, and a desire to reverse the trend of New Zealand artists always going one-way to Australia, whereas the Aussies remain indifferent and rarely, if ever, bother to cross the Tasman to find out what their counterparts in New Zealand might be doing. For despite what should be a special relationship (based on a shared colonial heritage) between the two countries, they have grown apart 'dramatically' over the last ten years. So, with financial assistance from the Arts Councils of both countries and the good will of QANTAS, ten Australians were brought over to work and exhibit jointly with New Zealand artists; and for two weeks, there were non-stop presentations of slides, performances, video, films, concerts of electronic music and installations of work - the focus being on new media - interspersed with talks and seminars. The public was provided with a rare occasion to see experimental art in Christchurch.
October 22. Yesterday I knew nothing about my subject - New Zealand, its art and its artists - a quite implausible subject, really unless one is actually present on the scene; today, therefore, sees me bridging the gap from ignorance to knowledge as I set out to visit some museums and galleries. My first stop is the Canterbury Society of Arts, where I make friends with the Director, Nola Barron. There are, it seems, three different kinds of exhibition space in New Zealand: civic museums funded by City Councils, private dealer galleries and institutions like the C.S.A. gallery (formed in 1880) that are supported partly by members' subscriptions (in the tradition of English Royal Academies), partly by commissions from sales and partly by private donations and grants. This particular building houses up to six exhibition areas in which ninety shows a year are mounted. Artists are expected to contribute a share of their expenses. Nola shows me a current installation by an artist from Christchurch, Pauline Rhodes: a modular sculpture of rusted steel plates and wood that extends laterally across the length of the room, climaxing in an enormous backdrop of paper squares that have been pieced together quiltwise across the wall, having been imprinted first with patterns of rust transferred (through wetting the paper) from the steel plates. Rhodes, whom I meet later at my lecture, encompasses both indoor and outdoor activities in her combining and recycling of natural materials. A previous installation, entitled Stone Movements, consisted of a series of arrangements of cut hardwood and volcanic rock, gathered from the hills around the Banks Peninsula where she lives, and returned, after the exhibition, to the landscape from where it had been taken. Part of Rhodes's 'artistic' activity includes regular long-distance running in these hills, running being a metaphor, she would assert, for the discipline of the artist keeping going, instead of exploding briefly like a rocket - the notion of unbounded leaps tying in with the infinite extension of spaces in sculpture, the modular repetitions forming an organic continuum with the sequences and routines of daily actions.
My next stop is the McDougall Art Gallery, a public museum where I am to lecture twice today. According to its director, John Coley, the museum houses a substantial collection of both New Zealand and European paintings; it also has a budget of $30,000 a year to purchase contemporary art. Nineteenth century New Zealand painting owes its origins to the British watercolour tradition, and the intense, spacious and unpopulated landscape became a traditional form of art that has continued into the present day. There is also a travelling exhibition called PULP, of handmade, moulded and cast papers from all over the world. Except for the von Thyssen collection that toured recently throughout New Zealand, foreign exhibitions are usually limited to prints and graphics; not many works of international stature ever make it this far. I pick my way through what is hanging of the permanent collection, but since I am at heart more intrigued by the manufacture of buffalo humps than the often indifferent disposition of pigment on a plane, the real seductions for me are to be found next door, in the Antarctica Hall of the Canterbury (ethnographic) Museum. Here one can see all the resonant memorabilia from nineteenth century British and French expeditions to the South Pole, including Cook's, Scott's, Amundsen's and Byrd's: crude ice axes and carved wooden snow goggles, blubber-impregnated gloves and caribou-hide sleeping bags, stuffed huskies and penguin eggs. And I by dreaming, bring the Arctic wastes to the breakfast table.
October 23. This morning is spent driving around the hills surrounding Governor's Bay, with tan and a local artist, Rosemary Campbell. We hike a short way up a trail rimmed with swordlike clumps of flax, and pungent with the smell of wild flowering currant. High up, we can look down upon the archipelago slumped below, idle in a turquoise sea. Hunting up some sandwiches for a picnic on the beach at nearby Sumner, we talk once more of ANZART, and the differences between Oz and New Zealand artists. Ian remarks about New Zealanders that they incline less towards formalist concerns, that their art is increasingly heedful of political and ecological issues. On the way back to town, we make a brief visit to the only private gallery in Christchurch, Brooke-Gifford. Private galleries have only been in existence in New Zealand since the mid-1960s; there is just one in Dunedin, and about half a dozen in Wellington and Auckland. Art has no past here. We enter an empty room, empty except for the network of tapes marking off points on the wait and floor, and a few piles of crumpled-up black paper: the work of a local graduate student. It's a strange nexus, whose meaning seems as undecipherable as an Etruscan text. For some reason, I think of Wittgenstein, and how he died. He was reading Black Beauty, and his last words were, 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life'.
At 3 o'clock it is time to meet Phillip Trusttum ' one of the best known painters in mid-career in the country, Phillip's energy, as he crosses the threshold of the front door, comes at me from all sides. Knowing in advance of our mutual passion for tennis, we set out immediately for the courts. Later on, we rummage among his recent works, which are lying about like autumn leaves, in piles on the floor - a disorder full of promise, like an orchestra tuning up. There are large paintings on paper, which seem to have been taken to pieces, and fragments of cottage that can be pinned up improvisationally on the wall. Everything about Trusttum, including his work, is spontaneous and swift, exuding positive energy and confidence, Prior to these recent works on paper were large paintings on unstretched canvas, also pinned informally to the wall. These new works look abstract, a variant of pattern painting, but with Trusttum, there is always a subject hidden - something personal, however oblique the reference, like his car or his children's toys. He lives in his object. The theme of this recent group turns out to be 'tennis'-patterned socks and racket strings and court markings - nothing for Trusttum resists the lure of the senses, is not provocative to the eyes.
Trusttum began painting in the 1960s, and his earlier work quite deliberately raids the territory of the other painters like Klee and Kandinsky, Beckmann, Hoffman, de Kooning and Van Gogh. Interior/Exterior, for instance, is a view of Trusttum's garden, as seen through the studio window, at the same time that it is a dialogue with Van Gogh's Post-impressionist style. The painting No is as turbulent and explosive in its painted unruliness as any American action painting, and it burns incandescently, as if from a fire of wormwood and thorns. Trusttum feels no need to maintain any continuity of style, or to claim a particular territory of his own - to specialize, as it were, and then to feed off himself. He enjoys changing styles as frequently as Picabia enjoyed changing ideas - as often, that is, as he changes his shirts.
October 24. Flying into Dunedin, like Montezuma surrounded by solitary hills. Dunedin is the second largest city of South Island after Christchurch: a university town founded in 1869 by Scots who wished to make it into the 'Edinburgh of the South'. I am met by Frank Dickinson, Director of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, where I am to lecture tomorrow. Among its European Treasures, the museum possesses a couple of Augustus Johns and a small Tissot. There is also an exhibition by a 38-year-old local artist, Gretchen Albrecht - from the look of these pictures, New Zealand's Helen Frankenthaler. Her earlier work, it seems, was figurative; and more recently, she has abandoned stain painting, those intermingling colour fields in luminous colours, for a geometric mode - the colors more opaque and not freely flowing.
The evening is passed with Peter Leech, a young British critic living permanently in Dunedin and as full of conjectural leaps as a pond of frogs; and Andrew Drummond, a young artist in the vanguard of New Zealand conceptual and performance works, who describes himself as an itinerant artist of temporary fixed abode in Dunedin. Post-object art, according to Peter Leech, is the strongest and most creative trend, the most exuberant art, in New Zealand: painting tends to be too solemn (except for Trusttum's), and derivative of international styles, whereas post-object art has a more radical identity. At ANZART, Leech gave a lecture on how post-object art subverts beliefs about the relation between art and society. One of the purposes of Duchamp's ready-mades, according to Leech, was to deny the audience a motive for acquiring the works, since bottle racks and urinals could be acquired in other, non artistic ways. Post-object art goes further than this and denies the audience not merely a motive for, but actually the possibility of acquiring the works, since there is nothing in conceptual works to acquire. There is instead an attempt to subvert the social structure, by removing art from the hold which the institutions of the art world have exercised over it. Post-object art has tried to deprive galleries of their control and authority over art: but, as Leech (and others) have pointed out, the movement was largely killed off by the very forces it sought to subvert. Of course, the so-called lessons of conceptual art have little bearing on artists' motives in a country like New Zealand, where there is hardly a need to retreat from high-powered methods of art promotion - where, for instance, the one art magazine, Art New Zealand, has only been in existence since 1976. This is far removed from our own tendency, however, to trivialize radical art through media hype, and by converting it into novelty consumer goods, thus causing it to forfeit its urgency and vitality.
October 25. A beautiful blue-sky Sunday; Peter and Andrew and their girlfriends have organized a picnic, and we head out over hills that are endlessly green and distant, dotted with electric yellow gorse, and of a grandeur intensified to a degree that puts all other landscapes aside. Our destination is Boulder Beach, a place where penguins nest. (I only managed to see one, and it fled at my approach, slipping and sliding up the muddy cliff.) Sausages materialize, a fire is constructed, and the fellows swim naked in the icy sea. Back to civilization a few hours later, quite ruined, to lecture at the Art Gallery, after which Andrew takes me to visit his studio.
There's not much to see. Drummond, who is 29 and has been a full-time artist only for the last three years, has travelled extensively in Europe and America, and worked with Joseph Beuys in the 1975 Edinburgh Festival. His work - a hybrid of performance, sculpture and photo-documentation - is diffuse, and heavily ritualized, often with an underlying political or moral purpose. Sometimes it verges on impenetrability which, as Peter Leech points out, is because it is frequently unclear to what, exactly, one is supposed to attend - the event or the idea, the performance or its subsequent documentation and 'relics'. Andrew produces a 'relic' from a work called Vein - a copper-framed canvas backpack elaborated with stripped willow branches that were used as divining rods. Vein involved the insertion of 500 meters of copper tubing, that was first wrapped up in cotton wool, into the earth across the area of a disused water race (one of hundreds built during the 1860's to provide water in the extraction of gold from the land), overlooking Lake Mahinerangi in Otago. That, and the subsequent construction of a hydroelectric dam had destroyed the natural ground cover of tussocks, which has had disastrous effects on the ecology of the region. Symbolically, it is as if placing the vein of copper back into the earth were a natural offering, restoring to it the skin and nerves of which it had been emptied. Copper, according to Drummond, is the most active metal and has chemical and spiritual properties. 'I don't want to do the sort of work where people come along and say, "isn't that pretty". I'm not a decorative artist, I'm dealing with the energies of life.' A lot of his early work used skin and bones. From that developed his interest in the vein as the physical, life-transport system. At specific intervals the copper tube was joined above the surface of the land, and visibly held down by forked willow sticks. The joins were then sealed by Drummond with hot beeswax and muslin - muslin for its similarity to membrane and its porous qualities, and beeswax for its malleability - as he wandered through the landscape like Daniel Boone serving his traps, symmetrical and instinctive in his ritualized repossession of the land, and wearing on his back the pack designed for keeping beeswax at melting point and carrying the muslin rolls.
October 26. Peter Leech and I tape record an interview in his office at the University of Otago. Peter stresses the effort of New Zealand artists to embrace particular New Zealand qualities, to make something incomparable out of them, most particularly the landscape and Maori (pre-white) culture. He delineates the characteristics of self-reliance, self-determination and practical ingenuity as the leitmotives of people here-as indeed, they once were in America too, in more frontier times, before the social structures had sunk so deeply into the individual psyche that the primary reality artists came to recognize, and rely on, was an artificially created 'art World' that had shaped their experience in the first place.
That afternoon I fly to Wellington, capital city of the North Island and overlooking Port Nicholson (Wellington Harbour), in time to dine with John McCormack, Visual Arts Officer of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, and the organizer of my trip. We have dinner in an Italian restaurant with John's two houseguests, one of whom is currently performing in Amadeus, Peter Shaffer's play about the Viennese court composer Solieri, who first jealously crushes, and then murders Mozart-in one final shriek of starvation at the lack of his own musical talent.
October 27. Up early for a quick walk along the sparkling, windswept harbor edged with Victorian and modern houses that cling to the steep surrounding hillsides. Wellington is famous for its strong and boisterous winds, caused by a gap in New Zealand's main mountain chain. John arrives to take me on a tour of the galleries. As we make the rounds of Photoforum a photographer's gallery, and the Women's Gallery, John tells me that most of the top museum jobs in New Zealand are held by men, and that most of the major critics too, are male. We then visit the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Cuba Street, one of the more successful private galleries. Peter McLeavey handles the work of a young Auckland artist, Richard Killeen, whose Black Insects, Red Primitives I had first seen in the Public Art Gallery in Dunedin, which owns the work. It consists of emblematic aluminium cutouts, sprayed with automobile enamel, that may be assembled in any arrangement on the wall. Abandoning painting a few years ago, Killeen evolved an inventive style using cutouts, often combining both figurative and abstract elements.
Learning of my interest in Killeen, Peter McLeavey offers to install one especially for me to look at. It arrives from the storage room in its dismantled state-that is, with the individual cutouts neatly packed away in a specially constructed wooden suitcase. Instructions are inside for assembling the work: 'Hang in a group over small nails, any order'. A bit like Mallarmé's throw of the dice. Chance has always interested Killeen. In 1970 he used playing cards and dice to work out the composition of his paintings instead of composing them himself. Soon the entire wall comes alive, as if a language were being created in front of one's eyes, full of clarity and enigma; in its diverse capacity for association, one can discern plants and insects, elementary symmetries and contrasts, precisions of judgement. The crystalline abstract shapes, with their underlying figurative complexity, call to mind the pristine cutouts of Matisse, and the latent, distilled shapes of Elisworth Kelly. That evening, we attend a wonderful performance of Amadeus.
October 28. The morning is divided between a visit to the National Art Gallery - currently showing Phillip Trustturn's work together with a big exhibition of twentieth-century British art from the permanent collection - and the National (Ethnographic) museum next door. As before, it is to the latter, from which a thousand visions emerge and where one can see the grand spectacle of Maori and South Pacific culture, including relics from Captain Cook's voyages, that I am drawn. Cook circumnavigated the islands and mapped the New Zealand coast in 1769-70. He was the greatest observer and collector of Maori life, a subject which had begun to possess me, like a slow sea fog.
Since tribal welfare among the Maori depended on a good relationship with the occult powers, the arts were used to link man with the unseen world. Practitioners of specialized arts like tattooing and woodcarving were called tohunga experts; and the arts of the tohunga were regarded as supernatural activities involving communication with the spirit world. In Maori society, men were sacred, so they alone practiced the arts of the tohunga. The women plaited and wove-making baskets, mats and feather cloaks.
Taboo and tattoo are both Polynesian contributions to the English language. Taboo comes from Tapu; it means forbidden to ordinary use and was used to protect mana, or psychic power and authority. Tattooing was done with tiny bone chisels that incised grooves into the skin as if into the surface of wood. Dyes were made from a combination of soot and burnt caterpillar juice, mixed with shark fat, and then rubbed into the open wounds, leaving a blue or greenish coloration under the tissue. Tattoo designs signified identity within a particular tribe, and were visible evidence of accomplishments, especially in battle: as war was a great Maori pastime.
The main record of tattoo is to be found in early photos and paintings. Being a subject that was distinctive to New Zealand and untouched by European tradition, the Maoris came to have a special appeal for artists, particularly Charles Frederic Goldie (1870-1947), who was known almost exclusively for his portraits of them. Goldie studied at the Académie Julian in 1892, where he worked under Bougereau. He became ' famous on his return to New Zealand as the 'painter of chiefs', about whose passing he had strong feelings. His portraits were always done against simple, or blank backgrounds, but the faces were so microscopic in detail, in their search for apparent .perfection, that there is something nearly unhuman about them. All the same, and despite his academicism, Goldie captured something primal, something that has been lost track of in rational, secularized Western civilization. Goldie often painted from photographs which he took himself, since getting the Maoris to pose long enough was always a problem. It is interesting to compare the advance of modernism in Europe at the time Goldie was painting: for instance, The Last of the Tohungas, in 1916-one year before Marcel Duchamp would exhibit a urinal in the Salon des Independents as a way of demonstrating that art is about something other than mere craft or skill, which Duchamp felt, could be learned by any amateur. As the years passed, Goldie became increasingly reactionary in his views and considered every new development from Impressionism onward as 'farcist' and worthless; he believed, along with Ruskin, that a picture's value related in part to the amount of 'work' that had been put into it. Anything without draughtsmanship was too easy to imitate and could be done, he felt, by any amateur. In the end, perhaps, one only really understands what one has created oneself. The philosopher Pascal, for instance, wrote that he would never have invented painting, since he could not see the reason for laboriously reproducing insignificant objects.
(T.T. Bond Collection)
October 29 John has succeeded, against all the odds, in arranging a visit to a marae, the traditional meeting-house and center of Maori community life. One must be 'taken in', it seems, by a Maori, and arranging this at short notice had proved difficult. I had determined not to leave New Zealand, if I could, without first putting myself in some kind of contact with mana, that magical prestige the Maori impart to their objects. I wanted to connect with that powerful life force which, like stored-up thunderbolts as with all primitive artefacts gives them their 'aura'. (One writer I had read, who for a time curated such objects in museums, had written that they had to be handled respectfully, either from love or fear, as strange things seem to occur to those who are careless, or abuse them.) I had, of course, seen several meeting-houses beautifully preserved in museums, and had admired the 'poupou', or carved wall panels that relate tribal history and legends, and are always painted in that distinctive red ochre color. The figures on the totem posts are usually depicted in warlike poses, ancestor above ancestor, with eyes (made of iridescent paua shells) bulging and tongues protruding in defiance. In Wellington, the chief treasure of the National Museum is Te Hau-ki-Turanga, one of the finest carved meeting houses in existence, built in the 1840s. Its chief was Raharuhi Rukupo, who died in 1873 and was a distinguished carver-priest as well as a warrior and tribal leader. The marks of a chief of highest rank were the possession of a greenstone neck ornament, a dogskin cloak and a fully ornamented meeting house. Raharuhi Rukupo never accepted British rule and would not fly the Queen's Flag at Turanga. He was, on the contrary, determined to preserve the ancient way of life of the Maori, and his opposition to white settlers who were spreading over tribal lands is expressed in this carved figure representing him.
Excitement is high, for John announces that someone at the Arts Council has a Maori uncle who has agreed to receive us at a marae that afternoon. So, after finishing an interview with Radio New Zealand in the morning, we set forth by car for Arohanui Ki Te Tangata, the meeting-house of 'Goodwill to All Men', in Lower Hutt City, a suburb of Wellington. This particular meeting-house, it turns out, is quite. modern, and is dedicated to racial goodwill and a shared heritage with the white man. It was built with the financial help of the government, about twenty years ago. The exterior is modern, made of cement like an army barracks, while the inside is traditional. My reveries of mana go up in smoke as I cross the threshold of this mutant structure which, in former times, would have been a place of assembly where questions of war or peace were debated, and which is now a modern cultural center where Christmas parties are held. I think of William Gass's phrase about the bingo game at the foot of the cross.) Contemporary Maoris are all heavily Anglicanized, having been set upon by European missionaries in the nineteenth century in a way, say, that Australian aborigines never were. The uncle shows us around. At the rear of the building is a workshop, where a few youths are learning to carve from a master woodcarver. Among the visitors who had preceded us in other years were Pierre Trudeau, who had left his photograph behind; it was hung high up near the decorated rafters, along with pictures of various tribal elders and chiefs. The High Commissioner of Fiji had also once visited, and donated a giant sperm whale's tooth, strung on a coconut fiber rope, by way of a gift. The uncle explains to us how the rectilinear designs on the woven reed panels separating the decorative carvings along the wall are not abstract (although they appear to be) but signify things in Maori lore, such as the tears of an albatross or the Milky Way. But the place was somehow, insufficiently charismatic to be wonderful or menacing, and seemed very secular compared to those authentic temples I had seen in the museums.
October 30. I fly to Auckland, where I am met at the airport by Rick Killeen, who takes me home for lunch and shows me more of his cutouts, which swarm silhouetted over the walls of his house. Killeen claims that contemporary New Zealand artists can be divided between indigenists and internationalists. Although he considers himself to be among the internationalists 'there'd have to be a potato famine or something before I'd leave New Zealand for good', he says. The main difficulty of being an artist in New Zealand, however, is the closure of success here. The market for one's work is so small that if you are lucky enough to become successful, the chances are that you will soon exhaust it. 'I'll cross that bridge when I come to it', he adds. 'My generation is luckier. We actually have galleries. They didn't exist fifteen years ago.' After lunch, we drive over to the Auckland War Memorial Museum so I can look at more Maori stuff. There's a whole wall of Goldie paintings, in truth the first I've seen in the original. Twenty years ago, Rick says, Goldie was considered the greatest artist in New Zealand, but now his works are treated as anthropological specimens and hung in the Maori Hall instead of in the art museum. Old prophets become the face on the penny stamp.
My last visit - before lecturing that evening at the Auckland City Art Gallery is to meet Wystan Curnow, New Zealand's other major art critic, who teaches American literature at the University of Auckland, and who writes regularly for Art New Zealand.
And so it was my discovery of the New World: there is something there, a yeast in the sap, an untracked force that might lead anywhere, pioneer, and very much on the way.
Suzi Gablik has been London correspondent for Art in America since 1975. She is also the author of Progress in Art, Magritte and co-author of Pop Art Redefined. She came to New Zealand under the auspices of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council late last year. Her New Zealand Report is being co-published with Art in America.