A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all about magic. And there is plenty of magic in this production by the Rathkeale/St Matthew’s senior college. To the point where there is a touch of melancholy coming back to reality when the lights go up and you are back in your car heading home.
The fine line between reality and dreaming is one of the many intriguing and entertaining themes Shakespeare explores in Dream. He saves one of his best lines on this theme for the end of the play, spoken by the spontaneous and unpredictable fairy Puck:
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.”
Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and deservedly so. It is brimful with some of his most quotable lines, most famously “The course of true love never did run smooth.” It’s a credit to this cast, its co-directors Joanne Simpson and Matt Hudson, and production team that the audience is able to dine out so fully on the language.
This is a visually and aurally sumptuous production that makes it easy to believe in fairies. You are consistently led from one pleasant surprise to another, not the least being two songs sung beautifully in the middle of the performance.
One of the strengths of this production is that it captures the unique nuances of each of the four relationships in question. For example, at first we are meant to despise the forced love of the Theseus, Duke of Athens over his conquered bride Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. But their love grows in a way that makes sense within the world of power in which they are fated to exist.
I like to call Coronation Street the Shakespeare of soap operas because like the Elizabethan playwright, its writers know the human heart. In places, the plot in Dream plays like one of those story lines in Coro Street, with misunderstandings, mistaken identities and general confusion.
Shakespeare gently exposes the flaws in each of his characters but ultimately Dream manages to find good in everyone. Anger is just a momentary confusion on the way towards a normal state of happiness and peace.
In between his musings on the nature of reality, and the magic of romance, Shakespeare still finds room to tease the more amateur thespians of his generation, who become a group of bumbling amateur actors putting on a play to impress at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.
Even here Shakespeare can’t resist creating a fourth dimension by holding a play within a play, much like artists and film makers have used mirrors and reflections to create infinity. He even manages to embed the Romeo and Juliet ending into his amateur production. Clever.
It was Aristotle who coined the term “suspension of disbelief” for the way humans will suspend normal day-to-day reality while enjoying storytelling, whether around a fire, in a book, or watching a play or film.
With its beautiful fairies, stunning stage sets and excellent acting, this production made the leap from reality to fantasy an easy one, and delivered its opening-night audience into the enchanting slumber of a midsummer’s night dream in the middle of winter.
Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, Masterton, November 2016
Reviewed by David Famularo
Probably the most affective book on New Zealand art I have ever read is “In Search of Paradise: Artists and Writers in the Colonial South Pacific” by Graeme Lay.
Copies of this richly illustrated and well-written book were sitting in a pile at Paper Plus Masterton for $10 each. After buying one and starting to read it, I went back and bought a couple more to give as gifts.
In Search of Paradise permanently changed my inner sense of geography. I started thinking of myself as living on an island in the Pacific after a whole lifetime of knowing this fact but not really feeling it.
The book gave the sense of how new arrivals to New Zealand saw this country and the other islands of the South Pacific as alien environments upon which to imprint their ideals and imaginations of social, political and sexual utopias.
There are occassional echoes of In Search of Paradise in the journey of nine leading New Zealand artists – Phil Dadson, Bruce Foster, Fiona Hall, Gregory O’Brien, Jason O’Hara, John Pule, John Reynolds, Elizabeth Thomson and Robin White – on the HMNZS Otago from Auckland, northward through the Kermadec region, towards the Kingdom of Tonga.
The Kermadec Islands are a subtropical island arc in the South Pacific Ocean, around 1000 kilometres northeast of New Zealand, uninhabited, except for the permanently manned Raoul Island Station, the northernmost outpost of New Zealand.
The Kermadec Trench is one of Earth’s deepest oceanic trenches, reaching a depth of 10,047 metres. The New Zealand government’s attempt to create a 620,000 square kilometre Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary has ground to a halt, at least for the moment, after opposition from Maori Iwi who were not consulted as required by the Treaty of Waitangi.
In Search of Paradise explored “the magnetic attraction of the South Pacific for artists, writer and others who chronicled the European discovery of the islands of New Zealand,” according to its publicity.
In a similar fashion, the promotional material for “Kermadec – Lines in the Ocean” says it “celebrates the artists’ journey and shines a spotlight on the extraordinary and special features that define the Kermadec region and connect us to the Pacific.”
Even now, the search for an untainted paradise in the Pacific seems to be as strong as ever. But the reality is that we are now living on a planet where people have to fight to save the last remnants of nature from exploitative destruction.
So it comes as no surprise that the Kermadecs are under the same sort of pressure as other parts of the world.
This journey was in fact initiated by the Kermadec Initiative of the Pew Environment Group to promote the establishment of a sanctuary.
I doubt that any of the 11 artists on board the Otago was so naive as to expect an unspoiled paradise. Never-the-less Bruce Foster was compelled to photograph the litter he found in just one 25 metre stretch of beach on Raul Island after a cyclone.
Fiona Hall highlighted the forces of exploitation above and below the water – those wanting to fish it, mine, or militarise it.
The journey doesn’t appear to have led to any radical change in the nature of each artist’s work, but there is a wide range of media presented thanks to their diversity.
Elizabeth Thomson displays her typical light oriented abstraction, while Robin White opts to use tapa design to tell the story of the Bell Family who lived on Sunday Island (as Raoul Island used to be known) for 35 years from 1878.
I particularly enjoyed the high standard of draughtmanship, especially in the etchings by a number of the artists, and the two abstract two tone paintings by John Reynolds (pictured above) of the wake of the Otago.
Most of the journey is spent at sea. I like the tale Greg Obrien tells of John Pule, whom he was already collaborating with before the journey, sitting on the deck of the ship for hours.
“Maybe the great lesson I learned from him was not to learn from nature or evoke it, but to place yourself in the midst of it.”
Never-the-less most of the artworks are preoccupied with the only landmass the artists visited.
Jason O’Hara’s experience of Raoul Island which is a semi-active volcano (its last eruption in 2006 killed a Department of Conservation officer) reminds me of how I felt during my visit to Stromboli, an active volcano off Sicily.
“I am haunted by the memory of Raoul. It invades my every day thoughts, summoning me to return. it hasn’t finished with me yet. I could feel it watching as we explored. A great visitor from the depths that has risen to our world, tolerating our presence as it has so many others. But at any moment it could flick us off when we cease to amuse.”
Elizabeth Thomson had been familiar with Raoul since the 1970s through an ornithologist friend who had spent time there.
“I was struck with the contrast between the vastness of the setting and the intimacy of what was in front of the lense – mosses, lichens, fungi, and also the petrels nesting deep inside burrows.”
According to John Reynolds, “our role is to point at something and we do this by making art work,” which neatly sums up the purpose of the trip.
The effectiveness of sending artists off remote South Pacific Islands or the Antarctic is debatable, given the limited audience the visual arts have in New Zealand.
But every little bit helps, especially when it is being put to a good cause like raising awareness of the value of the Kermadecs.
Top photo: Elizabeth Thomson, left, John Pule, right
Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, April 2016
By David Famularo
In the book “Featherston Military Training Camp and the First World War, 1915-27”, author Tim Shoebridge describes the Featherston Camp as “perhaps the most important surviving First World War-related site in New Zealand.”
Yet barely 25 years ago it was almost completely forgotten. People were aware of the prisoner of war camp for Japanese and Koreans located on the same site during World War II, especially the riot that left 64 prisoners dead, 94 wounded and one New Zealander killed.
Tim’s book published in 2011 and “Safe Haven: The Untold Story of New Zealand’s Largest Ever Military Camp”, written by Wairarapa Archive historian Neil Frances and published a year later have done a lot to change that.
Now the exhibition “Featherston Camp 1916-2016: The Record of a Remarkable Achievement at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History” is likely to cement the camp into the general consciousness of Wairarapa’s residents for the foreseeable future.
The exhibition is a combined effort from Neil at Wairarapa Archive, Aratoi Director Alice Hutchison, and Tony Rasmussen, social history curator at Te Manawa Art, Science, History Museum in Palmerston North.
The scale of the camp is not easy to imagine until you visit the exhibition in Masterton where you can view not only original photographs, but also a computer generated 3D animation movie tour of the camp created by Gerard Taylor.
While one imagines the camp to be one and a half to two kilometres north of Featherston, probably due to the location of the camp memorial on State Highway Two – in fact it went in all directions from the main road , reaching almost as far south as Boundary Road on the edge of the township where in “Burt’s Paddock” the mounted rifles trained.
The memorial actually stands in the centre of what was the main thoroughfare of the camp, a virtual high street of mostly privately owned businesses selling various products to the soldiers. Anyone who was heading north or south went through the camp, passing sentry gates at either end. “All traffic had to get clearance.
Perhaps the idea of a smaller camp comes from people’s memories of the WWII POW camp which, Neil says, was a much smaller affair. The Defence Department still owned a small portion of the land where the original camp had been. It was a convenient place to set up the POW camp but other than the two shared nothing in common, Neil says. He can remember a few dilapidated buildings from the POW camp, like the hospital, still existing into the 1980s.
When Neil began his research almost nothing had been published on the World War I camp for almost a century, other than a section in the Centennial History of Featherston “Gateway to the Wairarapa” printed in 1957. “That book said 30,000 soldiers went through the camp which when I started to do the maths seemed very understated.”
Neil estimates the true figure at around 60,000. “One hundred and twenty four thousand men joined the army and around 60 percent of them went overseas. Other than Featherston and Trentham there were only a few much smaller camps around New Zealand, and most soldiers went through both camps.”
The size of the camp is not its only historical importance. Featherston was a model military camp, the likes of which had never been seen before in New Zealand, Neil says.
“Before World War I New Zealand had never had a permanent large military camp. Trentham had grown like topsy but Featherston was planned as a model camp and a prototype for all future military camps, like Burnham [near Christchurch] would follow a similar model.
“It was the latest thing in barrack design and was completely lit by electricity generated at the camp. It had big enough dining rooms to feed the entire camp of 4500 men all at one go which was good for organising training activities.”
The camp had its own journalist Sergeant G L Stanbrook and published “Featherston Military Training Camp: The Record of a Remarkable Achievement from which this exhibition got its title. “It was part souvenir, part war time propaganda. It is not untrue but it looks at the bright side of life.”
The goings-on at the camp were regularly reported in The Dominion and the Evening Post in Wellington, and Wairarapa Daily Times and Wairarapa Age which were another source for Neil’s research.
Featherston Camp had propaganda value as it showed New Zealanders that their men were being cared for physically, mentally and spiritually. According to the accompanying text for the exhibition the military was “keenly aware that the war was going to last much longer than previously thought, and was eager to show New Zealand that it took the preparation of the nation’s soldiers seriously.
“By the standards of the time it was good basic training. As the soldiers got closer to the front, in Egypt, England and France, they got further training that was more relevant to the battle field. It took about 11 months from enlisting to joining a fighting unit in France. They didn’t throw raw men into battle.”
Today almost nothing of the camp remains. Many buildings were demolished but some were moved and to this day can be found scattered around the Wairarapa and further afield including one which is now a wine tasting room in Waipukurau, according to Tim Shoebridge.
Just beneath the soil around the camp site you can still find concrete guttering and at the very western extremity the largest still extant remnant of the camp – a six metre high and 25 metre long brick wall that was used for short range live firing practice.
The only existing film of the camp shows soldiers firing two Lewis guns at the range, with Neil wryly pointing out the difficulty one of them is having getting his Lewis gun to fire. Looking north west on State Highway Two just south of the Tauherenikau Bridge the structure can just be seen between trees, Neil points out.
Featherston has always had a strong connection with World War I due to its proximity of New Zealand’s largest training camp, which was just a couple of kilometres north of the south Wairarapa town.
However, I can remember a time, growing up in Masterton, when most memories of the camp focused on its role during World War II as a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, and specifically the incident in which 64 prisoners were killed, 94 wounded and one New Zealander killed.
Times have changed and the World War I camp is almost the sole focus of discussion. Almost nothing of it remains, as all the buildings were either demolished or moved off the camp immediately after World War I.
However, Featherston itself still enjoys an amenity built by citizens of the town for the soldiers – Anzac Hall – a stunning building, rich in native timber and the spirit of the past. Which makes it an ideal venue for Farewell Zealandia, a series of three concerts of “forgotten Kiwi songs of World War I”.
It is also hosting the companion exhibition of the same title, originally created for Te Manawa Museum in Palmerston North, which will later appear at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History.
This first concert featured the luxury of an 11 piece salon orchestra (popular in the 1910s and 1920s) as well as four vocal soloists, with the Anzac Hall showing it has outstanding acoustics for this type of performance.
The conductor was Brett Lowe who also did an outstanding job of arranging the music based on 100 year old sheet music that likely only had the vocal melody and accompanying piano arrangement. The quality of the performance was all the more impressive given the musicians only had one rehearsal, in the morning of the concert.
The brains behind the concept are David Dell, archivist and historian at the Sheet Music Archive of New Zealand Trust, and Tony Rasmussen, social history curator at Te Manawa.
The two hour concert was built around Dell’s telling of the stories of the composers and lyricists behind each of the 10 songs performed by the orchestra and singers. These opened the door to another world, and to some degree the lives of the songwriters, which being a time of war naturally includes both tragedy and romance.
Much of the details of their lives has melted into the mist of time, but good luck and the sort of synchronicities that have “meant to be” written all over them, prised open the door of their lives just enough to let the light shine through all the way to 2016.
One example of this was Arthur Vivian Carbines who Dell could find no information on till a desperate-last, minute long-shot phone call on a trail that had seemingly gone cold got him in contact with Carbines’ great nephew Allan Carbine who told him the tragic tale Carbine’s death on the New Zealand assault on Chunuk Bair at Gallipoli.
Carbines, who had joined a medical unit only a few weeks earlier, was carrying back the wounded Lieutenant Colonel William George Malone, commanding officer of the Wellington Battalion, when a soldier mistook them for Turks and shot them dead. Allan said the story was told to his mother in an Auckland bank by a teller who was at Gallipoli with Carbines, and recognised the surname as possibly being that of a relative.
Even the photo of Allan Carbines that is in the exhibition has an unusual story. It was one of a number of photographic portraits of staff killed in the war that was hung in the offices of Carbines’ employer for many years, rediscovered many years later by someone who was sorting through a deceased relative’s estate, who had thoughtfully searched for a family member to pass it on to. They had been put in contact with Allan who brought the photograph to the opening of the exhibition at Te Manawa, revealing a pleasant and sensitive subject.
As for romance, that belongs to Corporal Ernest Franz Luks and pianist Winifred Lonsdale who performed together at Trentham and Featherston military camps, becoming the first couple to be married at Featherston military camp in 1916.
As Dell pointed out, it is highly likely the couple performed in the Anzac Hall at some point, making a performance of Ernest song “Trentham” in the same hall 100 years later all the more poignant.
People don’t realise how many songs were written by New Zealanders during World War I, Dell said in his introduction, with the archive holding the sheet music for 500 songs. Most were printed in small numbers of perhaps 50 copies or so. However, an exception would be Henry Ribbands and Charles James’ Land of the Long White Cloud which became the official marching song of the New Zealand troops in France.
Barrie Marschell, author of “There’s Only One Way Home, boys. It’s Through Berlin” – went on to have his music published in Australia, the United States and Britain after the war.
Generally speaking the 10 songs in this concert could be described as simplistic, sentimental to maudlin, patriotic to jingoistic, but also sincere in their feelings. There’s very little in the way of a real connection with the horrors of war, although Charles Fleming’s “Mrs Tommy Atkins” does ask the question of who will look after the women and children back home.
They are also extraordinarily sexless in the broadest sense of the word to include any sort of rhythm that we would associate with dance these days. It took the influence of black American music to enter the popular mainstream, finally arriving in New Zealand with rock & roll in the 1950 for music here to get jiggy. Before that New Zealand music was even more prim and proper than that of the mother country where at least the working classes added a bit bawdiness.
There’s no music that comes from an overtly female point of view either. The one woman composer, Elizabeth Ferguson Hume, is represented with “Lads of the Silver Fern” which could just have easily have been written by one of the male composers.
Just ahead of the national anthem – God Defend New Zealand – a song with its own fascinating history explained by Dell, which made much more sense as a composition as part of this concert, there was time for a few questions, the best and most intriguing of which was why there had been no songs written by Maori played.
Dell explained that some of these will appear in the final two concerts which will be performed by a trio. Interestingly, he pointed out that while in Britain (and here) people still remember some of the popular British songs of World War I such
It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, ours are almost completely forgotten – except for three Maori compositions – Pokarekare Ana, Now Is The Hour/Po Atarau (which was actually based on the melody of The Swiss Cradle Song by Clement Scott), and one other (the name of which I didn’t catch).
Dell surmised that this was because Maori continue to sing the songs of the past while European New Zealanders don’t. This may be true, but I’m also inclined to believe that Maori in general had a gift for musicality that was much more fluid and melodic compared to that of the relatively stiff European based popular songs of the same time. Songs like Pokarekare Ana remain ageless to this day, whereas the European compositions played here are very much a part of their time only.
Nevertheless, this first Farewell Zealandia concert was an enjoyable and very rare journey into a unique moment in New Zealand’s musical history, and certainly expanded my musical knowledge and experience into yet another sphere. It will be interesting to see what the next two concerts at 2pm on Sunday 10 April and Sunday 24 April reveal.
Further details of the upcoming concerts can be found here: http://www.eventfinda.co.nz/2016/farewell-zealandia-concert-series/featherston
After writing a Letter to the Editor of the Wairarapa Times Age in regards to the negative environmental impact of erosion and flood protection work on the Wairarapa’s major rivers, I was visited by a gentleman who was very closely involved with river management in the Wairarapa from 1985 to 2005.
While he didn’t want to be named for a story he expressed his views on some of the impacts of this work, especially the bulldozers in the river itself.
While the river work often involves creating artificial channels for the rivers, he emphasised the importance of the rivers, especially the Waingawa being braided and containing natural obstacles such as the islands that were removed back in the 1990s.
“You see the meandering patterns migrate up and down the river naturally over a six month period. The more braiding and metal you have in a river, the more energy it takes out of the flow.”
He recalled that in the past when the rivers flooded they simply overflowed their banks and then receded back to their natural course without eroding the river banks.
Whereas today with the faster flow of rivers in flood due to channelling, these are consuming the river banks. “The rivers have got a lot of energy in them which causes the bank to erode.”
Aquatic life is suffering from the bulldozing, he pointed out, with the loss of small and large rocks, and the destruction of the natural sequence of pools, runs, riffles, pools, runs riffles etc.
But the disturbance of the river bed is having other effects as well, with the loss downstream of the small particles between the larger stones. This is causing water to be lost underground.
Furthermore, all this loosened metal is carried further downstream, ironically creating potential flood hazards further along the rivers.
He cites one particular example that he knows well as being the lower reaches of the Tauherenikau River, prior to entering Lake Wairarapa, where metal is building up.
He points out that along the river at this point, the “diversion” road that runs along its eastern edge is actually lower than the river itself.
“If the stop bank there was busted it would inundate a lot of farm land. It would only take a small hole in the bank like a rabbit burrow, or the river topping the stop bank. Once topped, the water would quickly scour the breach and make it larger with a lot of metal going on to farm land.”
This story from the Tasmanian Times does a very good job of giving a general outline of what current river management river practices are doing to the Wairarapa’s rivers here.
There can be no doubt of the talent of Anika Moa and her ability to perform musically on the night. Musical energy flows effortlessly out of her although obviously the pre-requisite of musical technique has to be there as well. Moa’s ability to write a good tune is undoubtedly based on a powerful intellect being applied to the process.
On this night, her performance is both acoustic and electric, sometimes solo and at other times supported by the immensely talented Jol Mulholland, with a brief stint on bass for the encores from SJD aka Sean Donnelly who performed an acoustic set earlier. Jol is one of those talented multi-instrumentalists who can essentially create a whole backing band by himself, but it is Moa who is the inspiration for this particular performance.
I was pleased that Moa performed Dreams in My head, a perfect pop song. I wasn’t expecting her to as I thought she might associate the song with the period in her life where she was on the crest of being a bonafide female pop star with the looks and the songs.
Moa ditched this opportunity to stay real to her muse, which I respect, but I can’t help feeling that she has since thrown out the baby with the bath water. Her songs still emit light but Moa’s between songs stage conversation comes across as unnecessarily angry and cynical, like she is still fighting the 1980s’ battles.
In particular, she makes a big deal of being a lesbian when in fact to the audience at King Street Live being gay means nothing other than being gay and I imagine this is the case for the vast majority of Moa’s audience.
Generally speaking, the standout moments of the night are the electronica and electric guitar combos which have a great groove to them. But Moa never really allows herself and the night’s wannabee dancers (like me) to settle into a flow with every song preluded by a rather long introduction.
Despite a cold, Moa still manages to impress with her vocals as well as her electric guitar playing, going for the right notes rather than just a lot of them.
My concern for Moa is that she is putting herself in a box where she is largely preaching to the hardcore converted. She seems to be embarrassed about the softer sides of her personality and music. Every time she suddenly lets her heart out, Moa feels compelled to immediately dollop on a twice as much cynicism as an antidote. It would be nice if Moa allowed herself to lighten up just a little bit more.
Still, I did buy one her lovely Queen of the Table cotton t-towels which is now hanging on the wall at home.
Bush, Bog, Brine and Bugle: Yestermusic of Featherston County is not so much an embellishment on factual history but a subtle re-invention of it – reviving the past but informing it with contemporary twists. At first the conceit is not obvious which is part of the wit of this collection of songs, ostensibly from Featherston’s settler past.
Through the 12 songs on this CD, producer Chris Miller has created a series of evocative myths. Yestermusic is also theatre to the point where the potpourri of musicians Miller has employed are called the “Players” Through them and some masterful number 8 wire production skills, he has brought alive a parade of almost forgotten characters.
The types will be familiar but their stories are not. Recording the characters of local history was a more haphazard affair 100 years ago, usually simple one or two paragraph anecdotes that passed from one generation to another.
Diaries that revealed the inner lives were few and far between. They would more likely record the number of bean seeds planted in spring than a settler’s feelings about their lives in their new home. Of course, there were exceptions, sometimes in letters to family and friends back home, but all in all, New Zealand’s European settlers were a taciturn lot, particularly the males who considerably outnumbered the females.
Miller has gone to considerable effort to research the times his characters lived in. The liner notes are an impressive piece of work, filling in details about the songs and enriching their meaning.
Many of the songs stand on their own merit as entertaining and often poignant tunes. One of the most beautiful and moving is Te Tuna Heke, sung in Maori, a sad farewell from an eel (tuna) who lived in New Zealand for 80 or so years who is departing for its final trip to spawning grounds far away in the South Pacific. Likewise the tara tern, which migrates between the Arctic and Antarctic circle several times during its life which asks itself if it is ready for the long journey.
Take away the Wee Fish has a more overt ecological theme, being a prescient ecological morality tale 100 years ahead of its time, its author “Fabian Guinness” considered a madman for seeing the danger of oil to the earth’s oceans.
Miller’s strong personal connection with Italy comes out in the fate of Ava Ragnatella, the Italian wife of a cruel immigrant Yorkshire farmer, whose fate is connected to the phenomenon of tarantism and the pizzica or spider dance from her home region of Apulia.
The little boot maker Rutherford did indeed lead recruits over the Rimutaka hill from Featherston Military Camp to Trentham from whence they departed for waiting ships in Wellington harbour, as can be found in a letter to the editor at Papers Past. But whether the rag he supposedly wrote ever existed is a mute point.
No Google search will find any pages dedicated to the subject of the Ballad of Swagman Magee. Instead it is an entertaining yarn with just the right amount of tongue in cheek humour to leaven its warning to all young men.
One of Yestermusic’s most charming moments, and the one that ends the collection is The Last Post (The Poppy & The Fern). Ostensibly a remastered recording of an original sound recording in situ by Canadian sound recordist Samuel Beaumont in 1918, it captures enthusiastic but terribly disfigured former soldier Timothy Mandrake playing the Last Post on harmonica somewhere in the bush above where soldiers were bivouacking for the night as part of their training. Scratches and hiss from the original recording remain. Like most of Yestermusic, a grand piece of historical imagining.
Here is a link to the album liner notes online (http://bit.ly/1OK0wcQ) or search for “Featherston’s Finest” on Spotify or iTunes. For more info on the album, contact Chris Miller at email@example.com.
“In reviewing the ‘cause and effect’ of perceptual illusions, one must ask themselves; for what purpose do ‘illusions’ exist if our mind’s eye is unable to process what we actually see?”
At first glance “I See. I Saw” is simply a clever piece of Op Art, also known as optical art, a style of visual art that uses optical illusions. Time magazine coined the term in 1964 although examples exist well before and after that.
But in the public’s mind, it’s a style that is mostly associated with that decade so it is interesting that Annabelle Buick has decided to revisit it. Although there has been a few artists recently who have reconnected with mid-twentieth century High Modernism.
Buick has used cheap synthetic materials such as black webbing and reflector tape and grosgrain ribbon stretched over canvas frames for this exhibition. She doesn’t explain in her accompanying text why she chose these materials although they do give the works much of their own unique flavour.
Buick doesn’t make any direct reference to her part Maori ancestry except for a note that she is of Ngati Pukenga and Scottish descent. However, the works do echo the traditional technique and designs of traditional Maori flax weaving.
In her accompanying notes, Buick seems most interested in the implications of optical illusions and their interpretation by the human eye. We trust our eyes to reveal/present the truth of our reality. If they can’t be trusted, then what does that say about this reality? seems to be the gist of her argument.
“Perhaps, the illusion is a mirror for us to reflect internally within one’s mind’s eye – to look, seek and explore our own perceived ‘unseen’ impossibilities to create our ‘eye-deal’ realities for the world to ‘see’.”
Buick plays with the metaphor of sight in all of her titles – Eye Line Err, Eyesore, Unsee, Frequent See, Seize the Sight Mind’s Eye – but I’m not sure that these provide any clue to understanding the works better.
At the end of the day I am left with what I found at the beginning. Some clever technical pieces of Op Art to enjoy.
Selections from The Rutherford Trust Collection is a very pleasant stroll through the history of New Zealand art from around 1930 to 2000. Understanding the collection is easier if you know its history, which is actually quite recent and quite short, despite the age of some of the works on display.
The Rutherford Trust was established in 1988 as part of the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand’s commitment to “encourage and enhance New Zealand’s cultural life and heritage.”
ECNZ’s history is interesting in its own right. It was born out of the New Zealand Electricity Department, a government department that controlled and operated almost all of New Zealand’s electricity generation, and operated the electricity transmission grid.
It became ECNZ, one of the first New Zealand state-owned enterprises (SOEs), in 1987, as a transition entity in the process of deregulating the New Zealand electricity market. All that remains of ECNZ is a shell of its former self that manages its remaining hedge and debt obligations.
So in essence the Rutherford Trust Collection was the last ejaculation of the spirit of community good that was once the norm for government departments – a (sadly) dated notion even by the time it was established.
The aim of the Collection was reflect the development of 20th century New Zealand art and making this collection available to the public who could see it displayed on the walls of Rutherford House, home to ECNZ, in Wellington. Over a decade the Trust built up a rich and diverse collection, all chosen by just the one person – Lyn Corner.
I don’t have any details of the machinations that lead to it being housed at Aratoi, but with ECNZ evaporating it certainly didn’t have a future at Rutherford House. Just as obliquely a decade later it ended up on permanent loan to the James Wallace Arts Trust after an exhibition at Pah House in Auckland.
A smaller selection of works are still housed at Aratoi, although a part of the James Wallace Arts Trust, and I assume this is what we see here.
The fact that all the works in the collection were purchased in just 10 years and chosen by just the one person may be why this exhibition has such a harmony about it. There’s little in the way of awkward juxtapositions and the choices are relatively safe in the best possible meaning of the word.
Nearly all the 40 artists represented already had solid reputations by the time the paintings, and small number of sculpture, were purchased. Sometimes the works would only have been recently completed when they were purchased but they are nearly always typical examples of each artists’ work.
There are a few exceptions. For example Gordon Walters (1919-1995) is represented by an untypical abstract as well as one of his better-known koru designs.
Gordon Crook (1921-2011) may not have had the stature of some other artists represented (although I expect his reputation will continue to grow over the coming years) but Corner was acute enough to purchase a very nice wool tapestry, Home Leave, 1988, by him.
(I always remember Crook walking around Wellington in a good pair of sneakers looking nothing like his true age).
In pretty much every work, there is a very appealing aesthetic. There are strong elements of abstraction, even in the earliest works like an undated water colour coastal scene by T A McCormack (1883-1973) and gouache on rag Rakaia River Valley, Canterbury scene painted in 1941 by Sydney Lough Thompson (1877-1973).
Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) is represented around the same epoch with the watercolour Shells, 1934 but it feels like her abstract drive is boxed in by an inability to escape a figurative framework.
Hodgkins was born pre-abstraction whereas Rita Angus’ (1908-1970) is an unconscious child of it who contains it within the comfort of a figurative framework in Clouds Over The Bealy from 1930.
In fact, you could almost say all the artists and works are Modernist in flavour from John Tole (1890-1967) with a Still Life with Hydrangeas from 1941 to an abstract High Modernist like Milan Mrkusich who is represented with an excellent Segmented Arc on Maroon 1983.
Younger artists like Julia Morison (born 1952) with Codex 43, sand/silver gilt on plywood from 1992 and Neil Dawson (born 1950) with his powder coated steel painted wire mesh work Touchdown, 1989 represent the tail end of the movement.
In fact despite works for the Collection being purchased through the 1990s there is almost no hint of Post Modernism except perhaps in Anne Nobel’s (born 1954) Swan No 15.
Consciously or unconsciously, the character of the exhibition is divided by the two spaces it inhabits.
The larger space primarily inherits the Impressionist gene which most of the already mentioned works are hung.
The smaller space has more of an Expressionist feel to it with artists like Buck Nin’s (1942-96) acrylic on board painting Ngaruawahia,, Jeffery Harris’s (born 1949) Head with Birds, 1988, and Robert McLeod (born 1955) with Is It? from 1988. McLeod was one of New Zealand’s few convincing late twentieth century abstract expressionist who unfortunately hasn’t been as convincing since converting to figurativism).
Somewhat undermining this theory, the large space also contains a typical work Philippa Blair (born 1945) that captures her abstract expressionist energy plus there’s your standard Gretchen Albrecht (born 1943) abstract, Small Winter Sunset, from her classic early 1970s period that is really Expressionist in character despite its cool demeanour.
All in all, it’s a pleasurable show that anyone with a modicum of knowledge of New Zealand art history should be able to enjoy.
Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History till 10 May 2015
Reviewed by David Famularo
“Taoism is a philosophical, ethical, political and religious tradition of Chinese origin that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The term Tao means “way”, “path” or “principle”. Taoist propriety and ethics tend to emphasize wu-wei (action through non-action), “naturalness”, simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility.” – Wikipedia
There is something of the simplicity and ambiguity of the Tao in this exhibition – presenting what is beyond the frame by what is not in it. Whether it is photography or poetry, Slavick likes to distil images down to their simplest essence. The philosophy of her work was well expressed in some of her comments at an artist’s talk she gave at Aratoi one Saturday morning.
“I want the perfection of a sense of balance, of movement. I like relationships. I like the complexity, the weirdness, the not knowing everything. I don’t need to know everything. I’m not a big Googler. If I don’t know something, I don’t automatically Google it. I just don’t have that in me.
“I like mystery, so that is a big thing that I am trying to create, a moment or a scene where maybe you don’t know what is going on. Maybe you might not know this is Hong Kong if I didn’t tell you. You may not know what time of the day it is. You may not have any sense of scale. I like appreciating it for just what is there. And I do want that restfulness, that sense of balance and a little bit more towards the quiet.”
Slavick grew up in an artistic family which partook in the classic road trips that were popular with post-World War II generations.
“We did a lot of travelling around, seeing the world in that way. One of the best parts of my childhood was seeing slides we took on our trips on our portable projector.”
In a way, this exhibition is Slavick’s own unique road trip slide show. Despite having lived in Hong Kong for around two decades, when Slavick speaks about the city, there’s still the same sense of awe and fascination of the first time visitor, although she obviously also h as a deep acquaintance with the landscape and people.
In English, the title of the show – Hong Kong Song – has three, one syllable words, and similarly three calligraphic characters in Chinese. The first two characters, “Hong Kong” literally mean “Fragrant Harbour”. The third translates as “Voices” or “Throats” and is pronounced as “Song” in Cantonese. It’s a clever word play, especially as the title can be read as “Hong Kong Voices” or “Hong Kong Song”, both of which are equally appropriate.
Hong Kong Song is not so much an objective description or commentary on the city, so much as a love song to it, expressing Slavick’s intuitive relationship with it as expressed through often small and incidental details.
“I’m presenting a lot of different natures of the cities – small every day things, big skyscrapers, the grey and pink of the sky, the blue sea, the neon and fluorescent lights at night. The flora, poverty, heat, insects, pollution, the incredibly beautiful, the joy in a crowd, the life that you sense in all that life around you. All that loudness but then you turn a corner and there will be a huge banyan tree full of cicadas. I love that really weird juxtaposition of different life happening.”
And yet there are hardly ever people in the photographs, despite Slavick’s obviously deep affection for the inhabitants of Hong Kong.
“I was married to Chinese person for 10 years and felt welcomed into community. The Chinese have a sense of circle and community. Once you are are a member of circle, there is a really strong sense of loyalty and friendship. One of most important things I learned was a sense of humility. It was a beautiful thing to be a minority there. I will always cherish that.”
The Cantonese slang term for foreigners is “gweilo” which means “ghost”. Whatever meaning Hong Kong’s residents attach to the word, a ghost in Western terms implies something that is there but not there, an apparition, something that is both permanent and impermanent, an entity permanently frozen in a moment of transition from one state of existence to another.
Ironically, a great many of Hong Kong’s own residents are in a sense gweilo, being refugees or the children and grandchildren of refugees from mainland China. I remember as a child hearing stories of how some would swim to Hong Kong from the mainland. I have never been to Hong Kong but wouldn’t be surprised if it is a city that feels like it is in a permanent state of transition.
There are few people in these images but plenty of ghosts – a temporary housing estate, a pair of red shoes worn for a wedding, fishing, farming villages abandoned in the 1980s with personal possessions still lying about as if the inhabitants left in a hurry only yesterday.
While there is no overt political commentary in Hong Kong Song, it is intriguing to speculate on what political subtexts do exist, something that appeals to me as an idea. Slavick arrived just after the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and left while the world’s longest Occupy protests were continuing in Hong Kong.
“Several of the images carry socio-political realities about the rich-poor gap, housing, income, and the accompanying book of the exhibition contains many stories about food insecurity, elderly people who are poor, the ways of the food banks, homeless people using 7/11 and other 24-hour-stores as their kitchen for free hot water etc. I worked for Oxfam for 17 years in Hong Kong and some of the information for the stories comes from my work.”
In terms of her aesthetic, Slavick sees herself not so much as a photographer as a writer. She rarely crops or manipulates her images.
“For me the image is really more about the graph, part of the word, the writing rather than the photo. I see the frame as a kind of page.
“I’m quite a slow person. I took a hundred pictures yesterday [in Eketahuna] and it exhausted me, to really stop and see. It sounds fun to take pictures but it is also work, and writing is work. Writing is a physical act to try to locate what you want to say. Whether stories or poems every word is so important and it becomes a physical act for me.
“The photographer who influenced me when started out in the 1980s was the Austrian Ernst Haas who said photography is a certain kind of loving. A picture you should be able to rest in it, sleep in it, and live in it.”
Wairarapa re-Views is an editorial based reviews and views site. You can contact its editor David Famularo at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can receive notifications of new reviews by liking Wairarapa re-Views on Facebook.