01 November 2012

Precarious Looking

Kathryn Mitchell
Van der Velden: Otira, by Peter Vangioni  and Dieuwertje Dekkers (Christchurch Art Gallery, 2011), 96 pp. $49.99.

Serendipitously, shortly after receiving the review copy of the Christchurch Art Gallery’s Van der Velden Otira catalogue (authored by Peter Vangioni  and Dieuwertje Dekkers), I made the trip from Christchurch through Otira to Greymouth on the Transalpine train. A frequent visitor to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery as a child, van der Velden’s A Waterfall in the Otira Gorge, oil on canvas, 1891, was one of my favourite memories; it drew me in to its immense expanse demonstrating painting's ability to be experienced rather than just looked at. In front of this work, I was more than a mere visitor to a cultural institution: I was standing somewhat fearfully in the path of an uncontrollable torrent of rushing white water descending from dark, jagged rocks tossed haphazardly into its path with the passage of time. Its thick, wild brush strokes and dense layering of oil paint accentuated its dark, rugged and dangerous nature.    
          Experiencing Otira the place as a series of fleeting glimpses broken by the sudden blackness of railway tunnels is absolutely typical of the contemporary spectacle – lush, deep earthy green bush, ravines ascending abruptly skyward punctuated by ragged scars carved out by torrential rainfall. Waterfalls transformed into icy shards by freezing unrelenting winds. As my hands begin to lose feeling gripping the railing of the train’s viewing platform, I elect to shuffle my way through the cluster of photographers eager for a better view and head back to the warmth of the carriage. Multiple digital images will be captured at speed – a souvenir functioning as evidence of having 'been to' this place. I open the book at Peter Vangioni’s essay Otira and examine Charles Beken’s 1910 photograph 'West Coast Road, Otira Gorge' and ponder the stark disparity between photography’s evidence of 'being there' now as I sit comfortably, book in hand, listening to the exclamations of wonder and frenzied shutterless shutter-clicks of numerous digital cameras, as opposed to then – Beken’s 1910 image of an particularly narrow and precarious-looking road in a landscape otherwise devoid of human intervention.                                                                                                                                                                   
         By the time van der Velden arrived in Christchurch in 1890, Otira was an established tourist attraction. I try to imagine the journey as I peer at a photograph – photographer unknown, 'The new hotel at Otira Gorge', 1890. A covered carriage laden with luggage is pictured outside the Otira Hotel, its porch populated by a small crowd of well-dressed visitors; a large dog relaxes by the door. Van der Velden’s second expedition to Otira, according to 
Vangioni’s account, departed Christchurch bound for Otira in early June 1893 in a canvas-covered wagon with several companions. Predictably perhaps for that time of year, the travellers were subjected to extremely adverse weather conditions, including becoming trapped in a two-and-a-half metre deep snow drift. They were apparently not deterred, but due to the severity of the cold one of their party, photographer Alpheus Aldersley, became extremely ill and died from pneumonia shortly after reaching the Otira Hotel – the day before his wife arrived from Rangiora.
         Reflecting on the severity of such conditions, the prevailing sense of melancholy often described in reference to the Otira works seems to capture a greater truth than can be evidenced in any photographic representation. 
Vangioni refers to van der Velden’s teaching notes in the 1890s in Christchurch: 'A picture is the expression of a moment in Nature; it is a moment you love best so try and paint it … a landscape need not be a copy of a place as long as you get the character and impression of the moment as it appears to yourself – not as it appears to other people – so that it is an expression of your own feeling.' Van der Velden’s assertion here maybe that that the commitment to capturing the unique experience of place rather than merely creating a copy presents the opportunity to connect with its essence or 'aura': rendering that intangible elusive quality that brings one back to stand in front of van der Velden’s works again and again.
          An exhibition catalogue often functions as a kind of souvenir of the experience of the work, providing a trigger that enables us to be returned into that space of direct engagement, but more than this, at its best a catalogue can be read as a stand-alone publication. However it is not as compelling to be, rather than a spectator, a reader whose engagement must be indirect, mediated by the restrictions inherent in the glossy and removed image. Works sit on the page with little relevance to the scale or surface of the original, and it is difficult for this reason to do much more than glance at them. What is, though, a tasty accompaniment is the access to dialogue which captivates and engrosses the reader in absorbing questioning: writing that takes the reader on a journey, rather than positioning one as a visitor to knowledge that is exclusive or privileged, offering few opportunities for dialogue and thinking to continue beyond its pages. What we desire from the experience of a painting perhaps may be thought of as similar to that which we desire as readers, namely a relationship with the artist/writer – we want to be involved, to participate, not to feel like a visitor, but to feel like a colleague or friend.
         In these days of the e-book, we are told the object that is the paper-and-ink publication is endangered. For lovers of the book-as-object in all its honest, crude and cumbersome physicality, though, Van der  Velden:  Otira exemplifies one of its more alluring liaisons. Here, the loss of the direct encounter with painted surface is mediated, bridged to some extent, by the spectacle of the book. One can imagine the experience of discovering this offering amongst a plethora of glossy, resplendent bookshop stacks – at first glance unassuming, matte, earthy, and papery, but offering upon more intimate examination under the dust cover, a rough textile surface persuasive enough to merit running one's fingers over. Its dust cover is thick and takes on the appearance of an object in its own right when removed – layers of stiff matte black card folded as if designed to wrap the book in multiple protective layers, a departure from the standard, thin, plastic-coated jacket frequently enveloping visual art publications; whoever said you can’t judge a book by its cover?
        Furthermore, against the pervasive argument that the new technology is convenient on long haul flights and so on, one must question the merit of this encounter with the 'digital' reader (the name says it all really: an assemblage of pixels radiating 'untouchably' inside a screen). Is the physical interaction with the book as object an essential aspect of the experience of reading? While many may say no, let’s face it: the idea of curling up with a good Kindle title lacks the romance of positioning oneself in a large comfortable chair, wrapped in a cherished blanket with a glass of red and a good book for an afternoon. I am aware however, even as I write it, that this very contribution will grace the screen rather than the tactile page and, as with many words today, is unlikely to ever exist on a page made of paper.  My own love for the page continues, though, undiminished by the expansion of weightless 'digits'. On that train bound for Greymouth, Peter 
Vangioni’s Otira essay particularly exported me to another time, while simultaneously it encouraged reflection on what van der Velden’s work means to us today. I knew that I would revisit the catalogue on the way home.

KATHRYN MITCHELL is an art writer and a former public gallery curator, who is currently the art programme manager at the Southern Institute of Technology in Invercargill.

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