Kermadec, edited by Bronwyn Golder and Gregory O’Brien, (PEW Environment Group/Tauranga Art Gallery, 2011) , 176 pp., $79.99; River-Road: Journeys through Ecology, by David Cook, Wiremu Puke and Jony Valentine (Rim Books, 2011), 92 pp., $40; Old New World: Photographs by Mary Macpherson, (Lopdell House), 96 pp. $50; Ice Blink: An Antarctic Imaginary, by Anne Noble, with an essay by Ian Wedde, (Clouds, 2011), 104 pp., $69.95.
We live at the fag-end of the heroic, in fact we inhabit the ashtray of the heroic, where the notion of a sublime ‘Nature’ has been replaced by that of an anthropomorphised ‘environment’, a measureable resource increasingly degraded by human interaction: the Anthropocene Era. All four of the books under review dwell on ecology and survival, all are steeped in climate change wisdom, and all are aware of the pressures of the geopolitical and the industrial. Essentially picture travel books, they span a kind of archipelago of South pacific psychogeographies, leaping from ‘the island’ to ‘the river’ to ‘the road’, and finally to ‘the South Pole’. They traverse the contemporary eco-moment, where manufactured terms, such as ‘dream location’, ‘greenwash’ and ‘carbon sink’ set the terms of reference, and where only aesthetic detachment can triumph.
In Kermadec, nine artists hitch a ride on HMNZS Otago to the Kermadec group of islands, 1000 kilometres to the north of New Zealand, and make landfall on the island of Raoul (Rangitahua), which is actually the top of a giant volcano, descending to the deep seabed of the Kermadec Trench, and subject to almost daily earthquakes, along with the occasional small eruption. Sponsored by the US-based PEW Environmental Group’s Ocean Legacy programme, the artists are there to help ‘raise public awareness’, and promote plans to have the region declared a marine reserve: the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary.
Art commandos on a mission, they spend three days soaking up the atmosphere on Raoul before re-boarding their naval vessel for the two-day journey to Tonga and the flight back to New Zealand. Kermadecdocuments the occasion with essays, poems, resulting art works and photographs of the actual trip (artists are shown standing on the salt-spume-soaked steel deck facing expectantly towards the horizon as their ship skates along the Kermadec Trench).
Now controlled by the Department of Conservation, which is busy eradicating introduced pests, Raoul’s groves of nikau palms and canopies of pohutakawa trees mark a damaged Eden. Previously settled by all kinds of short-term adventurers, it’s an abandoned Imperial frontier outpost, located where the tropical waters of the mid-Pacific meet the cooler waters of the Southern Ocean. Exploring this ‘wilderness’, the artists discover legacies of previous inhabitants, while in the photographs of Bruce Foster, one of the artists, globalisation’s latter-day fallout is registered: even these remote shore are littered (albeit photogenically) with bleached plastic debris, borne here by oceanic currents. Not far away, we are told, industrial-sized fishing fleets vacuum up most of the fish, and mining companies prospect for under-sea copper, gold and lead.
The Kermadec Islands form part of a 2500 km chain of mostly submerged volcanoes, and it is here, amidst these underwater hydrothermal vents – jetting high pressure plumes of black superheated mineral-rich water – that life on earth began. John Pule’s paintings respond to these intimations of fertility, with spidery weavings and swirls of black paint to suggest climbing trellises of flora, forests of stalked barnacles and clumps of giant mussels. Elizabeth Thomson’s artworks, too, try to capture something of this efflorescence, with her acrylics, polymer resins and glass spheres evoking mould spores, mosses, lichens and berries fallen from nikau palms: ocean reveries of primitive plant life and bioluminescence.
In his introductory essay, Gregory O’Brien delineates the pregnant scenario that he and his fellow artists are instant castaways – castaways for a day – who have instantly set to, constructing a bricolage of odds and ends, even if only in the form of memories to tote back home and work up as artefacts. His own paintings are inspired by the residues of former inhabitants, so that rusty pieces of machinery are transmogrified and ritualised in the service of some mythical twenty-first century cargo cult who inhabit a poetic reality of their own devising.
Giving this Robinson Crusoe concept a twist, performance artist John Reynolds gets himself up as a special beachcomber, an Old Man of the Sea, draped from head to toe in what appears to be brown kelp. Dressed thus, topped off by a bowler hat on his head, he promenades along a rocky beach, choosing and numbering rocks in a ritual which might be about warding off chaos and bringing order (and ownership).
Fiona Hall, similarly, is a New Age oceanographer, but one oh-so-knowing, assembling back home in her studio a stick chart, made out of wood, metal and shark teeth, modelled on those used by ancient Polynesian navigators to locate themselves beneath the stars. Phil Dadson is interested in the echoes of location, straining his ears to catch whispers and surges of the island’s natural music – its surf, its birdsong – then trapping that sound on digital video.
Robin White is drawn to another form of connection, designing an emblem based on one of the flying fish that crash-landed onto the deck of their ship, and then making that emblem a centrepiece in a suite of tapa (barkcloth) works crafted in collaboration with a women’s group on Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu.
Raoul, for these artists, is their Treasure Island, a place of metamorphosis and transubstantiation, of creatures scuttling across the forest floor or flitting tree to tree, and then (in a quake perhaps) those trees themselves moving. Such fecundity evokes the first line of a GK Chesterton religious poem: ‘When fishes flew and forests walked’ — Robin White’s tapa-work takes the charismatic flying fish as an emblem of all things good, original, strange, liberating. The book Kermadec as a miscellany is harmonious rather than cacophonous. As put together, its images and writings are a set of colourful productions which declare that these artists went there on our behalf: because they’re more attentive and responsive to the mysteriousness of the world, they make their discoveries and produce their artworks to help us envision its mysterious qualities. They are shamans, seers, prophets – green priests articulating the magic dimension of the Department of Conservation’s good works.
Coiling and sliding through Hamilton, the Waikato River is a muddy ribbon making for the coast. In River-Road: Journeys through Ecology, based on photographs first exhibited at Waikato Museum in 2009-2010, botanist and photographer David Cook explores the river as a territory, a space in which ideologies might be demonstrated to clash. The river is at once spoiled, chastened, resurgent, useful, inspiring, assertive: a complex zone, eliciting response and counter-response. On the cover, designed by Jony Valentine, the river is codified into a badge, a black vermiform wriggle, a primeval hieroglyph – and carved into the brown ‘skin’ of the book in a tactile way. The photographs of David Cook express a similar sense of the river as both resource and quiescent thing: a living entity. But he’s not concerned to mythologise the river so much as to tell its factual story as part of the community – or a section of it – through which it flows.
In a sequence of 58 photographs, he places the river running in parallel to River Road, a state highway north, along a 20-kilometre stretch running from the centre of Hamilton city to Ngāruawāhia. So the landscape is subdivided into riverscape and roadscape – or rather river banks and road verges, with each pair of photographs taken at 600 metre intervals. These photographs of the twinned road-river arteries are accompanied by the photographer’s captions, which are sometimes more revealing than the images. We are shown, for example, the old Opōia pā of Ngāti Wairere, now completely invisible under railways, roads and carparks. And River Road, we learn, is built on a former Māori track that linked up pā settlements and cultivation sites along the eastern bank. The river line is also a time line.
The river itself, we learn, is being pulled back from the brink of environmental catastrophe by the Waikato Regional Council and other public authorities, who measure regularly for water clarity – amounts of ammonia, phosphorous, and nitrogen – and take action accordingly. Horror stories are told of devastation in the 1970s, when ‘the streams used to flow with offal, blood, milk, raw sewage, untreated chemical, farm effluent’; one aftermath is the long-term presence of nitrates in the soil which have yet to reach the river.
In his accompanying essay, Wiremu Puke, a consultant and former curator at the Waikato Museum, gives voice for his people, the colonised and displaced Maori who had to reinvent themselves as smallholder farmers and labourers at the turn of the century, and who now wrestle with the conundrums of corporatisation posed by Fonterra and others, as well as their own iwi.
Cook photographs the noxious invaders who have prospered within the river-road environs: turbidity-producing orange koi carp, smothering beds of bindweed, proliferating willow trees clogging up waterways, stifling thickets of hornwort. He shows us flies from manure piles on farms plaguing nearby suburbs, a stormwater outfall choked with plastic bottles, a freezing works discharging waste-water, the many shelter belts of poplars, the clumps of birch and of aldar.
Then, evenhandedly, he registers ecological counter-measures: the efforts of primary school pupils in helping restore native plant habitat; Waikato River Care arranging for exotic willows to be felled and poisoned; the burning flame of methane gas at the former Hamilton town rubbish dump, which marks a network of pipes channelling the gas to a power plant. And he shows us the competing elements – the demands of agriculture, commerce, recreation – so as to show that irreversible change is not a foregone conclusion, but can be negotiated with step by step, as if wading through an accumulated morass.
Cook is concerned to register context: we are shown a riverside lifestyle block, a riverside rest home, a tree house, a duck shooting hide, the antic creatures of the farmyard, the Tūrangawaewae regatta. And there are the paradoxes: pukeko thrive near the verges of River Road, and meanwhile the most successful establishments of new native forests have also taken place on verges alongside the busy River Road. Cook’s preoccupation with disappearance and transformation within the landscape follows the methodology of the American New Topographic school of photographers, which sprang up in the 1970s, and like them he has followed this line of interest in how human intervention controls and shapes the landscape into a consideration of how the public and the private jostle for control. He photographs a rare riverside section for sale, and zooms in on territorial real-estate developments guarded by surveillance cameras, dogs, gates. This is the corporate world of exclusion zones, whose roots go back to the wars of the nineteenth century and the colonial settlement which cleared and drained wetlands.
Offering a mosaic of regional ecology, Cook also suggests the spectacle of barely contained frictions and barely suppressed flashpoints; the suggestion, too, of the damaged food chain being mended on one side and undone again on the other. Slightly sinister and disturbing undercurrents still run through attitudes to the river, as if it were a dumping ground for emotions and old memories.
‘I am the nor’ west air nosing among the pines’, Allen Curnow writes in his poem ‘Time’: ‘I am the water-race and the rust on railway lines/ I am the mileage recorded on the yellow signs/ I am dust, I am distance, I am lupins back of the beach …’ In her photo-book Old New World, Mary Macpherson chases after this elusive local quality that Curnow characterises as ‘Time’. With her camera she’s taken to prowling New Zealand’s back roads to clock the changes since her childhood and youth. Against the globalised townscapes of Nowhere, against international airport megamall decors subleased to franchises, against forgetting, she proposes remembering – remembering the landscapes of Somewhere. As she tells Gregory O’Brien in an interview he conducts at the front of the book: ‘I wanted the poetry of place to be in the photographs and I love the contradictions and side conversations that buildings have with their streets and surroundings’.
Angling to make best use of the eye of the camera, she photographs the ‘edifice complex’ of small towns, where spruced-up happy-clappy colours put their best side forward. She’s interested in how street frontages and old buildings can be buoyed up by bright paintwork and a cleaned-up roof, and how that might reveal structure and refresh our perceptions of architecture. Her beat is the jokey vernacular of the quotidian: the jolly demotic of pioneers rendered in folk art on a shop frontage, cartoon soap bubbles painted on a cottage soap-factory business.
She takes a closer look at scenes that at first glance seem as placid as the surface of a lake and uncovers a certain self-consciousness, which mirrors the self-consciousness of the photographer (acknowledged in one photograph by the presence of her shadow as she photographs a lime-green car against a lime-green shrub down somebody’s driveway). She photographs the world of the quaintly shabby townscape, and of the agricultural hinterland, with what can only be called a kind of rapture: gestures towards the transcendent found in the homely light of the everyday. In one image, a new house being built is an airy wooden crate plonked in the middle of a paddock, through the skeletal framework of which the sky and the far distance are visible. In many of her sparkling panoramas you’re conscious of the blue heavens exerting their calm clear presence. Not for her the louring Gothic or bedraggled brooder.
Her brick chimney in a field, or olden days phone booth, or quaint boxing gym, bear evidence of the weathered, the stained, the abandoned. Time here is registered in minuscule and incremental changes. Coats of paint seem deposited like sedimentary layers rising from a bedrock pastoralism (the real apocalypse of total landscape transformation took place in the nineteenth century), which the faux-fossilised moa (made of ferroconcrete, and stalking down a street in Queenstown at sunset) serves to confirm. This image of the moa, shot at sunset and reprinted on the jacket front, jars somewhat with its garishly hot-pink sky and patchy colouration compared to the smooth sheen of other digitally-photographed images. (Macpherson took it on the spur of the moment, with a camera borrowed from her partner Peter Black.)
Overall, Macpherson’s regard is contemplative, whether observing a barbered and manicured bowling green in Winton, a totem pole in lollipop colours on a hilltop between Opotiki and Ohope in the Bay of Plenty, or a gaggle of fairy-tale chalets in Twizel collectively bearing the letters spelling the word MOTEL. People don’t figure much, except as an index of scale. It’s the character of places rather than the characters in places that she’s interested in, though there’s the obligatory mannequin peering out from a small-town window on to the main street, as if at something vanishing.
Macpherson claims to be reading signs of the local as a visitor, a tourist, but you get the feeling she’s known these places all her life: she knows how to slow down and just gaze and get that into her photographs – this arrested movement testified to in a photograph of spindly rugby goalposts, with stick-like wind turbines stock-still on a hilltop behind – so that the stillness accumulates and transforms into a crystalline epiphany.
Photographers queue up to photograph Antarctica, the great white continent. Amongst them, over the past decade alone, have been: Grahame Sydney, with his reductions of Antarctica to skeletal flag-markers and stark glaciers in lots of space; Jane Ussher, documenting the well-preserved huts of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton; Joyce Campbell’s crevasses in the snow and ice, suffused with a sense of the uncanny; and Megan Jenkinson’s studies of auroras and other light displays in the summer skies. Photographer Anne Noble first visited Scott Base for three weeks in 2002, and has returned to Antarctica several times since, building up whole series of photographs, of which her book Ice Blink examines one thematic thread.
But Noble began photographing Antarctica even before she got there. While waiting for a delayed Hercules flight to take her to Scott Base, she went and photographed inside the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch. Out of this developed her interest in ‘representations’ of ‘the Antarctic experience’. Towards the back of the book, Ian Wedde argues, in his long and entertainingly digressive essay (veering from Moby Dick to Symmes Hole to Ray Krok’s invention of the Big Mac) about the way this experience is manufactured, that: ‘Antarctica represents a desire, sometimes even a guilty desire, for purity and virtue’, and that the actual undergoing of the ‘experience’ is a kind of process or practice or ‘convention’ of seeing, signified by the nautical term ‘ice blink’, which in her book Noble appropriates to mean the act of ‘viewing photography’ about Antarctica.
Photography, Wedde and Noble aver, sells us Antarctica as advertised, that is, it’s all about the packaging and branding, which collude with our own desires. As the art critic Peter Galassi has succinctly summarised: ‘what we see always depends in part what we expect to see.’ In Ice Blink this thesis becomes a working method for dealing with the slippery concept of ‘the public imagination’. Visiting dioramas in Antarctica centres, museums, research institutes and aquariums around the world, as well as spending 11 days on an Argentinian Antarctic cruise ship, allows Noble to unpick, or at least pick at, the sacred narrative of Antarctica, with its heroic martyrs, the precious relics of the huts, its status as a holy of holies – an ecological sanctum sanctorum.
Elsewhere (the Bitch in Slippers series), Noble has looked at the macho attitudes underlying latter-day exploration, signalled by the custom of assigning bulldozers, cranes, trucks and snowploughs stroppy female names; and also (in the Antarctic Collectables series) photographed kitsch items associated with Antarctica, including the ultimate consumer item, the Antarctic biscuit baked in the shape of the white continent and slathered with white icing. As the images in Ice Blink confirm, Noble often acts as a connoisseur or collector of other people’s responses: she encloses the ‘official’ frame within her own framing, introducing the motif of the hyperreal; she shows us the museological frame within which museum visitors are sited, and even the particular lensing of the heroic age associated with the earliest Antarctic photographers, Herbert Ponting (the official photographer on the last Robert Falcon Scott expedition of 1910-1913, and Frank Hurley (in 1914-1917). These latter two photographers were schooled in the conventions of Pictorialism, a form of art photography that sought to equal the renditions of Romantic painting.
As Noble’s odyssey to uncover ‘ice blink’ versions goes on, so she reveals the nearly identical simulacra in location after location. You have to consult the (confusingly arranged) captions at the back of the book to know where you are. In front of assorted theatrical spectacles, people float like spectres, or resemble dummies with fur-trimmed parka hood pulled over their heads. (In Christchurch ‘the Antarctic experience’ is complete with a wind-chill simulator to provide an authentic minus 18 degrees Centigrade.) There are many quirky or absurdist juxtapositions: spectators in tropical shirts, singlets, and other skimpy clothing seem to be in amongst the ice, staring at it curiously; in another photograph, a man fully rigged-out in hi-tech Antarctic clothing reclines on a small ice floe at sea, as relaxed as if on a big white bean bag in front of the television in a domestic setting. Mock-ups of icebergs bulge like great molars; real penguins roost awkwardly on plastic rocks behind glassed-in enclosures.
In Ice Blink’s cover image, a party of pretend-explorers are photographed pulling a snow sledge across a sunny expanse of Botanical Gardens lawn in Hobart, Tasmania. These man-haulers seem at once surrealistically comic and oddly poignant, like latter-day Christian pilgrims re-enacting the Stations of the Cross. This photograph is of a ‘Race to the Pole’ re-enactment held in 2006. (Presumably the three men shown represent Scott, Bowers and Wilson, the last three to perish on the return journey from the South Pole, to which they had been beaten by the Amundsen Expedition.)
White has ever been a key colour for Noble, dating back to her early studies of lilies and swans, and even the surface of the Whanganui River, and with Antarctica she has taken full advantage of its many permutations, from its in-your-face dazzle to its recessive vaporousness. Antarctica is phantasmagorical, mirage-like, the great beyond, a fatal attraction. This great white shroud, veil upon veil, teases the human imagination with its refractions, its beauty, its horror – its alien quality. In one bravura image, set against café tables and chairs and carafes of water, Noble photographs it as a sweet-seeming confection, a great white slab of meringue covered in whipped cream. Other images, though, dial down the ecstatic response into one of distaste: there are the presence of urine stains and guano splatters down those plastic rocks on which captive penguins uncertainly roost, and in another plastic enclosure the whole Antarctic experience simulation is compressed into the tiny screens of twin mobile phones glowing in the dark, as the geological reality of the big ice shelf in the age of the anthropocene shrinks, melts, disappears.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall and The Landfall Review Online.