Thursday, October 23, 2014

Art and the Occupy generation

My essay about the Tongan-New Zealand performance artist 'Ite 'Uhila, who lived rough on Auckland's streets over winter, has provoked a few discussions since it was published last week at EyeContact

'Uhila's street performance, which was called Mo'ui Tukuhausia, was one of the four artworks to make the shortlist for this year's Walters' Prize, but missed out to Luke Willis Thompson's equally controversial inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam.

Thompson's work saw visitors to a gallery space being led by a security guard down a long corridor and delivered to a taxi driver, who in turn took them to the home of the artist's mother, where they were invited to look about. 

Over on facebook, one commenter used my essay to draw a contrast between 'Uhila and Thompson. According to her, Thompson's work was 'weak and washed out' compared to Mo'ui Tukuhausia, and only won the Walters Prize because of the racism of the New Zealand art world. 

Here's the response I made on facebook: 

I agree that there is a lack of knowledge about the cultural and historical contexts in which many Tongan artists work amongst Pakeha who visit galleries and museums, and I think that this lack of knowledge probably contributed to the failure of 'Ite to win the Walters. There's an irony in the way that Pakeha interested in the arts, as students or practitioners of critics, will devour difficult, often convoluted texts by European intellectuals - Derrida and Zizek and Baudrillard and so on - but won't consider the work of Pasifika intellectuals like, say, Futa Helu or Epeli Hau'ofa, or learn about the traditions within which, say, ngatu artists work, because that stuff is - to quote the sort of words I've heard used - too 'alien' or 'esoteric'! I understand these contradictory attitudes, because I used to harbour them myself. 

I'm not sure I agree with you, though, when you try to make a dichotomy between 'Uhila and Luke Willis Thompson, and suggest that Thompson was much less deserving of the Walters than 'Ite. 

It seems to me that 'Ite and Thompson's shortlisted works had several things in common. Both were attempts to steer their audiences away from the art gallery, both were questioning where the boundary between art and the rest of the world lies, and both seemed, to me at least, to be making critical statements about the way Niu Sila society operates. 

'Ite threw away the artist's normal repertoire of tricks, abandoned the gallery, became a haua, and tried to show that some of the virtues we see in artists, and in other esteemed members of society, are also present in the despised homeless on our streets, if only we would look. 

For his part, Thompson forced visitors out of the safe, antiseptic space of the gallery, led them to a cool, slightly rundown, and eerily empty home, and seemed to ask them to meditate on the relationship between the everyday world in which we live and the tidied up, beautified world of art and the art gallery. 

I think that 'Ite and Thompson are both artists who belong to a generation that is questioning, in a perhaps inchoate way, the verities of market capitalism and runaway technology, and seeking some more authentic way of being in the world. We might perhaps, call theirs the 'Occupy Generation', after the protesters who tried to bring direct human interaction to the alienated wildernesses of our central cities. I certainly see something of the idealism of the Occupy protesters in the methods of both 'Ite and Thompson. Both seem to want to break down the walls between artist and audience and art and life, and substitute human intimacy for the formal operations of galleries and the art market. 

In the discussion thread underneath my piece about 'Ite for EyeContact, I've argued that there are some risks involved in trying to get rid of the distinctions between art and life and artist and audience. As you can see, Daniel Webby disagrees with me. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fantasy islands

Apostles of digital reality sometimes claim that everything in the world, and a little more besides, exists on the internet, but the web seemed to me a terribly incomplete place - a poor copy of reality, like the shadows that trembled on the wall of Plato's cave - without this map, which I've scanned from Tin Can Island, CR Ramsay's 1938 book about Niuafo'ou, the regularly active volcano in the far, semi-fabulous northern zone of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Ramsay ran Niuafo'ou's store and designed its postal system, which saw muscled young men holding cans full of postcards and letters above the water while they swam to passing cargo ships.

When I look at Ramsay's map of Niuafo'ou, I can't easily separate fact from fantasy. For a distant admirer like me, the island's warm crater lake, which contains islands and an island lake of its own, seem as impossibly marvellous as the cherub who wheezes in the map's northwestern corner.
My older son has his own fantasy island. He is convinced that Rangitoto - or Langitoto, as the Tongans, whose tongues do not like the trill of the letter 'r', call it - is, along with Indonesia's Komodo Island, the chief habitat of the world's relict dinosaurs.

I grew up commanding armies of stunted toy soldiers and fighting with stick guns for the ditch-trenches of the family farm, but my wife has banned me from making our children into militarists. When he sees a gun on television or in a cast-off piece of newspaper, my son has learned to call the strange device a telescope.

When Aneirin and I recently climbed that most fabled and tunneled of Auckland's hills, Maungauika/North Head, and discovered a large gun near the northern summit, pointing towards Rangitoto, he decided, quite reasonably, that it was a telescope made to help visitors 'spy on the dinosaurs' of the nearby island. He looked down the barrel of the instrument and began to describe the fantastic creatures of Rangitoto.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Spitting on the artist

The pressure began almost as soon as the artist had opened his exhibition. Sitting outside the gallery in the sun, he was confronted by a series of angry men and women. Several of them swore at him; one of them spat on him. Other unhappy citizens wrote complaints to the gallery, urging it to repudiate the artist.

On three separate occasions, members of the police force confronted and interrogated the artist. During the last of these grillings, the artist handed his inquisitors a letter from the gallery's manager, which explained the institution's support for his work. A policeman tore the piece of paper up, and the artist decided that the time had come for him to end his show.

The events I've been described didn't occur in Solzhenitsyn's Soviet Union, or in the Ayatollahs' Iran, but in the east Auckland suburb of Pakuranga, where Kalisolaite 'Uhila performed Mo'ui Tukuhausia, or Living Homeless, for two weeks in 2012.

We New Zealanders like to consider ourselves a tolerant, enlightened people. We chuckle when we see the televangelists of America or the mullahs of the Middle East condemn a pop song with naughty lyrics or a film with nude scenes as an insult to the Almighty; we shake our heads when we read about the arrest of demonstrators demanding democracy in China.

When Kalisoliate 'Uhila donned the tattered black uniform of a tramp and took up residence in the grounds of Te Tuhi gallery, though, he soon showed the limits of our tolerance and enlightenment. The sanctity of private property; the separation of our private, embarrassingly intimate, and public, respectable lives; the moral necessity of work: all of these solemn principles of our society seemed mocked by the silent man in black.

This year Mo'ui Tukuhausia was nominated for the Walters Prize, New Zealand's most prestigious art award. At the request of the Auckland City Art Gallery, Kalisoliate 'Uhila has just finished a three month reprise of the work that made him a familiar and sometimes controversial figure on the pavements and in the parks of our central city. In the latest of my series of essays for the online arts journal EyeContact, I've tried to counter the criticisms that 'Uhila has faced, and linked his performances with some of the radical intellectual and artistic traditions of his native Tonga.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sir, there is dry rot in the Labour Party

In the second half of 2010 I spent a few hundred hours in the archives of the University of Auckland library, exploring the forest of Kendrick Smithyman's unpublished poems one tobacco-yellow, wine-stained leaf at a time. I collected several dozen of Smithyman's 'lost' poems in a book called Private Bestiary, but many had to be left in the wilds of the archive. 'Dry Rot in the Labour Party' didn't make my publication list in 2010, but its title has been echoing in my head lately. You can guess why.
Smithyman wrote the poem in 1951, the year when Labour, under the leadership of Stuart Nash's great grandfather, was struggling to remain on the sidelines of the Great Waterfront Lockout, a battle between the National government of Sid Holland and the militant section of the trade union movement led by wharfie Jock Barnes. 
Labour's failure to support Barnes and his comrades had been forseen by a young man named Robert Blake. In 1950 Blake had used an article for Here and Now, a small magazine linked to the Communist Party of New Zealand, to accuse Labour of abandoning its socialist policies in return for political respectability, and of betraying its allies in the trade union movement. Blake's article was called 'Dry Rot in the Labour Party'. 
Smithyman was an occasional contributor to Here and Now, and had espoused communist politics in some of the letters and poems he wrote from various barracks during World War Two. But his poem seems, to me at least, like a satire of Kiwi intellectuals who tried, in the unpropitious conditions of post-war New Zealand, to combine support for communism with a bohemian lifestyle and avant-garde tastes in the arts. As Smithyman takes the mickey out of Robert Blake and co., he offers a portrait of a cultural and political world that disappeared decades ago. 
Leave your interpretations in the comments box. 

Dry Rot in the Labour Party

Sir, I am my own man thinking my own thoughts,
not blown about by merely a popular wind


I come to my own conclusions without respect
to orthodoxy or heterodoxy, I find my way
Read and relaxation are right for child-bearing
Margaret Mead is right for the anthropologist
political truth somewhere between Burnham and Bukharin's


Landfall is stodgy but Here and Now has purpose,
Weeks is the best painter in New Zealand,
recently I bought Lee-Johnsons, now I buy Patersons,
the Listener film notes aren't what they used to be,
we need ballet and opera and have a Recorded
Music Society to which I do not belong
although it is there if I want to belong to any


I discriminate in my jazz: I know some of the names
of some of the cats on the old platters and also
I know Derek who blows a mean licorice stick.
The National Symphony Orchestra? Always
the National Symphony Orchestra even if honestly
sometimes, you know,
                                 I like Cary's novels
but I don't think I should like Carew's novels
because there is
and Sargeson. Sargeson writes good short stories
though his novels aren't novels and the Labour Party does
not labour.
                Next year I shall probably return to
Trollope since H. James I do not wish to read again -
still there is Eliot and the

            PARTY DRY PARTY

When I'm out at a party I drink beer.
Occasionally I make my own, I am not a brewer's lackey.
In the last three years I have known three interesting
families: Poppelbaum's, Vrcjmskuch's, and mine

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The return of the 'now'

[Roger Horrocks, legendary chronicler and contributor to New Zealand culture and author of the  neglected psychogeographic masterpiece Auckland Regional Transit Poetry Line, which records his adventures on this city's buses in the early 1980s, has let me publish the text of a talk he gave last Thursday night at the launch of Murray Edmond's book Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing.]
The thing I want to get across is that this is a unique book, an extraordinary book – not only because it’s beautifully produced but because it holds the essence of a lifetime of thinking about poetry, theatre, cultural politics, and the situation of living in New Zealand.
I’m overjoyed that such a collection can still be written and published in this country – it stands in utter contrast to today’s verbal fast-food, the “over-hasty volumes [of] blurb and guff” (to borrow one of Murray’s phrases), would-be best-sellers ghost-written by the invisible hand of the market.   
Murray’s Big Black Book is the real deal, an essential guide to our past, present and future. The title, a phrase from Janet Frame, covers that whole kit and caboodle - “Then it was Now Again” – echoing the time-travel in the title of Murray’s doctoral thesis, “To my Old Comrades of the Future.” Revolutions of the past look expectantly to new revolutions tomorrow. 
There are over 40 years documented in this collection. Today we have an urgent need for good critical history. I was talking the other night with a former colleague who observed that students are displaying an ever-shrinking sense of history. Technology is moving so fast that five years is now a distant horizon for them. So there’s relevance in launching this book in a pub dedicated to an Elizabethan poet and theatre man.
Murray is always interested in the big picture, though he also makes lovely detailed readings of particular texts. And if I seem to be making this book sound too serious and earnest, I should add that it is a hugely entertaining read. He describes the writer’s role as “a wrestling match with his own culture and the language it has debased.” For that kind of wrestling, Murray is a Superstar and he grapples with many flabby or pretentious forms of culture.  For example, he says of mainstream theatre: “Groups need good audiences to survive, but NZ theatres are invariably choked with the stuffy and the stuffed who cannot be shocked or overjoyed, who cannot laugh, and who love it all, [who] thank Christ they are here, safe in furs, and not out there threatened on the street.”
Of a would-be avant-gardist he writes: “I must point out…that all this postmodern posturing is just the shadow of a new orthodoxy and it is there to mask and hide the fact that the language is quite lifeless.” (Language is always one of Murray’s touchstones.) And of a reviewer in NZ Books: “Her demonstration of a lack of basic literary general knowledge, her inability to read tone, and her inattention to form and measure…-[these things are] trumpeted by her review, they are badges she wears with pride.” Such takedowns are only a warmup for when Murray gets in the ring with more vicious opponents such as Rogernomics.
In covering 40 years of NZ cultural history he identifies various bursts of “revolution” which were then tamed and domesticated by the establishment. Equilibrium was regained, establishing a new “staid parade” (so that “Now” became “Then”). But “now” can surge back up in a new form. Murray traces its ups and downs as a canny historian who is always looking for new energies but at the same time understands the complexities, ironies and naive “Romantic streak” that are a part of any revolution. In the Big Smoke days of the ’70s, for example, he notes: “There were elements of the messianic, the insane, the magical and irrational in the poetics of the period” – he is completely clear-sighted about that, but in poetry and theatre he still deeply respects the search for “Paradise,” “utopia,” or “revolution as carnival.”  Murray is a brilliant critic, rare in our culture, who has never lost his appetite for openness, for experiment and risk, for “making it new”. No doubt it helps that he has remained such an active creative figure, always on the front lines.  

In short, this book is history we need – it’s the tale of our tribe in its efforts to (quote) “transform a colonial society and its brutalisations into something else.”  Murray has (in the words of one essay title) managed to catch “the terror and the pity,” the humour and surprises of it. In my opinion this is not merely an excellent book but an essential book that every serious New Zealander must buy – and start wrestling with.  

-Dr Roger Horrocks  

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Speaking over Heaphy

[Shakespeares Hotel in downtown Auckland is stocking up on malt whiskey and cheap beer, as it prepares for tomorrow night's launch of books by Murray Edmond and Ted Jenner. The malt whiskey is being kept for Brett Cross, whose Atuanui Press is giving the world Edmond's volume of cultural history and Jenner's heavily annotated collection of ancient Orphic death-poems. The cans of Rheineck and Ranfurly will be doled out to humbler folks like Richard Taylor and yours truly.

Here are another couple of excerpts from my introduction to Murray's book. I'll see you tomorrow night, and shout you a Rheineck.]

At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, Murray Edmond was one of a gang of young literary rebels who published a magazine called The Word is Freed, or Freed for short, from their base in inner city Auckland. Like many writers of their generation, the Freed group considered cultural and political radicalism to be inextricably connected. The Fordist capitalist societies of the postwar West, with their vast and orderly factories, quiescent working classes, and smug, bureaucratised political parties, seemed to depend for stability on a puritanical morality and a philistine mass culture. Seduced into conformity by their televisions and by well-stocked supermarkets, and fearful of the consequences of sexual and chemical experimentation, the denizens of the West needed to change their lifestyle as well as their politics.

For the Baby Boomers who marched and rioted in the streets at the end of the sixties, culture was therefore as much an issue as economics and politics. During the revolutionary ‘May Days’ of 1968, the students and workers of France demanded the end of sexual and cultural repression as well as common ownership of the economy, and painted the slogan TOUT LE POUVOIR A L’IMAGINATION (ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION) on walls. Poets, it seemed, were in the vanguard of the revolution.

The exuberantly innovative poems published in Freed were intended, then, as a challenge to New Zealand society, as well as to New Zealand literature. In the first issue of the magazine, Alan Brunton condemned the notion of art for art’s sake, insisting that ‘A WORK OF ART HAS NO RIGHT TO LEAD AN AUTNOMOUS MORAL EXISTENCE’ inside a world that is too often ‘DIVORCED FROM THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE’.

As Murray Edmond notes in his preface to this book, though, the coupling of revolutionary politics and revolutionary art did not last long. In the eighties Thatcher, Reagan, and our own Roger Douglas brutally restructured capitalism, shrinking the state, shutting factories, splintering the left, and inaugurating a post-Fordist era in which an atomised population competed for insecure service sector jobs. At the same time, the cultural phenomena that had seemed aberrant and dangerous in the sixties – sex outside marriage, communal living, alternative religions, rock festivals, independent film making, and so on – were accepted and commercialised by most Western societies. The counterculture became a set of unthreatening subcultures...
Theatre occupies a special place in this book, and a special place in Edmond’s life. He has worked as a dramaturge, theatre director, and teacher of drama, and mentored generations of playwrights and actors. Edmond sees the theatre not as some autonomous zone where the contradictions of quotidian life are dissolved, but as a site where contradictions and the conflicts they produce can be experienced and examined. Edmond shows us the conflicts that can arise between playwright and director, director and actors, and actors and audiences, and links these clashes to conditions in the world outside the playhouse. The aesthetic success of any theatrical venture depends, Edmond suggests, on the acknowledgement and creative use of contradictions. A successful theatrical performance is a model, however small-scale and temporary, of a democratic society, where differences are acknowledged rather than evaded or repressed. 
The long, eponymous essay that concludes this book has an elegaic tone that contrasts poignantly with the brusque optimism of some of Edmond’s youthful writings. Where the proclamations of Freed looked forward to a revolutionary future, ‘Then It Was Now Again’ looks backwards, deep into New Zealand’s past, and laments the way that successive propagandists for the powerful, beginning with the nineteenth century surveyor Charles Heaphy, have tried to write inconvenient individuals and communities out of history. Edmond presents New Zealand writing as a continual joyous struggle to salvage and restore the memory of marginalised people and forgotten events.

The style of ‘Then It Was Now Again’ perfectly matches the essay’s argument. 
As he refutes the simplified versions of New Zealand history produced by men like Heaphy, Edmond offers quotations, in English and Maori and a strange hybrid of the two languages, from more than a dozen authors. Historians like Judith Binney and James Belich are quoted alongside poets like Smithyman and Robin Hyde and the nineteenth century prophet Te Ua. Several authors whose names have been lost – footsoldiers in the anti-imperialist wars of the nineteenth century, who left their words of defiance hanging in the air like gunsmoke – join the fray. 

For Murray Edmond, history is a democratic, and often contradictory, polyphony of voices, rather than some smooth monologue. We can be thankful that Edmond has added his voice to New Zealand literature over the past four decades.  

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, October 06, 2014

Inside the Seleka Club

Last Thursday, after being directed to a barren public park by a series of text messages, I was handed a large untitled painting by Tevita Latu, the founder and spiritual leader of Tonga's Seleka Club, whose members sit up all night, almost every night, drinking kava from a toilet bowl and making provocative art.

Latu's painting was brought to Niu Sila by art mule Tui Emma Gillies, who recently visited Tonga to stock up on tapa cloth and dye and to drink kava with the Selekarians. I hope that, like its predecessors, the painting will act as a magical portal from a still-chilly Auckland to the permanent summer of Tongatapu.

A fragment of film showing Tui Emma Gillies inside the hallowed coconut trunk walls of the Seleka Club has turned up on Youtube. She and the Selekarians appear to be beautifying some rubbish bins kidnapped from the streets of Nuku'alofa.