Thursday, July 24, 2008

Should I stay or should I go

Tony de Lautour, Powder Land, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 800 x 1200mm

Prompted by various recent discussions about the cultural plight of the South Island, I've been recalling the time I ran into an acquaintance -- someone I've known in one way or another for twenty-five years -- who was briefly back from Europe, where she has pursued a successful career in contemporary dance for the past decade with one of the world's leading companies.

It was early morning; after a broken night's sleep, I'd been to the supermarket; the baby was howling; I was pushing the buggy up the hill, sweating, red in the face, with embarrassing groceries (toilet paper, cheap wine, chocolate biscuits) bulging from the basket underneath, when I saw my friend coming towards me, whippet thin, cheekbones like a razor, dressed in casually chic black rehearsal clothes. There was no escape. After the obligatory continental kiss on both cheeks, she said "And this is your ... [brief pause] ... baby? How ... er ... wonderful. Is it ... er ... [brief pause] ... a boy or a girl?"

And then she said, "And what do you do here?"

Like most people involved in the visual arts, I can't abide other highbrow artforms. Classical music leaves me cold; opera is obviously an unspeakable torment; to my shame (if I had any), visits to the theatre require the provision of free tickets; but the worst hell of all is reserved for dance. Ballet, contemporary dance, it doesn't matter which; it would take more than free tickets to get me along: I would need wages. So when I found myself promising to go to my friend's dance performance, I knew I was lying. So, I suspect, did she.

Call me over-sensitive, but I'm sure I'm not the first to detect the hint of a patronising tone among ex-pat New Zealanders on a visit home. "What wonderful coffee!" they say brightly. "Mmmm, smell that mountain air!" "Wow, you couldn't park outside the restaurant in Knightsbridge!" And with great enthusiasm: "The Phoenix Foundation sounds just like a Flying Nun band, doesn't it. I love how things in New Zealand just don't change."

At that sort of moment, chatting lightly with a stylish person with a Mittel-European accent who grew up down the road from oneself and is now an artistic success in a significant part of the world, while one is squinting into the sun, puffing like a grampus, carrying five extra kilos of baby weight and clutching dodgy groceries, it would be fair to say that one's personal decision to stay in New Zealand is put under the spotlight of harsh scrutiny. Even if you're leading a fairly cosmopolitan existence in Auckland or Wellington, it suddenly feels like you never left the milking shed or the Four Square store of Mosgiel or Hawera behind. The unspoken implication is: if you were any good at what you do, you wouldn't still be living in New Zealand. And I know, from conversations with many other stay-at-home friends, that this rampant insecurity is not peculiar to me.

Growing up in New Zealand, at some point you've got to make the decision about staying or going. When I was in my early twenties, the choice was between one or the other -- either you left, usually for Britain, where you spent a decade doing the kind of menial job for the upper classes that your great grandparents emigrated to escape from, before you finally came home with a much-embroidered CV and a chip on your shoulder -- or you stayed in New Zealand, got on with the job, and like me, spent the time since then justifying your decision not only to yourself but to the streams of New Zealanders living in the diaspora coming home for Christmas with family. There were some ex-pats, of course, like my friend the dancer, who got past the nannying/ temping/ furniture removals stage of OE subsistence and actually managed to score a good job or achieve professional success, but among my group of friends, these people tended to end up living in Sydney. Successes in Europe were few and far between.

Things have changed. These days it's entirely possible for a New Zealand artist to live and work in the States or Europe while also sustaining an exhibition practice back home. Recently we've seen visual artists running increasingly decent international careers from a New Zealand base. New Zealand writers are published internationally, get shortlisted for huge worldwide literary prizes, and sometimes manage to write about New Zealand (Christchurch even) in bestsellers published overseas, all the while continuing to live here. There are ongoing international residencies for New Zealand artists and writers; even art curators get sent away now and again to see how the rest of the world does it. And last month CNZ posted South Island art critic Andrew Paul Wood off to Germany to enlarge his horizons and presumably ours too: he's been filing dispatches for the readers back home about his encounters with bratwursts, monster German ants ("semicolons in 16 point on legs"), and villainous James Bond-esque art collectors, while noting historical German sculpture's propensity to depict "violent shagging", something my art history lecturers were remarkably tight-lipped about.

New Zealand is all very well, but you need to be able to get away every so often before the walls close in. Every time I've travelled, I've returned with a renewed sense of optimism about the quality of the art being produced here, as well as an enhanced sense of regret that we just don't get to see enough international contemporary art prctice in New Zealand.

If present circumstances didn't prevent me, I would be off like a rat up a drainpipe to see the Richard Prince survey exhibition currently on at the Serpentine. Because 'Continuation' is the sort of show that would never come to New Zealand, as the costs of shipping the enormous paintings and photographs would be prohibitive when set against the revenues you could possibly expect to make from a doorcharge. (This despite a possibly increased public recognition factor since Prince's recent foray into designing Louis Vuitton bags with Marc Jacobs... which surprised me a bit...)

Here's a guided tour of the Prince show by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist. ("We're going to do this as a ping pong," explains a rather cross-looking Obrist helpfully at the start. Or maybe that's just his usual expression.)

[Note to NZ galleries: hire some lapel mikes if you're wanting to do this sort of business ...]

But I digress; back to life in New Zealand. I've written before about Christchurch Press journalist Philip Matthews's recent exposure of the anti-South bias in Creative New Zealand's provision of arts project funding and appointments to assessment panels. Interviewed by Matthews, Chris Finlayson, National's Arts spokeman and ex-Chair of CNZ, invoked the deterministic power of the market when he suggested gnomically that people choose where they want to live. In thinking that one through, it seemed that Finlayson was implying that more project funding went to Wellington and Auckland because that's where the decent New Zealand artists tend to want to live, wherever they come from initially. And as a very general rule of thumb, with several honourable exceptions, that's probably right.

In his follow-up Letter to the Editor in last weekend's Press, the CEO of CNZ, Stephen Wainwright, wisely steered well clear of that area, suggesting instead that South Islanders should nominate themselves to be on the artform assessment panels. (Perhaps because no one in the North Island knows who you are...?) But the whole slightly ridiculous issue seems like a microcosm of the wider New Zealand problem. If you're any good at what you do, at some point you have to wonder whether you wouldn't be better off doing it elsewhere. And if you do decide to stay, you'll quite probably find yourself like me defending your position not only to visiting ex-pats but to yourself.


Anonymous said...

I am one who stayed and then even worse - stayed at home with babies. The situation is similar and justifying it to otehrs is indeed sometimes justifying it all to yourself. How depressing. We should have coffee.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

That sounds nice. I think more humorous than depressing though...

Anonymous said...

Oh I can see the funny side - after all you'd go a bit mad if you didn't :-)

Rachael King said...

Great post Cheryl. I feel the same was as you do about dance, I'm afraid! I also relate to the puffing uphill with baby and shopping, except add another 7 extra kilos to your amount!

I often think about why I didn't go overseas to live (beyond the obilgatory 1 year in my early 20s working in a pub). Time just ticked on by, I guess. And now that I am in a position where I could theoretically live and work anywhere, apply for multiple writers residencies and fellowships - freedoM! - I chose the exact moment to start a family, which is much easier to do at home with all the support networks around. A litle bit difficult to go away on my own, even for more than a week. Such are the choices we make.

I wish there was some way to live parallel lives. Oh hang on - there is. Become a novelist and just make them up!

Ali Bramwell said...

The grass is greener syndrome isn't unique to us.

Im not sure that the 'cultural plight' of the south island is unique to the south island either. I notice that many artists from Wanganui Wangamata Whangerei Waikato (and lots of other regional spots that may or may not begin with 'w') have been affected by the diaspora dynamic also. the big rush to the Big Rush...its always going on and going off somewhere where you are not...ergo where you are must completely suck. common logical fallacy.

the wrongheaded habit of looking down ones nose at the country cousins living in the cultural desert of somewhere even worse is a symptom of the same insecurity.

For my money the best place to be a NZ artist is still NZ, and whichever suburb of whichever burg you happen to have a studio is exactly fine as long as you are actually producing work.

(...with the happy proviso that regular travel is essential for keeping a sense of perspective...but this is as close to a universal truism as I know and applies no matter where in the world you live)

thought provoking post, thanks.