Friday, December 11, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Art Instinct

Lately my life has been locked in a dialectical struggle between, on the one hand, the extremely brainy books I'm attempting to digest for my university work, and on the other, the minor domestic incidents which pepper my existence like pellet holes on a West Coast road sign.

Recently these have included (but are not limited to) the following:

1. The hair clippers blowing up in the middle of two simultaneous haircuts, leaving the big guy with a No. 1 and a bushy beard, like one of those blokes out of ZZ Top; while the small guy was left high and dry sporting a long front, short back, and a two inch fringe across the nape of his neck. Throw in a couple of Team Holden jackets and it would have been a splendid father and son look for a night out at the stock cars;

2. Running over a fresh dog poo with the deep 'mountain' tread tyres of the baby buggy, something the Super Nanny and Gina Ford's otherwise comprehensive parenting manuals completely fail to mention;

3. Breathlessly retweeting Alain de Botton's remark like a giddy schoolgirl with a Twitter crush:
"Useful new verb, 'to moast' - that is to moan about one's condition while at the same time also secretly boasting about it."
and being rightly told off for so doing (even though it accurately describes the conversational style of several people I know).

4. Dealing severely with the return of a large pantry rat with a taste for chocolate buttons;

5. Being banned from leaving helpful comments on John Hurrell's otherwise excellent EyeCONTACT art review site until I use my 'proper first name last name'. Oh well. A simple pleasure denied.

So all in all, there's been little visiting of art exhibitions lately, and not a great deal of TV watching either now we're through the second series of The Wire and awaiting the arrival of the third from Wellington. As ever, though, the small guy can be counted upon. He is just about to finish his first year at school ("Mum, I really hope Santa brings me an archery set for Christmas! Binoculars for spying on people! And a huge nerf gun!") and recently completed a new book which deals with evolution and comparative mythologies -- traversing much the same territory as Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, though I believe the small guy's approach to the material is less dogmatic. Including the Loch Ness Monster, leprechauns, and God, the small guy is clearly a cultural relativist: put them in a room together and I think he and Dutton would have words.

Chapter One: What is a Dimorphodon?
A Dimorphodon is like a pterodactyl. A Dimorphodon is a herbivore.

Chapter Two: Cavemen
Cavemen killed animals for their skins and meat. Cavemen make a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Chapter Three: Woolly Mammoths
Woolly Mammoths lived in the Ice Age. Woolly Mammoths ate plants.

Chapter Four: Early Rodents
They ate dinosaur eggs. Early rodents were like mice.

Chapter Five: The Dragon
A long time ago people in China believed in dragons. Dragons breathed fire.

Chapter Six: The Loch Ness Monster
A long time ago in Scotland people believed in Nessie. Nessie was big and strong.

Chapter Seven: Leprechauns
Some people in Ireland believed in leprechauns. Leprechauns guarded a pot of gold.

Chapter Eight: God
Some people believed in God. God was a good man. [The picture shows God on his cloud sending a bolt of lightning to Earth to kill a witch who is threatening two children.]

Chapter Nine: Hercules and Apollo
Hercules was strong and Apollo was fast. They are Greek myths.

The book's title? The Discovering Fun Saloon. The cover has a picture of a cowboy holding a gun in one hand and a bunch of balloons in the other. Its original title was simply the very bold History, but the small guy crossed that out and retitled it when he moved on from the facts and got on to the 'beliefs' section. That's the sort of thing that makes him such enormously good company.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"The New Museum is my Bitch"

Oh dear. As soon as I saw this brilliant cartoon by artist William Powhida regarding recent developments at New York's New Museum [click on text link for a big detailed version], I couldn't help but imagine what the equivalent in the New Zealand art world might look like. If anyone draws it, it had nothing to do with me, OK?

Via William Powhida's drawing appeared on the front cover of the Brooklyn Rail.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sea of night

A gratuitous night-time self-portrait, Lartigue-style.

Yesterday evening a friend and I drove into town to photograph Fiona Pardington's new illuminated billboard, installed a couple of days ago on the Worcester Street facade of the Christchurch Art Gallery. The image is Pardington's photograph of a small hand-blown glass ship, enlarged to monumental public scale. It looks strong in the daytime, but enters another dimension by night.

Fiona Pardington (Ngai Tahu) came across the glass ship among the collections of Canterbury Museum: it's a model of the Charlotte Jane, the first to arrive of the First Four Ships which brought out the British colonists to the Canterbury Settlement in 1850. The model was made by one of the descendants of the original settlers. When I was growing up in Christchurch in the 1980s, there was still considerable concern -- in a certain quarter of town at least -- over whether your ancestors had come out on one of the First Four Ships. Like going to Christ's College or casually mentioning that you were planning to take the Range up to the snow in the weekend, having a family connection to the First Four Ships was a decisive shorthand for being posh in Christchurch: more than anything it denoted old money, political power and the distinct probability of driving down major arterial roads bearing one's family name.

Living here again in 2009, I sense that the First Four Ships fetish seems to have receded a bit as history sails inexorably on; but it lurks there still, hoving into view like a Lovecraftian ghost ship every now and again.

I took the photograph below looking up at Fiona Pardington's backlit billboard from the pavement.

The first person to push past the steerage passengers and stagger down the gangplank of the Charlotte Jane at 10am on 16 December 1850 after 99 days at sea was the man who became the first Superintendent of Canterbury province, James Edward Fitzgerald.* Fitzgerald was later involved in national politics, and advocated equal civil and political rights for all New Zealanders regardless of race, including the right for Māori to be involved in government and to retain their own lands. Oddly enough, he had previously been Assistant Secretary of the British Museum; an appropriate enough profession, one might argue, for one of the founding fathers of a deeply conservative and dusty city often described by the credulous or untravelled as more English than the English; a city which since Fitzgerald's time has increasingly been developed as a themepark of itself, its willow trees flanking the shallow river, its punts, straw boaters, striped blazers, Devonshire teas and Gothic Revival architecture creating not only a visual identity but a steady income from tourists.

The founder of the Christchurch Press, Fitzgerald was later able to use his newspaper as a vehicle to attack the plans of fellow colonist William Moorhouse to bore a rail tunnel through the Port Hills to link the city and the port, largely because of the enormous costs involved. The Press is still commonly used by its citizenry to scupper significant civic projects today.

Here's a photograph of Fiona Pardington's image The Prow of the Charlotte Jane with the night closing in around it. There is a strange effect whereby the image, spectral white on black, looks at first glance to be a negative. On the monumental scale of the street, the delicate glass rigging of the model appears like real ropes encrusted with ice, like one of the early Antarctic explorers' ships which left from nearby Sumner. The ghosts and shadows of the early years of the colony, the precarious voyages and provisional structures and scale models of elsewhere still present in the fabric of the city, are summoned by Pardington's work.

This shot above is taken from across the Boulevard. Yesterday evening the lights in the newly revamped, not-yet-open collection galleries were on, and the oriel window was illuminated. A stack of gallery furniture waited in the window, upturned chair legs silhouetted like a four-masted black schooner. A pirate hulk on one side, and the pearly white ship of the British colonists on the other. For a moment as darkness fell, the illuminated window and the backlit billboard appeared like positive and negative versions of one another.

Neil Pardington kindly allowed me to use his photographs (numbers 3 and 4 above) of Fiona Pardington's billboard for this post. His exhibition 'The Vault', a series of large-scale photographs taken behind the scenes in New Zealand museums and art galleries, is currently on display at Christchurch Art Gallery before it tours nationally.

*Characteristically enough, Fitzgerald's sharp elbows were in play again for the opening of the winding hill road connecting Lyttelton with Sumner, when he was the first to drive over it, in his dog cart.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Actually it was just me"

Image via Worth1000

How was your day at school? I asked the small guy.

Today, said the small guy, I had to break up the Fang Gang. J. stopped being our enemy, and it's only fun being in a gang when you've got an enemy and then you can have a war. When you haven't got an enemy there's not much to do. After J. stopped being our enemy we played Star Wars for a bit, and then the gang broke up at the end of lunch.

This afternoon W. and I tried to put a spell on J. We tried the farting spell, where you have to make a farting noise with your mouth or under your arm and point at the person and say the magic words which cause the person to fart. W. thought the spell had worked, but actually it was just me.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cass and the colour of New Zealand history

Rita Angus, Cass, 1936, oil on board, Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

On the way back from the West Coast, we took the turn-off to Cass. In the Craigieburn Ranges between Arthur's Pass and Castle Hill, Cass is about 120 kilometres from Christchurch and feels utterly remote. You take a turn-off from State Highway 73 and drive along a shingle road for nearly a kilometre until you reach the tiny settlement which has grown up around the railway stop Rita Angus made famous. You can't hear the main road: the place is quiet and still. The sun is hot on your back, and the air is cold. You feel like you're walking into the pages of a Frank Sargeson story.

More than seventy years on, the young macrocarpa trees Angus painted are now enormous and venerable, casting long shadows over the tussock. The station platform is long gone, as are the stacks of timber and the open shed pictured to the left of Angus's work. The small house in the background is still there.

The view along the tracks towards Arthur's Pass and the Coast.

Looking towards Christchurch.

The station building is much the same as Angus pictured it. The door to the right is still locked: the waiting room to the left is still open. The lettering on the sign has slightly altered from that Angus depicted: the contemporary version of standard railway signage is fatter and more squat than the more airy and elegant 1930s style.

The station building is in good repair, painted a glossy brownish red, as are several of the sheds and houses in the settlement. It is much the same colour that Maori carvings and architectural members were painted by museum staff in the first half of the 20th century: a colour known in the sector as 'museum red'. It's the reddish-brown colour of dried blood and freshly-turned fertile soil and of rust in the rain. Museum red: the colour of history in New Zealand.

The waiting room at Cass Station.

'Kiss the ground you walk on', exhorts the graffitti scratched into the wooden walls inside the waiting room.

The view out to the railway line from the waiting room: looking at the place Angus stood to make her painting in 1936.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The West Coast: Not as bad as it used to be

It is no secret that the West Coast and I are not friends. Our dislike of one another is entirely mutual and goes back almost thirty years. It was born out of various family holidays from which I was delighted to return; the sort of depressing minibreak on which one family member is coming down with something nasty, someone else has forgotten to pack something essential, two people are ignoring one another and everyone has the hump with someone else. Although this kind of break usually only lasts a couple of days, at the time it seems interminable. A vague air of anxiety closes in with the weather. The days cannot end quickly enough. The night sounds include the rumbling of the coal trains, an unidentified drip, and distant howls. At the half-way point it appears likely that the toilet paper will run out before the end of the stay; dinner consists of corned beef and mashed spuds with grey lumps; there is no TV; and the only thing to read in the mis-named 'holiday house' is a dog-eared copy of Papillon with the final page ripped out.

I know that there are some people who enjoy the long slog across the plains and over the mountains, whose idea of a pleasant getaway is a weekend in an uninsulated wooden cottage with a longdrop toilet 50 yards away up a hill; people who are unconcerned by relentless rain and sandflies as big as small dogs; people who positively thrive on the challenge of a day-long muddy hike up a scrub-clad mountainside in order to have a vile cup of tea with Germans in a small hut. I know there are people like this, and to them I say: you are most welcome to the West Coast.

I am not one of those people, and so for many years now I have been more than happy to stay firmly put on the eastern side of the main divide. In the weekend, however, I took a drive over the mountains to the Coast for the first time in more than 15 years. It was a family occasion, and it may be that my expectations were not high, but in the end I was quite pleasantly surprised: the West Coast is not as bad as it used to be. It still doesn't meet my definition of civilisation, vis: a place offering (a) the ability to buy a good cup of coffee, in conjunction with (b) the chance of being able to speak to someone who has read the same books as oneself, but on this trip at least there were no sandflies, the rain let up every now and again and there was a copy of Lawrence Durrell's Complete Antrobus in the bach.

At Moana, in the playground of a school by the edge of Lake Brunner, I photographed this concrete wall. The wall, if not my photograph, reminded me of images by Peter Peryer, as well as Julian Dashper's drumskin target paintings.

There isn't a lot of art to be found on the Coast, of course: that's not the point of it, I suppose. There's an art gallery at Otira (which has 'Contemporary' written sideways on it in a sans-serif font, Shed-11-in-the mid-80s-style). It seems so unlikely that it commands attention, and if it hadn't been shut, we might well have stopped. But it would be hard to compete art-wise with the experience of driving through the Otira Gorge these days: the new roadway engineering (a gigantic viaduct over a scree slope hundreds of feet high, a waterfall channelled across and over the road, a concrete rock shelter) is genuinely impressive and reduces not only the duration of the journey but also both the spew factor and the chance of death, which always used to feel quite considerable. If they ever set a James Bond film in New Zealand, the Otira Gorge would be the perfect backdrop for some very foolish stunt driving and perhaps a parachute chase.

On our way back across the plains heading towards Springfield, there were roadworks. At one point we were led through the works by a 'pilot car'. I've never come across this before. It seemed so utterly ridiculous that we couldn't stop laughing at it; we felt as if we had been co-opted into some peculiar work of relational aesthetics dreamed up by the road crew, cars following close in an Austin Powers-esque conga line on the Canterbury plains. 'Poot poot! Follow me.'

Or maybe I was just happy to be on the home road.

At Springfield we slowed to see the remains of the giant doughnut, erected a couple of years ago to celebrate the release of The Simpsons Movie. The fibreglass doughnut has been, like any work of public art, quite controversial: it has divided the small town between those people who think it amusing and a positive drawcard for tourists, and those who consider it an eyesore. It now resides on private land beside the main road, after its temporary resource consent ran out and the council gave it its marching orders. A little while ago, someone -- presumably someone in the 'eyesore' camp -- set fire to it. The locals have threatened to rebuild it in concrete to foil future vandals, but for now the doughnut stands as it is, battered but triumphant.

As we passed, I applied my usual test as regards the worth of a public artwork: Is it better than nothing at all would be in the same spot? And in the case of the Springfield doughnut, after a great deal of consideration, I think yes, it is.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Japonisme for the modern home

Came across this in a second-hand shop in central Christchurch today: the kind of dismal shop filled with stacked mattresses and plastic chairs and old metal TV trolleys, advertising 'Social Welfare Quotes' on a hand-lettered poster near the door. Of course, it wasn't for sale, this sort of thing never is: which is probably just as well, as I suspect there's no house that's really quite big enough for an eight-foot-tall plaster statue of a cute Japanese girl. Especially ours. Wish it was, though.

Mind you, if I was allowed to have my head with the acquisition of all the objets trouve I have a hankering for, our place would end up looking even more like something from Spinal Tap than it already does, rather than Kahn's My Architect, as I might otherwise hope. (Fat chance of that, though. My dreams of stylish high modernist minimalism are continually thwarted not only by the children's accumulations of plastic stuff -- there are days when our lounge carpet looks like the plastic soup of the Western Pacific Ocean, or a fairly haphazard installation by Tony Cragg -- but by my own popular-culture-inflected squirrel-like nature. Oh well. Sayonara.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Smells like mean spirit

Images via BitRebels

Like many New Zealanders, I am a habitual champion of the underdog. I can't help myself. I'm all for the gingery Shane Cameron over the sleek racehorse Tuaminator, Dame Malvina over Dame Kiri, Ronald Hugh Morrieson over Frank Sargeson: Colin McCahon over every other international modernist master. I'm always looking for the transcendent moment of brilliance in the face of impossible odds. Add to this national proclivity a personal cultural heritage emanating from London's East End, whence a couple of branches of my family pulled themselves out of the Thames's primeval sludge several generations ago, and in any fight I'm naturally attuned to look for the balance of power. Who's the force to be reckoned with, I'll wonder? Who's got the stuff? Who's slipped lead weights into their gloves? Where's the smart money going? And then I'll cheer for the weedy one putting up his dukes, for the slightly porky one on his make-or-break comeback special, for the one who seems almost impossibly behind the run of play but might be able to pull it off, for the one just getting out there and bravely having a go, despite the odds. (I'll have my money safely down on the other one, of course. The actual winner.)

This penchant for under-doggery may well not be peculiar to New Zealanders; I expect it's a cultural trait to be found in most small, slightly crap countries. It's a strange form of humbuggery and moral superiority rolled into one. While collectively we might be losers, there's something about the culture that breeds individual champions, innovative rough-hewn geniuses armed only with a piece of No.8 wire or a pair of sturdy legs. Or so we wish to believe. Given the impossible odds in such unequal competitions as we specialise, a loss is unremarkable and to be expected; but a win from behind is something truly to savour, something distinctive and memorable which helps to form personal and national identity. Edmund Hillary was perhaps the ultimate underdog, a beekeeper from New Zealand who bestrode the roof of the world. Given our tiny population, any time our sports teams win at pretty much anything at all it's a triumph of the underdog. Katherine Mansfield, Frances Hodgkins, D'Arcy Cresswell*: plucky colonial underdogs, one and all. And we all walked a bit taller when Colin McCahon and Laurence Aberhart showed at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. That was good. That was earnt.

But something I've been thinking a bit about recently is the critical importance of correctly identifying the underdog. Sometimes I've got it wrong, and have cheered for a weedy villain, or an arrogant fool. The underdog category can be quite mutable, and depend utterly on one's personal perspective. For example, having known several art critics personally, and watched them having to cross the road sharpish in order to avoid a smack to the chops by an irate subject of their criticism, I tend to think of them as underdogs, but that's not how an artist may think of them. The artist may well have quite a different view of the critic as a wannabe jackbooted overlord which is quite at variance to the way he or she (actually, it's almost always he) might see himself: a humble worker in the art mines, sweating over copy at 10 cents a word, fighting the good fight for quality and saying what needs to be said. Underpaid, brave, plucky, and only very occasionally funded by Creative New Zealand.

Being an underdog is not the same as being the probable loser or just not very good at whatever you're doing. It takes a certain kind of indominitable spirit as well, a kind of dogged goodwill towards one's opponents, even -- perhaps especially -- when one is being trampled in the mud. Discussing this post with the big guy last night, he put it thus: NZ's cricket team, The Black Caps, are not plucky underdogs, even though they almost always lose, because they are an arrogant bunch of swines and as such, are not worth cheering for. To be an underdog worthy of the name, one needs humility, a sense of humour, and a show of public respect towards one's opponents. Arrogance, or mean-spiritedness, is an instant disqualifier from glorious underdog status.

I've often thought that the artworld, pound for pound, has more than its fair share of mean-spirited people. (I hasten to add that I'm not talking about artists here, very few of whom could be described in this way.) I've put this characteristically snappy arts personality down to the fact that a) there are a lot of very intelligent people attracted to working in the arts; and b) there is not a lot of financial recompense for their work. The result: dogs fighting over scraps. As a status-based industry, gossip and slander inevitably become its everyday currency: the artworld, perhaps surprisingly, is no place for the faint-hearted and not really a very comfortable home for the underdog. But I think this is probably true of various other worlds too, including -- possibly particularly including -- academia.

One of the rules I adopted when I started blogging -- apart from the classic never drinking and blogging -- is no mean-spiritedness. (It's similar to the one I assumed when I stopped working in the public sector: only do business with someone you like.) Many's the blog post I've started writing and had to delete, thinking, no, actually that's just mean. Funny, perhaps, but unkind. I've commented a few times lately on art review site EyeCONTACT when I think John Hurrell is being a bit unfair or hasn't given the subject proper credit for something they've attempted: but actually I only bother doing this because I know Hurrell to be a fundamentally good-hearted person, if a tiger for an argument. If I thought he was just being mean-spirited I wouldn't go near it. (But as the big guy said to me, if the underdog gets too yappy, sometimes a quick kick to the flank will sort things out nicely.)

I'm far too soft-hearted to be an art critic; even as a book reviewer critiquing truly terrible books I've tried to scrape up something nice to say for the sake of balance, knowing how hard it is simply to get a project up. And how comparatively easy it is for someone else to score unkind points off it. Of course, I will take considerable pleasure in being rude about it privately later; and I am occasionally horribly (and rather hypocritically) partial to the meanness of others. Vis: my recent obsession (via the excellent Artandmylife) with the entirely mean-spirited blog Regretsy, which takes the very worst and most ill-advised hand-made items from the crafting site Etsy and reposts them with appropriate comments. Here you can window shop for pendants in the shape of your own vulva; gigantic reusable sanitary pads with pictures of sexy vampires; ponchos for chickens (can also be a wrist cuff); hand-knitted tampon covers made from recycled wool for your key chain; or mispelled lines from Proust written in gold pen on an old pair of jeans made into a hideous skirt. And the art: the art on Regretsy is a thing of great wonder and aching ribs.

A painting by Heather Buchanan via Regretsy. Actually, I really like this painting.

By laughing at Regretsy I am of course, swimming against the tide of my own cultural heritage: the hapless crafters who are the subject of the blog's derision are most definitely underdogs. But it is extremely funny.

Of course, one might legitimately argue that reducing social relations to a knockdown contest between the underdog and the favourite is ridiculously simplistic. And in the case of Dargaville Museum vs. Reading the Maps, you'd be right. On a recent visit to the Museum, blogger Scott Hamilton was appalled at the incorrect attribution and inappropriate display of a carved pou. In particular, he took exception to the label which suggested that the pou belonged to an ancient pre-Maori 'Waitaha' civilisation, commenting that he was dismayed that 'pseudo-history has gained a foothold in one of New Zealand's larger provincial museums'. He wrote a series of sternly-worded emails to the museum critiquing their treatment and attribution of the pou, which he also posted on the Reading the Maps blog. Many prominent and scholarly people left comments on the blog in support of Hamilton's actions, and wrote their own complaints to the museum. Dargaville Museum then replied to Hamilton, explaining the circumstances which led to the carving being attributed in this manner, and saying that they had subsequently removed the label and were planning to seek help regarding the attribution from National Services Te Paerangi Te Papa.

Scott Hamilton's point of view, of course, is entirely correct. Reputable scholars concur there was no technologically advanced pre-Maori civilisation: there's no evidence for it whatsoever, and it's a notion which only exists in the mind of conspiracy theorists, and, as Hamilton suggests, pseudo-historians. Hamilton was right to point out this egregious error of judgment to the museum: what's out there for perusal in the public sector should conform with the accepted historical facts of the contemporary world. But somehow in the midst of all this I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for Dargaville Museum, which is a place run by volunteers and whose collections are largely based on the donations of generous private individuals. In such circumstances, a little bit of the whacky factor is inevitable (and indeed, is sometimes to be encouraged, or those museums wouldn't exist in the first place). In taking on Dargaville Museum, it wasn't Denis Dutton or Theodore Dalrymple giving the massive monolith of Te Papa a serve after its opening: the power in this fight seemed to be largely with Scott Hamilton, though I utterly respect him for standing up for an important principle. But after reading his emails (Whack! Whack! More information has come to my attention! Whack!) it felt a little bit like fish in a barrel to me. Dargaville Museum, though clearly in the wrong in its promotion of dubious pseudo-history in relation to this exhibit, seemed for a weak moment or two like the underdog, a bantam-weight fighter bloodied and out for the count under the sheer force of heavyweight blows landed by Hamilton.

While they may have had the unexpected effect of engendering a momentary sympathy (in me, at least) for the beleaguered museum, Scott Hamilton's emails represent a quite brilliant expose of a not-uncommon situation for small provincial museums. He makes some significant points about scholarship and the display of artefacts from a living culture which deserve to be widely heard. In the face of such a barrage, Dargaville Museum has done a sensible thing by turning to Te Papa's National Services for help. And here National Services could be a great deal of use to small museums by showing them how to distinguish between reputable scholarship and pseudo-history: strikes me that Scott Hamilton would be a great guest lecturer for such a workshop. I'd like to see this one resolved not by a smackdown but in a sit-down.

*Actually, D'Arcy Cresswell might be disqualified from true underdoggery on grounds of terminal arrogance. But he was very funny.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

'I will be Captain Underpants. OK?'

The recent school holidays have given me a new appreciation of the sheer anthropology that is involved in being the mother of a son. This was clearly illustrated to me by a couple of playdates which the small guy had over the past fortnight. The first was with his best friend, and I overheard a conversation between them which went much like this.

'Boogers? What are boogers?'
'They're bogies. Bogies. YOU know.'
'Heh heh heh.' Etc.

Then a little girl from down the road came to play. They know each other well, and are great friends, but the socialisation of nearly a year at school is making its mark. It was almost impossible for them to find a computer game they both wanted to play. The small guy's friend said that she didn't like Ben 10 Alien Force at all. 'Yuck! All that fighting!' She suggested the Power Puff Girls, to which the small guy said 'What? The Power Puff Girls? Do you want to make me vomit? Or have a heart attack?'

After canvassing whether his friend was familiar with 'the sort of magic where the magician cuts someone in half' ('We'd need a very big box,' he said thoughtfully), they sat down happily to watch the mercifully gender-issues-free Tom and Jerry Show. At one point the small guy broke wind and giggled, looking to his friend for appreciation. But she just folded her arms, pursed her lips and shook her head sorrowfully. And thus gender roles are set for life.

Today: a transcription of the most ambitious Captain Underpants adventure yet in the ongoing series by the small guy. No babies here, and no girls either.

Captain Underpants and the Treasure of the Pea Brain Pirates Poo
PS. No babies in this book.

Chapter One: 'Oh no!'

George saw a ship. 'Let's go on it,' he said.
'Oh no!' said George. 'We are far from home.'
'Har har! We got you!' said the pea-brain pirates.
'Aha! I know you two,' said one of the pirates. It was Mr Krapp.
'I will take you to the island,' he said. 'Yes, an island with treasure.'
'OK. We will go,' said Harold.
'Good. Let's go.'
'This is good,' said George.
'I've got the map,' said George.
'We are at the island,' said Harold. 'JUMP!'
'This is the place,' said George. 'The map says to dig here.'
'OK, dig.'
'Aha! The chest! Good.'
'OK, look inside... it is a poo!'
'That is dumb,' said George.
'No it is not,' said the chest.

Chapter Two: Click!

Click! It snapped its lock. Uh-oh ... Captain Underpants!
'I will save you,' he said.
Bam bam bam.

Chapter Three: Let's Go!

'OK, let's go home,' said George. 'Aha, today was fun for me.'
They were home at last.
'Do you want to play a game?' said Harold.
'We will play Captain Underpants, OK?' said Harold. 'I will be Captain Underpants.'
Bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam.

Chapter Four: Yes!

Ring ring!
'Yes?' said George.
'It is here.'
'What,' he said, 'not the newspaper?'
'We are in the newspaper! Oh no!' Harold said. 'RUN!'
'Just run, OK?'
So they did.

The End.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Because I am a tosser

When graphic designers mock up a page for a client, they drop in dummy text as a placeholder to show how the published version will look. The old stand-by placeholder text is the very dull Lorem Ipsum, a Latin passage from Cicero which has been used by designers and compositors since moveable type was invented in the 15th century. ("There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain . . .").

The other day via graphic designer Tina Roth Eisenberg (Swiss-Miss), I came across a site which offers designers considerably more choice than Lorem Ipsum. If you're partial to a bit of anguished Germanic surrealism, you can drop some 'Kafka' into your dummy publication ('One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin'): or if, like me, you're an unspeakable tosser, you can go straight for the full 'Werther' ('I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.')

I really, really like the idea of this Dummy Text Generator as a tool for designers (and if they had a 'Proust', a 'Carver' or a 'McCarthy' I'd be in heaven), although in a way the concept is more likely to appeal to the client -- who is presumably usually the one with the literary pretensions -- than the designer. ('Graphic designers never read the text they're working on,' said a friend once to me, and he should have known, as he was a very experienced one.) On the other hand, having Goethe or Kafka keeping the page warm for one's own immortal words could be somewhat off-putting for the nervous literary client: it sets the bar pretty high, and could well cause writer's block and a log-jam in the production process, something not encouraged by graphic designers.

My feeling is that both 'Kafka' and 'Werther' should probably be used with caution, being primarily suitable as dummy type either for rhino-hided winners of major literary prizes or the anonymous authors of the Innovations catalogue (I'm imagining the positioning of a paragraph beginning 'For a long time I used to go to bed early' beside a photograph of the device you can pee in while driving long distances); for anything in between, sticking to the tried-and-true Lorem Ipsum might well be safer.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In an octopus's garden

Some artists -- Bill Hammond, et al, Henry Darger, and so on -- are famously reticent about their work, and there's nothing wrong with that. But equally, I always admire an artist who's happy to front. Here's the latest in the small guy's epics of crime and punishment.

"The grumpy jellyfish is stinging the shark up the bum. Pretty much everyone’s grumpy, except the octopus, who’s happy. He’s trying to get the electric eel with his tentacles, and here he’s grabbing the shark, whose eyeball has popped out of its socket. Down the bottom a turtle is asleep, and some eyeballs are following the shark. This diver is happy because he’s found a dead crab. There’s an undersea restaurant called Soy Boogers. Two pirates on a pirate ship are making a turtle walk the plank. And up the top a happy jellyfish is stinging the electric eel up the bum."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Advice to writers

Penthouse: You got a lot of heat from publishers at first, didn't you? Was it your style or your content that most editors found hard to swallow?

Smith: They objected to both. They said I had sick attitudes for a woman. I'd get letters, "We find your thinking and ideas and your morals very immature. Write back when you mature." I was twenty-six, for Chrissake! They were looking for the usual jive-ass poetry, I guess. But now they're all knockin' at my door with bags of money. Fuck 'em.

From 'a baby wolf with neon bones', Patti Smith's interview with Nick Tosches, Penthouse, April 1976. (Possibly the best interview ever published.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I AM ... disappointed

Colin McCahon, I Am, 1954, image via Art New Zealand.

A little while ago -- following a remarkably irritating encounter with the Christchurch City Council's booking system for children's swimming lessons which still has me gritting my teeth when I think about it; a system based, I assume, on close observation of railway ticket offices in the Indian subcontinent -- I canvassed opinion about starting a new blog solely for complaining purposes, entitled I Am Disappointed.

The more I thought about it, the more the idea seemed to have legs. And as is my way, grand visions rose like coloured smoke before my eyes. After a while when it gained momentum it wouldn't just be me complaining; I could secure complaints for 'I Am Disappointed' from all over New Zealand, maybe from throughout the Anglophone world. Anyone who wanted to complain about anything could have a forum to do so. Ex-boyfriends, bad architecture, swimming lessons, the frequency of school holidays, the selection process for New Zealand's participation in the Venice Biennale: all disappointments would be grist to the blog's mill. It could be funny. It might be useful. It would be enormous.

Via Twitter, at least, there was general approval of the idea, albeit with suggestions for alternative names. 'You are a disappointment to me', suggested one correspondent; 'What, is that it?' proposed another. The inimitable @styler mentioned that she was herself thinking of "starting a blog called 'I fucked up' but I'd be so busy I'd never have time to fail big in future". And @Hamish_Keith chipped in with 'Fresh Disappointments Delivered Daily', which had me fantasising about a masthead designed by Dick Frizzell.

There would be legal issues, undoubtedly, as some of the complaints might be a bit near the knuckle, but the problems could probably be got around. And I'd have to make sure the complaints were interesting, rather than just whinges or insane rants. And the blog would need a brand: it would need to narrow its focus. It couldn't deal with everyone's complaints about everything, that would break the internet. Perhaps it could specialise in art-related complaints? Thus enabling me to shoot for the big McCahon I AM (disappointed) masthead. Although that would mean I couldn't include my feelings about:

1. Christchurch City Council's antiquated booking system for children's swimming lessons which requires you to turn up in person at 8am on a single school day each term and queue for about 45 minutes (have I mentioned that?)

2. The fact that the gigantic house being built down the road has just had a two-storey barrel arch craned into place as an architectural feature, thus making a frigging mockery of the Christchurch City Council's supposed architectural guidelines for its Special Amenity Areas;

3. The fact that toys in Kinder Surprise eggs almost always come readymade these days rather than being the sort you have to put together (actually, this is one of the small guy's peeves, rather than mine, but it's heartfelt).

Then I realised it would actually be quite a lot of work to read through and vet the submissions, and that it would probably be a bit of a downer being a clearing house for other people's complaints (not unlike being a curator at a public gallery again, in fact). Also, aiming to operate in a territory marked out by the intersection of talkback radio, Hamish Keith's 'Cultural Curmudgeon' column, and the admirable New York-based keep-em-honest blog, How's My Dealing, might not necessarily be the recipe for a quiet life. So I've decided not to do it, after all.

But if I had, this week I'd be considering the forthcoming closure of Te Papa's brilliant research library to the general public. I've used it often over the years, and I've always liked how it's literally open to the public; you can walk right into it, sit down and start reading. You run into Te Papa's curators there, when they're working on something: and if you need help with a reference, in my experience the staff are quick and knowledgable. It's been reported that from November you'll still be able to use the research library on certain afternoons, but only if you make a previous appointment. I'm sure it's a necessary matter of cost-cutting, an internal management choice between this and that and so on, and I do note that they're planning to digitise more of their research collection, but I wish they hadn't chosen to cut the open library access: I liked and admired how the set-up of Te Papa's library announced 'We're open for scholarship. Ours, and yours.' It was a good look.

So, I wish the public swimming pools would digitise their booking systems, it's ridiculous to have to turn up in person as if the internet had never been invented: but I loved the fact you could turn up in person as a member of the public to Te Papa's research library. No doubt the swimming bookings will be online at some point, but I'll bet that it will prove considerably more difficult to reopen Te Papa's library to general public access in the future. It's the sort of thing that, once done, is surprisingly hard to undo.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back to back and toe to toe

New Zealand Morris dancers performing the ‘black joke’ , one of their most embarrassing and idiotic moves, for patrons of the Wellington pub Britannia. Image from Te Ara. Needless to say, I will be discouraging the small guy from anything remotely resembling this sort of thing, although in truth I think it most unlikely that I'll need to.

What I really don't like about Mondays, said the small guy: FOLK DANCING. You have to hold people's horrible hot hands. It's no good. There's a dance about Christchurch, where you walk round the cathedral. And in Wellington, you do the cable car, and keep on bobbing up and down until your legs are tired. And then you go to Dunedin. It's a blinking nuisance.

*Apologies to people who've previously read this one elsewhere: I'm blogging it following a request for 'more of the small guy'.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The politics of aesthetics

In 1960, American social critic Dwight MacDonald wrote 'Masscult and Midcult', an influential and excoriating essay in which he expressed his utter loathing of the middlebrow culture first derisively described by Virginia Woolf three decades earlier. As MacDonald saw it, the loathsome midcult fell well short of both the high culture with its specialisation and drive for excellence, and the low culture of the working people with its 'raw', 'honest', 'folk' qualities of genuine expression. The middlebrow involved a nasty pastiche of both the low and the high. It was fundamentally inauthentic, primarily expressed by mass-produced products which aped the cultural refinement of the upper classes; experiences designed by shameless money-grubbing commissars to be flogged to half-educated idiots who were trying to appear cultured.

Of course, MacDonald's critique involved a particularly distinguished kind of snobbery: the targetted disdain of the upper classes, or of the highbrow culture -- largely interchangeable terms -- for the tastes of the middle classes. What Woolf and MacDonald identified is still very much with us: if anything, as the middle class has expanded, it's become the official culture. Among recent midcult products one might consider including Oprah's Book Club; the NZSO's concerts with Crowded House; Kiri te Kanawa's release of Christmas with Kiri; anything at all by Merchant Ivory; Te Papa; the vile Dan Brown; the very fact of Hugh Grant; blockbuster art exhibitions; Brancusi's endless column knock-off lamps at Freedom Furniture; Vivaldi ringtones, etc.

I read MacDonald's essay some time ago, and was reminded of it again yesterday evening when I got into the bath and settled down for a quiet read, only to discover that I had picked up the wrong book by mistake.

The inside back cover mentions that writer Jeremy Strong sat on a heater when he was five and burned his bottom, and used to look after a dog that kept eating his underpants.

This is the book I'd meant to have taken with me into the bathroom, an account of contemporary life amid the rebel combat zones of Uganda by Jane Bussmann, a journalist who used to write comedy sketches for So Graham Norton and celebrity features for The Sunday Times.

And this is what I actually should have been reading, but couldn't bring myself to, an important book by a theorist ominously described on the back jacket as one of the most compelling thinkers and writers in France since Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

And there, in a nutshell and neatly illustrated, you have Dwight MacDonald's theory of high-, middle-, and low-brow culture, alive and well and in operation at our house.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What he said

I've come across a few good quotes recently. First this discussion of the importance of creating problems in your work, from artist Chuck Close, via Glasstire, a continually interesting site for visual art in Texas:

'For me, the most interesting thing is to back yourself into your own corner where no one else's answers will fit. You will somehow have to come up with your own personal solutions to this problem that you have set for yourself. I never wanted people in front of my work thinking about another artist.

See, I think our society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to participate in "problem creation" -- it is more interesting than problem solving.'*
It reminded me quite a lot of some things Wystan Curnow had to say, in his seminal essay on New Zealand culture 'High Culture in a Small Province' back in 1973, when he suggested that the 'highest level' of culture is comprised of people with great tolerance for ambiguity and an interest in problems: making them, analysing them, solving them. The problem in New Zealand, he felt, was that the necessary conditions were not in place to allow such people to flourish here: 'the true specialists we export'. I always think of Len Lye when I read this.

And from one of my great heroes, the wise-cracking poker-playing Lester Bangs of art history, Prof. Dave Hickey:

'Everything has to deviate. And the easiest way to do this is to change the canon: to go back 40 years and find someone you like and start stealing shit from him. And this is called going back to the moment right before it started sucking. Go back to '75, you see Richard Tuttle, you say, ‘Oh this sucks,’ go back further.'

'A perfectly ordinary field mouse does all the field mouse shit you’d want it to do. A perfectly ordinary work of art just disappears.'

'Patronage has its price. It’s about the insecurities of the patron.'

'I’m standing here today because about ten of the critics who were about to snatch the torch from my failing grasp died of AIDS in the ’80s. Otherwise I would’ve been playing Texas Hold ‘em all day in Las Vegas.'
More Hickeyisms here at Little Known Facts. Via @jaymjordan and @TylerGreenDC.

And then there's this, from New Zealander @Homage on Twitter, currently travelling in the US, which speaks of a profound cultural difference between New Zealand and the States:

'One thing I've noticed about the American people is they're much more likely to fix your label when it's sticking out.'

And finally, from the utterly reliable @shitmydadsays, a Twitter account run by 29-year-old Justin who lives with his 73-year-old father:

"Sometimes life leaves a hundred dollar bill on your dresser, and you don't realize until later that it's because it fucked you."

A little wisdom in there for all of us.

*From interview with Chuck Close by Joe Fig, Inside the Painter's Studio, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.
Chuck Close photograph via Swindle Magazine. Dave Hickey photograph via Drawer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Christchurch mounts new claim to be considered cultural capital

As the Rugby World Cup draws ever closer -- and we're now able to monitor our growing excitement second by second, courtesy of the countdown clock recently unveiled in Cathedral Square by Mayor Bob Parker -- plans are afoot all over the country to spruce the place up so that our overseas visitors will see us in our best bib and tucker. Everywhere you look there are new rubbish bins, roads, pedestrian walkways, and tree planting going on; even new public sculptures are going in, as New Zealand looks to its international reputation and scrubs up like a boarding school's dining hall on Parents' Day.

Some wowsers have moaned, a bit, about the country driving itself ever further into debt by building massive white brick and mortar elephants which are only going to be used once by a relative handful of beer-swilling global munters. Plans recently unveiled in Christchurch, however, reveal that local planners are on to this problem already. With Cathedral Square expected to be the number-one fan zone, ideas to rugger the old girl up a bit have been mooted. The arts are likely to take a front row spot, but we needn't be concerned that we'll have to look at whatever blinking thing they come up with forever. We don't have the details yet, but we're talking about more than just flags, said the council spokesperson.

"Proposals include a large inflatable rugby ball, that could sit in the Chalice sculpture."

Regrettably the news report did not provide an image of this, so I have produced my own artist's impression.

Sometimes I wonder if Neil Dawson ever gets a bit tired of this shit.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"This art is a terrible business."*

It's been a dry spell in the blogging life: while twittering like a maniac, and scribbling away offline, I've been on the blogging wagon for the past month. Last night, however, the clouds burst and the rains came, and here we are again this morning. Kia ora and hello.

With season two of Mad Men now a distant memory, there is now officially nothing to watch on New Zealand TV if you're not keen on:
a. sexy vampires;
b. forensic pathology;
c. other people's home renovation disasters;
d. Hamish McKay (not the art dealer, the other one) being subjected to yet another personal indignity on Pulp Sport.

There is, however, always Coronation Street, a guilty pleasure for a couple of decades now. I represent the third generation of women in my family to be obsessed with it. The baby hasn't shown any interest yet, but give her time, give her time.

Yesterday evening in a disgraceful example of life imitating art the big guy and I were eating dinner in front of the TV. We had just settled down in front of Coro with a plate of kedgeree (a dinner choice prompted by various nostalgic and plaintive tweets about one of the things I miss most about living in Wellington, along with the Northland Panels and Moore Wilsons: Kelda's kedgeree at Nikau), when I happened to mention to the big guy that I was sick of looking at the horrible 'art' in Gail Platt's house -- a framed poster of a flower-bedecked doorway in the Algarve by an anonymous watercolourist, which has hung in the Platts' lounge behind various scenes of mayhem over the past decade including attempted murders, divorces, teenage pregnancies, juvenile deliquencies and the greatest horror of all, Gail simply being herself -- and I expressed a fervent wish that the set dressers would change it.

No sooner had I said this than a major new storyline began to unfold, involving, for perhaps the first time in recorded history, art on Coronation Street. (Thus neatly combining two of my greatest interest areas and strongest specialty subjects, and prompting this post.) Here's the set up. Having recently swapped houses, a source of teeth-gnashing female interpersonal tension and consequent escapades of one-upmanship that lasted several months, Claire Peacock finds a painting rolled up in the attic of what until very recently was for many years the appalling Kevin and Surly Webster's dreary residence.

In a frenzy of excitement she takes it to her drippy husband, the butcher Ashley, and unrolls the canvas.

'Ha ha!' he says. 'Did the kids do that?' Thus confirming his suitability for his chosen vocation of chopping up bits of offal rather than a career as an art critic, interesting plot device though it could be.

But hang on, those matchstalk men look familiar...

Could it be ... could it be ... a real Lowry? One of these? A previously undiscovered work of art by that other great cultural chronicler of fictional working class life oop there in the bleak North? But that would be worth a fortune! And involve endless dramas over its authenticity, provenance, and ownership that would keep a troop of actors in work for months sorting it all out, wouldn't it? Eeeee, but that were a champion idea for a story, Deidre.

Can't wait for next Tuesday.

*One of the more memorable quotations of the rather peculiar L.S. Lowry, who would himself have made a good guest appearance on Coro Street, given his habits of being economical with the truth, painting secret erotic works, and keeping a suitcase by the front door so that if someone he didn't fancy talking to called round, he would be able to make a quick exit by pretending he was just off to the station.