Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 7 - Science Fact and Fiction
Log 7 - Science Fact and Fiction

Oblique in Otira: Campervan der Velden
Jon Bywater


Over summer the Auckland Regional Parks authority ran a billboard campaign to advertise that they pay for the upkeep of bush and beaches. A fat gold frame, the oil-painting kind, was whacked over a photo of some *lovely* native bush. Close up, the frame is a Ruifrockian, Greenpeace poster orgy of leaping dolphins, tree roots and tuataras. Believe it or not, according to the NZ Herald, these frames exist beyond the Photoshop dimension, cropping actual vistas of the ARP's preserve. Well, after Duchamp/Cage/Warhol, everything's art or an ad if you look at the right way, right?

Also over summer there was art in Otira. Oblique was a temporary public exhibition in the small township near Arthur's Pass in the South Island, organised by Julaine Stephenson. By the time I drove out there it'd already made the Christhurch Press that one of the score of locals didn't think that there was any real art on show ("landscapes and still lives" he elaborated on Holmes). Bruce Ainsley's piece for the Listener (sketching the mole hills of which mountains were made, Feb 27, pp. 24-25) confirmed what I found out for myself; this was formulaic journalism rather than a live issue in the settlement itself. Arthur Maxwell, the spokesperson for the art-as-skillfully-making-something-look-like-something-else standpoint, was generally held to be "a f***ing w**ker" by his fellow residents for having made a fuss, and no-one there seemed het up about whether the project really was art.

In my borrowed car I'm skirting rippling fields of golden grain. Beer ad in the cinema, perhaps, or cheese. The first Bang LP (s/t, Capitol, 1970) is on the tape deck as the Southern Alps loom, and the kitset Sabbath riffs are meshing with a pleasant mechanical crunch. The heavy metal falsetto exclaims: "White sands! Majestic sparkling snow!" The sublime! Having lived near the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, I'm remembering the nineteenth century torrent and thunderclap oils of Petrus van der Velden's Otira Gorge paintings. Also having made the paper in the last couple of days, the pseudonym-credited John/Robinson (Warhol/Basquiat-styled) screenprint & graffiti works which got smashed up by the angry hunter have been removed from the (in fact, grafitto-free) railway station men's room. On my left, in a paddock there're some huge plastic banners, wrapped around hay bales & stacks, a cow cockie's birthday announcement-or his mates' joke at his expense: 50 this week, my shout on Friday night.

Heading into the Gorge, I get my first view of the new viaduct being built to replace the notoriously precipitous road. Concrete pillars that would make Michael Heizer weep, or Donald Judd turn out his headlights, peg out a vast trajectory through the air. Not picturesque, not exactly sublime, not even scenic, but hellish impressive for a skill/scale wow-factor that might even convince Otira's own Mr Maxwell (though a damn sight more expensive than $20k he thinks he's seen mis-spent).

c is for Oblique

In Otira Oblique covers the town; a couple of pieces occupy the pub dining room and one of the guest rooms, but most of the artists have chosen to work in the numerous empty houses in the half-deserted settlement. Contingents from artist-run galleries the High Street Project, Room 3 and the Honeymoon Suite all occupy a house to themselves. The disused school building is home to another cluster of works, as is the house designated the kiosk, where caretaking artists make coffee and distribute site maps that make sense of all this. Looking around is like orienteering, aligning the map with the main road, working out a catch-all route, comparing notes with other wandering visitors. It's also like opening an advent calendar, a sort of treasure hunt.

My report will be partial: there was simply too much stuff for me to do it all justice here. This place's nowhereness, its appearance as its own memorial, as a relic of its former existence, made the environment compellingly art-like in the first place. As a visitor, I enjoyed this pleasure of seeing behind the scenes, of being made to pay attention to what was already there or had been there, kept awake to it all by the various twists and tricks and turns arrayed by the artists.

Human details are everywhere. Children's clothes-a small white sock, a little jersey-lie discarded on the floor amongst shards of broken glass and scraps of foam-rubber carpet underlay. There are a couple of empty beer bottles from a crate under the sink. A bathroom shelf carries an empty soap packet and a plastic comb. The houses have children's drawings on the wall, felt-tip, biro, crayon, chalk, bedside doodles. One house is extensively burnt. One of my favourite objects sits on the hearth, a wavy black cube of congealed compact discs (ZZ Top, Billy Joel...). Taking what was there and claiming its inherent qualities as (part of) the art work, was a common strategy, often one which tapped into the rich flows of nostalgia and tangible entropy of the delapidating settlement. This readymade melancholy, the pathetic decay of a place left behind by the centralisation of capital, the dismantling of state transport infrastructure, were all contextual features that at once offered to distract from and obscure, as much as to focus and heighten the art work.

Margaret Dawson was one of the artists who treated her house as a house, furnishing it with (previously exhibited) photographs of someone's posessions while it was filled with scraps of someone else's. Here and elsewhere attention bled between the world and the work. The aesthetic of some participating artists, like L Budd and Michael Morley, whose interests are often in rarity, obsolecsence, the cheap but precious, blends right into the general physical environment.

One of the artists has pinned up a correspondence school letter on the wall. A beer poster, a yachting poster, a hippopotamus under a plastic snow dome,have been adopted by the Room 3 artists. The effects range from readymade absurdity, to a way to frame the question "what was it like to live here?"

In the burnt house, Bronia Iwancick toys with roller blinds on the smoke stained walls, achieving a Japonesque interplay of vertical lines and green grey tones. Amanda Newell, making something of the broken piano in the community hall-a sort of Rebecca Horn costume of gloves clawed with felt hammers to play the naked frame. The Honeymoon Suite modifies furniture-a glow from under a bed, a twist in the cushions. In the High Street Project house, an inverse crop circle of long grass cut from the garden and brought inside.

Several works pointed past specific referents, while still clearly representing an interpretation of the ambience. Most literally, one of Room 3 offered the idea: "I should claim the weird feeling here as my work" (mock conceptualism from a piece of foolscap headed "Clever Things Tim Has Said Recently"). The Room 3 contingent raise the question of bringing art here by having brought a little bit of their native Auckland with them-the Artspace gallery sandwich board, usually resident on the K' Rd pavement. With its forlornly displaced institutional voice, it declares the room, the house, the place to be art turf. A small series of snapshots on the mantlepiece picture the kidnapped sign making similar proclamations at a variety of roadside spots, presumably taken during a car journey on the way down the islands.

Violet Faigan, stepping away from the overriding evocativeness of the houses, went off the road and into the trees to make her work. She fitted a music box mechanism into the trunk of a fuschia, so you wound it up and had it play into the bush while you read a poem carved into the bark about making wishes for money. Maddie Leach's 'beautifying' rows of flowering rose bushes, bought and planted to line the front path in one of the overgrown gardens, was at once a funeral home memorial gesture, and an act of respectful generosity. The fact that Otira is on a seismic faultline was acknowledged by one or two works-Juliane Stephenson had an earthquake boom sound at intervals and echo above the slimey waters of the locked indoor school pool. An old dial telephone was presented as an earthquake-detecting device in the spirit of the ball-dropping Chinese one at Te Papa.

The conventions of pictureseque landscape got an ironic nod from Pauline Rhodes, who set up a half-demolished house as a real estate agent's open home, its gaping open walls touted as beautiful views. The general question of the scenic was rather blankly suggested by Lisa Kelly's timer-switched projection of a scenic slide in the community hall. The sharpest take on the various precedents for picturing Otira were Blank Industries' postcards, available for a donation to the local fire brigade in a rack at the kiosk. These standard format souvenirs of details of the site were yours to inscribe and post. Sunrise over a lake, posters of wild horses galloping and a beer-thirsty Southern Man in the pink sunset on his horse, fanned out a small array of the kinds of ways of seeing the rural that my drive had prefigured for me. For advertisers and for local pride, perhaps, this is frontier country.

There were tinges of cowboy in Sean Kerr's room booby-trapped with audio gunshots and shouting, a kind of ultimate game venue with lumps in the carpet. The work had an urban feel that matched it with Narumi's videotape of a dog's-eye view of a Japanese downtown, already exhibited here in New Zealand, and repeated rather perversely without modification.

Still more oddly contextualised was Terence Handscomb's work, using the vaguely industrial and depressed backdrop for a three-screen video piece about the child of a Holocaust victim. The work was oblique in the sense that it had no direct relevance to the project of working with the community in Otira at all. It used the organisation of the project as a buffer and just did its own thing, much as it might have in the more familiar habitat of an artist-run space.

Plenty of the work had a blithe disregard for any but the hardiest scenester, in its up-yours archness, neither doing much to work with the location or the available audience. A highlight of this riskiness was a poem twinked onto the crashed car in the garage of one house-a verse addressed from the driver of the car to the lover he'd killed by driving it into the lamppost. The schoolboy necrophilia humour pushed it right out there; a joke with impact.

Overall Oblique showed that there is strength in numbers. The sheer range of tones and frames, from the considered and formal to the facetious and flippant, the mix of poetic and slapstick, all added up to a fun afternoon. The campy art wank was mitigated by the more outward looking, personal stuff, and the seriously gallery-ish stuff was likewise countered by the more for-anyone responses (Rae Culbert's section full of abandoned cars with sardine-tin key furled roofs).

Was Oblique offensive to the local community? To use the subtitle "culture in Otira", with the obvious implication that the project was importing culture rather than recognising the culture there seemed plainly dodgy to me. I did get the impression that many of the locals, while they were enjoying the company and the attention, had not actually bothered to walk around and see the work. One local woman, though, shared with me her pride in having been able to explain to someone else what her favourite work was, and why.



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room