Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Glenn Jowitt's secret societies: notes on two photographs*

Glenn Jowitt, who died at the end of July, loved to discover and document secret societies and secluded worlds. Jowitt is justly famous for the photographs he took during his travels through the tropical Pacific in the 1980s and ‘90s, but I wanted to praise two images that he made very early in his career.
While he was a student at Ilam Art School in the late 1970s, Jowitt became preoccupied with horse racing, and began to travel with his camera to courses around Canterbury. With its elaborate rules, bizarrely named animals,  erudite, laconic tipsters, and conspiratorial trainers and jockeys, the racing industry was and remains a society within New Zealand society.
This portrait of a Canterbury jockey appeared in Jowitt’s first book, Racing Day. With his youth, his pallor, and his dirty face, the jockey might remind us, at first sight, of the chimneysweeps or underage coal miners preserved in nineteenth century daguerreotypes. But where those victims of Victorian commerce offered aimed weary and embarrassed gazes at their pitying photographers, Jowitt’s jockey looks haughtily down at the camera. He is proud of his role in the world Jowitt has entered, and he needs nothing from the photographer or the photographer’s audience. He wears the fresh racetrack mud in the same way that a young man in another culture might wear war paint.
After graduating from Ilam, Jowitt began to photograph another secret society. He spent months drifting across Canterbury with members and associates of Black Power, which had become, by the beginning of the 1980s, New Zealand’s biggest gang. An astonishing series of photographs shows gang members journeying out of Christchurch and into the empty spaces of the Canterbury Plains.
The flat countryside of Canterbury has often posed problems for the Pakeha imagination. Even before the arrival of pyromaniacal European settlers, the Plains had lost their forests to fire. As they looked westward from the tight little colonial town of Christchurch, colonists were troubled by the emptiness that separated them from the Southern Alps. The peaks and glaciers and valleys of the Alps could be safely praised, in Wordsworthian language, for their Sublimity, and happily sketched and painted by weekend excursionists. The formless flatlands, though, were harder to assimilate. Colonial diarists deplored their ‘desolation’.
Driven by psychological and well as economic needs, imperial planners drew straight lines across maps of Canterbury. Crops and stock were raised on rectangular and triangular farm blocks; hedges and gothic churches were planted, as guardians against the tormenting emptiness.
By the time John O’Shea made his road movie Runaway in 1964, Pakeha audiences could consider the Canterbury Plains a cosy, calm place. Taking a stolen car across the lush, flat twilit farms of Canterbury on his way to the Southern Alps, the protagonist of Runaway enters a sort of trance, and believes that he is flying rather than driving his machine. 
But one culture’s paradise can be another’s desert. For their former owners, the Plains had become, by the second half of the twentieth century, an alien landscape. Ancestral rivers had been straightened into drains; lamprey weirs had been replaced by pumphouses; willows had usurped flax bushes; NO TRESPASSING signs frustrated old pathways. For Black Power members habituated to the boozy solidarity of Christchurch’s seedier clubs and pubs, the Plains must have seemed empty and exposed.
This photograph is called Devil and Baldie, after its protagonists. Running out of road, the two gang members have driven across an expanse of grass. Have they stopped deliberately or broken down, at this apparently random spot in the middle of a paddock? The Southern Alps are a line of low hills on the horizon. The sky might have turned grey with age.
Devil seems reluctant to leave the safety of the car. He hunches by one of its open doors, hiding under his Afro. It is left to Baldie, who has been identified by other photographs as a senior member of Black Power in Canterbury, to walk into the emptiness.
Baldie wears a cowboy hat, but he has arrived in this landscape too late: the frontier has been closed, the title deeds have been drawn up, hedges and fences and police stations have been raised, and an outlaw can hope to find neither refuge nor riches.
Jowitt’s jockey exists safely inside his alternate society; Devil and Baldie, by contrast, have been separated from the sanctuaries and rituals of their world, and given to a strange and malicious landscape.
*This post began as yet another attempt to write something for hashtag500words, the website set up last year by the artists and curators Louisa Afoa and Lana Lopesi. As its name suggests, Afoa’s and Lopesi’s site limit its contributors to five hundred words. I’ve now run hopelessly over that word limit three times; as a failed student of the haiku, I should have known that I’d lack the concision that Afoa and Lopesi require. Take a look at hashtag500words anyway.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, September 29, 2014

Leaves and critiques

[A week or so ago I praised The Gold Leaves, Ted Jenner's new book about the death-poems of ancient Greece. As this poster, which was sent to me by Brett Cross, the proprietor of Titus Books and Atuanui Press, shows, The Gold Leaves will be launched next month alongside Murray Edmond's Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writings, a book that excavates the cultural artefacts of a much more recent historical era. 

I wrote the introduction to Then It Was Now Again, and I'll be MCing the launch on October the 9th. I promise not to tell any 'knock knock' jokes.

Brett Cross doesn't like pre-launch leaks, but here are a couple of excerpts from the introduction to Then It Was Now Again that hopefully gives an idea of the book's historical importance and contemporary relevance.]

To read this selection from Murray Edmond’s essays, reviews, interviews, and letters is to take a ride through forty years of New Zealand’s cultural, social, and political history. 

Discussions of esoteric art theories, polemical interventions in literary spats, eyewitness accounts of political tumult, and anecdotes from the author’s private life are equally at home in this book, as Edmond carries us from the revolutionary era of his youth through the crises and conflicts of the eighties into the twenty-first century...

Murray Edmond’s career as a poet, critic, teacher, and activist for theatre has been made in the shadow of the failure of the utopian project of the sixties and early seventies. But Then It Was Now Again is a book full of optimism, as well as disappointment, because it shows Edmond holding on to the best parts of the radicalism of his youth as he engages with a changing world. 

Edmond’s apprenticeship as a revolutionary gives a critical edge to all of his texts. Whether he is explicating a poem, reviewing a play, or examining a government policy, Edmond always has one eye on an alternative, better world, where poets do not have to write in their spare time, Kiwi plays attract the same crowds as the latest product from Hollywood, and governments are concerned with more than the interests of business. 
Edmond’s sense of dissatisfaction is balanced by a constant curiosity. As the reviews in this book show, he has a prodigious appetite for new books, plays, films, and music. He finds evidence, in these works, of the continued vitality of New Zealand culture...

And Edmond is curious about much more than art. Because he is loyal to Freed’s claim that life and art are inextricably linked, he finds it difficult to write about the literature of New Zealand without also discussing this country’s sociology and history. He can’t write a short review of Kendrick Smithyman’s book of poems Dwarf with a Billiard Cue, for instance, without recalling the invasion and conquest of the Waikato Kingdom by British imperialists in the 1860s, reflecting on the cycles of boom and bust inherent in capitalism, and applauding the ballooning feats of Leila Adair, fin de siecle New Zealand’s ‘queen of the air’. His essay on the plays of Hone Kouka becomes a meditation on the consequences of Maori urbanisation in the twentieth century. Edmond’s wide-ranging curiosity gives Then It Was Now Again a richness unusual amongst volumes of literary criticism... 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Going underground

Last month I blogged about the South Auckland cave that served as a printery for New Zealand's harried communist movement in 1940, before being discovered by adventurous kids and raided by cops. Yesterday Paul Janman, Ian Powell and I finally visited the place, as we scouted locations for our documentary and book about the Great South Road.

Richard Taylor, that veteran and inspired explorer of the more unglamorous parts of Auckland, was taken into the cave in the early '80s, and remembers that it was easy to enter and to explore. Richard is forgetful.

Here are some stills from the footage Paul shot by the dim light of his lamp. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, September 22, 2014

From the left's to Filipe's lashing

He may have died in 2008, but the great Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko sums up my feelings New Zealand's 2014 general election very well with his line:

I vote for Spring, Autumn wins, Winter forms the Cabinet. 

The International Socialist Organisation, which is one of several small Marxist outfits affiliated to the Mana Party, has made a calm, lucid, yet merciless analysis of the election and its lessons for the left.

If you'd like some imaginative escape - and, as Herbert Marcuse reminded us, escapism is a necessity for even the most committed political activist - from the wintry spring weather and wintrier politics of Niu Sila, then you might want to visit the online arts journal EyeContact, where I've continued my series on Tongan artists by writing about Filipe Tohi. Filipe discovered a secret and ancient language, full of references to genealogy and ocean currents and archipelagos, in the rafters of a Tongan church at the end of the 1980s, and has been turning it into austere and hypnotic sculptures ever since.

I've argued that Tohi's art can be considered a type of countermodernism, because of the way it appropriates offshore technological and aesthetic innovations and puts them at the service of Tongan preoccupations and traditions. As such, it has much in common with the hybrid society in which Tohi grew up, and to which he frequently returns.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A GPS app for the afterlife

Companies like Apple and Google are busy using Global Positioning Systems technology to map and explore the twenty-first century world. Thanks to their drone-mounted cameras and pedantic computer programmers, we can now locate all manner of useful and useless places and services. There are GPS applications that can lead us to the nearest restaurant or taxi or active volcano. We can click a few buttons and take a virtual tour of the world's hairdressing salons or casinos.

But no company is offering a guide to the destination that fascinates and troubles billions of humans: the afterlife. Google and Apple can help us navigate this world, but if we want information about the next world we have to turn to the visions of prophets and the speculations of philosophers.

Two and a half millennia ago, members of the ambitious, fissiparous religious movement known as Orphism began to write poems on pieces of gold foil and place them in the mouths or hands of deceased fellow believers. These 'gold leaves', as they have become known amongst scholars, were intended as navigational aids for the world beyond the grave.

The Orphists both believed in and abhorred reincarnation. The soul was immortal, they proclaimed, but existed only reluctantly inside the gross vessel of the body. While it lingered in this world, the soul could not be liberated from the body. A campaign of attrition, though, could be waged against the oppressions of the flesh. Many Orphists scorned wine, and rationed food and copulation.

The writers of the gold leaves believed that, if the soul could be woken during the interval between the death of one of its bodies and the birth of another, and could remember its past incarnations, then it could escape further terms of imprisonment in the flesh, and proceed to the island paradise the Greeks called Elysium.

A poem written on a series of gold leaves explains that two pools can be found in the afterworld. One of these pools is called Lethe; its waters inflict forgetfulness on any soul that imbibes them. The other pool is called Mnemosyne, or Memory, and will remind drinkers of their past lives. The soul is urged to recite the following lines:

I am a son of Earth and starry sky. I am
parched with thirst and dying; but quickly
grant the cold water from the
Lake of Memory to drink. 

Shakespeare called death an 'undiscover'd country from which no traveller returns', and it is the impossibility of testing any description of the afterlife which has both emboldened and enfeebled the prophets and poets of religion. The imagination might be excited by notions of heaven or hell or purgatory, but imagination requires reality as a raw material, and so inevitably turns to our own world for inspiration when it considers the next. Mohammed's heaven was a desert oasis; Blake's hell was the London of gin alleys and workhouses.

The gold leaves of Orphism are intended to describe the world to come, but their imagery derives, inevitably, from the ancient Mediterranean. The afterworld has cypresses, and fountains, and pools of cool water.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as archaeologists transformed graverobbing from a furtive nocturnal crime to a pedantic science practiced in light of day, gold leaves were for the first time preserved and studied. Until recently, though, the leaves received relatively little attention from scholars of ancient poetry, and were hard to obtain in English translation. Beside the epics of Homer or Virgil or the dialogues of Plato, these relics of an extinct cult perhaps seemed insubstantial and eccentric.

For many years Ted Jenner, the New Zealand classicist and poet, has been translating and studying the death-poems of Oprhism: on October the ninth, at Shakespeares Hotel in downtown Auckland, Atuanui Press will launch Ted's book The Gold Leaves.*
A connoisseur of fragments, Jenner has previously written about the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose work survives only in the quotations of later thinkers, and Sappho, whose love poems were used to wrap mummies and coffins, and have been recovered only partially by archaeologists.

When Brett Cross, the proprietor of Atunui Press and its sister imprint, Titus Books, showed me an advance copy of The Gold Leaves, I noticed how Jenner's translations of the short and incomplete Orphic poems sat between his lengthy introduction and annotations like islands in a sea of prose. Jenner has been determined to describe the origins and career of Orphism, and to catalogue and explicate the symbols that the cult's poets pressed into gold.

Jenner has the same dissatisfaction with quotidian reality, the same longing for some sort of transcendence, as the Orphists. For him, though, it is the world of the past, not any supernatural realm, that is sacred. Jenner has introduced and annotated The Gold Leaves with such thoroughness not because he is a pedant, or some sort of latter-day convert to Orphism, but because he wants to resurrect, through the miracle of scholarship, the mental and physical landscapes in which the Orphists lived and died.

And yet, as Jenner himself repeatedly acknowledges, the Orphic world can never be thoroughly recreated out of fragmentary texts written thousands of years ago. Jenner warns us that even the term Orphism must be considered something 'fluid' rather than fixed. The men and women we call Orphists lived in a world where competing cults borrowed doctrines and rituals, many of them lost to the historical record, from one another.

Like the Orphists' claims about the afterlife, some of Jenner's interpretations of the gold leaves must remain speculative.

Although Jenner is preoccupied with history, and works with the fusty technologies of humanities scholars, like footnotes and bibliographies, his fascination with the gold leaves is arguably related to a very modern longing.

In his new book Off the Map, Alastair Bonnett argues that the thoroughness and efficiency of digital mapping are troubling rather than enthusing many of us. Bonnett notes that some digital maps and mapping programmes are being vandalised by mischievous users, so that images of sea monsters or fabulous ruins disrupt gridded, colour-coded depictions of twenty-first century cities and seas. Hyper-literalism stimulates rather than represses our imaginations.

Precisely because of their fragmentary and speculative nature, the maps of the afterlife created by the Orphists can excite us in ways that the products Google never will.

*Titus will also be launching Murray Edmond's very fine book Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing on October the 9th. I'll post the flyer for the event here as soon as Brett Cross sends it through in a format blogger can digest.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Peter Gutteridge in the Ureweras

Peter Gutteridge died yesterday morning. When I read the news, I remembered listening to this track bleed out of the tiny speakers of a cheap bopblaster in a cheap car sliding and skidding through the gravel roads of the Ureweras.

Our car's stereo had long since lost its voice, so we'd bought the bopblaster in Wairoa, and loaded it with the first EP by Snapper, the obsessively noisy band Gutteridge formed after tiring of the overly decorous music that had become associated with his native Dunedin.

As the journey through the mountains to Rotorua went on, I became convinced that Snapper's layers of corrugated feedback had become as essential to our progress as the engine and wheels of our little car. I played their cassette over and over.

In this fascinating article Aussie Wes Holland describes a journey to Dunedin in search of Gutteridge.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Seven Tongan words

Tongan Language Week ran from the first until the seventh of this month and was marked by several interesting events, including the opening of a retrospective exhibition by Filipe Tohi, retrofuturist sculptor and tireless kava bowl raconteur, at the Mangere Arts Centre, and the singing of a Tongan version of Niu Sila's national anthem,

I missed all of the week's events, and that is perhaps appropriate, because I am the world's worst student of Tongan.

Instead of using the year I recently spent in the Friendly Islands to nail the grammar and syntax of the language, I relied upon the superb English skills of Nuku'alofans, including my students at the 'Atenisi Institute. When I made visits to villages distant from Tonga's bilingual capital city, I abused the pity of colleagues and friends like Taniela Vao, 'Opeti Taliai, and Lose Helu, by letting them translate for me. (Sorry, folks: if I make it back to the kingdom in 2015 then I pledge to do a lot better.)

Although I can't put together a Tongan sentence, I love to learn, pronounce, and listen to individual words, in the same way that a child loves to peel pretty shells off a beach and hold them to an ear. These are my seven favourite Tongan words.

Kisikisi, meaning helicopter

I learned this word after my son became preoccupied with a small plastic chopper he had bought from one of the two pa'anga shops Chinese immigrants have opened in Nuku'alofa. Until I discovered that 'kisikisi' also meant 'dragonfly' I wondered whether the word was onomatopoetic.

Peka, meaning flying fox

A short word that is somehow able to contain the long, slow dive of a pair of outstretched black wings from an ironwood tree through a dusk sky.

Va va vaka, meaning spaceship

A couple of six year-olds taught me this word - I'm going to count it as a single word - as we took time out from a late night game of touch rugby, stood on the swampy edge of the 'Atenisi campus, looked up, and tried to differentiate the breathless twinkling of stars, the slow red pulse of Mars, and the stolid glow of satellites. I hope this really is the Tongan word of spaceship, and those kids weren't fooling me. It wouldn't have been the first time.

Mongamonga, meaning cockroach

The enormous, almost fearless roaches of the Friendly Islands make their Kiwi relations look like feeble, underfed things that deserve nurturing rather than crushing. I was fascinated by the contrast between the soft, gorgeous sound 'mongmonga' makes and the awful creature it denotes.

Fakapikopiko, meaning idleness

Another contradiction between sound and sense. Despite the word's meaning it feels, to me at least, violently busy. When I pronounce it, I feel plosives popping in my mouth, and send those short vowels flying like watermelon pips.
Heliaki, meaning double or hidden meaning

Heliaki is a word used to describe, or perhaps merely gesture towards, the ambiguities that inhabit many Tongan songs, poems, and orations. A metaphor or slogan that might seem straightforward can become, under the terms of heliaki, mysterious or unstable. In her great essay 'Wry Comment from the Outback: songs of protest from the Niua Islands', Wendy Pond showed how the apparently reverential songs and poems that greeted Tonga's king when he visited the distant northern part of his domain concealed, thanks to the magic of heliaki, satire and invective.

Aloo! meaning go away!

This invaluable word was a refrain during my many conversations with Nuku'alofa's dogs.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]