Friday 28 September 2012

Friday poem

Listen to Craig Arnold read the poem instead

Hymn To Persephone
Craig Arnold

Help me remember this how once the dead were locked
out of the ground and wandered sleepless and sun-blinded
She was the one who took them each by the hand helped them
lay their bodies back in the dark sweet decay
gladly as onto a lover’s bed they call her Koré
the Maiden a dark queen with a crown of blood-colored poppies
her fingers lift the cool coins from a dead girl’s eyelids
her breath in a man’s mouth releases him from memory

There was a man who would play fast and loose with Love
She smiled at first to hear him tossing around her nicknames
like cheap wedding confetti Pretty Butt Manslayer Smile-lover
or mocking the blessed valentine folded up in her lap
petal-pink as a seashell but when he swore he’d never
let Love knock the wind out of him and leave him panting
that set her teeth on edge Love is a cruel justice
she makes us pay for our lover’s sins as well as our own
and she took away the one whose loss would hurt him deepest

Maybe he would have wept but grim determination
came to him more easily than tears and so he followed
the road that only the desperate walk with their eyes open
where the willows bend to comb their fingers through the river
and the long grass cuts the ankles stalks of mullein
stand like tall candles the dead mixed with the living
and spiders weave webs between them glint in the sunlight
the vague gray country where all shadows gather
and the dark queen keeps them safe in her lightless mansion

She was sitting out on her porch peeling a pomegranate
leaning back in her chair feet propped on the railing
her face a cool and cloudless moon ink-black hair
Who are you she called most of my visitors come here
with their arms crossed and pennies laid over their eyes
My eyes are open he answered nothing I do can close them
night after night I lie awake counting my heartbeats
my hands won’t work they can’t seem to hold anything

Come in the house then she held the door half-open
and deep in the dark hallway he thought he could see the faintest
flutter of movement and he was afraid She took his hand
her fingers cool as a cave of water-hollowed limestone
Someone you knew she asked this graceful tender of shadows
My advice to you is to go home and grieve her
Sound the well of your tears as deeply as you can
wipe your eyes and be glad you’re still among the living

Why he demanded you could bring her back in a heartbeat
Maybe she said do you think you’re the first to come here
chasing after someone they lost but you have the guilty
look of a man who tossed away what he loved too lightly
How can I feel sorry for you You don’t know the first
thing about my love he snapped So prove it she said
sing me a love song who is this girl you miss so much
that you come to my house to fetch her out of the shadows

He sang of the first permission of flesh and flesh to entangle
how we abandon the guard of our heart and throw our borders
open and welcome a sweet invader to take possession
the sudden exquisite catch in a throat and the slow hush
of a breath unfettered the sweetest sounds to a lover’s ear
He sang of hands finding shyly at first their way
to another shelf of hips oh how the heart flares
and melts like wax spilling over a candle’s lip

Even the spiders stopped spinning their webs to listen
I like your song she said maybe you’ll come back
and sing it again for me before too long he shivered
Out of her lawn she plucked a withered stem of mullein
Take this and go home and you’ll find her waiting
I’ll give you one more day and night and the morning after
to spend together however you please I warn you though
when the time comes say your goodbyes and don’t look back

That day the cherry-trees in the square had just flowered
making a roof of white blossom over their heads
That day they walked with the awkwardness of the long parted
and sat on either side of a table and shared a pizza
and washed it down with a half-carafe of cheap red wine
and tried to talk their way back into their bodies
and as they left the leaf-buds were a green promise

and when she stopped to put on more lipstick
she’d left it all printed around the rim of her glass
he laughed and said There goes my chance to kiss you
Why she replied would you ever let that stop you
And they took each other’s lips frankly took their faces
between each other’s hands and the tears were shaken out
like raindrops beaded on a branch and they were barely
able to have enough of touching and they kissed each other dry
and over breakfast they smiled so hard that it hurt

They went to make the bed and found the sheets bloody
and so they fished through all their pockets for quarters and walked
down to the corner laundromat where they sat together
holding hands as they waited and watched the dryer tumble
Together they folded linen billowed it out between them
to shake away the wrinkles brought the corners together
in halves in quarters their bodies coming at each fold closer
and smiling at each other over the hot cotton

The clock-hand spun in circles and soon morning was over
and all they had left was the long drive to the airport
the slow walk through the terminal trying to talk each other
out of sorrow their voices bright with desperation
until they stood at the edge of what any words could comfort

Don’t try to follow me this time she said whatever
else happens we made each other happy for a day
Yes he agreed and they turned to walk away from each other
and though he struggled bravely to keep his face together
he cracked he ran tear-broken back through the concourse
and caught her up in his arms until she eased gently
out of his clasp and kissed him one last time and left him

But too late the moment he turned a demon of memory
sat hard on his shoulder and caught hold of his ear
murmuring over and over the words of their final parting
What what would’ve given the story a happier ending

Out in the meadow that day dark purple butterflies
sipped the sweet nectar from yellow cups of blossom
and blundered into the webs where the big spiders waited
to tuck them into the soft silk of their winding sheets
all their legs a wiggle of happy anticipation
What are you doing here she asked him not unkindly
You look awful your eyes are spilling over with memory

The world hurts to look at he said all glitter and sharp edges
I’m sorry she said but didn’t I warn you to take your time
together and let it go at that it would’ve been kinder
Instead you sent your love back to my mansion loaded
with twice the grief she left with her own and yours also
And with that he felt like he’d fallen into a dark lake
and the cold had got his bones and he was slipping under
Let me join her then he said I’m sick of living

No she told him twice you’ve come here uninvited
and before I let you lay yourself in my bed forever
go back to the sunlit world and tell your story
All I can offer you if you aren’t afraid to accept it
is a kind of consolation and then she gave him a look
that was almost shy First would you do me a small favor
Make me another song like the last one you sang me
only this time sing to me of self-effacing
surrender of love that we give knowing we have to lose it

And so he sang of the love that is not so fearful of ending
that fear ends it love that admits the flavor of pain
the pulling apart of ivy-tendrils ripped from a tree
love that lays itself in the grave of another body
sweetened by loss as we lose ourselves in our lover’s arms
given completely over to pleasure the dark flower
that opens petal by petal unfolding us to the utmost
pitch of surrender lost in the joy of self-forgetting

Then he praised the maiden who makes us a gift of grieving
to spill the bowl of our tears when it grows too heavy
the grace to release our beloved kindly into her care
and not to fear the soft tap of her footsteps approaching
her fingers touching our eyelids when she comes to invite us
into her bed and with cool unhurried hands unravels
the milky threads of our thoughts and memories may we part with them
gladly and go more easily into the dark flower

And the girl smiled as if they’d shared a secret
and she broke the mullein-stalk in half and then in quarters
pressed the pieces into his palm and closed his fingers
Throw these to the wind she commanded and he did
and they were lost in the long grass that cuts the ankles
Then she reached on her tiptoes he was a head taller
and breathed into his mouth the scent of mint and violets

And he woke up alone in the other world and he was
walking down a familiar street and it had been raining
all night and the boughs of the trees were black and heavy
and the first cars of the morning passed with their tires hissing
over the blacktop and under his feet he felt the pavement
slither a carpet of petals battered down by the raindrops
and each puddle swirled with a slick of green-gold pollen
and though he couldn’t remember how or when it happened
his heart had been spilled and at its quick was planted a wet
seed that he’d never known before and it was spring

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Raymond Carver: Ultramarine and A New Path to the Waterfall

From the occasional reviews department; two collections of poems by Raymond Carver.



So, I don't think Raymond Carver is a very good poet. That didn't stop me from being very taken with a number of these works (and more so by others I found online, scavenging around, and even more so with the next collection, which I skimmed on the walk back from the library to work, becoming an obstacle for pedestrians and a hazard for drivers as I lost myself to the words and pulled away from my surroundings).

I love these poems less for their rhythm and lyricism, more for the small observation, the occasionally cruel honesty. Some felt more like dreams and thoughts and experiences jotted down than poems: 'Mother'

My mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.
And to tell me if this snow keeps on
she intends to kill herself. I want to say
I'm not myself this morning, please
give me a break. I may have to borrow a psychiatrist
again. The one who always asks me the most fertile
of questions. "But what are you really feeling?"
Instead, I tell her one of our skylights
has a leak. While I'm talking, the snow is
melting onto the couch. I say I've switched to All-Bran
so there's no need to worry any longer
about me getting cancer, and her money coming to an end.
She hears me out. Then informs me
she's leavingthis goddamn place. Somehow. The only time
she wants to see it, or me again, is from her coffin.
Suddenly, I ask if she remembers the time Dad
was dead drunk and bobbed the tail of the Labrador pup.
I go on like this for a while, talking about
those days. She listens, waiting her turn.
It continues to snow. It snows and snows
as I hang on the phone. The trees and rooftops
are covered with it. How can I talk about this?
How can I possibly explain what I am feeling?

Some feel like even more extreme distillations of Carver's short stories, already lean themselves, but broken with enjambments (not even all that precisely or elegantly - almost like any old person breaking up a short piece of writing so it makes a 'poem'). 'The Jungle' is one of these works - but the last two lines saved it for me:

"I only have two hands,"
the beautiful flight attendant
says. She continues
up the aisle with her tray and
out of his life forever,
he thinks. Off to his left,
far below, some lights
from a village high
on a hill in the jungle. 
So many impossible things
have happened,
he isn't surprised when she
returns to sit in the
empty seat across from his.
"Are you getting off
in Rio, or going on to Buenos Aires?" 
Once more she exposes
her beautiful hands.
The heavy silver rings that hold
her fingers, the gold bracelet
encircling her wrist.  
They are somewhere in the air
over the steaming Mato Grosso.
It is very late.
He goes on considering her hands.
Looking at her clasped fingers.
It's months afterwards, and
hard to talk about.

'Nyquil' has a passage in it that struck me hard and true:

Call it iron discipline. But for months
I never took my first drink
before eleven P.M. Not so bad,
considering. This was in the beginning
phase of things. I knew a man
whose drink of choice was Listerine.
He was coming down off Scotch.
He bought Listerine by the case,
and drank it by the case. The back seat
of his car was piled high with dead soldiers.
Those empty bottles of Listerine
gleaming in his scalding back seat!
The sight of it sent me home soul-searching.
I did that once or twice. Everybody does.
Go way down inside and look around.
I spent hours there, but
didn't meet anyone, or see anything
of interest. I came back to the here and now,
and put on my slippers. Fixed
myself a nice glass of NyQuil.
Dragged a chair over to the window.
Where I watched a pale moon struggle to rise
over Cupertino, California.
I waited through hours of darkness with NyQuil.
And the, sweet Jesus! the first sliver
of light.

The sight of it sent me home soul-searching. I did that once or twice. Everybody does. Go way down inside and look around. I spent hours there, but didn't meet anyone, or see anything of interest. Yes. That.

There is some sweetness, some lightness. Some fancy. 'The Minuet'

Bright mornings.
Days when I want so much I want nothing.
Just this life, and no more. Still,
I hope no one comes along.
But if someone does, I hope it’s her.
The one with the little diamond stars
at the toes of her shoes.
The girl I saw dance the minuet.
That antique dance.
The minuet. She danced that
the way it should be danced.
And the way she wanted.

There is also a lot of fishing. A LOT OF FISHING. And I am good with that - but Brautigan and Bishop already own fishing for me. After a while, I started skimming those ones. Death and fishing. I feel ya.

This though is my favourite in the collection. Pierre Bonnard painted his wife Marthe over and over again in the decades of their marriage, in his luminous light and colour-soaked canvases. Marthe aged with the years, but not the image of her that Pierre held. 'Bonnard's Nudes' -

His wife. Forty years he painted her.
Again and again. The nude in the last painting
the same young nude as the first. His wife. 
As he remembered her young. As she was young.
His wife in her bath. At her dressing table
in front of the mirror. Undressed. 
His wife with her hands under her breasts
looking out on the garden.
The sun bestowing warmth and color. 
Every living thing in bloom there.
She young and tremulous and most desirable.
When she died, he painted a while longer. 
A few landscapes. Then died.
And was put down next to her.
His young wife.


A New Path to the Waterfall

So, I still don't think Raymond Carver is a very good poet. That didn't stop me from loving some of the short-storiest of the works in this collection. 'What the Doctor Said' is deservedly well-known, for making universal one of those tragic, tragi-comic moments:

He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I'm real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

'Margo' is slight, but moves me

His name was Tug. Hers, Margo.
Until people, seeing what was happening,
began calling her Cargo.
Tug and Cargo. He had drive,
they said. Lots of hair on his face
and arms. A big guy. Commanding
voice. She was more laid-back. A blonde.
Dreamy. (Sweet and dreamy). She broke
loose, finally. Sailed away
under her own power. Went to places
pictured in books, and some
not in any book, or even on the map.
Places she, being a girl, and cargo,
never dreamed of getting to.
Not on her own, anyway.

I think it is not the 'being a girl', but that notion of venturing forth, unexpectedly, under your own power, and finding you can navigate with deftness and travel distances that you - and others - did not explicitly rule out, but never thought should be ruled in.

A New Path to the Waterfall was published the year after Carver's death. In her introduction, Gallagher talks about working with Carver to bring together this last book. Gallagher writes at length about the structure of the book, and the introductions of poemised extracts of texts by Chekov (I - a nonwriter - am not going to argue with two writers about the decision. But I didn't get much out of it.). As well as the professional, she writes of the personal. Of how in 'Summer Fog' Carver told her he was trying to do for her what she would do for him, and he would never do - mourn her. Of how on a last fishing trip to Alaska, where they spent mornings working on the manuscript and afternoons with their friends, when they came to the end of the work Carver asked her to pretend they had not, so they could keep these mornings of theirs. Of the piece of scrap paper next to Carver's typewriter, on which he had written "Forgive me if I am thrilled with the idea, but just now I thought that every poem I write ought to be called 'Happiness'."

In her final pages, Gallagher protests to those who may feel Carver wasted his time on poetry - short, precious time better spent on fiction. 'But this would be to miss', she writes, 'the gift of freshness his poems offer in a passionless era.' The passion, the intimacy, the gratitude rise off this collection like steam off a hot bath in cold night air - 'Gravy' (Gravy, these past ten years. / Alive, sober, working, loving and / being loved by a good woman.), 'Woman Bathing' (We laugh at nothing / and as I touch your breasts / even the ground-squirrels / are dazzled'). And oh - the poem of the book (of his career) for me will have to be 'Hummingbird (for Tess)'

Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much I love you.

That little ritual of love is so sweet, so clear. Even as an imagined (Suppose ...) act, the sweet gift is there. You, it says. Oh, you. You who know what power one word holds, shared between lovers. You who make each day summer.

Monday 24 September 2012


On Saturday, I drifted around the galleries on the way to Te Papa to see Michael Parekowhai's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.*  Doing the rounds, for the first time in a while I was really taken by a show at Enjoy. Too often, I find the shows opaque - a failing on my part, I think, for not keeping up hard enough. But Daniel Betham's What Would I Do Without You? really got under my skin.

I can't find many traces of Betham online - he is a very recent grad from Massey, and his work, according to Enjoy's website, 'explores notions of spiritual enlightenment and the absurd methodologies used in the attempt to attain it.'

What Would I Do Without You? consists of three video works, a photograph with a bucket of tennis balls beneath it, and a central installation of a tumble of white plastic deck chairs - ubiquichairs, you could call them. These chairs crop up in the video works too - in one, they are hauled out of a swimming pool; in another, they are hooked by their feet onto a cyclone wire fence, then persistently shaken and shrugged off by unseen forces. The third video work is a black screen, occasionally punctuated by a white chair flying into and falling from sight, accompanied by heavy breathing and hefty grunts.

Daniel Betham, a video work, What Would I Do Without You?

Daniel Betham, the installation work, What Would I Do Without You?

Daniel Betham, the photograph, What Would I Do Without You?
Again according to the exhibition handout, Betham  uses video to
explore contemporary notions of spirituality and nihilism in a poetic and absurd fashion. 
The films rehearse contemporary rituals or ad hoc games performed in sporting arenas. These games are original attempts at spontaneous questing – for the moment of fulfillment – in a post-nihilist or neo-transcendental manner. 
By performing the games in sporting arenas, Betham draws our attention to the absurd nature of game playing and highlights its useless, yet also necessary, role as a platform for nourishing our sense of self-fulfillment: we create our own parameters, rules and games and gain a sense of achievement from their completion. 
Betham addresses the parallels between the rhetoric in advertising for sporting brands such as Nike’s Just Do It campaign, and that of spiritual and motivational media, such as the Oprah-endorsed The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. 
Both mediums make use of transcendental philosophies in their promotional campaigns. Using routines of relentless self-induced optimism, they suggest infinite possibilities for intangible rewards. The shoes and the book that you buy are the peripheral products; you are really purchasing the belief that there is a better you out there, one that is yet to be attained.

I always find it interesting to test my understanding on an artist I know nothing about. My reading of the works was that they documented challenges and tests with self-constructed, internally logical rules and instructions that had to be followed; the videos of the chairs being shaken from the fence and the chair being flung into the air were easy to read in this way. The tennis balls and green-clothed chair I assumed were the documentary remains of a similar undertaking, just as the Nude Descending a Staircase-like installation was a further reworking of the materials used in the making of the video pieces.

What really struck me though was the polish and consistency of the works and their presentation. The video works - the pool work in particular (I can't find individual titles for the works, so this is as good as it's going to get, I'm afraid) - are really quite beautiful, and arresting; you want to follow them. The photograph and the bucket of balls are more puzzling (OH while standing on the landing: Dad, why tennis balls? Because it's art.), bu the installation gives the show a strong core and something for all the other pieces to gather around.

It feels condescending to say 'I was impressed', but I was. It reminded me of seeing Daniel du Bern's 2006 exhibition at the Hirschfeld Gallery - that same sense of a new artist who had really thought through their work (du Bern was more idiosyncratic and personalised - Betham feels more refined). The exhibition finishes on Saturday 29 September, leaving you plenty of time (well, if you're a Wellingtonian) to get down there.

*After a couple of dodgy experiences, on Saturday the Parekowhai was back to its miraculous best. The friend I took - someone who admits he finds going to art galleries somewhat intimidating - was as moved as I. There is a paper I want to present, somewhere, sometime, about the changes this work underwent during its month at Te Papa.

Friday 21 September 2012

To market, to market

Te Papa has announced the works it purchased from the Les and Milly Paris Collection auction on Wednesday night, including Gordon Walters’ Painting no 7 (1965), Michael Illingworth’s As Adam and Eve (1965), Brent Wong’s Mean Time Exposure (1971), and Peter Robinson’s Boy Am I Scarred Eh (1997).

Peter Robinson Boy Am I Scarred Eh, 1997. Oilstick and acrylic on unstretched canvas. 2145 x x1750cm. Image from the Art+Object website.
The purchase of the Robinson of course complements the two works from McCahon's Scared series that Te Papa has purchased in recent years: Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum (1976) and Scared (1976).

The two McCahons are currently on show on Level 5 at Te Papa, in a short term exhibition alongside Michael Parekowhai and Jim Allen. The exhibitions end on Sunday; I can't recommend enough that you make a visit part of your weekend. And I can't hope enough that we get to see the Robinson out on the floor soon.

Thursday 20 September 2012

The Les and Milly Paris Collection auction, part 2

Once again, I missed it, and relied on the Barr's admirable tweeting efforts to keep up. And I must say I kicked myself for not heading home earlier when I saw what Peter Peryer's Thea's Hand went for. But hey ... them's the breaks. And here's the reportage.

[Note: apologies for the disruption. In what must have been a record stink day at work, a Storify dev managed to delete the production database, thinking he was working on a local copy of his machine. This meant the tweets and images I pulled together late last night got lost. Here's the slightly re-worked story.]

The Les and Milly Paris Collection auction, part 1

Last night when I could have been following the Art+Object auction of the Les and Milly Paris Collection through live stream and Over the Net's tweets, I was instead rolling around on a room-sized mat with sweaty men, and picking up a new constellation of bruises.

Tonight I will be tuning in. Playing catch-up this morning however I decided to pull together the story so far using Storify, which I continue to toy with. (I am fascinated by their interface design. I think it is rather wonderful.)

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Today on the radio

Today on the radio I will be talking about Fiona Connor and Kobi Bosshard's new exhibition, and - if there is time - the story about the Walker Art Center's 'Internet Cat Video Film Festival' which I ran out of time to cover last spot.

There will be a gallery of images from both Kobi and Fiona's shows on the RNZ website later this morning, and I have created a medium-sized DigitalNZ set of Kobi's work as well (Kobi's work plus Te Papa's photography and image sizes make this one of the most aesthetically pleasing sets I have made, and I have made a lot).

A DigitalNZ set of Kobi Bosshard's work from Te Papa's collections
Installation view, Kobi Bosshard: Objectspace Master of Craft
Installation view, Fiona Connor Mount Gabriel, Ruby and Ash (Mangere site)


Kobi Bosshard: Objectspace Master of Craft

Kobi Bosshard's work in Te Papa's collection - a selection

Fiona Connor: Mount Gabriel, Ruby and Ash

The Walker Art Center’s Open Field programme

The Internet Cat Video Film Festival

New York Times article on the Internet Cat Video Film Festival

Monday 17 September 2012

Honesty and passion

Art could be present in all our productions as long as we work honestly, with integrity and passion. 
Kobi Bosshard, Kobi Bosshard: Goldsmith

Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to be in Auckland to see Kobi Bosshard's exhibition Kobi Bosshard: Objectspace Master of Craft (and hear him and Warwick Freeman in conversation) and to see Fiona Connor's Mount Gabriel, Ruby and Ash on its two sites - at Hopkinson Cundy Gallery, and in a paddock in Mangere.

You could hardly think of two more disparate artists; a traditionally trained goldsmith known for his modernist forms, a sculptor known for her conceptual installations, which often quote and remake architectural forms. But I was struck, thinking about the two shows and the two artists later on, by the similar clarity, almost purity of vision, they held, and the kindness I sensed in both of them.

Installation views of 'Kobi Bosshard: Objectspace Master of Craft' from the Objectspace website

I have been making my way through Damian Skinner's new book Kobi Bosshard: Goldsmith since seeing the show. I have been struck by the way Bosshard thinks about his craft, its relationship to art, and his customers. Some quotes I have pulled out and sent to various people:

Damian Skinner:  This is really the grand statement of your theory of jewellery from the later part of your career. It sums up what I think of as the classic Kobi Bosshard notion of the jeweller as a craftsperson - serving the needs of the wearer/owner, and maintaining the integrity of the object through good design and skill. It is about responsibility to your craft. Jewellers, you say in [the catalogue to Same but Different, the second New Zealand Jewellery Biennial curated by Bosshard and held at the Dowse], should give up on trying 'to devise ever more ways to express ourselves and self consciously try to imbue our work with message or content'.

Bosshard: There's a responsibility on both sides. For us, we have the responsibility that I stated, and the buyer has the responsibility of trusting us. In my ring days, when I did a lot of rings, people would say, 'I would like a starburst ring'. And I'd say, 'Look, I've seen more rings than you have and I've made lots of rings. Just let me suggest what I think might be the right thing.' We have to not be servile to the customer; we have to be confident in what we can do and do the best we can for the customer. This is often not what the customer has come to ask for, but in the long run they will be proud of what they got. That's the confidence we have to have.

From a 1988 artist statement for an exhibition at Fingers in Auckland

I am looking for the point at which the transformation from raw material to a piece of jewellery is complete. The point at which the material changes its name from where I call a band of silver a bracelet. I don't want to go beyond that point as from there any further finishing becomes decorative and detracts from the form.

Skinner: What is the most important aspect of what you have done?

Bosshard: Before Jens Hansen [another immigrant jeweller of Kobi's generation] died, he and I talked a lot about dying and all sorts of things, and Jens said, 'I want to be remembered for having been a decent human being.' I would say the same. I would like somebody who looks at the work to think, 'The work was made by somebody who cared, who was sensitive to things.' I think that's as good as you can get. I think we were sensitive to our time, the surroundings, and appeared honest with ourselves; that's probably the best we can ever achieve. When I look at a painter like Henri Matisse, he came back to a completely honest sort of innocence, and if the work shows that, I think we have succeeded.

Friday 14 September 2012


I came across this picture in the National Library collections a few months ago, and made it the hero of a Through a Window set on DigitalNZ.

K.E. Niven, Boat seen through window. Ref: 1/2-228136-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The photo triggered the memory of one of my favourite Margaret Mahy books, The Door in the Air and other stories. This collection is Mahy at her fairytalish, descriptive best - a series of stories about alternate worlds, escapes, travellers, mysteries and magic.

From The Door in the Air

It was too far from the tree to the wall, but the prince did not hesitate. He flung himself forward as if he might fly rather than fall. Aquilina, meeting him half way, picked him out of the air in the very second when he was poised between sky and earth. There was a shout from below. The robot-guards had seen them. As Aquilina and the prince vanished among the leaves, mechanical dogs with teeth of iron were let loose, and steel traps, triggered by computer, gaped under the ferns of the forest floor. The guards, in their curious armour, searched in hollows and holes while the prince and Aquilina swung side by side above, pursued through Riddle Chase. But the air knew Aquilina was its true child, and it held them both up, opening and closing around them like silk.

From The Bridge Builder (a favourite)

It was obvious the soldiers needed a bridge.
My father stared at them, and they stared at him like men confounded. But he was a bridge-builder before he was anybody's friend or enemy, before he was anybody's father.
"That word?" he asked me. "You have it there?"
I nodded. I dared not speak, or the word would be said too soon.
"When I step into the water, say it then, Merlin!"
I waited and my father smiled at me, shy and proud and mischievous all at once. He looked up once at the sky, pale blue and far, and then he stepped, one foot on land, one in the water, towards the opposite bank. I spoke the word.

From The House of Many Coloured Windows

My friend, Anthea, longed to go into the wizard's house and spy out through his windows. Other people dreamed of racing-bikes and cameras and guitars, but Anthea dreamed of the wizard's windows. She wanted to get into the wizard's house and look through first one window and then another because she was sure that through one of them she must see the world she really wanted to live in. The candyfloss window would show her a world striped like circus time, the golden window would show her a city of towers and dones, dazzling in the sunlight, and every girl who lived there would be a princess with long golden hair. The windows haunted Anthea so much that her eyes ached for magic peep-holes into strange and beautiful countries.

And from The Magician in the Tower (*my* favourite)

"I hope that visitors don't put you off, then" Matilda said, laughing a little. "You talk more than you used to, Mr Magician. Don't forget your dreaming."
The magician gave her a look, both kind and sad, which for some reason terrified her, and she left the tower thinking, I don't need to go back again. I'll never go back.
But she came back the next day and began to read The Book of Changes where it lay open upon the bank of an angry river. She read until a bunch of decaying reeds became a swirling mist and then, gradually, a man. From then on, though the magician became better at talking, Matilda became better at silence. Her silences led her to feel like the seed in the ground. She, too, broke open to release the white downward bending root and the pale, upward turning shoot. She too held up first, blind leaves like hands. She became the tiny egg, the creeping, greedy caterpillar, the jewelled chrysalis and the butterfly. Coming out of a dream of birds she was alarmed to find her hands covered in tiny feather, as soft and brown as her hair. But, as she stared, they melted and ran down her fingers, like drops of water from a stream.

All this from one photo. How magical.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Put on your red shoes

I found this NYT article about the dance series 'Some sweet day' at MOMA and the wider question of the place (or non-place) of dance in the spaces and collections of art galleries fascinating.

The question “Why now?” is also profound. Answers include the pragmatic: blockbuster performance-art shows like Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MoMA in 2010 invigorated museums just as a new generation of curators was becoming seduced by the tradition of body-based work. There are also more sweeping theories linking the rise of live art with the shift from an industrial economy (in which objects are privileged) to one centered around interaction and experience. 
... Though dance has long been in museums, events have often been haphazardly organized under the purview of public programming rather than as curatorial offerings on par with exhibitions. This marketing ploy has engendered a skepticism among many in the performance world about the latest round of interest.
From this point I went down a little rabbit-hole about dance notation. It is awesome. It is my new abstraction crush (lining up with cricket scoring). I mean, look at Rudolf Laban, and the system of notation he and a group of colleagues worked on, which evolved into Labanotation / Kinetography Laban.

No, seriously. Look at him:

Rudolf Laban.  Rozpravy Aventina, volume 4/1928-1929, issue 36, page 358. Digitised by Czech Academy of Sciences.
Right? Right. Wow. Labanotation is really very beautiful. I am fascinated by the fact you read it from the bottom up - which completely makes sense, as it captures the movement of the body forwards through time and space.

Labanotation for a ballet passage
There is something about it that reminds me strongly of Malevich

Kazimir Malevich, 'Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying', 1915. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
I am also rather taken with Beauchamp-Feuillet notation, a method commissioned by Louis XIV and devised in the 1680s. It is the fluid and flowing equivalent to Labanotation, the Calder to its Suprematism.

Example of Beauchamp-Feuillet notation

Alexander Calder, 'Glassy Insect', 1953. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

This is what it looks like

... when your institution makes lovely large thumbnails available to Digital New Zealand. Thank you Auckland Art Gallery!

Monday 10 September 2012

Why you should be going to NDF2012

As an ex-Board member and ex-conference convenor, I always feel like I should declare a bias before pimping National Digital Forum events. But the fact of the matter is that I simply can't think of a better investment of your PD budget if you're a cultural institution using the web in any form than to send your staff to the annual NDF conference.

To begin with, there are two ridiculously affordable workshops the day before the conference: one on search (being led by three luminaries in this area), one on making (being led by the awesomeness that is Ponoko).

Then there are the keynotes. Every year, I think NDF is specially staged simply in order to bring my internet crushes to Wellington so that I can come over all shy and not know what to say to them. This year the two speakers of particular interest to me are Nate Solas of the Walker Art Center (whose website has become the first reference point of almost every client I talk to) and Aaron Straup Cope (ex Flickr, ex Stamen, permanently of The Internet) who I have been quietly stalking since seeing him speak at Museums and the Web five years ago.

But perhaps most importantly, this is a conference made up of our peers. There are librarians and historians, marketing and comms folks and web managers, entrepreneurs and educators. There are people making and doing and experimenting and learning and talking inside and outside of our museums, libraries, galleries, archives and universities. There are people from all around the country - and attesting to the quality and reach of the event, 11 presentations from people from outside New Zealand, not counting the keynotes.

I feel privileged to have been as involved in NDF as I have been. It is an astounding community, full of smart and committed people who are always willing to give each other a hand, an idea, a schema, a sympathetic ear, a kick in the pants. I was talking to a speaker from several NDFs ago recently - a visitor who has become a dear friend - and he said coming to the conference changed his life. He had never seen a community like it. And I think he's right. If you need to sell attendance to your manager, don't just look at what you'll learn from the two or three or four days. Talk about the value you'll get from becoming part of a community that is always sharing and learning from each other.

And if you need some hard data, here's a couple of stats from the 2011 conference:

  • 84% rated the conference content as 'excellent' or 'very good'
  • 85% of attendees who completed the feedback survey rated the value for money as 'excellent' or 'very good'.
  • 90% reported their overall satisfaction with the conference as  'excellent' or 'very good'.


National Digital Forum conference
Pre-conference workshops: Monday 19 November, $10 each
Conference proper: Tuesday 20 and Wednesday 21 November, $425 (early bird rate for members, closes 9 October)*
THAT Camp, Thursday 22 November, $20

There is a travel subsidy on offer from National Services Te Paerangi of up to $300.

*Membership of NDF is free, and entitles you to stand for the Board, vote in Board elections, and get handy conference subsidies.

Friday 7 September 2012

Kobi Bosshard exhibition

I am very excited that I'm going to be in Auckland at the right time for Kobi Bosshard's Objectspace show (8 September - 17 November). I've been a fan of Kobi's work for a long time, and a wearer for about ... wow, about eight years now: my first piece came from Fingers, a simple chain-link necklace.

A selection of Bosshard's work from Te Papa's collection

Not only is Kobi's work beautiful - strong, clean-lined and muscular - but it turns out the man himself was a total dish.

Kobi Bosshard, Malte Brun Hut, Mt Cook, 1962. Bosshard Family Collection.

As well as a publication by exhibition curator Damian Smith, there are three public events as part of the Objectspace exhibition:

Saturday 8 September, 11am: The Value of Tradition. Kobi Bosshard in conversation with New Zealand jeweller Peter McKay.

Saturday 15 September, 11am: Kobi Bosshard in conversation with New Zealand jeweller Warwick Freeman.

•Saturday 27 October, 11am: C Justine Olsen, Te Papa Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design, will talk about why Te Papa acquired a significant collection of Kobi Bosshard work. Justine will be joined by Auckland Bosshard collectors Anna Miles, Elizabeth Steiner and Helen Wild.

The exhibition will alos be touring to the Dowse (Lower Hutt) and the Eastern Southland Gallery (Gore).

Wednesday 5 September 2012

On the radio

UPDATE: Sadly, I didn't make it to the lolcats today after all. But you can hear me come over all inarticulate when Kathryn announces my new job, and wax all lyrical about my visit to Te Papa.

Today on the radio I'm going to be talking about my first real visit to Michael Parekowhai's On first looking into Chapman's Homer, and why I think it is such an unusual and moving experience, and the Walker Art Center's Internet Cat Video Film Festival - a seemingly silly idea that drew a crowd of ~10,000 people and might tell us something important about how digital life can bring us together in the real world.

Some links:

Michael Parekowhai at Te Papa

Thursday night events at Te Papa:

Jenny Harper, Commissioner of Parekowhai’s project for the Venice Biennale, and musician James Illingworth and singer Kirsten Te Rito, 6 September

Rawiri Paratene reading poems by Hone Tuwhare, and a performance Lexus Song Quest Finalist Isabella Moore, 13 September

Cushla Parekowhai, Michael Parekowhai’s sister and collaborator, and singer Mere Boynton and pianist Taanga Lawrence, 20 September 

The Walker Art Center’s Open Field programme

The Internet Cat Video Film Festival

New York Times article on the Internet Cat Video Film Festival

This is also a good time to note that Nate Solas from the Walker Art Center is one of the keynote speakers at this year's National Digital Forum conference (as is Aaron Straup Cope, who I have been internet-stalking since Museums and the Web 2008. Don't be too scared though Aaron. I'm actually quite friendly.). The conference is on Tuesday and Wednesday 20-21 November, with workshops on the Monday. Registration is now early, and travel grants and subsidised registrations have been announced. As a previous Board member and conference convenor I am no doubt biased (or perhaps simply proud) when I say that this is a world-class event and relevant to anyone working in a cultural organisation that's trying to reach out into the world beyond its physical galleries. You should be telling the people who hold the purse strings to send you along now.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Some things change

I am ... I am beyond delighted to be able to say that I will be the next Director of the Dowse and Petone Settlers Museums.

It was being in Michael Parekowhai's exhibition on Saturday that really brought home for me, once and for all, what a tremendous power art can be in our lives. What a joy it is that our society thinks art is important enough, meaningful enough, to make it available it all. What a privilege it is to be part of the constellation of artists and gallery professionals and dealers and historians and writers and critics and collectors and vast Milky Way of fans and visitors and visitors-to-be that art brings together.

I can't wait. I can't wait! There are still things to figure out, but one thing I know for sure: I'll still be writing here, still tweeting, still being me. The focus may change a little, but the heart stays the same.

Monday 3 September 2012

A Saturday afternoon with 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer'

The phrase 'the viewer is needed to activate the work' gets thrown around a lot on art writing and commentary. I'm pretty sure I used it myself on the radio recently, talking about Marcus Moore's Duchamp exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery. But I think I only fully understood it on a visit to Te Papa on Saturday afternoon to see Michael Parekowhai's 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer' being performed by one of the pianists that played when the work was at the Venice Biennale.

I went to the opening of the exhibition, and was appropriately moved by Parekowhai's colleagues from the Auckland University School of Music performing waiata that were sung by the Māori Battalion. That was a soaring, polished event put together for a large group of appreciative people. But now I realise that it felt like a performance - a passive experience. Whereas what I saw on my visit on Saturday afternoon - there was something far more intimate, personal, surprising and wondrous going on there.

Michael Parekowhai's 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer', installed at Te Papa.

I walked into the gallery a little before 1pm. The experience started as soon as I walked out of the lift on the fourth floor, where strains of music reached me as I emerged from the doors. On walking into the gallery, I'm sure my expression looked close to that of all the people who I later observed; initially unsure, then this kind of openness and wonder as the music and the room and the people and the art sunk in.

I slipped up the gallery and slid down the wall to sit on the floor, directly opposite the back end of the red piano. This meant I couldn't see the face of the pianist, just the shadows of her swiftly moving hands and the deft movements of her feet over the pedals.

For the first 20 minutes or so, it was a lovely, but static experience.  Sixty or seventy people stood and sat and listened and watched. One slightly odd woman perched on the stool of one of the bronze pianos, nodding and pressing her foot in time to the music. A couple of brave viewers walked around the red piano, inspecting the carving. Me being me, a few tears started rolling as I watched this diverse group of people quietly take in this work.

My waterworks really started when a mother and her two kids - one in her mid teens, the other a younger boy - rose up from the wall opposite me and to my right, then drifted along the two bronze pianos as they moved out of the gallery. Each ran their hand over the flanks of the bull and the curves of the piano. There was something quite unselfconscious and comfortable about this - not the Oh god, am I doing this right? twitch you often see as people grapple with what they can and can't do with an 'interactive' artwork.

But it was what happened next that really got me going. The pianist took a short break, and moved away from the red piano. And the people in the room surged upon the works. A mass of people, pressing and running their hands over these sculptures, with utter reverence and wonder. I have never seen anything like it. Or perhaps I have. Their gestures evoked for me the way people pass their hands over a coffin at a funeral. A mingled sadness and love and sense of the grandeur and awe of the moment. A heartfelt seriousness. A connection that is deeper than most you get to experience.

I think many people in the audience thought at this point that the performance was over, because the room emptied by about half. But the pianist moved back to the Steinway, and as she started playing again, the mood in the room changed entirely. A young woman with a compact, lithe body and cropped blonde hair began to dance in an empty space, responding to the music as it unfolded by drawing shapes on the floor and in the air with her body. Children began to drift closer and closer to the pianist. A young man stood at her elbow, watching her hands intently. A group of teenage girls scooted along the floor, then stretched out under the piano's belly. I have never seen anything like it. It was spontaneous and joyful - at the end of each piece of music the dancer would pull her body back together and grin widely. The girls were consciously pushing the boundaries of what might be acceptable in this room, and drawing attention to themselves, in that way clutches of teenage girls do.

Then the pianist reached the end of her allotted time, and left to - and I'm not over-icing this - rapturous applause. Her place was taken by a (rather attractive) teenage boy, who started playing torchsongs as his (equally attractive, and very admiring) girlfriend looked on (and took lots of photos). People have to book their seats at the red piano in half-hour blocks (by calling Te Papa on 381 7000 and asking for the piano bookings, apparently). Cute boy graciously gave up his seat for a younger boy, there with his adoring grandmother, who gave an occasionally shaky, but still bravura, performance of 'This old man came rolling home'. Both then signed the visitor's book, which has accompanied the work since its first installation in Venice.

The seat was then taken by a woman in her late twenties, who played beautifully from memory as people came and went. At this point - feeling all a bit overcome - I moved down to the McCahon installation further down the gallery, for a proper shoulder-heaving weep.

I don't think I have ever been so moved in a museum. There was something about the way that people's individual reactions and responses built into a collective experience that just opened my heart. It made me realise just what power artists have, that they can make occasions like this for us. Parekowhai is quoted on the exhibition info panel as saying There is no object I could make … that could fill a room like sound can. And perhaps it is no coincidence that the experience I went back to while I was in the gallery was Janet Cardiff's The Forty-Part Motet. What both Cardiff and Parekowhai have done is break down the wall between the performer and the audience - and blurred the line between visual art and musical performance. The objects are still important, in fact still so important: the functionality and regularity of Cardiff's ring of speakers, the oh-so-strokable, snub-nosed cool-to-the-touch heavy weight of Parekwohai's bronze bulls and the electric pulse of the lacquer-red Steinway. But the music  - the music gets inside you and pulls you in and keeps you in the room. And all this has triggered a million little half-formed thoughts inside my head to start wriggling around with renewed vigour. It was one of the most remarkable 90 minutes of my life.


Being the crass person I am, I still managed to tweet during all this wonder. Here's the transcript (plus a few extras).

Also. I am a little loathe to draw attention to the events programme, because I don't want the room to be overwhelmed when I'm there. But I should be more generous than that:

You can get further details on the Te Papa events calendar.