Grahame Sydney: Otago is not empty space


I am back home in Otago, thinking again about questions that have long preoccupied me about this place.

Particularly about the land here.

Particularly about the land in Central Otago.

What comes to mind at the mention of Central Otago? Maybe something like the image above? Maybe a similar image wrapped around a bottle of red wine?

The painting above is by Grahame Sydney. It’s pretty representative of his work. He’s recently switched from photo-realism painting to straight up photography but the subject matter remains essentially the same – endlessly empty space.

Empty and vast.

The emptiness of his images jars with my actual experience of living in Otago. I drove almost 800 kilometers (from Wellington) to be here; I didn’t come all this way for empty space.

I came to see the people I love, my family, who live in this space – this space which is not an empty human-less field like it appears in Sydney’s paintings.

Yet its repeatedly made to look empty, untouched, and history-less.


My family has, for three generations, had a small fishing hut on the edge of Poolburn dam in Central Otago. The hut is pictured above. It isn’t much of a structure but it represents decades of history for my family – built by granddad with additions made by father, walls full of stories, a place shared with extended family and friends.

Humble as it is, it stands as evidence of human activity going on for a long time among the tussock and the rocks. Plenty of pots of tea have been boiled on its coal-range.

The area around Poolburn was used as a set for Lord of the Rings. The space was made to look empty by putting a screen over our family fishing hut. Quietly erasing our family history so that the film could represent NZ as an empty otherworldly space for tourists to come take photographs that strategically place structures like our hut out of frame.

Does this matter? Does it matter that Otago is represented as empty when it is not?

I think so.

In a 1998 article Epeli Hau’ofa argued that the Pacific Ocean had been presented as an empty space. As a vast sea of few people and little activity (‘pacific’ like ‘passive’). Those outside conceived of the Pacific Ocean as a hole in a doughnut; the outer edge of the doughnut consisted of Pacific rim countries like Australia, America, Canada, Japan.

Hau’ofa argued that by presenting the Pacific Ocean as empty space, it became seen as a viable site for nuclear testing, among other destructive things. If the space was empty it was useful, for it could be exploited without protest, without human impact.

Of course, the Pacific was not empty; many endured and continue to endure suffering from nuclear testing. And many protested and continue to protest against foreign military use of the Pacific.

Sure enough the perception that Central Otago is empty leaves it vulnerable to exploitation too.

From 2006-2012 Project Hayes planned to build 176 wind turbines on the Lammermoor Range in Central Otago. Grahame Sydney was one of the most prominent voices to oppose Project Hayes, which in the end didn’t go ahead.


Sydney produced 1,000 copies of the poster pictured above to help raise funds to fight Meridian Energy’s plans to build on the Lammermoor. The poster shows the proposed turbines ruining the otherwise empty landscape of one of Sydney’s most famous paintings.

It’s a visually clever protest, yet I can’t help but think: didn’t his own art help prepare the ground for developments like Projects Hayes? Developments that ‘have to go somewhere’ but no one wants near them? If the space is continually shown as empty doesn’t it start to look like the perfect place for wind turbines or more obstructive development?

But let’s push a little further; even the discussion around the wind turbines still misses the point – for many against the turbines sought to preserve a fictitious emptiness. As though the land is currently untouched.

Far more obstructive than any proposed wind turbines, surely, is the current mining. Hidden from the roads tourists drive to Queenstown, and missing from Sydney’s paintings, Central Otago is also home to New Zealand’s largest gold mine. For something that is kept invisible it’s a pretty massive site:


It seems to be an addition to (or subtraction from?) the landscape that goes unchallenged; quietly perched in largely unseen hills for the last 26 years, while Sydney filled his canvas with Otago’s better angles. I’ll be honest, that makes me a little angry.


I recently saw some of Australian artist Tracey Moffatt’s work which deals with the extensive mining in her country – it was both critical and funny. I’d like to see some of that here, in my own region.

I’d like some art to help make sense of my growing up in the small towns surrounding the mine, of being a teenager in its shadow.

Does this art exist and I’ve just missed it? (This is not a rhetorical question, please comment below).

Obviously it is a sight that doesn’t help sell wine, but the mine is there, as with every other human imprint on the region. Aren’t we better to engage with it rather than keep it continually out of the visual frame?









3 thoughts on “Grahame Sydney: Otago is not empty space”

  1. The entire construction of the ‘noble savage’ myth in art and literature is another example of our creation of a concept that allows us to make sense of (and therefore begin to manipulate and control) something new that we come across. I guess I don’t feel that this is necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it is just what one does, and we then have to adjust our behaviour consciously: we can see the beauty of an empty Otago landscape painting and still appreciate the rugged lives of generations of farmers who have lived and worked there. But thanks for bringing this to our conscious mind: we need fresh questions like yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Julian. Yeah, I guess the problem araises when the only way central otago is depicted is as empty space… Do you know of any prominent artists who do otherwise? Or have depicted the mining?


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