‘Putitja Dancers’ (and watchers) Yulara, Central Australia.
Text reads “Why be different? Party Vote Zombie.”
Yesterday I went to Tunnel Beach, near Dunedin.
Tunnel Beach is the result of a father’s love for his daughters a hundred years ago.
The land owner of an extensive farm along Otago’s coast wanted to give his daughters access to the beach at the farm’s edge. The impossible beach lay at the bottom of steep cliff faces.
So, a long tunnel through the earth was built for the children to creep safely through to the beach. The end of the tunnel, where it arrives on the beach is shown above.
At some point Tunnel Beach was opened for public access. In my experience, it’s under visited by locals yet full of tourists. Although I’m from Otago, I found out about Tunnel Beach from an American biker who consistently mispronounced ‘Dunedin’ as ‘Done-Din’.
What I love about Tunnel Beach is the ambiguous mixture of human-made and nature-made structures. The tunnel is obviously a human intervention. Some of the sheer cliffs are cut so beautifully sharp – perfect right angles and triangles – I can easily imagine them emerging from human hands.
Yet their clean geometry is misleading, for they have been cut with the waves and shaken loose by the earth.
Yesterday, I took my 12-year-old nephew to Tunnel Beach.
I liked having his eyes with me. We crouched low in the grass and looked up at the rock faces, thin and massively tall, rising up out of the sand.
Rorschach tests given by God.
We found a face with a winking eye looking back at us and an impossible nose pushed out one side. There was a strange formation where the creature’s hair might have been. My nephew informed me that the formation was Thomas the Tank Engine being worn as a hat. We imagined the clouds above as the steam coming from Thomas’ engine.
As we enjoyed the silly beauty of the sculpture/rock, my eyes drifted towards the waves that had a formed it.
Tunnel Beach is a dangerous beach to swim at: the waves are too powerful, the slope too steep. Yet those deadly waves are beautiful to watch; their coming and going monotonous and promised – one never wonders if a wave will come back again after it departs.
And I thought of the beauty of that. Of the way that both the sculpture and the sculpting process is a mesmerising thing. The process and the result as beautiful as each other – equal worth bestowed on each and neither hidden.
Which is perhaps what gives the maker of these sculptures away: human hands seldom manage such equality of means and ends.
To get to the tunnel that leads you down onto the beach, you need to first walk a DOC track through some paddocks. It’s a lovely walk down and a steep trek up. To reward ourselves we bought fruit ice-cream from a caravan parked at the top.
The quiet man selling ice-creams told us how he had lived as a hermit for many years. Recently he had decided to leave his hermit life and re-join the human world. He was building a house overlooking the tunnel, and selling ice-creams as low-key way to practice participating in society again.
Perhaps his ice-creaming selling is another beautiful process, like the ever-sculpting waves.
Bernard rides ahead of me on a bicycle
dreadlocks wrapped around his head (an organic helmet)
slowly peddling along Cost Road.
A Jaguar passes Bernard
up a drive to a batch.
Later, I return from the ocean
walk the little path through the dunes.
Hi to the batch owner
he asks if I live here?
I do. But not here (near the water)
I live in the back.
He tells me I’m lucky,
lucky to live here.
He lives in Auckland
in another house.
I tell him he’s lucky to have a such a mansion-batch.
Jealous of each other we wave an awkward goodbye.
Puketeraki marae stands on the hill
above our conversation.
Karitane is a miss-named place. It’s ‘real’ name is Waikouaiti, meaning something like where the water narrows; it is a small settlement at the rivers mouth. A colonial misunderstanding swapped the name Waikouaiti for Karitane.
A beautiful township of 300, for most people it’s too beautiful to live in but perfect for a Sunday drive. I spent this weekend with my family in Karitane. I rode around on my bike, registering the newest houses; they are like giraffes, stretching tall to get a peek at the water.
I thought of a conversation I had at a friends home near Narewa, Fiji some years ago.
We were drunk in the afternoon. Looking out across his property, I told him his family’s plot of land was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.He turned to me, looked me full in the face, and told me he didn’t care if it was – he wanted to go New Zealand where he could work and be part of a bigger world.
He lives in Whangarei now. I live in Wellington. Sometimes we go back to our beautiful places, only to leave again.
Below are some photos taken near Narewa. The above photo is of Karitane.
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?
I have written my thesis.
Past tense: It is finished.
I have a spare hour before I meet friends for dinner to celebrate finishing my study, so now seems like a good time reflect.
Honest reflection is a mixed task.
I am sitting in the cafe of Wellington Central Library (pictured below). Beside me four young students talk excitedly about essays they’re working on. One is talking increasingly faster and louder about a territorial dispute somewhere I’ve not heard of, others cut in with quotes and ideas. Each sip at drinks and tap on keyboards as they debate. There’s an easy momentum to the conversation, it carries itself. It’s like a tutorial – a good tutorial – one that your body leaves but your mind keeps on thinking of after it ends.
It’s been a year since I’ve attended a tutorial but the end of my thesis marks the end of my study also. I feel a little nostalgic for those rare good tutorial debates.
I’ve often thought about that splitting off of my body and mind while sitting in this cafe. I use to come here after a few hours of writing on Mondays before giving an English lesson to a refugee friend. I’d spend the morning reading words like ‘speculative dialectics’, and the afternoon explaining the meaning of the word ‘mean’. Both are difficult tasks actually, in their own way.
I would come to this cafe to ‘transition’. To flick through the paper, chat with the wait staff, and wait for my head to leave the tangle of academic work and arrive here in the cafe, in the library – in the world.
I’ve never really found the transition very smooth.
I like the long beautiful words that academic writing lets you use. Yet, they sound weird outside of their very limited context – they stick out awkwardly.
I’ll miss them.
In a way, now that I’m finished, I am in that same transition writ large.
How much of my academic learning can I carry with me into not-strictly-academic space? I think it is dishonest to pretend all of it has relevance. It’s much more complex than that.
I spent most of my thesis writing, reading, thinking about a British philosopher called Gillian Rose (above right). I fell in love with her and she taught me a lot about the philosophers she’d fallen in love with – mainly G.W.F. Hegel (above left).
The most wonderful thing Rose taught me was about Hegel’s comedy.
Comedy, for Hegel, arises from the gap between what we are and what we think we are. It comes from the contingency of our identity. We think we are one thing and later we find out we were wrong about ourselves. We are otherwise than we thought.
And that realisation that we are wrong about ourselves can be comedic; you can laugh at it. To laugh at and accept this gap between who you are and who you think you are is to live at peace with the possibility of surprise and change – even change to your very core.
Rose calls this growth – “the growth of the self in knowledge.”
But there are other reactions to finding out you’re different than you thought: anger, frustration, straight up denial. It can be a comedic experience or a bitter one.
Rose led me from bitterness to comedy. It was easy to fall in love with her for that.
I’ve been a student for four years. I no longer am. Though I tried to remember throughout my studies that I’m not just student – I’m a painter, daughter, friend, teacher, waitress, cleaner! – it still feels like a significant change to who I am.
And despite the fear-inducing headlines of awful articles like ‘Why Millennials are Doomed’, I’m choosing not to be bitter about this change. I hope it will be a sort of growth.
3 drawings: first on my desk, making use of coffee the stains; second in a beautiful hand made book by this lovely women; and the last with watercolour while I waited for a friend to cook me dinner.
You can enlarge each image by clicking on them.