Friday 30 June 2017

Art and nature

It's a brain thing. You know, when you're pregnant suddenly other pregnant women are everywhere; or if you've just bought a new car, that make and model are the only vehicles on the road. There's a name for it, but don't ask me what it is - despite just having read about the phenomenon this week, I can't remember. That's another kind of brain thing.
Anyway, this is a circuitous introduction to the fact that, as I continue my efforts to educate myself in modern art by visiting Auckland galleries, what's actually happening is that my prejudices are being confirmed. That's thanks to art guides guilelessly making admissions like, "Oh, yes, we often don't understand those wall texts either. There's one curator, no-one has any idea what she's on about." And similar comments. To be fair, they also do their best to explain to me why, for example, Colin McCahon painted so many ugly dark works centring on '1' and 'I' - but, though I nod and think I understand, moments later it's all evaporated and all I can remember is the comfort of hearing that I'm not alone in my bamboozlement.
It was also briefly encouraging to hear Alice say, about McCahon, that "the entire population of New Zealand hated his work". We were at the time standing in the simple bach where he lived for ten years in the bush outside Titirangi, that's open to the public and full of little cupboards with information, video and audio about his life and work there. One of them actually has clippings of reviews from papers of the time, using such words as 'crude',' ugly', 'grotesque' and 'controversial'. Not wanting, on reflection, to align myself with opinions from the 1950s, I am still trying to recognise the merits of his later works - though, today, my strongest reaction to visiting his house was recoiling from the wooden bunks his young daughters slept in under the house, in a 3-walled shelter open to the elements - and mozzies, and possums. I am relentlessly practical, it seems. But I do too appreciate the good things nature has to offer.
I also went to Te Uru Gallery in Titirangi itself - more confronting photography, more bright but meaningless splodges; but all displayed in a striking building with a beautiful staircase. 
And the little town is cute ("beguiling", according to the gift shop lady) and surely has more coffee-houses per head of population than any other place in the country. Even the florist is arty.

Friday 23 June 2017

Warming to the cold

Quite a while ago I decided that I wouldn't mind at all not going anywhere hot again (and I'm working on exactly that, so watch this space...). It's not that I have anything against luminous turquoise sea, white sand and palm trees - it's just that it all gets a bit samey after a while. I've been hankering for ages to see Antarctica, the aurora, polar bears and penguins (yes, yes, I know they're poles apart) and lots of other interesting places not known for their balmy weather. I have the merino: I can do it.

It helps, of course, that where I live it never gets properly cold - not cold like a Christchurch winter in an uninsulated house, not cold like working outdoors through an English winter, both of which I am fully familiar with. No, though it's officially winter here now, I still haven't used my electric blanket, and have yet to get through a whole evening without whingeing about how uncomfortable it is with the heat pump on, and turning it off. And I really enjoyed walking along the Viaduct last night after the rain had stopped, when it was calm and mild and all the lights were reflected off the harbour and the wet ground. Shiny!
I'm preparing for a story about Auckland for a national magazine, as a sop to its non-JAFA readers, and my qualification is that I am a Mainlander who has just realised that I've lived here now for as long as I did in Christchurch. So I really need to get to know the city properly, instead of hovering on the fringes, and scoffing.
So far I've been trying to get a bit arty, with a visit to the Art Gallery, and to a new theatre for a local play. The play was a wee bit rough around the edges, but it was the opening night, so I'll be generous - and it was certainly local, with a big Maori element plus mince pies and Ten Guitars, and humour as well as violence and a whodunnit element. It was 'When the Sun and Moon Collide' since you ask.
The Art Gallery, though? Sigh. It's very hard to break away from my prejudice towards representational art - or, at the very least, pleasing combinations of colour and shape that show some actual skill. It's hard for me to look at something deliberately ugly, that is "making a statement" and get past my hobbling mindset that art should be decorative. I know. So unsophisticated, for someone with a post-graduate arts degree. More work needed. But really? These torn diamonds of polycotton? Really?  But I did like the gallery itself...

Friday 16 June 2017

Fake memory

She's a rum cove, memory. Never to be trusted, always to be run past Google before acceptance. That's the thought for today, prompted by getting to the beach on the daily walk and saying to myself in delight, "Oh, look! The tide's out!"

Apart from the fact that this a) makes our little bay bigger, b) means that sometimes there will be the gift of conveniently-deposited seaweed for the garden, and c) always allows for seaglass fossicking, currently d) is the tide-dependent possibility of walking from Sandy Bay to Hekerua around the rocks. Ever since ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie raged through back in early April and took out a huge chunk of our bit of Te Ara Hura, Waiheke's round-island track, there's been no other off-road way to get between the bays. It's been a real disappointment and inconvenience to lots of people, but fixing it will take quantities of time and money that maybe the Council isn't prepared to spare. We locals have been left watching this space - literally.

Besides being a time- and location-specific exclamation of pleasure, the "tide's out" thing is also a reference to a play I saw, a youngish person's lifetime ago, at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. No-one's going to guess it, so I'll tell you it was 'The Philanthropist' by Christopher Hampton, and the line was actually "Oh, look! The tide's in!" It's spoken by the main character, a vague and disconnected academic surrounded by drama but mostly untouched by it. It was a funny moment because his delight in noticing that the view from his window was at its best for his visitors was in such contrast to everything falling apart around him.

So, remembering solely that line from the play, and for 30 years quoting it to myself whenever appropriate (and now deliberately misquoting it, as above), I have had the impression all that time that it was a cheerful comedy. Imagine my surprise, then, to re-read it the other week and discover that it begins with an onstage suicide, and continues through offstage assassinations, adultery, betrayal, disappointment and career failure to quite a dismal ending. So that was unexpected; it was also, incidentally, dispiriting to learn that Hampton was just 23 when he wrote it, a revisioning of Molière's 'Le Misanthrope'. And I've been somewhat dismayed too to learn that it was Christopher Hampton in fact, and not C. Isherwood, as I'd thought right up to five minutes ago. So, memory completely discredited.
And today's connection? Well, all the landslides that Debbie caused, and especially this personally-inconvenient one, reminded me again of a geography textbook I had to read in the sixth form titled 'Down to the Sea in Slips'. I always knew the title was also a deliberate mis-quote, and thought it was a line from Masefield's poem 'Sea Fever' - actually, it turns out to be quite a lively bit from Psalm 107:23. The correct wording, 'Down to the sea in ships', was (so Google helpfully mentions in passing) used for the title of a 1922 movie, remade in 1947, about a young boy learning about life on a whaling ship based in Massachusetts - where, of course, I have been, going whale-watching from Boston, and spending an interested couple of hours in the excellent whaling museum on Nantucket. Which is the place that, somewhere within the last week - could be in a travel section of the Sunday papers, could be Twitter, could be Facebook - has been compared with Waiheke. If only I could remember where!

So, there you go: full circle. Memory, eh? Totally fickle.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Jeepers treepers

Building yet another flight of wooden garden steps today - confident in the knowledge that no-one else will ever look at them as closely as I do; but also planning as I went what obligingly bushy plants I will edge them with to disguise all failures of measurement, sawing, straightness and general fitting together - I kept getting distracted. So were plenty of other people along the valley, I guarantee. That's what happens when there's a man in a hi-viz jacket hanging off the top of a towering pine tree, a chainsaw dangling from his belt.

He and his team below were taking down four scraggy old trees, all enormously tall (40 metres?) and, further, growing at the top of the valley's steep sides, making the ground very, very far below. It was a slow business, with lots of rope work and careful movements with every so often a burst of excitement when a branch was cut off to tumble and crash down below. I squandered a lot of step time waiting for him to cut the top off the tallest, patiently waiting with my camera poised and, of course, momentarily looking away at the very moment that it suddenly flopped sideways and disappeared. Sigh. But I did see, and hear, the rest of the trunk go a bit later, which was quite dramatic.
Trying not to do a Janet Frame (no? You haven't read The Linesman?) I  thought instead about tall trees I have climbed. There aren't that many. I don't count those wussy tree-walk arrangements with handrails like that one near Walpole in Western Australia, or another in Tasmania, where it's not even as exciting as a bush swing bridge, and you're really as safe as houses. I would definitely count that scary fire lookout one in Pemberton, though, which really was terrifying and still makes me nervous to think about.
And the other one that counts is the forest zipline that I did in Ketchikan in Alaska. Partly it was just such a contrast with the cushily luxurious and undemanding surroundings of the Silversea cruise we were on - but also, man, we were a hundred feet up a tree on a little platform with no railing - there were eagles flying below us! - and our harnesses weren't a patch on the professional get-up the tree feller was wearing today. It was a thrill, no doubt about that. I couldn't imagine doing it for a living. What do arborists do to get a buzz, I wonder?


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