A beginning

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Soon after you were born you tore yourself away from the person who was holding you and flew upwards. You proceeded across the room. It was the middle of the night and the curtains were not drawn. We saw you reflected in the glass of the window. You paused for a moment and the hospital bed, your astonished parents and the unperturbed nurse were reflected below you. You may have been asleep. We weren’t sure. You twitched slightly and began to power up again, picking up speed as you approached the open window. Your cotton wrap fluttered in the air and the ghost of a hand cradled your head. Once out of the window you went into town with great confidence and returned after an hour and a half. In your small clenched fist you held a thread or it may have been the stalk of an apple. Attached to it were various round objects that you had collected on your excursion into Tokoroa; a soccer ball, a large mottled egg, a lemon, a granny smith apple and a ginger-haired wig with the long hair at the back pulled into a ponytail. Everyone was delighted with your return. In their madness to hold you and inspect you for damage, everyone forgot about your small store of roundish items. We collected them or put them on ice or froze them or ran after them when they rolled away down various natural declines. As your Autobiography we feel it only right to return these items to you, the items you yourself collected in your infancy, items you went to a great deal of trouble to stockpile. We thank you for reading this accompanying note. We hope you might like to make contact. If not we will be waiting.

Poetry, collaboration, yes

Maukatere coverA few years, 44-email threads, and many generous layers and seeds of collaboration later a book called Maukatere: Floating Mountain by Bernadette Hall will be launched in May and June 2016, published by Seraph Press.

Bernadette first emailed me in 2013. She was working on a new piece of writing. I read the draft and was blown over by it. Did I want to do illustrations? Yes! was my immediate reply and we began exchanging emails about our writing, art adventures, walks and little people (her grandchildren/my nephew). We would go off on our own tangents and reconvene with much to share, both online and in person when either of us was visiting each other’s home town.

An illustrated character called ‘the hooded lantern’ was directly inspired by Maukatere: Floating Mountain. The character has cropped up in a few of my graphic essays since, including Enjoy gallery’s most recent occasional journal. Sometimes the hooded lantern is an awkward hipster who seems a bit embarrassed to have a lamp for a face and retreats, a little unhelpfully into a hoodie to be emotional, that is until a joke, word play or a bit of bad news that’s so bad it’s possibly funny makes the lamp beam out into the world again. In Maukatere: Floating Mountain, the hooded lantern, who appears in most of the drawings I’ve done for the book, is closer to one of Bernadette’s poem figures, the Tangler.

The Tangler is an individual who breaks through, as Bernadette put it to me, the safety nets of family and community. The Tangler is a provocateur who knows all about nets and lifelines, catchment areas and floodgates, land and people, stories and silences. Maukatere: Floating Mountain is an extraordinary poem about memory, what it’s like when other people invite you to know them and what it’s like to be known in return, the things that haunt us over time, the demystifying process of looking at what’s right in front of us. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the drawings are shaped by a mesh pattern, even though this really did seem to accidentally occur to me:

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Maukatere: Floating Mountain is a single long poem sequence that explores and celebrates life below Maukatere (Mt Grey) in the Hurunui. The book has been beautifully published by Helen Rickerby at Seraph Press. The Press just published Poroporoaki to the Lord My God: Weaving the Via Dolorosa: Ekphrasis in Response to Walk (Series C) by Colin McCahon by Anahera Gildea and will soon publish Paula Green’s New York Pocket Book. It’s been a real pleasure to work with Helen and see all the amazing work she is doing to connect readers with local poetry.

Poetry has an ambiguous presence in today’s world. Working on this project has reminded me that great poetry doesn’t tell you what to think. It gets you thinking for yourself. You see other people around you lifting up a lid on a part of themselves they forgot about or are out of touch with. You hear yourself say that you need something, that what you need might be the same or different from before. The process of remembering, returning to what we think we know is constant and necessary to staying afloat in life. Poetry is sometimes a parent to a kid in the country who can’t drive yet and who needs to be taxied to places and people that will fundamentally help them resolve into some kind of independent person, a person who will either have to learn to drive themself, champion public transport and environmental justice, cycle, run, and/or persuade people to carry them just up to the next corner, please…

Maybe. Not.

All I really know is that poetry is a provocateur of anything and everything, from the glorious to the bamboozling. Maybe that’s the coolest thing about poetry, BYO ethics!

If you can, please join us for launches at Hurunui Public Library (Amberly), Scorpio Books (Christchurch) and Ekor Bookshop Cafe (Wellington):

Launch One: 3.00 pm, 21 May 2016, Hurunui Public Library, 11 Carters Road Amberley Launch Two: 2.30 pm, 22 May 2016, Scorpio Books, 113 Riccarton Road Christchurch Launch Three: 6.00 pm, 2 June 2016, Ekor Bookshop Cafe, 17B College Street Wellington

Gathered together in a disorganised or unruly way: drawing exercise

I’m gearing up to complete a short graphic essay and thought I would try to draw people from photographs of crowds (people gathered together in a disorganised or unruly way!) for a bit of practice and to expand my vocabulary of body language.

Here are a few examples. These are depictions of people photographed in a public square in Budapest in 1900 by a photographer called Klosz Gyorgy. Aparently he liked to take photographs while standing on top of his dark room AKA his truck. I’m not sure if this was the case here, but I like to think that he shouted out to those gathered in the public square, slightly interrupting their business, though able to capture them before they could self-consciously pose. It’s a little strange that everyone is looking up and in the same direction and yet still mid-stride:

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A drama/essay: I guess it means we are in another’s brain…

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This is a graphic essay, my first attempt at illustrating a series of thoughts and questions…

It seems ironic to think about diversity while bracketed by one’s own mind, body and imagination… Yet, there is always another side to the implausible…

You could say, I’m suggesting that we are all sort of spaced out into the world.

My ability to think and act is conditioned on diversity and plurality. I am born into a world of people. This diversity enables me to act and think.

Yet, to act involves me putting diversity at risk. Sometimes I, or a group I am part of, narrow plurality in order to act coherently, to attempt some kind of transformation or change.

When we fight for social justice and equality, we narrow diversity to focus in a particular moment on a particular cause within a diversity of causes. We highlight a problem within diversity, we fight against a specific privilege or position, a specific set of values or bureaucratic practices. This is also the point where we can sometimes forget we are also always caring for and fighting for plurality.

I appreciate diversity not simply so that I can protect my ability to act, think, appear and cohere. Rather I appreciate and am mindful that my ability to think and act is often made possible at the very moment diversity is at risk.

It is important and interesting to think about how we might accept responsibility for that risk, individually and collectively, as we work to affect change.

These thoughts are based on a connection I see between various insights by Édouard Glissant and Hannah Arendt. Two quotes that have inspired me are:

“Thinking thought usually amounts to withdrawing into a dimensionless place in which the idea of thought alone persists. But thought in reality spaces itself out into the world. It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics, which it then transforms, meaning, in them its risk becomes realized.” – Édouard Glissant

Not man but men inhabit this planet. Plurality is the law of the earth.
Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind (2 vols. Volume I: Thinking, Volume II: Willing). Brace Harcourt. January 1, 1978. Hardcover, 535 pages, Language English, ASIN: B001RG9SBI.

I started this essay while on the International Residency Programme at RM Gallery in Auckland in early 2014. I really appreciate the opportunity the residency gave me to create new work, to think and meet some great people. The character of the Hooded Lantern was directly inspired by the poetry of Bernadette Hall.

Taster of something new

I’m starting a new film/art project loosely called ‘The particle in residence’ that builds on the character-based performance and video work I do. Here is a still from a short film I made recently called Mirror stage ​(2015): Mirror stage YouTube still Here we witness the rare phenomena of the Higgs boson gazing at itself in the mirror for the first time. The development of characters in my work creates a starting/locus point that I can return to as the conceptual and contextual ground of a project evolves. I source characters from the real-world, such as Stephen Hawking, and create others, such as ‘L’, a person who writes letters to Barbara Cartland and gives her tips about how to write space-romances. I also develop characters out of abstract concepts or scientific fields of enquiry, such as ‘Higgs boson’, which is what I’m focusing on at the moment. Like my past work, ‘Love Letters to Stephen Hawking’ in which I conflated ideas of deep space and black plastic rubbish bags (aka black holes), ‘The particle in residence’ is similarly speculative and absurdist. During the project I will develop a human-like consciousness and life for the boson. I see the particle as an ancient yet new ‘visitor’ to the contemporary world, a quick-study of the human condition, but also an entity that doesn’t quite fit in; that is different, and that must learn the rules of normality and abnormality. Together me and the Higgs boson will explore specific aspects of the human condition through the tragic-comic lens of identity. We’ll aim to mix archetypes and stereotypes with singular and ‘untranslatable’ experiences of self and collective. Wish us luck!

Janet Paul: we work in a basement of small truths

On seeing letters from conscientious objectors’ camps written invisibly with orange juice
by Janet Paul

So little truth will tell…
it stains painfully
yellowed drawing
and ironed orange secret letter
opening an objector’s prison
after thirty year’s peace.

We work in a basement
of small truths –
but who will connect?

What a stunning poem by Dame Janet Paul (1919 – 2004)! What a killer line, ‘We work in a basement of small truths’, and one that you could relate to so many things, not least of all our understanding of the human condition as still signifying a ‘basement of small truths’, even after thousands of years of human questioning and contemplation of ourselves and the world. Paul was a librarian for nine years at the Turnbull, so I’m assuming she literally did work in a ‘basement’ archive, bursting no doubt with revealing documents, records and papers. And the final question too – who will connect? Implied here is also the ‘how’ of connecting and understanding, and Janet Paul’s life seems to have been a rich, manifold, rigorous and open consideration of who connects what and how.

The poem above is taken from a book of her poems and art-work and you can read it when you visit the exhibition No less than everything: the art and times of Janet Paul, currently on display in the Turnbull Gallery until November 21.

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I beg, literally beg anyone with an interest in New Zealand writing and art and creative culture to see this exhibition and any other future exhibitions of Paul’s work. I had a vague notion of Paul’s contribution to our artistic history, however was ashamed to find I really knew so little about her life and work. While I’m sure some people know about Paul, my assumption would be that the Turnbull Gallery is seeking to redress a wider lack of knowledge about Paul’s contribution through this show. Any redress really means nothing however if we don’t go and see it and then talk to each other about the work and Paul’s varied activities – supporting numerous writers, writing poems, making drawings, paintings, etchings, publishing with her husband Blackwood Paul such significant works as Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun….

I’m going to part of a lunchtime reading this Thursday (Nov 13) with a group of poets who have written new work in response to this exhibition. I’m really looking forward to hearing about what other poets have discovered and thought about in relation to Paul.
In addition to seeing the show, there is also a bit of information available about Paul online:

Janet Paul obituary

NZETC works related to Paul

Review of Landmarks in New Zealand publishing: Blackwood & Janet Paul 1945 -68 Turnbull Room, National Library Gallery
17 November 1995- 28 February 1996 

Paul in the Te Papa collections

Lunchtime reading: Poetry from Victoria University
Date: 13 November 2014 Time: 12.10 pm
Venue: Ground floor programme rooms, National Library, cnr Molesworth and Aitken St

The National Library presents a poetry reading by MA in Creative Writing graduates, in response to the exhibition No less than everything: the art and times of Janet Paul, currently on display in the Turnbull Gallery.

Join Airini Beautrais (MA 2005), Anna Livesey (MA 2002), Mary Macpherson (MA 2006), Hannah Mettner (MA 2012), Frances Samuel (MA 2003), and Rachel O’Neill (MA 2008)as they read poems written in response to the life and work of an artist who actively supported other artists and writers throughout her life.

The imagination can accumulate sense?

I’ve always got my ear out for people who love speaking and thinking about the imagination. In a conversation between filmmakers Chantal Akerman and Catherine Breillat an evocative phrase emerged: ‘The imagination can accumulate sense’. Pow! But also a question – how do filmmakers convey a subject’s imaginative life in a way that lends their imagining or their hidden and interior world a sensory function or impulse in a scene?

I thought about Ackerman’s La chambre (1972) when the camera pivots again and again around the room.

Still from La Chambre 1972

We feel the subject’s very meditative and attentive state through duration, determined by the consumption of an apple, plus the domestic space and objects around her, and the light that brackets all of this. We don’t know what the subject is thinking exactly, or have access to hidden images, or her imagination in any literal sense. But we get a sense that these surroundings, habits of identity and possession are all part her thoughtful sensory life.

I also found a connection between Akerman and Breillat’s phrase, and Paul Greengrass’ thoughts about ‘procedures’ leading to ‘emotional power’ in his 2014 David Lean Lecture:

‘…a lot of it is about observing procedures. But that’s because that’s something that I’ve always been interested in. I think that procedures rule our lives. Our procedures define our modernity. You know, most of us don’t get up and think about what happened to us when we were children, most of us get up and think I’ve got to get on the bus now then I’ve got to be at work at 10 o’clock and I‘ve got a meeting at 11 o’clock, that sort of procedures, and if you can tap into that in films you can actually develop a lot of emotional power, oddly. You’d think it would be dry but it’s actually not, because you get to a very, a very rich place, which is what happens when procedures start to be threatened.’

This reminded me of something I talked about in one of my first blog posts: Dave Hickey describes a moment in Floubert’s ‘Shining Heart’ where two women from different class groups step over the threshold of social order to suddenly embrace. When they embrace the women push away any immediate ability to identify internally and externally through (socially-sanctioned and prescribed) habits alone. Perhaps the embrace takes them further into a moment in which intimacy simply exists, unprovoked, as joy and sadness in its coming and going from the immediate scene. In that moment it is a truth that has no strict negative – and in the extreme it illustrates, or hints that ‘all social interactions lead to non-linearities’*… quick glances between impossibilities (and instabilities)… or possibilities (and stabilities)…

On the one hand we have Akerman’s portrait of a sensory life in La chambre (1972) where intimacy with the subject is achieved strangely through objects, space and distance, and on the other hand, the risk we feel in Greengrass’s case (and in Floubert) when a character’s habits and procedures are disrupted, leaving them to confront the phantasm of an ordered and stable identity. Both approaches seem to work from the outside in, though perhaps if we take this idea of  the imagination accumulating sense we see these approaches are as much about glances between people and their instabilities, even between the instabilities organised (or disorganised) in a particular subject, and how these glances play out in a particular time and place.

*(Art Meets Science and Spirituality in a Changing Economy, The Chaotic Universe, Mystic Fire Video)