Art and Australia, Spring 2008. Reprinted in Current: Contemporary Art from Australia and New Zealand (Sydney: Art and Australia, 2008).
In 1992, five years after Colin McCahon’s death, Ronnie Van Hout unveiled a new suite of black-and-white photographs at Gow Langsford Gallery, Wellington.1 Return of the Living Dead looked like a sequence of movie stills. Van Hout had made model-version McCahon-style New Zealand landscapes, lit them dramatically, and photographed them with a short depth of field, as if they might pass for real. In several scenes, he arranged plastic block letters, conflating Stonehenge and the Hollywood sign with McCahon’s cubist block-letters (best known from I Am, his iconic 1954 painting of the Name of God). In one photo, van Hout spelt out ‘The Living Dead’ in caps, cinemascope style, behind an open grave, as if from a movie’s opening titles. In other images, the names of a pantheon of canonical New Zealand artists appeared as if stars of the film in the credits. It felt like Van Hout was filtering McCahon through Ed Wood, riffing on the cinematic qualities of McCahon’s serial landscapes, recasting the worthy nationalist grail-quest as a trashy B-movie. Satirising the idea of the New Zealand landscape as a haunted space, a place of unfinished business, Van Hout at once buried McCahon and revealed a latent Gothic dimension in his work. The show heralded a Gothic turn in New Zealand art.
The Gothic genre dates from late-eighteenth century and the novels of Horace Walpole. With its love of creepy castles and ancestral curses, it fuses elements of romance and horror. These days, the Gothic is stridently anti-modernist, gleefully buying into superstition and irrationalism (the dark side of the force). It is also a trashy genre, one that often makes use of outdated forms of high art. Before Return of the Living Dead, New Zealand art didn’t seem Gothic in the least. One would have struggled to find enough artists to put together a decent show. The Gothic turn in our art—a parallax shift in reception as well as production—was paced by developments in other areas including cinema and fashion. The 1995 Sam-Neill-fronted doco Cinema of Unease, emphasising our national cinema’s dark side, is habitually cited. Since then numerous projects probed our Gothic side, including the 2003 Antipodean Gothic conference and the recent anthology Gothic New Zealand.2 And next year, New Zealand Gothic will be the focus of Unnerved, a show at Queensland Art Gallery. The Gothic is at risk of becoming a reigning truism in New Zealand art. But is it a telling term or a convenient marketing device, Zeitgeist or constricting cliché?
New Zealand art’s Gothic turn was partly a response to biculturalism, the dominant discourse in New Zealand art in the late 1980s, early 1990s. In the early 1990s, a new generation of contemporary Maori artists were getting all the airtime and biculturalism dominated every discussion. Against this backdrop, a new group of Pakeha artists emerged who were interested in exploring their own cultural identity while reacting against both the pieties of biculturalism and earnest 1980s theory art. While contemporary Maori art typically asserted cultural identity as noble, much of this work had a bogan edge.3 Some of it—but not all—was overtly postcolonial, concerned with the skeletons in the historical closet, a shameful past haunting the present.
The key figure in the Gothic turn is undoubtedly painter Bill Hammond, today our most commercially-successful living Pakeha artist. Until his breakthrough works of the early 1990s, Hammond was a relatively marginal figure. His pre-1990s work has been called ‘pencil-case art’, an expression evoking the way teenage boys decorate their pencil cases, exercise books, and bags, accumulating trashy noxious motifs without an overall plan. Hammond’s cartoonish paintings were junkie, punky, and dystopian, juiced-up with speed-freak violence, jumbled perspectives, and clashed codes. Ecstatic, tortured, figures morphed into one another and into their environment, with rhyme but without reason. It was all happily amoral, an antidote to anything civil or proper.
Hammond’s big shift came in 1993 with the Buller paintings, produced as a result of a 1989 trip to the Auckland Islands, in the Subantarctic, where birds still rule the roost. Inspired, he imagined himself in Old New Zealand, before even the Maori had arrived, when birds were still on top. Returning to the studio, he developed a bizarre series of paintings of bird-people, with echoes of ornithological illustration, colonial landscape painting, children’s books, history painting, Bosch, Breughel, Grandville, and Max Ernst’s Loplop.
The works made reference to Walter Buller, a nineteenth-century lawyer-magistrate-politician-ornithologist. As his perennial 1873 bestseller A History of the Birds of New Zealand still provides the standard renderings of our native birds, Buller is popularly linked with a love of things native. However, he believed that the native plants, birds, and people of New Zealand would inevitably be displaced by superior European stock, making New Zealand an antipodean repository of English country life. Buller certainly helped sped the decline of the native bird population, sponsoring an avian Armageddon, ‘preserving’ birds for stuffing on a semi-industrial scale—a theme Hammond explored in works like Buller’s Table Cloth and Shag Pile (both 1994).
Hammond’s Buller paintings lurch from sadistic to whimsical, heavy metal to heavenly. The bird-people gaze out across the ocean as if anticipating invasion and slaughter; they wile away hours in the pub drinking, smoking, and playing pool in print shirts, and play the cello in the trees in primordial forests. It is as if they are fatalistic; looking forward to what will overwhelm them. They are floating signifiers, referring at once to the birds that were there before Maori, to the Maori who decimated the bird population, and to the Pakeha who later dealt to the Maori. They can appear as pathetic holocaust-victims-in-waiting or conspiring gang members; they are victims and villains rolled into one. Hammond’s bird-people arrived unexpected yet were the perfect expression of something in the air. They played into but deranged the biculturalism argument, drawing on its imagery but neglecting its conclusion.
Hammond hails from Christchurch, the South Island town that is seen—indeed, promotes itself—as the heartland of New Zealand Gothic. He has been embraced as a precursor to a younger generation of Christchurch artists. They include, of course, Ronnie Van Hout (now based in Melbourne; who has long milked debased Gothic tropes and channelled impulses from other side), Jason Greig (an old-school printmaker who makes fantasy images in exquisite chiariscuro of brooding Heathcliff-types on the moors, flayed men, and the reaper), Seraphine Pick (now in Wellington, making goth-girl/princess fantasy art), Saskia Leek (now in Auckland, with her naive folksy paintings), and Tony De Lautour.
De Lautour’s work was always close to Hammond’s. Drawing on a tattoo/cartoon look, his early works accumulated images in the ‘pencil case’ manner. He also humanised-birds; favouring images of kiwis behaving badly, on the turps and shooting up (like bloodshot-eyed Woody Woodpeckers). His works also featured cobweb prison-tattoo designs, Special Forces insignia, British-imperial-style logos and New Zealand monograms (perhaps recalling the famous ‘NZ’ logo for the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games). These images mutated across scraps of canvas and wood, soft-drink cans, cricket bats turned into toy tommy-guns, and canvases.
In the late 1990s De Lautour started making his Revisionist Paintings, jabbing at earnest new revisionist histories. He vandalised antique-shop landscapes, adding in a cast of degenerate demented characters; as if early settlers were vulgar campers trashing paradise. He heavy-metallised paintings of stags, adding arms bearing skulls and bones and decorating their antlers with snakes. One painting featured a New-Zealand-shaped pit, with bones strewn all around. ‘Cut deep into the soil, De Lautour’s death maps of national history are surrounded by human bones, as though the whole country were still participants in psychic if not actual cannibalism’, enthused Allan Smith.4
Although before 1992 it was hard to imagine a New Zealand Gothic, in retrospect the Gothic turn enabled us to embrace several earlier figures as forerunners, notably painter Tony Fomison and photographer Laurence Aberhart, both of whom came through art school in Christchurch. In the 1970s Fomison produced morbid paintings of outsiders and marginal types: the ill (including a malaria victim and a Sunnyside asylum patient); clowns, gurners and prisoners; and those exemplary sufferers, Christ (copied from the various Old Masters) and Van Gogh. He went on to produce mythological and allegorical paintings, often with themes of incarceration, featuring images of crypts, caves and cells. Fomison drew on Arthur Rackham’s fairytale illustrations, Maori myth and history, and, later, aspects of Samoan culture. His exaggerated Caravaggesque studies in darkness, with their rough Hessian grounds, found frames and copperplate-script inscriptions, looked like instant antiques. Imagining himself a time-warped Old Master—and later a nineteenth-century Pakeha-Maori ‘gone native’—Fomison was out of step with his time. In the postmodernist 1980s, his fantasy life-of-the-artist became disreputable: no one wanted to know. He died young, but portentously, at Waitangi, on Waitangi Day in 1990, 150 years after the Treaty had been signed there. Over the next decade, however, he would seem increasingly relevant, with the rise of biculturalism, increased interest in New Zealand’s Pacific Islander diaspora and the blooming of the Gothic. (Meanwhile his feral fellow-travellers, expressionist painters Allen Maddox and Philip Clairmont, never regained relevance or respectability.)
Laurence Aberhart was also anachronistic. Since the mid-1970s, he has made photos in the manner of a belated nineteenth-century photographer, working in black-and-white, using an old-time wooden 8×10 view camera and contact-printing his images. Cross-referencing photography, colonial history and death, he has photographed New Zealand as if ‘the scene of a crime’. As if film was still too slow to capture the living, he stuck to places: churches, Masonic lodges, Maori meeting houses, musty museums, deserted war memorials, graveyards, cells, bunkers and courthouses. Many of his subjects were connected with New Zealand colonial history, but, if they weren’t to begin with, they certainly become so by association in his work. While he photographed sites of significance, Aberhart said nothing of their significance, as if pointing to his viewers’ neglect of history. As Lita Barrie put it, Aberhart’s images ‘evoke the atmosphere of New Zealand’s colonial past as if experienced in the present … as a spectre’.5 Aberhart occasionally—but tellingly—mixed in contemporary subjects with bogan overtones, anticipating again 1990s New Zealand Gothic. Take, for instance, his photos of graffiti slogans ‘Death To Disco’ (1980) and ‘Seedless Heads Blow Me Away’ (1986), of the Elvis Presley Memorial Room, Hawera (1986), and of Bill Hammond’s son Jesse’s bedroom, covered in graffiti referring to his band Mrs Evil (1986).
Gavin Hipkins would follow in Aberhart’s footsteps, creating his own account of a haunted nation in his 1997–2000 frieze The Homely, which he subtitled ‘a postcolonial Gothic novel’. It featured 80 images of subjects which, according to Hipkins, were ‘used to define nationhood and historic folklore’. He collected the images on photo-safaris in New Zealand and Australia. His resulting scrapbook-cum-mindmap juxtaposes artless snaps and immaculately pictorial images, the iconic and the banal, to suggest a cinematic odyssey, at the same time failing to provide any coherent narrative or reach any conclusion. Hipkins exploited a David-Lynchean device. Alongside overtly relevant images (a model ship’s rigging, a mock-Maori gateway, a model lighthouse, mud pools), he included seeming obliquely connected or irrelevant images (a tyre swing, a takeaways menu, and a hooded jacket), their very out-of-placeness making them uncanny, spooky.6
While New Zealand Gothic is tied up with the postcolonial, not all the work is postcolonial Gothic. Take Auckland’s photographer Yvonne Todd, sculptor Peter Madden, and installation artists Et Al.
Todd’s work has been labelled ‘suburban Gothic’, and, more precisely, ‘North Shore Gothic’. She’s been particularly inspired by Virginia Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic novels. Todd flaunts the idealising expectations of commercial studio photography, producing portraits of female characters that seem to exemplify some physical or psychological malaise. Her cast—including the shadowy sadistically-named Advancia (2003) in her wheelchair and the windswept anorexic Resulta (2004)—are pathetic, cursed, blighted. Todd describes them as a ‘rainbow of affliction’, stressing an oddly utopian underside to their condition. Images like Advancia suggest a standard trope of horror movies: victims, empowered by their trauma, return to menace us. The Gothic inverts our relationship to illness, turning it into a status symbol.
Peter Madden is a master of morbid decoupage. His surrealistic collages, objects and frail constructions might have been produced by a death-obsessed Victorian-period hobbyist killing time in their parlour. Little assemblages in bell jars recall the art of the taxidermist. Moths and butterflies—symbols of transient life—abound. In Necrolopolous (2004), Madden’s model ‘city of the dead’, death flowers in a baroque excess that is near psychedelic. The city’s blackened skeletal structures—recalling prison fences, watchtowers, mining sites and fairgrounds—are overrun with stilled-life images. Madden’s world is at once morbid and abundant, rotting and blooming, creepy and fey; its ‘heavy’ implications offset by its material fragility. Madden domesticates death.
The devious New Zealand collective Et Al. is not usually identified as Gothic, but should be. Routinely promoted as politically correct, as critics of repressive social structures, Et Al. is in fact far more ambivalent. With a penchant for detention camp decor, their moody installations link art, technology, political ideologies, scientific theories, religious practices, Cold-War-style behaviour modification, and the occult. Their neo-brutalist playgrounds allow us to relish our fears and explore our inner conflicts over authority, so we can play prisoners or warders, railing against the system or over-identifying with it. Perversely, here, Et Al. hold hands with Tony Fomison. Both are poets of imprisonment, incarceration, and institutionalisation.
The Gothic is principally a Pakeha thing, but some Maori artists have made use of it. Michael Parekowhai referenced the 1993 Gothic melodrama The Piano in creating a piano-coffin littered with carved wooden lilies, imagining the passing of the colonial order (The Story of a New Zealand River, 2001). Similarly Lisa Reihana’s Digital Marae photos (2007) show a nostalgic attachment to colonial-period photographs of Maori dressed in Victorian garb and to often dark Maori mythology. But, in both cases, the Gothic styling is just icing on an otherwise right-on cake: the antithesis of the Gothic.
Shane Cotton, on the other hand, has had a deep engagement with Gothic disorientation, and even titled a recent show Maori Gothic.7 Cotton, who also went to art school in Christchurch, takes much from McCahon: his work is literally and conceptually dark, folding past into present to affect a prophetic voice. His paintings can be cryptic, morbid and menacing. They are laden with death-images, including mokomokai (the smoked Maori heads, which became grisly souvenirs in colonial times). Cotton runs together found images in a speculative/experimental fashion, playing on rhymes and disjunctions between, for instance, nineteenth-century Maori imagery and nineteenth-century Christian imagery. Replaying ‘contact’, his collisions operate like the infamous ‘chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table’. If surrealism typically engages a personal psychosexual unconscious, Cotton’s ‘cultural surrealism’ is keyed to a collective historical-cultural unconscious. But like surrealism-proper it is less concerned with decoding unconscious metaphors for their latent messages than with exploring their manifest poetry and affect.
Cotton’s inquiry is less about lived culture, more research-based. It is concerned with historical retrieval. In this regard, I was intrigued to discover that his favourite movie is Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Stoker’s novel is the classic gothic tale of a battle of wills between the dead and the living, the past and the modern, with a defunct aristocratic superstitious order praying on the brave new world of rationality, science and technology. This seems to be a possible subtext in Play (2006), where Cotton inexplicably brings contemporary imagery—video-player button graphics—into the orbit of historical Maori imagery, as if these contemporary pointers might be operating under its spell. Cotton’s work opens up a dilemma about what it might be to be Maori and modern.
The Gothic is a vague and rubbery category. When you go looking for the Gothic, you can find it in anything dark, deadly or diseased. (Allan Smith, for instance, put a Gothic spin on Louise Fong’s chic abstractions when he dubbed them ‘toxic and tenebrous’ and aligned them with Patricia Cornwell’s novels about a forensic pathologist).8 Critics will forge—and have forged—different personal canons of New Zealand Gothic. These might include, for instance, Peter Peryer’s expressionistic Diana-camera photos from the 1970s, James Ross’s geometric abstractions frequented by Holbein’s anamorphic skull, photographer Fiona Pardington’s Victorian pictorialism, Michael Stevenson’s bible-belt townscapes, Christine Webster’s kinky Black Carnival, Ann Shelton’s ‘haunted house’ studies of deserted asylums and grisly murder sites, Francis Upritchard’s folksy sculptures of canopic jars and faux-Maori artefacts, Terry Urbahn’s neo-pagan twig art, Peter Robinson’s chainscapes, and even Dane Mitchell engaging witches to curse gallery spaces (although this is more likely a parody of the Gothic).
But the question remains: why is New Zealand home to the Gothic when it is supposed to be such a nice place? Our country long fancied itself ‘God’s Own’ (a favourite phrase of turn-of-the-century Prime Minister Dick Seddon). In the 1970s, we imagined we alone would escape global nuclear devastation. And we still promote the place as a natural wonderland, a tourist utopia, ‘100% Pure’. Similarly, low-lying Christchurch fancies itself to be the Garden City and I understand they still go punting on the Avon. And yet, as if discontent with this image, edgy Cantabrians are always citing the Parker-Hulme murder (celebrated in Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures), their weird sects, immigrant bashing, and crèche child-abuse scandals. It may be that Christchurch is a terribly dark place, but it does not have to be, because the New Zealand Gothic sensibility is overdetermined. It is not simply about recognising an actual dark history, as much as it may link itself to one. It is also an escapist fantasy, developed in response to the idea that New Zealand—particularly Christchurch—is boring and benign. New Zealand Gothic flourishes as an expression of who we are but also of who we do not want to be. Would-be refugees from the ‘half-gallon quarter-acre Pavlova paradise’ are happier imagining themselves besieged by ancestral curses, sadistic nannies, mass-murderers, iced-up paranoids, and vampires. For all its supposed darkness and disruption, the Gothic is fundamentally romantic and reassuring: it is a mode of enjoyment, a way of taking pleasure. And that’s why it will never be part of a utopian bicultural solution. Because in preferring the Gothic, we prefer the problem.
[IMAGE: Jason Greig Farewell Italica … Say Goodnight Gracie 2012]
- Yes, Gow Langsford had a short-lived Wellington branch.
- Gothic New Zealand: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture, ed. Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn and Mary Paul (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2006).
- See Hangover (Hamilton and Dunedin: Waikato Art Museum and Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 1995).
- ‘The Paradise Conspiracy’, Bright Paradise (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2001), 20.
- Lita Barrie, ‘Laurence Aberhart: Signs of Mortality’, Art New Zealand, no. 50, Autumn 1989: 82.
- Gothic imagery has been the basis of later Hipkins series, including Empire (2007).
- Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington, 2006.
- ‘Toxic and Tenebrous’, Midwest, no. 6 (1994): 41–4.