Hot Iron, Hot Mirrors
Posted: 10 Sep 2004
A few years ago, while visiting the province of Taranaki with other staff from the City Gallery Wellington, I was invited into the house of a descendent of the 19th century Maori leader Te Whiti o Rongomai. In the living room, the grandson of the spiritual and political leader handed me a walking stick, the revered name Te Whiti inscribed into a metal ring beneath the handle. I was then allowed to take the taonga (ancestral treasure) out to the van and slip it through the passenger's window. It circulated around the inside of the vehicle, being passed above the heads of the occupants, each being sure they cradled it for a moment or two, before the item was delivered back through the window and returned to the house. We never saw the walking stick again and attempts to include the item in a subsequent exhibition at City Gallery got nowhere.
I was reminded of this encounter when I came upon the new series of artworks by Mary McFarlane which incorporated the silhouetted forms of walking sticks drawn onto the back of circular mirrors. The treatment conveyed something of the elusive, talismanic quality of Te Whiti's walking stick and its persuasiveness not only as an emblem of age and infirmity but also of vision and other-worldly sight. In the cosmos of William Blake or J. R. Tolkien the walking stick might also be a lightning rod or staff-a symbol of authority as well as a device for 'seeing'.
McFarlane's incorporation of various formations of the walking stick motif onto mirrors adds further resonance. The geometrical, at times spoke-like arrangement invokes a raft of mythic and heraldic associations: all manner of cosmic wheels, compasses and dials. Yet at the same time the works remain grounded in the everyday: the metal clips that hold the mirrors to their backing are most often made from fragments of spoons or pieces of tin flattened on the local train tracks by the Seacliff Express. Richly textured with pulverised metal, gold leaf and paint, McFarlane's mirrors appear as if frosted over, or steamed up by the breath of the beholder. The effect is like that of an Andrey Tarkovsky movie: a mixture of autumnal beauty and a blasted, post-industrial harshness.
Mary McFarlane's mirrors are at the Temple Gallery, Dunedin, during May and June alongside constructions by New Zealand's pre-eminent living artist, Ralph Hotere. Working with polished black corrugated iron, Hotere offers reflections of a different nature. Light flickers across the surface but little detail is reflected-these works are declamatory statements of protest. In the past, Hotere has produced suites of work protesting against the Springbok rugby tour, French nuclear testing and a proposed aluminium smelter at Aramoana, near Carey's Bay where he lives. He is over seventy now but the fire is still there; the work still functions as a ceaseless graffiti of conscience.
In the new works, the squalls of paint and stormy weather of his earlier art are reduced to a single drop and, in many cases, a single word: Jerusalem. A line of paint descends along each two metre piece of iron, partitioning the work, transforming it into a metaphor for disputed or divided territory. Hotere is commenting on the present Palestinian/Israeli turmoil, while alluding not only to the Jerusalem of William Blake but to that of New Zealand's greatest poet James K. Baxter, who established a community at the Maori settlement of Hiruharama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River in the early 1970s.
One of Baxter's last published books was a tract entitled A Walking Stick for an Old Man - an instructive manual outlining ways Pakeha (European) New Zealanders can learn from Maori. Baxter's metaphoric walking stick was a way forward, a line of light feeling its way in the darkness. So too, in different ways, the walking sticks in McFarlane's mirror works and Hotere's tentative white line.
Both McFarlane and Hotere have lived and worked in the Dunedin area for decades, and been part of a busy cultural scene situated largely beyond the reach of the hype and brouhaha of the mainstream art world. Dunedin remains a provincial/cultural centre par excellence; the Prague of the South Pacific, you might say. If you walk about the town there is much to supplement the Temple Gallery exhibition: at the University of Otago, Ralph Hotere's Rain banners are on permanent display in the Richardson Block and a 1979 Black Union Jack banner hangs in the Hocken Library. A short distance from the city, two sculptured busts by Mary McFarlane preside over street corners at Port Chalmers, where the Port Gallery is sited.
Famous for its 'Dunedin sound' and a quarter of a century of grungy guitar music, the city numbers amongst its visual arts luminaries Michael Morley (who is also guitarist in The Dead C); the lyrical, gothic tradition of painting close to the city's heart is being kept alive by Seraphine Pick, Kathryn Madill and Maryrose Crook. The doyen of New Zealand expressionism Jeffrey Harris is back in residence and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is presenting a large survey of his work later this year. Colin McCahon's Waterfall mural recently installed in the new Otago University Library and The Song of the Shining Cuckoo, at the Hocken Library Gallery, are also worth tracking down.
In recent months brightly coloured 737s direct from Australia have been descending upon the khaki Otago landscape. While the aeroplanes are, for the most part, filled with rugby supporters destined for Carisbrook Stadium-or 'The House of Pain', as it is known locally-Dunedin's evolving cultural status as a 'South Seas Prague' or an 'Edinburgh of the South' or a 'Jerusalem' (in this 'green and pleasant land') is more than reason enough to head straight for the centre of town. And take it from there.
Gregory O'Brien divides his time between various writing projects and working as a curator at the City Gallery Wellington.
Image: Mary McFarlane, Giving Weight, 2004, mirror painting, 640cm diam. Courtesy of the artist and Temply Gallery, Dunedin, NZ.