Andrew Paul Wood
Ngā Tau ki Muri (Our Future), by Ans Westra (Suite Publishing, 2013), 160pp., $40.
For centuries nature and the natural world was a primary inspiration for the arts – a situation that became increasingly problematic as ‘nature’ was reduced in status to a factory to supply the cities in the inexorable migration to consumerist urban living. Even in Roman times the poets extolled the virtues of country over city life. In the West a growing environmentalism rightfully taught us to regard notions of technological progress with a level of wary cynicism. Scientific knowledge came to inform our artistic approach to nature and elegise it (though arguably Māori and various immigrant groups have only ever touched the hem of the shiny hypermart of material dreams). At the same time, artists and writers have always been forced to become political by circumstances and vulnerability – though perhaps never as effectively or efficiently as prose (fiction and journalism) – and while as W. H. Auden suggested, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, the arts can act as a magnet for opposition and protest. The ambiguities and aesthetic concerns of the arts, however, tend to blunt or obscure the essential connection George Orwell identified between good politics and clear language.
Photographer Ans Westra’s Ngā Tau ki Muri (Our Future) is clearly influenced by these evolving patterns. It is a beautifully produced volume, bound in green cloth and published by Wellington’s Suite art gallery, including poems by Hone Tuwhare and David Eggleton, and short essays by former Prime Minister David Lange (written as part of an unrealised book project in 1987), Green Party coleader Dr Russel Norman, and poet/notorious NIMBY Brian Turner, dispersed among a generous selection of images taken by Westra on her preferred medium format Roloflex. For the most part these are not the casually intimate portraits which made Westra one of the most important documenters of mid-twentieth century New Zealand social history.
The images (colour, which is unusual for Westra), record an incredibly variety of ways that humans have impacted on the New Zealand landscape, often very subtly. Natural and unnatural are juxtaposed. Frequently random signage has its text ironically re-contextualised. The rare human is a fully engaged actor. Many depict grazed farm land or dead trees, rendered abstract by close cropping and modernist formalist composition – such motifs were established early in New Zealand art and are covered in detail by Francis Pound in his seminal book Frames on the Land: Early landscape painting in New Zealand (1983), as well as by Michael Dunn’s ‘Frozen Flame and Slain Tree: The dead tree theme in New Zealand art of the thirties and forties’, (Art New Zealand 13, 1979). The dead animals and graves are perhaps a little too Aberhart-ish. Sometimes the photographs tiptoe dangerously close to the border of cliché.
And then, for all the beauty, it just doesn’t work for me, largely because it founders on a paradox at the heart of Green politics. Green parties instinctively attract left wing, socially liberal people. However Green policies are, in essence, conservative. That may sound unlikely, however being averse to any interference in the natural world by humans is contrary to the scientific positivism of the post-Enlightenment Left. The Green belief in ‘natural’ limits to human technological progress, and a reticence in tackling the issues of class divisions and redistribution of capital (in the sense that the movement claims to transcend capitalism and socialism because of their relationship to industrial production) are all deeply conservative. To give an example, Green policy is that all intensive farming is wrong because it is environmentally damaging and cruel – which is true – but this ignores that it keeps food affordable for low income urban dwellers in the short term. Thus is fostered a very subtle and often subconscious sort of philosophical snobbery.
Likewise, the book under review seems to have an identity crisis. Heavy-handed political moralising detracts from the aesthetics. Sublime aesthetics detract from the political moralising. Attempts at compromise just render the images boring on both levels, and with a few exceptions (an abandoned porn mag crumpled in the dirt, for example manages to rescue a poignant vanitas; it’s only a paper moon) the book has been reduced to a lot of ambiguous farm fences, land slips and tree stumps. Straining for bathos, the picture of the dead penguin becomes faintly comical. Westra’s greatest strength is poignant and sympathetic human interest, but here she is trying to go against her own nature and scolding humanity for being human. Many of the images suggest nothing more than the unavoidable interventions of mankind in the landscape. It’s hard to feel shame about a sheep farm or vineyard when there are far more provoking crimes in dairy and industry.
What is one to make of a dead hare hanging on a fence (rather delightfully next to a ‘Private Property, Keep Out’ sign) – are they not pests introduced by long dead colonists? The mysterious white wooden crosses that may or may not mark the site of a road fatality (too closely cropped to tell), a pa site, a sweet old grave in a prospect of ferns: what does all of this mean in context? The surging waters of a dam look amazing – I cannot feel bad about something so inspiring, and that’s surely not Westra’s intention. Nor is there any suggestion of hope or positive environmental activity.
The inclusion of the Tuwhare poem ‘Friend’ is just odd – apparently misconstruing a nature metaphor about a sundered friendship. Eggleton’s eco-apocalyptic ‘God Defend New Zealand’ makes perfect sense in situ as a warning not to take our environment for granted, but Turner’s snobby looking-down-the-nose-at-the-unwanted-townies poem ‘Lifestylers Anonymous’ is what you would expect of someone who protests wind energy because it will spoil a view most people will never see. The three short paragraphs by Lange are a celebration of developing nationhood which really seems at odds with the self-flagellating tone of rest of the book, and as for Dr Norman – while I heartily agree with his call to restore and protect the indigenous landscape, the pettifogging about our farming history and hating on the rolling green hills of England is both cliché and not especially insightful. ‘Some people carpet their lounge rooms, some people carpet the bedrooms, but we carpeted the whole country.’ Oh dear God. Really? “‘White Man, have you no sacred sites?’” Seriously Russel? In his rush to wave the flag of white liberal guilt he appears to skirt the fact that approximately fifty percent of Aotearoa’s original tree cover had been deforested before European contact. Admittedly Europeans brought that up to around seventy percent in a few short decades, but ecological mismanagement is very much a universal human failing.
Elsewhere Westra has said of Ngā Tau ki Muri: ‘If we don’t plan for the long term, keep taking stop-gap measures, which might feel comfortable now but damage the environment and exploit this still beautiful place, we leave very little behind.’ Laudable, but what of all the people suffering in poverty now? What future if we cannot sustain ourselves economically? Most of this awkwardness could have been circumvented by a strong hand on the editorial reins steering the book along clearly defined themes, backed up with the inclusion of some strong science-based writing. I am left feeling shortchanged and patronised rather than fired-up to action.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based art historian, writer and critic who writes for a number of publications. His most recent book was An die Deutschen / To the Germans, a translation of emigre German-Jewish poet Karl Wolfskehl’s poem, in collaboration with Friedrich Voit of Auckland University.