Culture in a Small Country: The arts in New Zealand by Roger Horrocks (Atuanui Press, 2022), 512pp, $45; A Book of Seeing by Roger Horrocks (Atuanui Press, 2022), 224pp, $38
A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep, wrote W.H. Auden; and so, as Aotearoa New Zealand dreams, Roger Horrocks, in Culture in a Small Country, strolls into frame and begins to weave connections across the national cultural output that go back decades, to his childhood and youth in the 1940s and 1950s. He plucks quotations from a wide variety of local sources to illustrate his state-of-the-nation thesis. His account stops in the middle of the pandemic in 2021, and his point, in the end, is to warn us of the dangers of cultural amnesia, stating: ‘this book has dealt mainly with the construction of our pre-digital culture as a creation story or whakapapa that all New Zealanders should value and recent New Zealand governments are not doing enough to safeguard the best of that tradition (prizing it as our taonga).’
Roger Horrocks established the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of Auckland. Since the mid-1960s, he has been a significant cultural activist, especially in supporting innovative arts projects. He is part of a group of cultural historians formerly associated with Auckland University’s English Department, which includes, amongst others, Wystan Curnow, Peter Simpson, Murray Edmond and Alex Calder. Their mission in producing books has been to comment on and promote the best of the nation’s literary and arts heritage and make their commentaries accessible to the general reader, while remaining freighted with certain values and assumptions.
Horrocks’s previous collection of essays, Re-Inventing New Zealand, published in 2016, also by Atuanui Press, is essential reading for anyone interested in late-twentieth-century New Zealand culture. Its specific and detailed commentaries on selected artists and art movements carefully places them within a larger historical context.
Culture in a Small Country is more ambitious but ultimately flounders because of the complexity of its subject. It is quixotic in endeavouring to cover the whole waterfront as it were and in trying to acknowledge everything significant that’s going on or has gone on in recent decades. In part a patient and diligent assemblage, the book functions as a sort of directory, name-checking and indexing close to 1000 of the nation’s cultural workers and cultural agencies (from Don Abbott to Jane Zusters).
And yet it is also a very Auckland-centric survey and ultimately a recital of personal enthusiasms, notices and connections. As our kaitiaki or gatekeeper, Horrocks shepherds through the figures he considers significant and establishes a chronology to make sense of it all in an age that for a decade or more has been dominated by the concept of knowledge silos, where self-identifying groups have steadily strengthened their sub-cultural credentials and are rejecting or ignoring former mainstream narratives.
Aware of this, Horrocks attempts a heterogenous approach to find room for all kinds of Kiwi cultural distinctiveness. But while an illuminating guide to certain key events of cultural transformation, in particular the neo-liberal transformations that affected local culture in the 1990s and around the millennium, his diagnosis is a bit sketchy about what has been going on more recently in the greater cultural ecosystem, where sometimes seemingly important developments have been short-lived or transformed out of recognition.
However, given the focus on ‘ a small country’, some things never change. Horrocks emphasises the precarious nature of the artistic life as a career. Artists were once outsiders, but now, grown dramatically in numbers, they have been absorbed as a precariat, useful to the gig economy in a global and corporate environment. He also traces ‘the anxiety of influence which haunts our small derivative culture’ from the days of Great Britain’s Anglo-settler project in the Antipodes and the need to escape from just being a wealth-providing colony without any unique identity—subject to the cultural cringe—through various iterations of the same anxiety.
New Zealand’s version of High Modernism, for example, misreading the cues and applying the Number 8 Wire mentality, resulted in a ‘wonky modernism’, to use art critic Robert Leonard’s term: a slightly absurdist or comical take on international developments in art and literature, and sometimes an over-earnestness characteristic of provincialism.
The book’s cover image illustrates a contemporary refinement of ‘wonky modernism’. Taking the roadside sign motif, first seized on by Colin McCahon, John Reynolds’ sculptural artwork ‘Big Wave Territory’ provides a tongue-in-cheek touristic guide to Taranaki with various phrases that play on the Kiwi demotic, which, no longer self-conscious, is proudly ‘out’ as a form of nationalism.
Horrocks returns to the overseas stamp-of-approval theme again and again as a kind of foundation notion for a settler colony, groomed to be a spitting image of the Mother Country. ‘If it failed to create its own culture and establish its own traditions,’ New Zealand would never escape its status as a slavish imitator, colonised and recolonised. Now, it’s being argued, in another twist to this idealogy, that the archipelago also known as Aotearoa was never a blank space, a negation to be filled, and decolonisation will reveal this.
Any account of nationalisms, or tribalisms for that matter, is a narrative of paradoxes; and while Horrocks inevitably has his own subjective responses, he is at pains to be generous and objective rather than outright sceptical. Tradition is a constant selection and re-selection of ancestor figures: some fade into obscurity or are excoriated, while others, once deemed extinct or forever cast into the abyss, now leap full-blown and defiantly alive from their niches.
Terms such as ‘fragility’, ‘essentialism’ and ‘authenticity’ are grasped and brandished by different local pressure groups, from contrarians to ironists to fundamentalists to utopians. Horrocks carefully distils New Zealand’s central self-image: its aspirational exceptionalism. Though small and far away from metropolitan conurbations, the mega-cities, New Zealand is the little nation that could. We have traded on our giant-killer littleness, on our record of dissent and protest, on our nuclear-free identity, on a clean and green environment 100-per-cent-pure, on the ethno-Disney status of such cultural artefacts as The Whale Rider, or the macho schtick of Once Were Warriors. Obsessed by our place in world rankings, we have gone about variously self-shaming ourselves or trumpet-blowing.
We re-invent or re-make our nation’s pageantry, from weary, stale, flat, unprofitable stories, into something more affirming: welcome to the youngest country on earth, hauled dripping from the ocean like a giant fish, and so on. In the immediate present of climate change and multi-cultural polarities—the retreat into silos—a lot of this has started to unravel.
Roger Horrocks, ever an optimist, an explorer, a cartographer, searches for the ameliorative amongst competing versions of events. He searches for a sense of unity, a sense of communal belonging. He quotes historian Anne Salmond, writing in 2021: ‘What would a whakapapa-based approach to Te Tiriti look like, in a country where an increasing number of citizens have whakapapa that include Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika and many other non-Māori forbears and whānaunga? … This kind of history is very different from the binary ‘Iwi vs. Kiwi’ approach, with its stark polarities, static views of the past and strategic amnesia.’
Knowledge is steady and cumulative, while information is random and miscellaneous. We fend off chaos and confusion by knowing and understanding how our traditions are part of a pattern. As a chronicle, Culture in a Small Country describes important changes that have occurred in key art forms, from the visual arts and film to classical and popular music, while its account of writers and publishing presents a mediascape littered with carnage, as publishing house after publishing house is sent crashing to the wall as a result of corporate takeovers, with profit for overseas owners the bottom line. This chapter of the book is especially good at acknowledging the role of constructive publishers, supportive of local literature, from Ray Richards to Geoff Walker, Bridget Williams, Fergus Barrowman, Nicola Legat, Mary Varnham, Harriet Allan, Brett Cross, Sam Elworthy and others, while the saga of what happened to the publishing arm of Whitcombe and Tombs provides a perennial cautionary tale.
Towards the end of his book, Horrocks includes various commentaries on the impact of the digital realm that are mostly a kind of lament: ‘The new generation has totally embraced the digital age so there is no turning back. Young people have no idea of what has been lost, nor do they understand why we should want to keep it.’ And: ‘For my students the 20th century is already ancient history and in their eyes it is just a vague blur.’
But the text also acknowledges important younger cultural figures who have thrived in the digital environment, or despite it, from poet Lindsay Hera Bird to novelist Eleanor Catton to culture critic Vanessa Crofsky to singer Lorde (Ella Yelich-O’Connor).
Horrocks is a conservationist but also a conservative, someone who began by championing the avant-garde and made it happen, and who now writes about the future that was, as it played out. In some ways, this book is a salvage merchant’s catalogue: a form of remembrance. The printed word is under siege, and books are what you find in abundance in hospice shops as their former owners shuffle off this mortal coil. The steady erosion of purpose-built school libraries and the loss of specialist humanities libraries from New Zealand universities is noted. Indeed, the humanities departments in general are now downsizing, while the recent closure of Wellington’s Vic Books is emblematic of the shift online. Everything cultural at this point feels in a state of flux, but then it always has.
‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite,’ wrote the visionary poet William Blake. A Book of Seeing, by Roger Horrocks, is a rumination on the power of sight. A book-length essay or excursion, it ranges across world culture and transfers the evangelical fervour of his generalist local history Culture in a Small Country into something at once more intimate and personal, and more universal.
He tells us that seeing is his ‘favourite sense’. But the notion of ‘seeing’ as Horrocks writes about it in a book that is almost a mosaic of quotations becomes something mystical: a kind of shamanistic power, mysterious and endlessly resonant.
The book’s cover depicts a tiger at Auckland Zoo, painted by Richard Killeen. The creature’s direct gaze transfixes the viewer, while its stripes, with their ‘fearful symmetry’, invoke William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. As a quote here from Allen Curnow puts it: ‘It is in the nature of things to look, and look back harder.’
Consciousness of sight as a power began for Horrocks with a fervent belief in the Bible: ‘God said, Let there be light.’ As a young person, Horrocks was an ardent bible-banger for a few years, attentive to the church minister who assured him and the congregation that ‘God can see you, He can see everyone.’
Ultimately Horrocks lost faith in his Christian God, but his fascination with things visionary stayed with him. Art-house cinema in the 1950s was a revelation. As he tells us: ‘many mystics have spent years waiting for their Eureka revelation.’ Hooked, he became a cinema projectionist: ‘I was involved for years with screening films and part of that involved edging the lens … to produce the sharpest focus.’
The mystical concept of ‘inner light’ as extolled by Sixties rock musicians also drew Horrocks in. And while working with Len Lye, a kind of nature mystic, in the late 1970s he was ‘astonished by Lye’s ability to perceive and remember even momentary flashes of movement. (Lye) spoke of days spent studying the subtle patterns created by waves or branches bouncing in the wind, actions which served as the starting point for kinetic sculptures.’
Cogitating on the meaning of sight, Horrocks is a connoisseur of the apt quotation. Ludwig Wittgenstein observes that clichéd language can ‘fence vision in’, while Wallace Stevens points out fixed literary habits in a writer can blind him to ‘how much / Of what he saw he never saw at all.’
Horrocks ends his examination of the ocular by discussing life in lockdown during the pandemic: ‘in my neighbourhood … I am reminded once again of the surrealism of Giorgio De Chirico’s deserted streets and René Magritte’s sense of the weird undercurrents of everyday life.’ The essayist also muses: ‘the sense organ that suffers most during a lockdown is touch.’ The subject of another book, perhaps.
DAVID EGGLETON is a poet and writer living in Ōtepoti Dunedin. His latest collection of poems is Respirator: A Poet Laureate Collection 2019–2022, published by Otago University Press.
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