Cockatoo Island

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Not Goat Island, Snapper Island, Shark Island, not Pinchgut nor Spectacle Island. It’s Cockatoo Island, the biggest island in Sydney Harbour, about 3.5 km west of the bridge: filled out to 18 hectares, carved into new shapes, three-dimensionally, from its original triangle. Great slices taken out of it for shipyards.

In the foreground of this photo is an old pump, a remnant of the island’s past — in this instance as a ship building site.

For three nights we stayed in the building on the top of this artificial cliff, what once were supervisors’ cottages, which have been refurbished for visitors.

The decks provided a wonderful albeit often rather smoky view down the Harbour.

And no. Don’t be silly. It’s not smoke. It’s night time.

The island has a resonant history which, as we toured, I couldn’t help but see as art.

Welcome.

Forever

The Sydney Harbour foreshore is rich in evidence of thousands of years of Aboriginal life, most evident in rock carvings and shellfish middens. But no such evidence has been found on Cockatoo Island, the Aboriginal name of which is Wareamah. The island is located at the intersection of the lands of the four tribes of the Eora nation which may provide one reason for this. But it also seems possible that the island may have been a place where women’s ritual took place, a special place not for domestic habitation. It is also possible that it was in reaction to what was observed in the 1839 Sydney Gazette: ‘It is without water and is said to abound in snakes.’

The current harbour foreshore: a jangle of tree roots, sandstone blocks natural and ashlared, remnant and contemporary infrastructure, 1950s ideas —  usually rendered in concrete — about how the seaside should be, tenacious and lush sub-tropical vegetation. Patterns of both contestation and settlement, one strong line matched by another, both ferns and sandstone blocks supporting the play of light.

See what I mean? It’s art.

Convict prison 1839-69

Norfolk Island was bulging at the seams. In Tasmania Lieutenant-Governor Franklin was refusing to accept any more second-conviction convicts. ‘No place in New South Wales would be so well calculated [for an extension of prison facilities] as Cockatoo island, surrounded as it is by deep water, and yet under the very eye of authority,’ wrote Governor Gipps.

As can be customary, the execution didn’t always match the calculation.

‘Mr Inspector Lane … has paid much attention to the condition of the prisoners at night. He has often seen them at the iron gratings gasping for fresh air from without, and he “wonders how they live”. The brutalising effect on the prisoners is admitted by all, and it is described by some as terrible in depravity. Crimes of the deepest dye are committed.’ (Select Committee on Public Prisons, 1861)

There’s a silence about this image. It looks like deep breath, clear air. Your eye might be drawn by the yachts in the background or attempt (unsuccessfully) to locate the Drummoyne Pool. The implication is time past rather than any reflection on what happened here.

‘I saw Swan sitting in a recess … I thought it would be a grand opportunity for settling old scores with my tormentor. Walking quickly to where he was, I sprang at him, seized him by the two ears, and in death-like grasp, with the full strength of my powerful arms, dashed his head against the stone wall. The blood spouted in torrents from his mouth and nostrils.’ (William Derrincourt, Old Convict Days, published after long detours in 1899)

Rothko.

You can look into the blank entries to the oubliette chambers, isolation cells excavated recently after decades of disappearance, forgotten-ness in fact as well as name. These oubliettes were entered from above via a ladder which was subsequently hauled up, or you might be thrown in. No natural light. Just you and sandstone, its considerable natural attractions turning into an implacable torture.

‘From its roof I was placed in a cell, six feet by eight feet and nine feet high. As soon as the trapdoor closed I was besieged by an army of enormous rats’. In the morning not only had the rats eaten through his jacket, used as a pillow, where his food was stashed but they had also eaten the toes out of his boots.

The architecture seems to request acknowledgment of its symmetry. But it might also be a calmness onto which you can paste your own thoughts. Even though this evening the sky was celestial, the scabbling and weathering on the sandstone ensures that the symmetry is not clean, that it has character, that it prompts a response. They are gun racks (in the guardroom) and firing slits in the far wall although it is unclear where they might be aimed. But you don’t need to know. You can just appreciate the visual form.

Reform School 1871-88

In 1871 the island became an industrial school for orphaned girls and a reformatory for girls convicted of crimes. The Vernon, an aged ship, was anchored off the north-east corner as a training ship for as many as 500 orphaned boys.

‘ … Three girls came abreast of the ship, in a semi nude state, throwing stones at the windows of the workshops — blaspheming dreadfully and conducting themselves more like fiends than human beings. I was compelled to send all the boys onto the lower deck to prevent them viewing such a contaminatory exhibition.’ (The Superintendent of the Vernon to the Principal Under Secretary, 1871)

Shipyards 1913-1992

The island had been a shipyard for decades before 1913. Excavations, by convicts, often in leg irons, sometimes up to their waist in water, of the graceful slopes of Fitzroy Dock were begun in 1847 and completed in 1857.

How does this sort of thing work? (A graving dock, like a grave, right?) You drive the boat in (sail originally), shut the gate, pump the water out and then do whatever you need. Furiously maritime. In more recent years it was claimed that Cockatoo Island workers could dock a boat, clean and paint it and send it on its way in eight hours.

During the years between the reform school and the focus on shipbuilding and maintenance, the island returned to being a prison for petty criminals. However, in 1913 the Commonwealth acquired it to become the dockyards for the Royal Australian Navy. Busy during the First World War, it became frantic during the second.

  1. Titan Floating Crane (20 storeys high, able to lift 150 tonnes); 2. USS LST 471; 3. HMAS Australia; 4. River Hunter; 5. TSS Nairana; 6. HMAS Hobart; 7. HMAS Bataan; 8. HMAS Arunta; 9. USS Glimer; 10. HMAS Barcoo

You will also note how the island has become almost completely covered in building. Perhaps half, by area, of these buildings have now been removed leaving big aprons,

one of which (below) has become a home for fixed tents. The friends who took us there played a significant role in setting this arrangement up.

But plenty of evidence of ship-building remains. In the photos above and below are four steel plate benders so heavy and unwieldy it was decided to leave them where they were, one of the island’s many sculptural wonders.

Close at hand is the slipway, a symphony in concrete and rust industrialised by the regularity of measurement markings, made art by sea air and abandonment — an installation, a major work.

Below, a wall of the design wing, one of the monster storage rooms for patterns (pattern makers: leading edge 50s technology, even in retrospect so impressive).

Acknowledging Mondrian, but better. There’s more work and life in the colour gradients of the panels than anything he painted. So much work has gone into creating an effect of harmony. The rusty grilles balance the white form in the lower quadrant; the vent at the top and the little black door play off each other. Even the rust on the corrugated iron works. Wonderful.

More than anything else it was this that set me off thinking about the island as a gigantic art site.

But once I began I couldn’t stop. Ships … mass, scale, weight, power, size.

And just look at these. Form follows function: folders, benders, stampers, presses, guillotines. From another world. What superb pieces.

Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, eat your hearts out.

The machine room is the oldest workroom on the island. Built by convicts, again out of sandstone, it is left with some machines just sitting — creatures in steel, wildly complex but stationery, full of potential but not about to burst into life. Not without a figure present, a turner in overalls and boots with an oilcan and a big rag hanging out of his/her back pocket. Not without Kevin.

Static — but visually there is so much going on. The flavour of the way the paint is flaking off the sandstone, the soft light from the arched windows, the colours in the timber supporting the gantry, the offset of the variegated bricks in the middle of the background, the effect of the translucent but green-tinged fibre glass cladding. Suddenly those steel beams spring to life, and you become conscious that the joists above them are original: old, knotted and weathered but, as appropriate for a workshop and because of their herringbone strutting, now rarely practiced, still true and square.

A figure (thank you MM) adds a graceful sway to the squareness of the composition and the power of the gantry.

The wall to the right contains several works of abstract expressionism.

And finally a little bit of social realism: the entry to Dog-Leg Tunnel. Banksy (Very) Light.

‘The closure of the island as an operational dockyard was one of those events in the life of a city of region that signals the end of an era. For many it was a jolt to realise that an industrial site had run its course. The fraternity of Cockatoo Island workers and their families, generations of tradesmen, naval architects and administrators, felt the loss most acutely. They understood the depth of experience, knowledge and hard work that had been invested in the dockyard, the decades of achievement that had contributed to Australia’s economy and naval preparedness. They understood too, how easily this great legacy might slip from view.’

This comes from a history of Cockatoo Island from which I’ve borrowed heavily. The legacy is still there, if not in full view, readily accessible — made far more so by the efforts of the Sydney Harbour Trust and its hospitable and helpful employees. The island hosts concerts, art exhibitions, school excursions, film making, parties, openings and closings. It seems to me it’s going just fine.

If there is a niggle of concern it would be about the fortunes of the hundreds of tradesmen and, by the time of closure, tradeswomen, and apprentices and their knowledge and skills. This country sometimes seems just so willing to sell off capacity to make things. Maybe they’ve been absorbed into the shipyards of the present and future. I hope so.

We left the island having had an exceptionally good time, and because it’s an island we left by boat just as we had arrived. One of the key points I guess is that it is a maritime experience, foreign to but delightful for landlubbers like me. You take the ferry from Cockatoo Island to Circular Quay. Camera pointed, I continued with the idea of encounters with art.

A repeat pattern — regularity — suggestive of endless shoe boxes, set off by life boats with a ‘safe’ Hi-Viz roof along with decorative ribboned ‘handles’ of rope for floundering souls to grasp. Secure hatches and guaranteed flotation regardless of the size of the seas. It mightn’t be exciting, but it is orderly and secure. The Titanic, but so very safe.

It turns out that this ship is Ovation of the Seas, the ship from which on December 9th last year a party disembarked to visit Whakaari also known as White Island, just off the coast of New Zealand.

Cornelia Parker at the MCA

Cornelia Parker is a major figure in the British art world. It was a coup for Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to mount the first major retrospective of her work. And a challenge.

Her most famous work is this one — a shed (full of shed-like material) blown up by members of the British Army caught mid-explosion.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 (with all the bits and pieces suspended from a grid on the ceiling).

Not everyone’s cup of tea. Among the bits and pieces here are the remnants of a violin. One observer at least has recoiled in horror at this discovery. You never know just how people will react do you, just what will catch their eye.

* * * * * *

I had never heard of Ms Parker and as usual didn’t have my brain quite in gear as I entered the exhibition. I saw this.

That looks interesting I thought. Bits of dirt suspended from the ceiling. Very carefully I should add. I rather liked it. It had a rather superior sort of stillness about it and the shadows provided another dimension.

I read the label. The name of the work is ‘Subconscious of a Monument’. The bits of dirt, ‘desiccated clay’, have been dug out from under the Tower of Pisa — dug out not for the purposes of art but engineering — which as a result leans less than it used to. One question, perhaps the first: Uh huh … so errr … why did she do that? The second: what should we think?

Immediately next to it is this video.

A Palestinian resident in Jerusalem speaks about his family’s work of making crowns from thorn bush cuttings. In peak months he sells several thousand. His hands and those of his son are pitted with the endless cuts and piercings that come from the work. They seem to be sitting on seats out of a wrecked plane. His son is completely impassive.

Self-described, the man himself is simply a businessman making a living. He sees no irony or complexity in what he is doing. But we can. It’s hardly possible to avoid. He’s a Palestinian/ it’s Jerusalem/ they are selling crowns of thorns to Christians/ it’s a business/ and so on and so on … There are a series of big stories attached to these ideas. And is THAT art?

I was getting more interested. There was the suggestion of a particular sort of British mind at work. British? Not British. English. The sort of Englishperson who loves games and unravelling webs of knowledge. Stephen Fry.

Round the corner is her ‘Magna Carta’, a 13m long embroidery for an Oxford College and the British Library to celebrate the 800th anniversary of its signing. In fact, a 13m long embroidery of the Wikipedia entry for ‘Magna Carta’ on 15 June 2014, the 799th anniversary, exact right down to the references (about a quarter of its total length) and the illustrations.

The particular section at left, about 200x150mm, took 400 hours, and a great deal of skill, to embroider.

It’s an interesting reminder that Pope Innocent III was involved in the advent of the very English Magna Carta. England was mixed up in Europe a long time before the EU came along.

So far so dramatic. Good, but just as people were doing, you could walk past it pretty easily without paying much attention. The idea of the Magna Carta mightn’t mean much on a Sydney summer afternoon.

But the more assiduous viewer then reads that, to rub in its theme of legality, most of the piece was hand-stitched by 33 convicts. All sorts of celebrities contributed bits and pieces. Germaine Greer did two sentences. Jarvis Cocker stitched ‘common people’ the name of one of his songs. Julian Assange did one ‘freedom’, Edward Snowden did one ‘liberty’. Several senior justices of the British High Court contributed (‘justice’, ‘denial’ and ‘delay’). One sentence was stitched during his visit to Guantanamo Bay by a human rights lawyer. The work includes a tea stain from a prisoner’s cup and a spot of blood from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (‘contemporary political relevance’) who accidentally pricked his finger while sewing.

Like the Pisa clay piece, an understorey (and an under story) has been built. Literality, but with a twist. Awaiting discovery. And embroidery.

* * * * * * *

From time to time Ms Parker likes smashing things up to reconstruct. (See, for example, the shed above.) ‘Re-Presenting’ she calls it, in the sense of looking at things in another way. She has described such things as ‘cartoon deaths’, the sort of thing that might happen to Tom or Jerry, while pointing that, even if this has been smoothed out and disguised in the finishing stages, sculptural practice usually entails a certain amount of violence.

For ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ she drove a steamroller over items of silver — cutlery, food service, trays, musical instruments, vases … she’s ‘drawn to things with a past’ — to create what she now describes as thirty ‘pools’ which have ‘become almost natural objects’. They were there at the MCA suspended in patterns, ‘pools’ I guess, properly. Thirty of them.

In a 1992 piece, ‘Words that Define Gravity,’ Parker wrote a dictionary definition of ‘gravity’ out longhand, and then magnified and replicated each of the words in cast lead and threw them off top of the chalk cliffs of southern England. To complete the work, she collected the lead words, mangled by the fall and left with chalk impressions, and suspended them on threads just above gallery floor level. ‘The words were made illegible by real gravity’.

She returns to ideas to enlarge them. In 1997 Parker exhibited Mass (Colder Darker Matter), suspending the charred remains of a church that had been struck by lightning in Texas while she had had a residency there. Eight years later, Parker made a companion piece, Anti-Mass, using charcoal from a Kentucky church which had been destroyed by arson. She discovered when she went to look at what had happened that in the US the cause of burning churches is rarely lightning, especially when they have largely black congregations. She also discovered a group of white Americans who make it their job to help those churches get rebuilt. Strings of narrative attach to these pieces.

Her work is also often fun. She has made a collection of ‘faces of Jesus’ occurring in unlikely places, on a piece of tortellini and in oil stains found on the floor of car parks for example, or this one in the end of a Kit Kat. Something of a triumph. (And, it must be said, this is observation of the keenest order.)

* * * * * * *

So what do we have here then?

We know that she is absorbed by found objects. But she likes the back of things, the underside, what’s left when you take things away (like the War Room, at left, what’s left when you stamp out millions of poppies for Remembrance Day), what things are like before they’re constructed (the beginnings of a pistol in Sydney). She likes oppositions (embroideries with antonyms, one set of words on one side, the other on the reverse, both showing through); she likes comparisons and measurements (wire drawn from the silver in a melted teaspoon to the length of the height of Niagara Falls for example). She likes the attachment of stories and consequences (the Magna Carta).

She offers an invitation to join in these rather strange perceptual journeys. Things can be seen this way, she says. Fun isn’t it. And interesting. And challenging. And sometimes beautiful, or if not beautiful, at least deeply satisfying.

She describes herself as a grasshopper, but I don’t think any other creature, bird insect animal, has a mind quite like hers.

She is an original, an oddity that I can’t help thinking of as English, with the directness and confident self-exposure of an upbringing in the shires and, paradoxically, with feet squarely planted on the ground (while her eyes are darting round). It might be an unusual form of common sense on view.

The works can be easily read; you’re not tested by establishing the meaning but by the profusion of meanings. You can have a look at her (good, strong, immensely active) mind at work but you’ll have to bring your own game. In that regard they can sometimes seem a bit like a general knowledge quiz, (speaking as someone who believes emphatically in the general knowledge quiz). It might be that set of demands that make it art, the clincher anyway.

There is also a firm and attractive morality at work. It might seem political, but it’s not. Something far more fundamental is in play. I liked that.

White Rabbit

The White Rabbit must be one of the most interesting galleries in Australia.

It’s private. It’s free. It used to be a Rolls Royce showroom. It has a tea house attached which has recently extended itself to serving scones besides boa (dumplings). And it only exhibits contemporary Chinese art — in most instances owned by the proprietors of the gallery, Kerr and Judith Neilson, now divorced but still hopelessly rich (think billions).

I only mention this because the strong implication of many of the pieces we saw was that this might not be such a good idea.

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Entry point. A bronze, covered in car duco, four metres high: Red Memory — Asking God. Tagline: ‘The pig symbolises the speed of growth of China today with its raw gluttony, greed and avarice.’ (Chen Wenling still lives in Fujian and he can still/ is allowed still make sculptures like that.)

Superfluity — having too much, abandoning traditional values, becoming immersed in materialism and commerce and the rapacity that engenderswas a recurring theme in this massive retrospective of the owner’s favourite works.

Like this.

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And this.

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But it wasn’t all consumed with consumption. Some of it was simply strange.

These are two separate works, but the combination adds a certain frisson. The balloon inhaled till it was fully inflated and then exhaled before inhaling again. A near life-size taxi nearby did something similar.

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In a lot of the work there was an undercurrent of … what? Threat? Something to knock you off balance certainly.

Even in pieces as apparently anodyne as this.

The conventions of the portraiture are venerable, hundreds of years old: pale, calm, settled, face slightly tilted, expression only to be found in the half open mouth and the way her hands are clasped — perhaps a certain wistfulness. But her uniform indicates that she is a member of the Red Guard which, during the Cultural Revolution, was responsible for all manner of unspeakable violence. That might or might not be the point. 

Life is considered a tangle where at least some of the threads will be unknown quantities. This is only a small portion of the work. And yes, they’re people — in the work as a whole perhaps several thousand. Wherever one can see an expression it is the surprised fear of calamity.

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Perhaps this wonderful calamity …

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A coloured bronze casting. Interest wherever you choose to look. Every face, every posture, contains a story, even that of the bloke we can’t see over the back having a pee. This is awash in circumstance: full of aspects, full of responses, full of well understood and imagined humanity. There it is — don’t shy away — that’s what life is.

Or this sculpture, a three-dimensional rendering of a school photograph. The artist is the woman far right third row. Is it the fact that it is drained of colour that makes it unsettling? White is the Chinese colour of death.

You look at it once and think, oh yeah. Wow. Very smart. Mmm actually so clever. Beautiful work. So smart. In fact how the hell did she do that? Then you look at it again … and you’re unsettled. And you look again to try to work out why. You peer closer. But they are looking at you with their blind eyes just as hard as you’re looking at them. They’re silent. But they’ve started whispering to you. And what is it they’re whispering? They’re saying you think you know what this is, but actually you’ve got no idea. Better go look at something else before you start freaking out.

* * * * *

My companions found these works generally ‘hard’ and ‘bloodless’, with little sign of the artist and their feelings. I don’t know that I disagree with that. But I felt far more positively about them.

One thing shrieking from each work is the quality of the craft. On the top floor there was a pile of stones about 3m. wide adjusting itself with occasional heaving motions. Not a great work, but you couldn’t argue with the capability and thoroughness of the construction. And the taxi crash is a bronze! From memory it is about a metre and a half wide, and yet all that detail has been captured in a casting.

They were remarkably inventive — although perhaps it might seem like that because they are generated from another culture — and there was very little cheap about any of them.

This might have been the most obvious of them all.

‘W’ Bush and Wen Jiabao, ‘vulgar officials who pretend to be refined and cultured’, surrounded by icons of China’s rural past (the flowers) and grand cars suggesting the industrial cashed-up present. But even these are stunning embroideries and there’s something rather remarkable about the cast and pattern of highlights in the faces.

But I look at the whole and think that these are works that have been done by grown-ups.

They seem to be built on vast mounds of digested experience of humanity, not simple, not clear, but digested with heedless Chinese juices. This is not the art of comfort or fellow feeling or admiration. There is a toughness about it all that separates it from easy looking. This is art where the nerve endings have been tempered, possibly quite harshly. (One formidable example, an installation with ‘slave workers’ hanging upside down as slabs of meat waiting to be butchered.)

Finally, there is the weird fact that these exist at all, that they can exist, and in such a sophisticated form.

The first time we went to China 32 years ago, we went looking for art in Beijing and found it, on the customary overwhelming scale — a national competition with 1000s of contributors from all over the country. There were lots of nods to scroll art: waterfalls, exotic rock formations, teeny-tiny old people with a wooden staff and a conical hat and loads of this or that, mist, cloud, a dragon. But really most of the pieces would not have looked out of place at the Camberwell Rotary Art Show. Horses, pretty girls, land and sea scapes, boats at anchor, wizened relatives or just random old people. (Not babies. Why don’t people do babies?)

Then six years ago we found 798, the new arts precinct in a middle ring suburb of Beijing — and the revolution had occurred.

This is party members holding up a huge bundle of yuan, renmimbi, ‘the people’s money’. That’s what makes a party! And there was this utterly memorable tank made out of leather …

It’s the fearlessness of the work that’s so surprising. The sedition in 798 — and at White Rabbit — was more trenchant and more obvious than the crowd behaviour in Xinjiang. But somehow, who knows how, they get away with it.

Maybe that’s what we are looking at. That’s the grown-up edge, the constant awareness that art really can be a very serious and adult business indeed.

Christchurch: Recoveries

IMG_0148.jpgScott of the Antarctic. I have a fixed memory of seeing him years ago in Latimer Square over the road from where we were staying rather than next to the river nudging the CBD as he now does, and apparently always has. I remember how his gloves looked weird as though suffering from some sort of gigantism, and that there was an odd stump affair holding up his back leg. I do. Clear as crystal. Memory (shakes head), traducer …

Now I also discover that the statue, sculpted by Scott’s wife, Kathleen, was never finished. The ‘stump’ is helping to hold the whole shebang up. The gloves were to be reworked. (Good idea. They add a hint of jocular insincerity to what is clearly intended to be a serious work.) It was commissioned in 1913, started (in Italy, the war) in 1916 and the ribbon was cut in 1917 in the understanding (hers) that further work would occur. It never did. (1917?! During the war to end all wars. Just how far away from Europe is New Zealand, and for that matter just how big a deal was Scott’s expedition?)

I also remembered, correctly, that the inscription includes a late extract from Scott’s diary.

I do not regret this journey, which shows
that Englishmen can endure hardships,
help one another, and meet death with
as great fortitude as ever in the past.

May I suggest reference to Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure for further insight into this specifically English form of masochism, that of building an identity out of the romance of defeat. Amundsen got to the Pole (and back, losing no one) 33 days earlier because he was better equipped, better organised, more experienced and less full of, what can I say, lordly self-engrossed bullshit.

Christchurch’s relevance is that Scott left from Lyttleton, nearly but not quite a suburb, and Kathleen was travelling there to meet him when she learnt of his death.

He fell off his plinth breaking both legs on the 22 Feb 2011, along with a lot of the rest of the city, in what could only be called a catastrophe. But now, … he’s back! Gloves and all. We were there, quite incidentally, for the re-installation ceremony.

The statue looks north to what was in 1917 the key civic buildings. And now eight years later? Everything back? Sorted?IMG_0158.jpgNo. Still work to be done. Fortitude still required.

* * * * * *

A catastrophe.

The earthquake destroyed or rendered unusable 90 percent of the 600 or so CBD buildings. 12,000 other properties registered damage exceeding $100,000. More tellingly, 185 people died.

If you want an idea of scale, today’s papers are full of horror about the possible dollar cost of the Australian 2019/20 bushfires. Could be as much as $1.2 or even $2 billion. Horrific. But not long ago the NZ Reserve Bank estimated the total construction cost of the rebuild in Christchurch to be about $40 billion, $16 billion for each of residential and commercial construction and around $7 billion for infrastructure. And that is the construction cost. There are so many other costs involved. (I don’t want to spoil my point about the magnitude — and concentration — of what happened in Christchurch, but in Australia, for example, the unimaginable damage of what is happening this very day to the natural environment and its constituents can never be quantified.)

A lot has happened in eight years. We were there in 2015 and I thought then that it looked at least partly like a gigantic building site. The motifs were chain link fences, blasted heath car parks loosely covered with grey road metal, public art and shipping containers.2015-07-22 14.37.18.jpgThat was then;IMG_0177 (1).jpgthis is now. It’s not over yet by any means.

On the more recent visit our favourite coffee shop, the C-One, was still there, still standing, but like a monumental outrider rather than a molar in a set of teeth.IMG_0174.jpgWhat was it serving? And this is important.

Top left below are Lamingtons w/- white chocolate, coconut and [I quote] ‘a hypodermic berry syringe’. But just below the Banoffie Pies and the Custard Squares and to the right of the Caramel Walnut Brownies and the Marshmallow Caramel Slice are the Hemp Raw Balls (bottom right): w/- walnuts, almonds, linseeds [sic], sunflower seeds, dates, apricots and prunes [the entirety, just in case it’s not clear] dipped in vegan chocolate, pumpkin seeds, cranberries and Kako Samoa (refined sugar free, dairy free, vegan, gluten free, contains nuts). By some lights extreme sure, but up to the minute, the very instant in fact. NZ scones might have gone off, and tragically we think this is possible, but there is no obvious impediment to the boundaries of innovative edibles.IMG_0168.jpg

Four years ago this plaque was embedded in the seats along the footpath outside.img_1908.jpgIs that what has happened? I don’t know. But the view from that seat in 2015 was this.img_1829.jpgAnd now it’s this.IMG_0170.jpgBack, and going: and I am pleased to say including corgius intactus. They survived.

Miro restaurant (a much more interesting chocolatey red than appears here), which had for several years housed squatters, is another example of fastidious restoration20190205-NAT_3770+midlands+building.jpgwith very stylish interiors.original_sin_-interior_seating.jpg

There are some interesting new buildings but not as many as I thought there might be. Bouncing on huge isolators, this is an extension to the main hospital. The ‘X’ feature on the right is a structural member.IMG_0160.jpg

I thought this was wonderful.IMG_0175 (1).jpgŌtautahi: the place/home of (Te Potiki) Tautahi, the Maori name for the place where some of Christchurch is now, specifically near the fire station next to the river some distance from this building. But why this is so striking is that we are looking at a flat surface (with two obvious indents where the balconies are). It used to be a flat cream brick wall, and now it isn’t. L’oeil is certainly tromped. Just wonderful. And part of the new groovy area which was never far from here. Maybe that’s the Amundsen approach to recovery.

As might be obvious this was one of several beautiful days (i.e. before it got to -4C in Dunedin), IMG_0163.jpgand Hagley Park, undamaged by the quake, was as glorious as ever. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to talk about a recovery from something that never happened, but this massive park in the middle of the city must be some sort of ‘recovery’ salve for the body politic.

Recovery is a complex notion. It might be assumed that it means return to a prior state. If so, there is no recovery and never will be from a natural disaster. Things will not be the same. The flavour of life, the form and colours of the background, social and economic as well as topographical, will have changed forever. I didn’t talk to enough people to get any idea about what they thought had happened but, even eight years after, the local paper ‘The Press’ still has plenty of column space for earthquake-related issues.

IMG_0715 (1).jpgSo over its centuries of life what has this magnificent tree seen?

The answer of course is nothing. Not a cracker. Trees can’t see. When SmoCo, the Australian Prime Minister talks about ‘the terrible threat that nature provides to this country’ he seems to be suggesting that, if not vision, ‘nature’ has agency and for that reason needs confinement, punishment even, a damned good thrashing! This is the sentiment getting a strong run in Australia’s Murdoch media — we must burn everything down to avoid everything being burnt down.

The real reminder should be that the only part of ‘nature’ that is capable of generating a threat is humankind. Only we can construct that as an idea. ‘Nature’ — if that’s what we call the climate, the vegetation, the landscape and its animal, bird and insect populations, the seas and rivers, the environment of which we are a part — may contain threats, but it doesn’t make them. 

‘Threats’ come from the idea that humanity’s task is to subdue nature and ‘have dominion over it’. If subdue means damage we’re going well. ‘Achieving dominion over nature’, a very strange idea in itself, will never occur; and only people who haven’t experienced droughts, earthquakes, fire, wind or marine storms would assume otherwise. This is the irony of the anthropocene age: we can make a first class mess of things, but we can’t control them.

This is where Scott (of the Antarctic rather than the Shire) and his ilk come in handy. They have words for confronting the implacability of ‘nature’: resolution, fortitude, backbone, fibre, pluck, dauntlessness. And those words are helpful to some degree. Who could complain about someone displaying fortitude?

But in terms of recovery efforts, if I had to choose I’d be turning myself inside out to make sure Amundsen was in charge.