[Photo Roberto Di Lernia]
We here in New Zealand have a growing responsibility to acknowledge and reflect not only our own potential to exist as a functioning cultural unit but additionally we have a kind of global eye of Mordor fixed upon us as the bruised globe fixates upon us seeking hope in times of progressive cross spectrum degradation.
Who needs it?
Well we do, we can congregate without danger and the onus is on us to fill a gap that imported culture, which as been eradicated has left us and more importantly find ways to express ourselves in artful and uplifting ways. Because life will continue to be hard and it helps when people gather and celebrate themselves.
We are lucky culturally to have a sibling that’s always been slightly more evolved, bigger, more casually cosmopolitan to learn from.
Australia is our friend.
We are stoic, small, used to understated passive aggressive stealth sarcasm as our only weapon of mass destruction. We are creative and imaginative yet also quietly yet dangerously self critical.
We have the Beehive, Australia has the Sydney Opera House. We had Flying Nun, they have 'Triple J’, we had advance NZ, they had indigenous genocide. But I jest…
Australia been our big brother forever but it might be time to recognise that neither of us are teenagers any more.
Australias dedication to the showcasing of the Arts and specifically the efforts made to integrate art throughout its far flung communities is something we might have a squiz at and learn from. We might do well to look at the cohesive models they employ and focus on generating similar projects using the latent talent we have with our own creatives as well as nurturing creative talent for the future not least because in a world of collapsing social, economic, environmental and political systems a sense of fun and finely tuned whimsy may help us maintain our collective sanities and endure cascading collective disappointments that might otherwise collapse us as they are quite self evidently collapsing other countries less fortunate.
I’m a clown prone to flights of fancy and not in fact an omnipotent social engineer so instead I’ll stick to recollections and let the more qualified prospect for applicable resonance.
There's a small town in Western Australia called Kellerberrin, it has a population of 868 last anybody checked, its chosen byline is ‘Kellerberrin…Where life is as rich as the landscape.’
It’s 205 kilometres (127 mi) east of Perth [Itself one of the most isolated cities in the world] on the Great Eastern Highway.
Kellerberrin is about as much in the middle of nowhere as it’s possible to be. Yet due to the efforts in general of a progressive and muscular Arts council it and many other far communities have vibrant expressive little pockets within them.
Over two decades ago I took a small part in the opening of an arts exhibition in Kellerberrin and it really opened my eyes to how enthusiastically rural farm folk can digest and discover and play with art and whimsy. It laid bare my hoity-toity pretentions.
The opening, in this small rural agricultural outpost was of work by Umberto Cavenago, an Italian conceptual artist who had been imported for six months as an artist in residence.
He was a small man who wore silk suits and didn’t speak much English.
The opening itself was the culmination of the mysterious efforts he’d been putting in the preceding months. As with any small close knit community the local grapevine was a robust and pre-internet information highway unto itself and he had given them much to chatter about. He was harmless and seemingly incongruous but this is a culture where yahoos, larrikins and misfits are generally accepted and sometimes celebrated and apparently this guy was a high level eccentric and part of Australias charm is that at quite a deep level there’s really nothing wrong with that.
One story concerning him was that on a long straight road slicing through the wheatbelt he was sightseeing, driving his rental on the wrong side of the road because in Italy that was his reality, they drove on that side, when in the far distance a local farmer approached driving the other way. As the vehicles approached over an extended distance they slowed, each sticking to their guns, until they almost touched at which point they stopped and the silk suited Italian conceptual artist and the wheat farmer on his way home got out and in basic English tried to work out what was happening. Eventually they worked it out, laughed and order was restored and the beginnings of an eccentric legend was added to the local folklore.
Umberto Cavenago spent a great deal of time walking throughout the town with large bags of grass seed, sewing them on the well packed dirt of the pavements. He would nod cheerfully at passers by and pretend he knew no English at all so he didn’t have to explain himself. This improved the quality of the local scuttlebutt considerably.
Later he went through a list of local people and set up a video camera face onto them and asked them questions I confess I can no longer remember, recorded the answers and disappeared back into the local Gallery which he’d been provided.
Still later the grass that he’d sown took root on the pavements and he went round taking painstaking record of that in its entirety.
It all culminated in an art exhibition in which myself and a small group of creatives travelled from Perth to embroider on the evening of the opening.
I’m writing this in Oct 2020 from recollections of the actual event back in 98/99 so apologise I can’t remember specifically the colourful crew. I do remember Marcus Canning had a large inflatable costume and the hot gusty winds that were blasting across the plains on which Kellerberrin resides were so strong that if he had been swept off his feet it would have been miles before they touched earth again. He survived.
Inside the gallery which was two main rooms were the answers to all the strange behaviours. Umberto Cavenago had sown the seeds to have them grow and then his photography was him recording the tracks locals had made through them as they walked the footpaths of their small town. He had then used that data to painstakingly render a scaled down model of the matrix of footpaths in the town in dirt with grass and replicated the paths worn down outside in replicate in his model.
Heady stuff, but not hard to understand.
The other room contained banks of video monitors facing each other from across the room each with looped footage of local answering questions to camera.
The locals were cheerfully milling about inside and taking it all in. It was after all a very interesting interpretation of their community on a couple of different levels. There were the tracks they made through the town and there in the other room were recordings of their local kinsfolk answering questions.
The local agricultural and produce association chairman got up to deliver a speech. He welcomed everybody and thanked Umberto Cavenago for his work and then went on to explain art to weather beaten isolated folk in a really inclusive and homespun and to me quite glorious way.
He said art was an excuse for people to get together and celebrate their communities. He said you didn’t have to understand it and perhaps part of it’s value was not understanding it gave people something to discuss and that itself was interesting. He said it gave people shared experiences and in a community of hardworking folk that perhaps didn’t get out much shared experiences were gifts. He said that this particular art was reflective of this specific community and that he and the people he represented were grateful to Umberto Cavenago for the unique perspective he’d brought to them From all the way on the other side of the world.
There was applause and then with a certain newfound collective pride after so good a speech the local people milled around the exhibition making conversation til the event concluded.
This tiny town and it’s adoption and celebration of an obscure Italian conceptual artist really brought home to me how art and the stubborn promotion of it throughout communities can invigorate and generally enhance the wellbeing of everybody within them.
I hope we can learn from our Australian brothers and sisters in these trying times and foster relationships between the creative and pragmatic within our own communities large and small to benefit us all.
Obviously I’m biased as a clown but I think whimsy's more important than most people give it credit for.