Essays

A selection of my longer essays.

Building it up just to tear it down [Newsroom essay] An essay of mine on NZ’s utopian affordable housing projects of the 1950s, like the Gordon Wilson Flats in Wellington and the Star Flats in Auckland. Why are we now demolishing these buildings? And will what we build to replace them actually be any better?

Antipodeanism: The Architecture of Lightness in Australia and New Zealand Japanese-Scandinavian design affinities have been well explored, but the triumvirate of Japanese-Nordic-Antipodean design hasn’t yet, to my knowledge. How to define Antipodeanism in architecture?

An Elegant Shed in Marlborough: The Axe House by Stuart Gardyne [HOME Magazine] When a house is to be inhabited lightly, as this one is, filled with very few but very beautiful possessions, the architecture has to do extra work—it can’t hide behind paintings or bookshelves or rugs, and must provide texture and personality.

Culture and Wellbeing: Towards a Humanistic Public Policy? It feels as though many of us are grasping towards a humanistic public policy. Here I want to say that culture is itself a language of humanity—something we sorely need when concerned with living standards and human wellbeing.

What’s really at stake in book-culling decision An essay of mine originally published on Newsroom, dealing with the National Library of New Zealand’s decision to abandon its international book collections.

John Drawbridge: Joyous and International in Spirit Drawbridge’s art stands as one of the best reminders of why the art market is often the worst guide of all to finding the most important and powerful art. For those with eyes of their own, able to look at art without a dealer in their ear or an auction catalogue before them, he has so much to give.

Don Driver: An Ounce of Ambiguity Don Driver occupies a corner of New Zealand’s art history that we haven’t yet come to terms with. Looking at his works it can be easy to forget that he was contemporaneous with McCahon, Angus and Woollaston.

Colin McCahon: An Essay on the Centenary of His Birth The task in writing about McCahon is to be transparent about whether one is speaking of McCahon or “McCahon”—McCahon the painter or “McCahon” the nationalistic idea. I write here on the former.

Gordon Walters Of all the New Zealand artists, Gordon Walters was the most adamant that he be known simply as an “artist”, free from the confines of geography. Yet his koru symbol has become to New Zealand’s visual culture what Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is to the United States’.

Furniture and Philosophy (HOME Magazine feature article) The British company making Dieter Rams’ classic furniture offers a lesson in design for the long-term. Can Kiwi companies follow Vitsœ’s lead?

In Search of Disappointment Island I go down the old-fashioned library rabbit-hole to discover the reasons why the Islands of Disappointment were so named. The real story is far more interesting than the Islands’ Wikipedia page makes out.

The Harsh Clarity of New Zealand Typography I don’t really believe in “New Zealand art”, or “New Zealand writing”. If it’s good it’s just “art” or “writing” or “a typeface”, and the New Zealandness problem solves itself; New Zealand typographers are doing, and seemingly always have been doing, first-rate work.

Printing and Typography in New Zealand: A Short Bibliography The reading list I wish I’d had when I first began learning about printing, publishing and type in NZ. From Yate, Colenso and Coupland Harding to Kris Sowersby.

“I’ve Lived for So Many Days Now”: Rinus Van de Velde at König Gallery, Berlin  A review of an exhibition in January 2019. It’s testament to how fully Van de Velde constructs these worlds—the coder’s lair, the ambiguous expressions, the literary text beneath the images—that we can be drawn ever more deeply into them.

Reading Charles Brasch in Oxford As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins…

Oceania at the Antipodes A survey of historical international exhibitions of Oceanic/Pacific art. The Royal Academy’s 2018 Oceania exhibition seems not so much a marking of 250 years since Cook “discovered” the Pacific, but of perhaps a decade since Britain and Europe opened their artistic sights on the rest of the world.

Ernst Plischke and the Corners A 1959 flat by Ernst Plischke above the garage of diplomats and art collectors Frank and Lyn Corner seems to expand well beyond its four small walls. (Feature article for Home Magazine New Zealand, published in print, September 2018 issue).

Crabbed Age and Youth Cannot Live Together: On Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations Bach’s Goldberg Variations reflect the nature of a human life, and Glenn Gould’s gift was to understand them in this way, leading us along as if we were reading a novel, or philosophy.

Journey to Oxford For all the talk of distance these days being less tyrannical, a New Zealander in Oxford is still a New Zealander a long way from home. A New Zealander in Oxford is still one who thought our borders too small; he or she still thought the long trip and the goodbyes to be worthwhile.

Bulletpoint Philosophy At a point when technology has changed our means of communication more in the past decade than in the few centuries before, now seems a good time to stop, to assess. Just what are we saying, and how are we saying it?; It is tempting to speak of big-brother-like powers and the forces of authority. But the deadening of the philosophical imagination is far more innocent than all that.

On Te Papa’s Toi Art / New Zealand’s Need for a National Art Gallery Most of us will see the masterworks of our culture just a few times in our lives, and having those works levelled to the same status as the giant squid does no viewer any favours, nor does it do New Zealand any favours in the eyes of foreign visitors.

The Eyes and Times of Frank and Lyn Corner To Frank and Lyn Corner New Zealand was a modern, vibrant, educated Pacific nation. Naturally, their art collection—much of which was bought while they were living overseas (including, notably, McCahon’s Landscape Theme and Variations, I and Angus’ Storm, Hawkes Bay)—should be informed by such a view.

Rita Angus The art of Rita Angus teaches New Zealanders how by close observation of what is unique about ourselves we might move closer to seeing what is universal.

The Gate of Wisdom: On Education and Democracy in New Zealand, or, Why We Need the Liberal Arts An exploration of the relationship between increasing vocationalism at the undergraduate level and the fragmenting of and disengagement from politics; a case for a system of liberal arts education in New Zealand; a hope that such a system would foster a strong democracy.

Summer With Picasso and Giacometti Reconciliation with death is what art—and especially that of Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti—finally offers us. Two European exhibitions of these artists’ work could not be more timely.

The Commodification of Learning Economic value is being attached to learning; this is giving the wrong incentives to students. Memorisation is winning over mind-broadening.

What The Permanent Five Can Learn From the Painting That Hangs Above Them Original research on Per Krohg’s painting. The irony is that the permanent members of the Security Council are watched over by a painting that is meant to remind them of their role in maintaining and advancing peace in the post-war world, and instead should remind them of the dangers of being stuck in the past.