On the day when I first visited, stepping out of that dark southerly wind into her home [Katherine Mansfield’s], the house where she was born, there immediately was the Victorian presence of old New Zealand to greet me. How close it pressed in.Kirsty Gunn, in Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project.
An essay commissioned by HOME Magazine New Zealand, published in print Feb/March 2020 issue.
“A paddock with grapevines on it” is Stuart Gardyne’s description of the site in Marlborough’s Omaka Valley in which this refined yet unpretentious house is found. There are views of the mountains, and neat, regular rows of vines. A few olive trees dot the site, as if to emphasise the many subtle shades of green and grey. For an architect the choices would have been almost limitless: the house could be placed anywhere on the site, and without any close neighbours there are no immediate other buildings or forms to respond to. Modernist glasshouse, or a sprawling estate? Both have been done before on New Zealand’s vineyards. Many now sit uncomfortably and feel out of place. What works on the coast doesn’t work on the farm.
When asked about the freedom that a site like this affords, Gardyne, who was approached by the owners of the land seven years ago, recounts a comment he once heard attributed Mark Mack, a postmodern American architect: “Sometimes you can have too much freedom.” And in many ways the house that now stands is a subtle, careful musing on that idea, for architect and client alike. What should you really do, when you can do anything? And what’s most important, when the choices are limitless?
Gardyne is perhaps the only architect to have a letterbox featured in architectural publications in this country. Known for his meticulous attention to detail and a love for materiality and tactility, he speaks with fondness for David Chipperfield’s work—specifically of the way that for all its marbles and patinated bronzes, his work still manages to get out of the way, pushing to centre stage the objects in a museum or the lives within a house. And in this house in Marlborough, that’s exactly what has been achieved, and without making any kind of fuss.
“If you’re striving for simplicity,” Gardyne says, “then the architecture has to have a level of perfection in the way it’s composed and in the spatial qualities of the rooms.” This is a simple house in its basic form, looking to the barns and sheds of the rural New Zealand vernacular, and to the long, repeated rows of vines of its immediate environment. At 41 metres long, the house is an elongated, extruded shed broken only by cut-outs that form decks. From this perspective it mimics the length of the vines. Yet the house is also just five metres wide, so that from the other angle it sits small and modestly, reminiscent of the idealised house forms of Stephen Bambury’s small sculptures and prints, or the cubist barns of Rita Angus’ paintings.
Located at the end of a driveway, you first drive past the vines and down the length of the house before arriving. Enter the front door and turn right, and you’re in a self-contained bedsit intended for use by one of the owners’ parents. Turn left and you are in the main space of the house, a large living-dining-kitchen area with a deck off one side. The main bedroom is located at the very end of the house, and to get there you walk through other rooms: a study, a multi-purpose room (or spare bedroom), past the bathroom and wardrobe. This arrangement of spaces, with a central corridor connecting the entire house, is economical despite the house being located on an expansive site. It implies a more thoughtful, time-honoured way of inhabiting space, rather than our modern, disconnected rooms in large multi-storey homes.
Gardyne explains that one of the critical design decisions was what pitch the gable should have. Too steep, and it could be evocative of a cathedral rather than a vernacular shed, looking foreign among vines and paddocks. Yet too low and it could look squat or stout, as though pushed a bit too firmly from the top into the ground. The 35 degrees finally settled on feels right in an inexplicable way, to the extent that there’s almost nothing to comment on. It’s “super normal”, in Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison’s formulation: design that distils and refines everyday objects to produce a new version that is instantly familiar, correct and comforting.
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 that those furnishings usually offer. “I think it does place a larger demand on the architecture to actually be part of that aesthetic,” Gardyne explains, “because it’s not going to be shrouded or masked by the normal clothes of life, the things and objects of inhabitation that people bring.”
Looking at this house in our age of easy Instagram minimalism it becomes necessary to think a little harder about what complex and simple, more and less, really mean. For many, moving away from urban life and to the countryside is itself a response to those thoughts. Yet in its considered, refined interior, and with its beautiful realisation of the most basic shapes and forms, this house says that a simple life in the country doesn’t at all mean a life with less thought.
Raised half a metre above the grass and vines, the vistas out through the windows and from the decks are connected to the landscape, but from an architectural vantage point. There’s a play of connection and disconnection, closeness and distance, as you look out across the top of the vines to the hills beyond.
But the real pleasures of this house are probably a treat only the owners will ever know: the serenity of moving through passages and spaces in which every doorjamb has been laboured over; the ease of pushing on the large black D-handles on the doors rather than turning a handle to enter another space; following the day’s light around the grapevines on each of the decks. This house has none of the pretension of an urban dwelling, but it didn’t get rid of refinement along with it. It might be minimalist in aesthetic, yes, but it’s a house emphatically maximalist in thought.
“Is it the end of things, really, to come home?”
Two books caught my eye recently, both published by Bridget Williams Books (BWB) in 2014. Both are short; both are published by expatriate New Zealand writers; and both deal with a return to New Zealand. For those aware of my own recent return to New Zealand, the attraction these books immediately had will be entirely unsurprising.
Who was it who said that “Should I stay or should I go” is New Zealand’s unofficial national song? If our literature all stems in some way or another from Katherine Mansfield, then this isn’t too surprising: her youthful clamour to return to London from Wellington is an essential part of her Hero’s Journey, as is her late longing (and failure) to return to Wellington from Europe. From even before Mansfield, pakeha New Zealand’s dilemma has always been a kind of ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. And it’s this syndrome, though never directly named, that both these books end up dealing with most deeply.
Kirsty Gunn’s Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project picks up on Mansfield directly, drawing parallels between hers and the authors’ lives. A return to Wellington for the first time since childhood is the premise of the book, enacting a kind of hypothetical: what would have happened had Mansfield managed to return? Paula Morris’ On Coming Home, on the other hand, is a kind of anthology of writing about the return. From Mulgan and Mansfields’ lifelong longings to return, to Rilke and Rushdies’ exiles, New Zealanders’ arrivals and departures are made significant.
Gunn’s book wears its problems on its cover, with that double-colon title. Hypothetically a book about Thorndon, Wellington, returning to New Zealand and Katherine Mansfield, the book touches on all of these subjects but never quite gets to the heart of them in its 120 pages. Throughout, you can see the books begun and left unfinished, hurriedly stitched together with often-awkward segues (Gunn calls the book a “sketchbook,” implying the real work lies in the future). But despite this, there are lyrical and poignant moments throughout, as when Gunn meets an English broadcaster who has been in Wellington for many years:
“He looked out the window and said that the thing about Wellington was that you couldn’t really leave, the geography of the place forbade it. Oh I know there’s a road, he’d said, two roads to take you north, and the airport… But none of that really counts. The place itself is designed to keep you in.
Or when she muses on the unregarded significance of domestic life:
“Why should it be, I wonder, that other dramas are deemed more important? Why matters of church and state must eclipse the family, and over and over again fiction that takes as its subject the domestic should be sidelined and trivialised? For houses are like theatres. They give light and atmosphere. Every day the curtains at the window are opened and closed to drama and play and scene setting and the endless rich interplay of language and human affairs that’s the everyday, every day. Where we live is surely who we are.”
Passages like these, and others dotted throughout the book, add up to make a memorable chapter in Wellington’s literature and New Zealand’s literature of return.
I wish Morris’ book, on the other hand, had been longer—and it should have been titled The BWB Anthology of Returns to New Zealand. I wanted more throughout! Morris’ deep and cross-cultural reading on the psychology and literature of return adds up to a wonderfully rich, but all too short, compilation of quotations.
“‘It is dangerous to abandon one’s own country,’ James Joyce wrote to Italo Stevo, ‘but it is more dangerous still to return to it, for then your fellow countrymen, if they can, will drive a knife into your heart.'”
“In New Zealand, writes James McNeish, ‘there exists a curious state of tension with the rest of the world, in part because we do not like our sons and daughters to go away… We boast of our infantry going to fight abroad but not our artists and intellectuals whose fight for recognition, out of the great loneliness of being a New Zealander, may be rather more difficult.'”
And Morris’ own lines add up to some of those to be quoted in the Anthology of Returns to New Zealand, whenever that does eventually come out:
“Coming home was the thing; it made you a real New Zealander. You only went away to splash yourself with the heavy cologne of Old Culture before suffocating in it: that’s when you turned back to the bracing fresh air of home.”
Suffocate in that cologne of Old Culture I did: sometimes after a day of reading at the Bodleian my hands and pores would be coated with the thick orange grease of disintegrating leather, from mouldy book bindings. And now that I’m back, I’m still rather enjoying the bracing fresh air of home. Some tell me it will wear off soon, but I wonder if things have changed; as when I sit here at Devonport Library, surrounded by young people from England, Germany, Sweden and the US, tapping on their keyboards and reading books about NZ. The dilemma of “should I stay or should I go” is theirs to deal with now, not mine.
Anyway, does anyone still wear cologne? And maybe the bracing fresh air of the Hauraki Gulf or the Cook Strait is what the world needs these days.
When I think of New Plymouth I think of Peter Peryer, Len Lye and Don Driver. Of the three, Driver was the only one to make New Plymouth his lifelong home after moving there from Hawke’s Bay as a boy. Peryer lived there for many years later in life, but had a far more peripatetic early life. And though Len Lye never lived in New Plymouth, he chose this city, of all he could have chosen, to house his work after his death. What is it that drew these artists to New Plymouth? And what did New Plymouth give them?
When I think about Peter Peryer, Len Lye and Don Driver a slight smile forms at the corner of my mouth. I see Peryer’s Dead Steer, an image at once sombre and inexplicably funny; the beast is as dead as anything, but with its legs splayed in the air it becomes farcical. I hear the music from Len Lye’s Kaleidoscope, see the whirling, swirling patterns and imagine the comic gyrations and secretions of his Water Whirler on Wellington’s waterfront. And most of all, because he always managed to see the heart of the matter and put things together in just the right way, I see works like Driver’s Rollaway.
A small skull sits upon an upturned clay flowerpot, which sits upon a giant plastic sneaker with wheels at the back—all of which is seemingly held together by a length of blue rope. Absurd, morbid and hilarious at once: Rollaway is a memento mori for our postmodern souls. Put it on your mantelpiece, reflect on it daily. It’ll make reading the news a little easier, a little funnier. It’ll put things in perspective.
Movement and stasis, life and death, sincerity and irony—Rollaway, like so many of Driver’s works, is work is brought to life through the artist’s genius assemblage of these ideas. As he said in a 1997 interview, just three years before he made Rollaway: “I want to place in an exaggerated context things normally in an everyday range of vision.”
The skull, first of all: millennia-old artistic symbol of death, used by most great painters from Rembrandt to Picasso to continually remind viewers of the ephemerality of existence. But with postmodern eyes it is difficult for us to look back at an old master memento mori without a hint of irony, without Warhol’s car crashes and his Marilyns repeated over and over at the back of the mind. Driver saw Warhol too; he knew a skull could never again be used sincerely. And so enter the absurd: a giant shoe that could only have been worn by the likes of a clown, or Ronald McDonald (but what is the orifice-like hole on its top for?) Most skulls aren’t going anywhere, but this one appears to be skating off to the horizon, horns bent back for aerodynamics like a Tour de France time triallist. It gives the impression of motion, but without moving; a little like our modern lives, with all our tweeting and flying that gets us nowhere.
Or consider Chromatic II, a work from the same year as Rollaway, in which Driver takes a different approach to movement and stasis. Made from aluminium airplane wing struts, the work’s materials reference travel and great distances. But hung flat and still against a wall, these small parts of one of the great industrial inventions are rendered ineffective; they are reconstituted for an aesthetic function, never to move again. The work raises questions about the life of industrial inventions; the opposite, in many ways, to Jeff Koons’ Hoovers, prevented from fulfilling their functions. Add to this ideas of sonority and silence (the horizontal aluminium struts appear as keys on a keyboard—might the work’s title refer to the musical scale?—and yet hang mutely, silently, forever) and a small work becomes a site of complex ideas and dualities.
If death is Rollaway’s central idea, its message is to not take it too seriously. Don’t let life roll away from you, but don’t get too caught up in it either. Remember death, but rather than letting it weigh you down, have some fun with the prospect; laugh at it; read Milan Kundera rather than Nietzsche. It is this irreverent spirit that defines the New Plymouth artists. Peryer, Lye and Driver share an ability to deal with weighty ideas without ever losing the smile in the corner of the mouth.
Rollaway is quintessential Driver at the height of his powers. The work is a totem like the many that Driver owned and displayed in his own home. Yet Rollaway is a totem for our own times: humorous, cynical and wry, caught between sincerity and irony, speeding off somewhere but making questionable progress.
Driver seems sometimes to occupy a corner of New Zealand’s art history that we haven’t yet come to terms with. Looking at his works, whether it be Dimension No 1 or major installations like Ritual (held by Te Papa, and presaging assemblages like Rollaway) it can be easy to forget that he was contemporaneous with McCahon, Angus and Woollaston. So separate were Driver’s artistic concerns that he may as well have been living in a different country to that great trio. And ironically, far from making him provincial, it may be that New Plymouth shielded him from the dominant frame of art in New Zealand at the time, with its continuing references to regionalism and landscape, and its ongoing struggles with even tepid abstraction. When looking at Don Driver’s art, New Plymouth seems in many ways far closer to New York than to Auckland or Wellington.
Dimension No 1 is a major early work that emphasises the international world of ideas Driver was engaged with. If Rollaway is Driver towards the end of his career, most free in his associative powers of assemblage, Dimension No 1 is Driver in earlier years, finally finding a way to reconcile the young man’s disdain for tradition with the then-prevalent mode of international hard-edged abstraction. Driver’s is abstraction with a twinkle in the eye—Donald Judd if he could have taken himself a little less seriously.
And the comparison to Donald Judd is more apt than it might at first seem, at least for the first half of Driver’s career. A 1979 exhibition catalogue describes Dimension No 1 as a “Wall relief on a constructed wooden base with two diagonal corners and five horizontal ribs over which canvas is stretched taut so they show through…” In other words, it comes very close to one of Judd’s “specific objects.” These were artworks that blurred simple categories between painting and sculpture—tied up with what we now think of as Minimalism, specific objects didn’t fit artistic categories of the time. Nor did Driver’s works. In breaking through the picture plane with the horizontal struts that force parts of the canvas forward and off the wall, Judd both declared his own future directions (never to be held back by the limits of a canvas) and opened up new possibilities for art in New Zealand.
Dimension No 1 is one of Driver’s more subdued abstractions, granted—part of a series from the years around 1970—and yet in its arrangement of colours seems to maintain an ironic mode that separates it from both the abstraction of the likes of Milan Mrkusich, and the sincere Minimalism of New York at the time. Driver’s colours are almost-neon hues; comic tonal gradations (blue on purple on orange-red, in this case); and never once conceding to living room decorum that said a painting should at least try to not clash with the curtains. Subtly introducing humour to hard-edged abstraction is no easy task, but Driver managed it—and always with an ounce of ambiguity, so that gallery-goers are still not quite sure whether to smile or scratch the chin sincerely.
Much early writing on Don Driver tried to place him in the New Zealand box in which most people thought any artist working in New Zealand inevitably belonged. The logic, which now seems so naive, was that because he lived in New Zealand, his work somehow dealt with New Zealand. We find, for instance, attempts to link his art to his immediate environment, such as: Driver’s “acid yellows, hot pinks and sharp greens… derive from what he sees and finds around him in New Plymouth”; or that in his assemblages Driver sought to represent rural New Zealand through his use of materials like sackcloth and industrial waste. Try as I might, last time I visited New Plymouth I could not manage to make out any acid yellows or hot pinks.
On the contrary, far from seeking to represent his own city or country, Driver’s art is cosmopolitan. Not the Gordon Walters kind of cosmopolitan, slick and sleek and sexy and at home in any European capital. Instead the traveller cosmopolitan: the kind of person who travels and finds themselves wide-eyed, interested in everything. At his home Driver collected an eclectic range of objects, from fetish dolls to Buddhist statues and an enormous range of materials that many would categorise as junk. Out of all this Driver created his own vision, a view of the world far more expansive and daring than that of many of his New Zealand contemporaries. His was an “internationalist and universalist ethos mixed in with values from regionalist and non-Western art sources”, as writer John Hurrell has put it so well: “The resulting sensibility allows his work to oscillate between aesthetic delectation and black humour, serene contemplation and overt manipulation of primal fears.”
Driver’s gift to us is a kind of vision that is unique not just here, in McCahon land and Man Alone land, but which is in many cases unique anywhere. His relationship to New York was one of fruitful looking, but he does not seem to have been concerned with borrowing from or contributing to the New York art world. His 1965 trip to America (undertaken only because his funds did not stretch to Europe) no doubt influenced his work—yet it is not a part of the Hero’s Journey in the same way that McCahon’s 1958 America trip is now seen. Driver might just be difficult for us to place because of the uniqueness of his vision. He appears now to a new generation of New Zealanders as a genial man with an astoundingly generous sense of humour.
I’m reminded of the way Peter Peryer described his own artistic development. “I think there’s been an emotional maturing in my image-making,” he said in a 1994 documentary on his life and work. “In many ways I was moving from West to East in my attitudes. I think I mean that they have moved from the crucified Christ to the laughing Buddha. That is what I mean by a maturing.” And the same seems true of Don Driver. The hint of the inner laughing Buddha was always there in his work, even in his most sincere abstractions, but it took time for it to develop. In Rollaway the thoughtful good humour is clear, where the wheels at the back now appear to represent some kind of Buddhist cycle of life; and it’s clear too in Chromatic II, which seems to say we should live by music and colour.
Essay commissioned for Webb’s Works of Art catalogue, November 2019.