Matt Vance is known to Dave Dobbyn, Lloyd Jones, Graeme Sydney, Jane Ussher and many other artists, musicians and writers across New Zealand as a good bastard. In his former capacity at Antarctica New Zealand, he ran the Artists in Antarctica programme, personally guiding many creative types around the ice in the summer months.
His wide experience in southern oceans extends to the lonely Subantarctic Islands, such as Enderby. In this extract from his new book Oceans Notorious, he tells of the time artist Bill Hammond first discovered the birds that inspired his great series of paintings – and of the time Sir Paul Reeves tried his hand at target practice, with disastrous results…
Back in the city after a long summer in the south I wandered into my local art gallery. Strange creatures with human bodies and the heads of birds stared at me from the walls. They looked as though they were expecting an intruder.
Bill Hammond’s vision of birdland had been inspired by a visit he’d paid to the Auckland Islands in 1989. In the exhibition’s catalogue there was a photograph of Hammond on one of the islands, Enderby, startled by the camera’s flash. Like this blinding white light, his experience in the Aucklands seems to have been an epiphany, igniting an idea that would shape his work for the next 30 years.
Along with two photographers, Laurence Aberhart and Lloyd Godman, and painter Gerda Leenards, Hammond had been chosen for New Zealand’s first Art in the Subantarctic programme, which was intended to attract publicity to the country’s conservation efforts in forgotten outposts.
The idea of sending artists and photographers to the deep south was not exactly new. Members of the famous polar expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton had recognised the importance of having their work recorded. They had also understood the power of the image to help raise money for what were at best dubious commercial propositions.
By the time the artists’ programme came to fruition, the need to record had morphed into the need to communicate the experience of the south to those who would never go there. The place did to the artists what it had done to many of the early explorers: it attempted to bounce them back.
The toughest stuck at it, although it would usually take years after their return home for the islands to filter into their art. The rest remained transfixed and stuttering, their notebooks still blank as they shuffled on board the boat for the voyage home. Some confessed to having been overwhelmed and drunk a lot of the time.
On that first expedition the participants endured the sort of mandatory beating dished out by the Southern Ocean. The sea was so rough it took two attempts to get them ashore on Enderby, the northernmost of the Aucklands. After being deposited in naval fashion they were billeted in huts made of car packing cases. Their hosts were a small group of pest eradicators. There was drinking, revelry and even sometimes sketching. Hammond described Enderby as ‘a paradise free from predators. You feel like a time traveller, as if you have just stumbled upon it – primeval forests, ratas like Walt Disney would make. It’s a beautiful place but it’s also full of ghosts, shipwrecks, death.’
The island is the sort of place where you can lose whole days just walking and observing. You walk to keep warm, leaning into the wind until the island demands you stop and look. When you do, you discover surprising things, such as the faint whistle of a royal albatross’s wings as it flies within a few feet of your head, or the phenomenon of a waterfall flowing upwards, blown aloft by the wind. You see a collection of Dr Seuss-like megaherbs, and a profusion of birds and insects. You also experience the region’s awful weather.
By its very nature, Enderby is profoundly affecting. Most who go there depart with not only a great collection of photos but a feeling they cannot quite put their finger on. The artist then has to do something with this feeling – ingest it, dwell on it and create something out of it.
During their homeward journey on a New Zealand Navy frigate, the Southland, the artists had company in the form of Sir Paul Reeves, then the governor-general of New Zealand. With calmer seas the navy decided to stop the ship for some target practice. The crew deployed a buoy and spent a leisurely hour pounding it with small arms fire. Sir Paul was asked if he would like a shot. He promptly missed the buoy and bagged a black-browed albatross. There is no record of the horror that gripped the watching gallery of artists and sailors.
The image of an otherworldly birdland and its fragile inhabitants stayed with Bill Hammond. A couple of years later it manifested itself in a series of paintings inspired by the actions of Walter Lawry Buller. Born in 1838 to a missionary family in the north, Buller became a prominent ornithologist. In his time, collecting birds by shooting them was a common practice that helped bring about the extinction of many of New Zealand’s bird species. Although Buller suggested bird sanctuaries be established, lobbied for formal protection for endangered birds, and recorded their beauty in A History of the Birds of New Zealand, published in 1873, he was cast as a villain and became the scapegoat for the wider ills of habitat destruction and the introduction of exotic pests to colonial New Zealand.
His case was not improved by his penchant for the shotgun and its barrels smoking close to New Zealand’s beautiful huia. He famously gloried in shooting and killing a breeding pair of the gravely endangered bird.
Bill Hammond’s anthropomorphic birds initially referenced Buller’s victims but rapidly mutated into something different. God-like and uncomfortably watchful, the creatures took up human habits such as wearing sneakers, smoking and playing pool.
I sat on one of the plush benches in the gallery with my chin in my hands and for a moment drifted off and went south, as fishermen say. My fellow gallery-goers were transformed into Salvin’s albatrosses and fulmar prions, the brown-uniformed security guards into giant petrels, and the air conditioning hummed with the beating of wings.
Ocean Notorious: Journeys to the Lost and Lonely Places of the Deep South (Awa Press) by Matt Vance is available at Unity Books.