Monday, February 15, 2010

Human Terrain

Milan could compete for the title of flattest city in the world if it wasn’t for Monte Stella, a hill park built after the War with the rubble from the Allies' bombings. There’s a wall from Dad’s house in there, and also one from renovations undertaken much later at the flat where I was born. With typical Lombard matter-of-factness the locals call it La Montagnetta, the little mountain.

And it really is a pragmatic approach to getting rid of detritus, as opposed to a memorial to the atrocity of war. The bombings destroyed or condemned as much as a third of the buildings in the city, but killed ‘only’ between twelve hundred and two thousand people. They are not commemorated as a discrete event, at least to my knowledge, or spoken about very much at all. My father, who was a little boy at the time, remembered them almost with fondness. Still, I grew up down the road from the little mountain and I knew from a very young age that it was made of houses where people used to live and roads where people used to walk, things that once had structure and meaning but had now reverted into amorphous geology. Except you couldn’t say that either, since the hill park itself had been designed by an architect and carefully built according to his specifications. So it’s there I think that I got my first implicit lessons into what a tricky business it is to tell the natural apart from the artificial, and to assign value to either. Formative books like Edward Hyams’ history of domestication (whose Italian title - 'And man created his plants and his animals' - is decidedly more suggestive than the original) and the significant time I spent in nonna's village, often cycling with great vigour in the opposite direction of various kinds of toxic sprays, helped me develop a healthy distrust for the then burgeoning marketspeak in praise of the old-fashioned way of going about things, the genuine ingredients and the picturesque surroundings.

It is just possible that Italy’s largest commercial bakery, Mulino Bianco, doesn’t operate exclusively out of this old timey 'white mill'.

I was exposed to enough stories about my parents’ generation to know that modernisation didn’t work like that. And then I read about the Vajont, and saw the images from Seveso and later, most shocking of all, from Chernobyl and Bhopal, and began to understand what we all know: that there is a war in which the battlegrounds are employment and energy production and the raw materials of Western affluence, and the victims are workers and civilians at every latitude, all of them collateral damage chalked up to the cost of doing business whilst protecting shareholder value. Human rubble.

In Italy we call them le morti bianche, ‘white deaths’, or we speak of the people who died in the workplace as i caduti, ‘the fallen’, like soldiers who perish in battle. This virtual memorial celebrates explicitly the sacrifice of these workers ‘in the name of the nation’s progress’. They died to the tune of over 1,200 a year in the past decade, while the yearly figure worldwide is closer to two million, including 12,000 children. But if it’s a war, then who’s the enemy?

It is us, or capital, which is the same thing. We could build more safely, consume and expand more sustainably, exploit each other less, but it would just not be cost-effective enough, so the sprawling city, the industrial park, the factory farm are literally the best we can afford. And then once things have exploded or crumbled or have been poisoned beyond the allowable legal limit, there is the reconstruction or the clean-up, which is also a business. In Italy, this business was effectively privatised just in time for the earthquake in L’Aquila under the auspices of our national civil defence coordinator, Guido Bertolaso. Mr Bertolaso learned last week, on his way back from having visited Haiti (for they don’t have enough trouble there), that he faces allegations of having awarded construction contracts in exchange for sexual favours from prostitutes. You’re not surprised, are you? But what if I told you that the evidence made public thus far includes recordings of a conversation between two businessmen in which one confesses to the other that he laughed in his bed when he woke up to the news of the earthquake?

That laughter track is part of it too, of our degraded human geography, it mixes with the blood and the rubble, it echoes in the state of the art facilities and the modern residential areas and the model farms that are anything but.

‘[On the 6th of] April at 3.32 am, I wasn’t laughing’. Image from yesterday’s demonstrations at L’Aquila

It all seems comfortably removed from New Zealand, doesn’t it? There’s little manufacturing here, people live in houses built to code and mostly out of timber, and business practices are relatively non-corrupt. Now of course there’s sustained talk of mega farms in Canterbury and of mining in the national parks and of blunting the Resource Management Act, but that’s not where I’m going with this, for the benign picture I just offered is false. And not just because it conceals the transformation of the world inhabited by Māori into a pseudo-native British pastoral, or the reality of the impoverished rural and urban communities (like in that marvellous pan shot at the beginning of Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors). It’s that human geography is transnational: we have liquidated our manufacturing base so that we can import the goods from elsewhere, outsourcing not just the production but also the industrial relations, the environmental impact, the horror of work in all its facets. We import oil and cars and money and most of the things inside our homes. We deserve therefore to be fully haunted by the ghosts of the post-apocalyptic present.

Meat Dust, 2006, by Brendon Wilkinson.

Or at least this is what I have chosen to read into this exceptional piece by Brendon Wilkinson included in his current exibition at Aratoi, the Wairarapa Museum of Art and History. When I first approached it for a good couple of minutes I went straight for the built environment and couldn’t see past the neat model of the industrial site. I completely missed it, but I expect you would have noticed the corpse right away.

It’s a life-size piece, built on top of a bed, and it is rather beautifully crafted, so much as that it is easy at first to become engrossed in the individual features and lose sight of the whole picture. When you do that, Meat Dust ceases instantly to be horrific and becomes mundane, almost a celebration of orderly enterprise and the integration of industry with nature. But then the presence of that body reasserts itself, until finally it’s all that you can see. Ghastly details, and the sense of a tortured relationship between life, nature and labour.

Art that makes this relationship visible - as Wilkinson does throughout the works exhibited at Aratoi - is both rare and valuable. So perhaps we should add this set of impressions to the elusive image of work. It is its spectral double, the price that we are made to pay. It is a necessary part of the story.

Brendon Wilkinson's exhibition, entitled Hexon Cusp. Decade, can be seen at Aratoi in Masterton until 23 March 2010 and has been reviewed by Fran Dibble for the Manawatu Standard. The images of Meat Dust are from the author's page at the Ivan Anthony Gallery website. More images of Wilkinson's works can be found here.


Philip said...

Well, I'm going to comment...

Some astounding images there. I found this one particularly affecting, but it set me thinking about the difference in effect between the picture and the actual piece (I assume it's a photo of an exhibit rather than a photo which is an exhibit). Since you say you missed the corpse in Meat Dust at first, I take it you didn't approach it from an angle that allowed you to see that foot sticking out, and in fact the rest of it looks a lot less obvious. As a consumer and aspiring producer of horror from an early age, when I first saw the head I wasn't entirely sure if it was meant to be a head or if I was just falling prey to my own macabre proclivities. Similarly, I wonder about the terrible isolation in that railway picture - is it enhanced by the framing of the photo, or would the victim look less lonely surrounded by a gallery with a few onlookers, however gigantic and detached they might be?

Word Verification: emenalid, an extinct primitive organism of the order Errata, genus Emendata.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Some astounding images there. I found this one particularly affecting, but it set me thinking about the difference in effect between the picture and the actual piece (I assume it's a photo of an exhibit rather than a photo which is an exhibit)

Yes, I was also struck by that picture (which reminded me of this Tranz Coastal ad) and I think it captures well the effect of seeing the piece, once you successfully zero in on the tiny figure. The problem of course with taking pictures is that you fix the scale, the focus and the viewing angle, whereas as you note approaching Meat Dust on site from the dangling foot end will change its impact quite radically. That's why I'd urge people in the Masterton area to vist the exhibition, it's really powerful stuff. And did I mention entry is by koha?

A lot of the pieces are in fact about the scale of technology, progress and work in relation to the human. It helps to be in a room with them to make sense of that aspect.

Megan Clayton said...

On the back road from Karamea
the bobby calves were gathered
muzzles at the wire
using cows for cover.

After a day of driving
Aeneas started to waver
lacking the stomach for Latium
tasting the air of Hades.

He'd gone down and down and down
saw his wife, father and lover
without a thought of the meat dust
on the road from Karamea.

Megan Clayton said...

In conversation at another place that shall not be named, Giovanni asked me why Aeneas pops up on the Karamea-Kohaihai Road. I explained it thusly:

When we went to Karamea on our honeymoon, Ned found the high volume of bobby calves everywhere quite hard going: they would have been a day or two shy of going to the works. For this poem, I started thinking about the idea of meat dust (as per the Wilkinson exhibition) and how it permeates more or less everything in this country, given our highly efficient and ubiquitous freezing works model.

When Aeneas goes to the underworld in whichever book of the Aeneid it is, he's entirely focused on his future mission, to the extent that he rationalises away the death of his wife and Dido his lover, and only listens to his father who of course endorses his imperial destiny. The way in which those bobby calves at Karamea were a literal by-product of the countryside that at the same time we thought so beautiful seemed to me similar to the kinds of human/animal collateral damage of "progressive" missions like Aeneas's.

Of course, the connection would never have been made in my mind if you hadn't already written so well about Marian Maguire's exhibition!

Giovanni Tiso said...

We can haz instant exegesis!