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.