Tuesday, November 29, 2016


One of my favourite popular accounts of New Zealand’s history is Ian Grant’s The Unauthorized Version, which endeavours to tell it through cartoons. There are far worse ways of running through a country’s social and political fissures than through the works of its satirists. For the foreign person (hallo), these books provide a series of alternative, orthogonal entry points into official history, and a useful corrective to more well-ordered and narratively satisfying accounts.

Regrettably, the history covered by The Unauthorized Version ends just shy of the Springboks Tour, and I’m not aware of more recent compendiums. Of all the collections of individual cartoonists I’ve come across, the best is probably Tom Scott’s Life and Times, although it too ends in the Seventies. In his heyday, when he was serving double duties as a cartoonist and as a political columnist for the Listener, Scott was sensational, and I’ve been known to hunt his uncollected output through archived copies of the magazine.

It would be ungenerous to call Sharon Murdoch an epigone, but she is as indispensable a guide to the current decade as Scott was of the ones he traversed at the height of his career. These aren’t yet times for a new Heartfield, but we are warming up to it, and Murdoch has proven to be the best we have at capturing them in all of their malevolence – and in full colour.

In one of my favourite Murdoch cartoons, a besuited John Key is superimposed over the famous 19th century engraving depicting British soldiers storming Rangiriri Pa. The prime minister has taken a bullet in the chest and is falling backwards, like the figure at the centre of the original image. The caption reads ‘The Time Traveller’.

You don’t need to be reminded of Key’s claim that New Zealand was ‘settled peacefully’ to make sense of the cartoon. Nor do you need to be aware of the most recent association of sexual abuse with our national sport to make sense of ‘Pack Men’.

As is the case with the best satire, Murdoch’s work is both of its moment and more broadly historical; it meticulously explores its specific subjects in order to illuminate larger features of our society. Who the politicians are doesn’t matter very much, either. It is the exercise of power that makes monsters out of banal individuals, as exemplified by the terrifying rictus of Murdoch’s Anne Tolley. But you could look at the cartoon about the closure of Relationships Aotearoa in thirty years, and still recognise that expression, as well as the logic that produces such actions.

Which is not to imply that Murdoch’s cartoons are universal, that is to say ultimately indifferent to the particular features of our epoch. Rather, that they reveal an essence behind those features. They lay things bare. Speaking of which:

‘Ever Upward’ is about the current government’s dealings with SkyCity, owners of Auckland’s phallic casino, but the relationship between masculinity, power and narcissism gets a fair amount of play in Murdoch’s art. Her men are greedy, conniving, effortlessly brutal. Yet at times what she seems to begrudge them the most is a lack of honesty and courage, as in this recent classic (not in the book).

Murdoch is both forthright and fierce – which are necessary qualities – but I’m just as impressed by the compassion that shows through her work. Hers was the final word in this year's debate on some of the nation's default retirement funds investing in armaments.

And her art has spoken just as loudly and often on other events beyond our borders.

I could hardly overstate how valuable I think it is that she is able to formulate such statements in some of our mainstream newspapers, usually the preserve of the pettiest kind of provincialism. For this reason, too, we need Sharon Murdoch.

The commentary supplied by art historian Melinda Johnston underscores the claims as to the present and future relevance of Murdoch’s work, making them explicit. But I’m quite convinced the collection would work (almost) as well without context, as a mute gallery of the early crimes of this century still in its teens.

Sharon Murdoch and Melinda Johnston. Murdoch. Nelson, Potton & Burton, 2016.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Vale Umberto Eco

It's been that kind of year. Here's the obituary of Umberto Eco I wrote for Overland back in February.

Other than penning some columns for L’Espresso, as he had been doing on a weekly or fortnightly basis for over thirty years, and releasing one more novel, Year Zero, his final public act was to found a new publishing house. He and his collaborators called it the ‘ship of Theseus’, after the vessel that produced the ancient paradox by the same name – could an object still be considered the same object if you replaced all of its parts with identical ones? – and set its course to collide with ‘Mondazzoli’, the corporate behemoth created by the merger of the two largest Italian publishers, Mondadori and Rizzoli. It was an improbable, crazy idea. The small, patched-up ship would likely be crushed. But clearly he felt he had that last fight left in him. I suspect he also enjoyed the underlying joke.

Umberto Eco was a funny man who was at his funniest when the topic was dry or serious. Early in his career, he kept the comic and the serious quite separate. He proposed to call his first book The Forms of Indeterminacy in Contemporary Poetics, which his publisher countered with the much more agile and less pompous The Open Work. Yet at the same time as he composed that frowning tome he wrote a series of comic essays for Il Verri, including at least one – ‘The phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno’, a satirical portrait of the quiz master that dominated Italian television at the time – that went viral before the word existed.

Very soon Eco learned to cross those two streams, and began not only to inject comic examples into his serious work – as he did for instance throughout his A Theory of Semiotics – but also to draw comic works and ‘lower’ art forms within the field of serious, legitimate criticism. He wasn’t alone in doing this, of course, but the role he played both at home and abroad was an important one. The English title of his collection Apocalypse Postponed – and more so the original one, Apocalittici e integrati – dramatises the struggle between two kinds of intellectuals: those who see mass culture as a dilution and corruption of culture proper, and those who take the opposite view, and seek to question and expand their practice accordingly. If it seems an outdated debate to be having, consider that he was saying these things in 1964, fresh from gaining a degree in medieval philosophy in a country whose education system was and largely continues to be built on elitism and exclusion.

I still consider it his main contribution to our culture: that of demystifying and modernising the role of the intellectual; of making it more accessible, more contemporary, more relevant. He wasn’t a radical like, say, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Michel Foucault, and never viewed himself as part of a struggle, be it political or existential. He never operated outside of the establishment, either, embracing rather a role of international academic superstar that saw him bouncing for two decades between Italy and the United States. Yet he also helped create lasting institutions, like the modern field of semiotics and the university faculty known as DAMS, in Bologna, where one could survey new phenomena such as mass communications and culture through very old means, reaching as far back as the scholastic philosophy of his beloved Thomas Aquinas, and from there further back to Aristotle. At the time when I went to university, in 1990, this was still an almost singular exception in an academia that clung for dear life to its pre-war methods, structures and concerns.

Then, at the age of forty-eight, Eco became a novelist. Later he revealed that he had come to hate The Name of the Rose, which he regarded as his worst work of fiction but, with all due respect, it’s a silly assessment. That first novel, his best, reflects his approach to intellectual work in that it’s a superficially difficult book, delving at length into obscure theological and philosophical questions, that manages nonetheless to be highly enjoyable and readable. Its themes are the same themes that preoccupied him at the time, chiefly the problem of interpretation. I think we are beyond spoiling the plot, but in the simplest of terms, in The Name of the Rose an occasional murderer becomes a serial one in order to fulfil the plot that the detective has come up with in order to explain the original killings: therefore his subsequent murders are effectively inspired by the fervid imagination of the detective. Like his semiotic work Lector in fabula, which he had just finished writing, The Name of the Rose is about the role of the reader in making sense of a text, only in a literal and essentially comic fashion. As Eco explains in the postscript to the second edition, he had been fascinated by an attempt by the French writers of Oulipo to produce a matrix of all possible murder stories, whose conclusion was that they had all been written save perhaps for one in which the murderer was the reader. That was the paradox, or joke, at the root of it all.

Another way of summarising the plot of The Name of the Rose would be that a deranged monk becomes a killer in order to prevent the recovery of the lost last book of Aristotle’s Poetics, the one on comedy. Therefore the novel is another dramatisation of the struggle between apocalyptic and integrated intellectuals, between deadly seriousness and life-giving irony. Foucault’s Pendulum picks up on the same themes, but with a little more of an edge. The fanatic conspiracists at its centre bear a striking resemblance to contemporary flat earthers and 9/11 truthers, and as a result the book still reads very well: Eco’s concern with textual interpretation, if anything, has become more relevant and more political now that everyone writes as well as reading.

I suggested last year in an Overland article that we are all Umberto Eco now, by which I meant that the internet gives everyone an opportunity to be a published – therefore public – intellectual, such as was afforded to Eco for a mainstream national audience only at the height of his career. The inverse of this observation is that Umberto Eco was Umberto Eco first. That is to say, he exhibited the kind of encyclopaedic intellectual interest that is almost a default, standard setting of the current reader/writer, covering the most disparate of topics like a one-man Twitter or Facebook timeline.

This may be why, in spite of neither being a great admirer of his fiction nor a follower of his semiotic theories, over the years I have found myself drawn to Eco time and again. I think it was his voraciousness, that medieval appetite for universal knowledge that is nonetheless truly modern, his prodigious curiosity, and the obvious enjoyment he derived from intellectual work and was able to transmit to the reader. Of some of his work, in the fold of that vast output, I am truly fond. Like his heroic translation into Italian of Raymond Queneau’s devilish Exercices de style (a one-page narrative about a chance encounter on the bus is re-told in ninety-nine different styles); his introduction to the work of one of my favourite writers, Achille Campanile; his recent, inexhaustible book on the passion for lists in Western thought; and above all so many of his columns, too many to count.

There will be many obituaries, and I’d like to conclude this one with a nod to the one he wrote for the great illustrator, designer and author Bruno Manari, with whom he had long worked at Bompiani on technical and other non-fiction work. In this brief piece for a magazine after Munari’s death, in 1998, Eco recalled his friend’s great talent for sketching complex book layouts with a few strokes of the pencil, equal only to his ability to argue and immediately show that any alternative suggestions would simply not work on the page. It was a little lesson on the craft of publishing that obviously stayed with him: he remembered it four decades later, and it has stayed with me for two decades more. Deep thinking about book design is a form of deep thinking about culture, which is also ultimately the sum of all of our crafts. Eco was above all this: a devoted and joyous practitioner of the art of being interested in things.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Vale Marti Friedlander

Marti Friedlander, who died yesterday, was a great photographer of life. Her best subjects were people: artists, intellectuals and politicians, as you would expect of someone so prominent in her profession, but especially ordinary people. It was principally through her work, and Ans Westra’s, that I was able to experience as an immigrant what the country looked like during the time I spent growing up somewhere else.

Both Friedlander and Westra immigrated from continental Europe, which may partly explain why I have found their work so accessible and sympathetic. Theirs isn’t a New Zealand of majestic landscapes or remote places without people (unlike, say, Robin Morrison’s ). Nor is it the New Zealand of quietly dignified, laconic men, or muscular sporting heroes. It is rather the country – for which Aotearoa may be a better appellation – of working people and their families: plain, seldom stylish, hardly wealthy, but always projecting with thoughtful confidence a sense of its own place in a global human society. A country that skews female, Māori and young. A country one might like to live in.

I first came across Friedlander through her work for The New Zealand Listener, before having the opportunity – Google tells me it was in 2002 – of seeing here in Wellington the superb retrospective curated by the Auckland Art Gallery. ‘One day,’ she told Diana Wichtel in 2012, ‘we will all just be a photograph’. And if that is true, some day in the far future, when everything else is gone, Marti Friedlander herself may be found in the famous Self-portrait at the age of 54

or in the Self-portrait with portraits of Michael and Nina (1964) chosen for the cover of Leonard Bell’s monograph.

The book is a catalogue of life in Aotearoa which is particularly at home in the workplace, on the street, in artists’ homes and in the midst of demonstrations. Browsing through it just now, I am struck again by warmth that Friedlander was always able to draw out of her subjects, and that links all of her work, right from the very beginning and including the celebrated Moko Suite she shot for historian Michael King in the late sixties and early seventies .

Herepo Rongo, 1970 (from the Kui Mau Moko page at Te Papa)

Ralph Hotere, 1978

I wonder for how many of the book’s subjects, if any, you could say that they are now just photographs. Maybe none of them yet. The entanglements that each of our lives creates in the lives of others take some time to unravel, and of my own ancestors I’d be reluctant to say that they have been reduced to a simulacrum. But of the country as a whole in Marti Friedlander’s time, at the height of her work – the obscured, almost forgotten decades leading up to the cleavage of 1984 – we may say perhaps that the sharpest image that remains, the closer one to the truth, is the one that was carefully created by her, snapshot by snapshot.

It is not for me to write any kind of obituary to Marti Friedlander. As well as the Diana Wichtel profile referenced above, I am happy to direct you instead to the interview she gave, in extremis, to Adam Dudding, fresh from receiving her Honorary Doctorate in Literature from Auckland University last month. It’s a fitting and witty taking of leave. For my part, I can say that I am grateful for the opportunity to view the immediate past of my adoptive country through her subtle, humane, exquisite eye.

Monday, November 7, 2016

My fucking food bag: the universal, infinitely scalable miracle recipe for gluten-free pizza (feat. carpaccio)

I’m here to tell you that I have found the perfect recipe for gluten-free pizza and focaccia. But first, by way of starter, this.

Vittore Carpaccio’s Sermon of St Stephen (1514) is alleged to be the inspiration behind the naming of the raw meat dish created by chef Giuseppe Cipriani in 1950, at the time of an influential exhibition in Venice of the painter’s works. The Sermon, said Cipriani, reminded him of the colours of the dish, which is one of the simplest in our cuisine. Hence, the carpaccio.

Firstly, you slice a cow very thinly. You need to make arrangements with your butcher about this. They’ll need to put a 400 gram sirloin steak in the freezer for a couple of hours, so it’s firm enough to cut into slices of around one millimetre or so. I got mine cut even thinner, but in hindsight it was probably overkill. This is what 150 grams of the stuff looks like.

You squeeze a couple of lemons, mix them with 75 mls of extra virgin olive oil. Pour generously over the meat. Add salt and pepper. Garnish with rocket (if you have it – I didn’t) and slivers of Parmigiano (we've been over how you're not allowed to accept substitutes).

You can serve immediately or keep in the fridge for up to a day, in which case the slices will darken in colour and look more like cooked meat. Which I suppose is handy if you have squeamish guests.

In spite of the appearance of the word ‘sirloin’ in the recipe, the dish is very cheap as you can feed four people with roughly $12 worth of meat at today’s market prices.

Now, why is this preparation safe, some of you may ask. Beef steak is a safe cut, as it doesn’t come into contact with gut bacteria. By contrast, no part of the chicken is safe to eat raw. By all means, ask your butcher to confirm this though.

Now ,for the gluten-free pizza base I must thank David Clegg, who proffered the recipe when I asked around on Twitter after a series of failed attempts. David in turn sourced it from the Coeliac Disease Facebook group. We have a dear friend with the disease and wanted her to fully partake in the shared ritual of home-made pizza feasting. But even if you’re just intolerant – I’m not here to judge – or love gluten but would like the try the quickest and easiest pizza recipe known to humankind, I suggest you give this a try. It’s almost bafflingly good.

There are two ingredients:

1. Gluten free flour, or rather baking mix. I use Healtheries, which costs $8/kg.

2. Plain yogurt.

The recipe itself is a miracle of simplicity and is infinitely scalable. You use as much yogurt as you do flour. That’s it. In the following example, I’ve used one cup of each.

First, you put the baking mix in a bowl. Add a teaspoon of salt per cup. Mix. Then add the yogurt. Mix with your hands. No kneading is required. It will take you two minutes if you stop halfway to consider the state of human affairs. Otherwise, less than that.

The resulting dough will look something like this.

Leave the dough to rise in a cool, dark place for – haha, fooled you, it doesn’t need to rise either. It’s ready to go as is. Turn on the oven at 200°C. Spread the dough into a disk over a tray lined with baking paper using your palm and fingers, and some more baking mix if it’s too sticky (but it shouldn’t be, unless the yogurt was unusually runny).

Apply your topping of choice, using available ingredients and your imagination, or as discussed here and here. This is a standard margherita.

The look doesn’t convey how soft it is inside. It tastes rather like pizza al taglio as opposed to the thinner kind I’ve tried to reproduce before. Without topping, it makes for an ugly but delicious focaccia. I suspect it could be turned into gluten-free crackers, too, although there are probably better ways of achieving that particular life goal.

I haven’t calculated costs exactly but as customary in this series it’s a very cheap meal, especially compared to the cost of those ready-made bases that look (and taste) like spongy frisbees.

As always, enjoy.

I have a new article up at Overland – on the subject of whether it is time we nationalised Facebook – to coincide with the magazine’s subscription drive. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016