We have everything and nothing

We do, doodily do, doodily do, doodily do
What we must, muddily must, muddily must, muddily must
Muddily do, muddily must, muddily do, muddily must
Until we bust, bodily bust, bodily bust, bodily bust.
(Kurt Vonnegut, Fates Worse Than Death)

One thing made clear by much contemporary art is that the complexities of human reality, of mortal experience, of earthly truth, are forever beyond our reason’s RAM potential. And in the face of this uncomfortable position many find it sorely tempting, as Kurt Vonnegut said in his autobiographical expose of the 1980s, Fates Worse than Death, “to speak of life as a big dirty joke even though life is all there is or ever will be.” 1 

Indeed, and quite understandably, nihilism, or believing in nothing, is a dominant tendency in much contemporary practice. And revolution born of finding nothing to approve of in the constituted order of things is nothing new either: being bogged down in an everything-adds up-to-nothing mindset has plagued some of the greatest minds of modern times, leaving little time for anything else. For as the French existentialist writer Albert Camus said in The Rebel, “One cannot be—a part-time nihilist.” The imagination is often the first thing to go, and with it the make-believe.

Even earlier, Ivan Turgenev, in his then-censored 1861 novel, Fathers and Sons, clearly painted a picture of the danger presented by giving way wholesale to youthful nihilistic disaffection and progress in the arts in this one passage of dialogue:

‘Your father’s a good fellow,’ said Bazarov, ‘but he is outdated man, his day is over.’
‘On what basis can you act then?’ Pavel asks Bazarov as the latter was renouncing everything.
‘We act on the strength of what we recognise to be useful,’ answers Bazarov. ‘‘At present the most useful thing of all is renunciation we renounce!’
‘Just curse everything?’
‘Just curse.’
‘And that’s called nihilism?’
‘And that’s called nihilism,’ Bazarov replied.

Bill Hammond’s big pictures, on the other hand, clearly demonstrate that nihilism betrays a grave failing of the imagination. As Bill Hammond has said of his work, “It’s not autobiography, it’s something else.” 2 

Works such as Five days seem to give us ant colony-like pictures of modern man’s five day week. Here I see humanoids ploughing today’s dirt, the superficial, nothing elements of urbanites’ life on earth, over and over, forever returning to square one. But despite the slightly defeated helter-skelter air of his ‘80s works, Hammond has always maintained old school romantic fiction as his modus operandi, rather than rolling over to the pretty cold imperatives of contemporary art’s predominant realism. (These ideas are intimately related, given that nihilists all over the world defend themselves to therapists by saying “I’m not nihilistic, I’m realistic.”)

Viewed together, the big pictures in this exhibition show glimpses of some strange and pretty much inaccessible hinterland, in much the same way that a journeying Victorian orientalist’s sketches or primitive photographs would have seemed to his chambermaid. She would have had no way of getting there either. As Hammond’s oeuvre has unfolded, we seem to be getting further and further away from home, and from the here and now.

Where there were elements reminiscent of plains, alps and a flat city and its “terrible present” (to use McCahon language), someone has moved on, via the Auckland Islands and Japan (where waves curl back like sandwiches), and, stopping briefly in Waiting for Buller Bar’s departure lounge sometime in 1993, stayed a while in some sort of “island of the day before” populated by gangs of half-man, half-bird creatures. And at the time of writing, Hammond was working on a new work for this exhibition, which he described as a sort of “zoomorphic lounge”. Who knows where things will go from this mysterious new juncture.

I said “island of the day before” because whenever I look at these recent primeval-looking paintings (especially those that reference Walter Buller), I am mindful of a character in a contemporaneous historical novel by Umberto Eco titled thus. While adrift in some southern ocean after a shipwreck, our hero comes across an abandoned sailing ship, also adrift, that has down below a vast wonderful, yet hideous, taxonomic collection of birds. By his descriptions, these birds seem to come from our neck of the woods. I recall word of long-beaked, flightless birds with dowdy plumage; of fleshy branch-sitters with emerald chests; of large clumsy khaki parrots, some with pink armpits…

It is certainly an odd feeling to realise that not so very long ago, New Zealand was a place with no mammals at all. No wonder explorers were fascinated by our South Pacific never-never land, and left their jammy fingerprints all over it. Indeed Walter Buller’s specimen collecting drove several species to the brink, if not even over the edge, of extinction – he played no small part in “the passing of the Huia into myth, a symbol of the nobility of an old New Zealand living only in the mind”. 3  And his employment of Darwinian theory to his own selfish honour-gathering ends was just downright shameful:

In a newly colonised country, where the old flora and fauna are being invaded by a host of foreign immigrants, various natural agencies are brought into play to check the progress of the indigenous species, and to supplant them with more enduring forms. 4 

He even went down on paper with something to the effect that he was personally very fond of birds, but that if it came to a question of whether he would have birds or sheep, he would certainly vote in favour of sheep. “Noone is more in sympathy with protective legislation than myself… but here, as in everything else, we must be rational.”

Reading about Buller, I was mindful that traditionally the swastika is, among other things, a symbol for progress. (See the flag in Hammond’s first big picture, The Worry Index, 1984.) Indeed, the spectre of the Victorian modus operandi that goes something like “It is man’s task to interfere with the natural order of things so as to turn everything to his advantage”, pops up most visibly, perhaps, in Buller’s Tablecloth. 5  (Perhaps this ghostly sensation has something to do with the feeling generated in me by the rising spirit figures in Japan 3, 4, 5, which I am almost certain were grafted out of a Japanese print cycle – Hokusai’s Ghost Tales of circa 1830.)

However, just as these spirit figures get lost in the face of Japan 3, 4, 5’s monstrous wash and vast diagonals, the spectre of Buller is soon flooded by other things going on in these “bird-land” works; not the least of which is the found supports Hammond often employs. These defaced objects (blinds, wallpaper, bits of wood, metal etc.) sometimes seem to have as much life as the scenes they provide the grounds for. For example, the aforementioned “tablecloth” tarpaulin looks poised to be whipped out from beneath its taxidermy-time figures by some visiting magician, leaving them only slightly jiggled.

Hammond’s repeated use of wallpaper (in works both before and after leaving for “bird-land”) makes me mindful of two things: the human passion for customising things, and the nineteenth century Irish poet W. B. Yeats (a fellow archaic with a strong belief in the invisible world around him) who once said “The whole history of the world must be reduced to wallpaper in front of which the characters must pose… “ 6 

It is easy to imagine that Hammond’s present output might belong to such a Yeatsian tradition without even taking into account that Yeats, like Hammond, chose to live in a small, castle-like house away from the city and its dialogue. Surely the inexplicable, timeless worlds that Hammond now paints must be easier to see when one looks out upon, as Lyttelton does, from the dark side of the rim of a vast, ancient and apparently extinct volcano, upon the vast, ancient Banks Peninsula landscape.

But following the “It’s not autobiography, it is something else” statement, it is obviously too rigid an imposition upon the silent language of men to read his life story into these mysterious pictures which are no doubt made up of pictorial renditions of “things that were asking for it”. 7  Not intellectualisations, but fictions, his paintings seem to work in the same way that children have of telling jokes or writing stories that don’t strictly work – in that they don’t have actual punchlines or points – but are jewel-like in their elements. And also there, in Hammond’s work, is the child’s delight in the macabre and magic that was so avidly promoted by Roald Dahl.

Although Hammond is of mainly of Northern European stock, there is some Celtic blood coursing in his veins and in the veins of his work. According to Yeats in The Fairy Faith of Celtic Countries, the Celts’ unearthly visions often came to them in the darkness and the wastelands 8  – the setting for so many of Hammond’s big pictures. This tradition, like Hammond’s oeuvre, is known for strange opaque symbol system of recurring elements. Yeats said (and it seems hardly a stone’s throw from this Lyttelton artist’s own attitude), that “I have said several things to which only I have the key. The romance is for my readers.” 9 

But ultimately, and not terribly surprisingly (given the archaic perversity of Hammond’s work), it took a nun to describe his “zoomorphic” work to me most eloquently. And she wasn’t even talking about this New Zealander’s painting, but A Forest Fire by the Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), a work starring a bevy of human-headed four-legged jungle beasts. TV’s favourite art historian, Sister Wendy, with all the rabbit-like excitement and humility she could muster, visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and what she said there, to me, makes a pretty good stand-in for writing about Hammond’s recent output:

Piero was a very weird man. He lived as a recluse, living only on hard boiled eggs. He would cook forty at once so as to not waste any psychic energy on feeding himself or looking after himself. And he used his psychic energy to share with us his visions, his dreamings, his wondering of what life was like way back in the past. He is showing us a time so far back in the mists of human pre-histoty that the distinction between what was animal and what was human hadn’t really been worked out yet. Or that’s how Piero thought of it.

But I must confess that I have a problem with this picture. Not because of the picture – it’s one of the most magical pictures ever made. The problem is me. I really can’t find the words to tell you how magical it is. I can only say to look at it. Some pictures you can come in thumping and banging on a drum, it’s wonderful! It’s wonderful! It’s wonderful! But others you have to feather into talking to you. It’s so extraordinary, such an archaic vision of a world that was never there, but exists so poetically in the mind of one sole human man. And he’s trying to tell us something he cannot express himself. And I’m afraid I can’t do more than point to it.

  1. Kurt Vonnegut, Fates Worse than Death, Vintage, London, 1992, pp.194.
  2. Conversation with the artist, 1999.
  3. Ross Galbreath, Walter Buller: the Reluctant Conservationist, GP Books, Wellington, 1989, p.269.
  4. Ibid., p.106.
  5. Ibid., p.266.
  6. Frank Tuohy, Yeats, MacMillan, London, 1976, p.209.
  7. Conversation with the artist, 1999.
  8. Tuohy, ibid, p.48.
  9. Ibid., p.70.