Unseen City (City Gallery Wellington 21 November 2015 - 13 March 2016)

Gary Baigent, John Carlaw, David Brady, Donald Gifford and Samantha Groves, Kiwi Tavern, 1969. Courtesy Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

Unseen City, showing at the City Gallery Wellington after its stint at Te Uru, Titirangi, is an exhibition about a time and a place: Auckland in the 1960s. There are plenty of hints in the works and their accompanying matter that the show might be read as an ‘time capsule’ exercise in nostalgia and cultural history. This would, however, confine its energies to a small container, obscuring the other side of a dichotomy that is present throughout it. Unseen City looks at a city and a decade of transition—but it gestures at two different kinds of transition occurring at the same time: a cultural one to do with youth, style and the ‘generation gap’; and an economic or infrastructural one to do with the impact of the motorway on the city. Whatever connections or contrasts we can find between these stories of change, both are larger than Auckland, and longer than a decade.

The show includes a series of photos by Gary Baigent for his 1967 book The Unseen City: 123 Photographs of Auckland; Film Exercise (1966), a student film made by Rodney Charters; and some sketches by Robert Ellis, as well as one of his Motorway paintings. At first glance, Baigent and Ellis represent the most obvious extremes of the culture-infrastructure parallax. Baigent’s photos were notorious for adding grit, blur and poverty to New Zealand’s full-colour pastoral self-image—poverty of photographic means, perhaps, to match the poverty on the streets of the city. They have all the sense of an ‘on the scene’ presence: the shake and tilt of the camera, the dim light and grain of indoor and night shots taken with fast film, the blur of moving subjects. Ellis, by contrast, is on a cursory glance all about the cartographic view: top down, the economist’s or planner’s eye as well as the bomber’s. And somewhere in between is Rodney Charters’s Film Exercise, which shows us nature, culture and the road from one to the other.

A closer look, of course, complicates things. Movement, for starters, is already there in Baigent’s stills, and it is there in Ellis’s sketches and paintings too. The sketches shown here give a more direct sense of motorway driving than the Motorway paintings themselves. They remind us of those moments in the paintings where the maps are infused with views and symbols—a simultaneity of ‘above’, ‘within’ and ‘about’. Movement is most clearly there in Ellis’s work, though, in the thing he shares with Pollock: the repeated running up against the frame of the painting that signals an outside, a continuity that could as easily have broken through. As curator Robert Leonard notes, appealing to Wystan Curnow’s notion of an oxymoronic ‘expressive realism’, his mapped roads are also impatient brushwork, lines and gestures that in both cases won’t ultimately be kept within boundaries.

In a sense, perhaps, the moving image work Film Exercise is at the heart of Unseen City. The film follows a young man and woman on a motorbike ride from a West Coast beach—the place of fashion shoot poses and pouts—into the city. It is a ride from isolated individuality to social being and from day to night. From the eroticised lingering shots of the beach scene, we arrive at a city characterised by rapid montage and night-as-night chiaroscuro, alternating between the abstract play of lights and a beat romanticism. In between, in the most interesting sequence of the film, the ride itself puts the bike’s movement to work as the animating principle of the moving image. Road markings snake past as pulsing abstractions, and the shots in general take on all the rattle and energy of the bike’s movement. There are frequent close-ups of the woman’s face, which is all delight. In the final scene, they stop at a party in a shared villa, where the man unceremoniously dumps his companion.

If we might have been tempted to read culture as the places, the pubs, the scenes of photography, and infrastructure as the ‘cartographic’ networks joining them—for which roads are a synecdoche—then Film Exercise is something of a counterargument. The place, the arrival, is a disappointment. The exuberance is all in the road itself, in the journey, and it is a journey with its own culture of movement, of speed and blur and impatient joy. It shows us how central the car, the motorbike and the road are to youth cultures—as if we didn’t already know. They are cultures driven by a freedom of movement and so of association, cultures that are part and parcel of the ‘economic’ infrastructure that links the city to its hinterland and, by extension, delivers people, goods, fashions, and television images from around the world.

We have already seen the sense of movement in the photos, sketches and painting in Unseen City, as if the film’s music, audible throughout the exhibition, is also their soundtrack. Ellis’s work was, as we see in the sketches, inspired by his driving the motorways of Auckland. Baigent’s photos, meanwhile, take us all over the city on a road network that is implicit but not performed—but the movement is there most importantly in what we have already noted about their form.

The motorway’s impact on art is given perhaps its most extreme expression in Tony Smith’s notorious Artforum interview of 1966. His experience of trespassing and driving on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike some fifteen years before—speed, scale and artificiality that had to be experienced, and could certainly not be framed—took on the mythic status of something for which no art was adequate. It nonetheless sat somewhere near the origin of minimalist art, whose forms also refused frames, refused the well-ordering of the work and addressed themselves directly to the embodied viewer.

We might read a smaller version of that impact here: not a rejection of the frame, but a testing and shaking of it, a gesture at its outside. The moving image offers its own kind of response, too. There is something suggestive in the fact that Film Exercise is, possibly, the first film to come out of Elam. It hints at origins, at the newness of moving image to the art world. Film Exercise does not take part in the great rejection found in minimalism and other contemporaneous movements. It has more to do with pop music and advertising, and in any case there wasn’t much modernism in New Zealand’s art context to reject. It does, however, offer up the movement of the moving image as of a piece with that larger speed and artificiality written directly onto the landscape.

- Tim Corballis