Re-inventing New Zealand: Essays on the arts and the media by Roger Horrocks.
Waikato: Atuanui Press (2016).
Pb, 5 colour illus., 444pp.
ISBN-13: 9780992245382, ISBN-10: 0992245389.
Reviewed by Cassandra Fusco.
Collated into three sections: “Re-inventing New Zealand”, “Film and Television” and “Artists, Writers, Composers”, the essays in this study consider the extraordinary transformative changes New Zealand Aotearoa has undergone. Written over four decades but referencing eight, they are in fact a series of case studies, scrutinising our socio-political-cultural evolution, how we see ourselves, and how we represent ourselves as a nation. Especially ‘since Britain left us and joined Europe [in 1973]’. Author Roger Horrocks, a widely respected educator and the foundation Head of the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies at Auckland University1, believes that in this evolution, the arts have been, and continue to play, a central role – despite their relatively limited support.
Horrocks indicates that his primary frame of reference concerns ‘the semiotic aspect of our society, its shaping of word, image and sound’ – the sophisticated play with signs that we know as the arts and the developments these can signal. He scrutinises concepts such as ‘local’, ‘national’, and ‘global’ as well as change (benign and other) and examines how the principle, ‘Think globally, act locally’, can effectively be applied in art.2 There’s nothing High or mystifying about art and semiotics in Horrocks’s hands. Like the book cover, Re-inventing New Zealand, is a modern-take mosaic encouraging reappraisal of who we are.
If previously we were the off-spring ‘of practical pioneering folk’ and ‘a derivative, colonial world’, required to stand for the British national anthem, now our lives appear to be shaped by other energies and obsessions, including global corporations, economic extremism, the digital revolution and, increasingly, the arts.
Passionately interested in the making of meaning, and of communication, Horrocks tracks and considers pivotal cultural ventures and venturers: “Reading and Gender: Watching Change” (pp 107-124); “New Zealand Cinema: Patterns of Evolution” (pp 195-210); “Cultures, Policies, Films” (pp 211-226); “John Reynolds: Painting, Planting and Performance” (pp 291-305), and “My Word My World: Len Lye’s Poetry” (pp 381-392).3 Consider this range and how the author anchors each essay within the wider socio-political environment – with an energy and enthusiasm that is scholarly yet accessible.4 No punches are pulled. Cultural cringe (still alive and unwell), clichéd and intolerant attitudes (such as anti-intellectualism) are outed and challenged.
These essays are more than a clarion call lest we forget the ‘how and why’ of our journey. Unapologetically, they articulate and affirm the necessity to understand the formative energies around us, and to ‘celebrate our innovators [and] mavericks’ – in order that we may continue to develop our distinct, independent, multi-faceted cultural landscape.
Born and bred in Sandringham, Auckland, and nurtured on a diet of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and Tennyson, Horrocks (even as a child) thrived on discovering new ideas and the reappraisal such encounters can encourage and engender.
Re-inventing New Zealand (as the title indicates) is neither a complete history nor a mirror of who we are; fluid and challenging, it contains neither polemic nor solutions. It makes for fascinating reading. As the singer said, ‘Sometimes it’s not enough to know what things mean, sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean’ (Dylan).
1 Horrocks’s board membership or other official positions in art organisations include: Deputy Chair of the Broadcasting Commission (NZ On Air), Chair of film panels of QE II Arts Council, and Creative NZ, Alternative Cinema, the Auckland Film Society, the Auckland International Film Festival (one of the founders), Chair of the Board of Auckland University Press; Len Lye Foundation; Artspace; President of the Auckland Society of Contemporary Music and advisory board of Te Ara. Horrocks has many film credits to his name and was also one of the founders of Screen, Script to Screen, and NZ Electronic Poetry Centre.
2 Throughout the study, art is used in the general sense and covers painters, writers, film-makers and others working in the arts, and how their work potentially informs our lives.
3 Horrocks is an expert on the life and work of New Zealand born artist and filmmaker Len Lye. He was Lye’s assistant in New York during the last year of Lye’s life and wrote the acclaimed biography Len Lye, which sold out two printings and was a finalist in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards. He also wrote Art That Moves on Lye’s work, and the libretto for Len Lye: The Opera. He has curated exhibitions of Lye’s work and directed a film about Lye.
4 Every essay is prefaced by a brief history of its origins, and the author’s endnotes are consistently generous and informative.
Cassandra Fusco is the Reviews Editor for takahē and a Board member.