For beauty to work, there must be a surface capable of receiving the wound.
― Timothy Morton, Realist Magic
Born and living in Christchurch once more , Jane Zusters has had a chequered art career. These days she makes site-specific work responding to contemporary events juxtaposing the human with the natural world creating environmental discourses exploring that uneasy edge where humans co-opt or entangle with eco -systems. see www.janezusters.co.nz
In the event of beauty, a non-self part of my inner space seems to resonate in the colours on the wall, in the sounds pouring into my ears. Hugely amplified, might this resonance actually kill me? “A beautiful way to die” – to be destroyed by vibrations that removed myself from myself.
― Timothy Morton, Realist Magic
IS THERE ANYBODY HOME?
ANDREW PAUL WOOD
The River Avon is the name the Deans family gave it when they arrived from Scotland in the early 1840s. In te reo Māori it is Ōtākaro, “the place of a game”, named for the children who played on the river’s banks while the adults gathered bountiful food – pātiki (flounder), ducks, Inaka (whitebait), native trout and tuna (eels), a mahika kai (food gathering place) for Waitaha, who were permanently settled at Puari Pā, and later seasonally by Kāti Māmoe and Kāi Tahu. The river runs through what is now known by the locals as the “Red Zone” from which the inhabitants were cleared after the 22 February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake. About thirty homes are still there, their owners uninsured and refused adequate compensation for their homes.
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
– T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”
All authentic art is conceived at a sacred moment and nourished in a blessed hour; an inner impulse creates it, often without the artist being aware of it. – Caspar David Friedrich
The Red Zone in Christchurch’s east remains one of the most obvious vestigial reminders of the earthquake that struck the city at 12:51pm on that day. It’s a strange realm, a liminal Mittlemarch between places out of phase with the rest of the city where civilisation has retreated, and nature reasserted itself. The transition is sudden, from Suburbia to Other – as if you’ve stepped into Faerie or a piece of land swapped with its future postapocalyptic self. Fortunately, it contains nothing more threatening than people walking their dogs, Canada geese and black swans.
A number of local photographers have applied themselves to recording the Red Zone’s vagaries and vicissitudes. Jane Zusters’ particular approach in these images, taken on a smartphone in 2018, is that of the flâneuse, walking her dog in the early morning during winter. The light is just so, the frost silver and shrouded in mist, the sky mauve, the shadows deep – a rococo palette that seems almost artificial. Street lights still function in the middle of nowhere in an atmosphere of poetic desolation. It is not a place that exists in the official notes of bureaucracy, but only in the imagination and aesthetic sensibility, brought together by poesis, techne and technology.
I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
– Alice Walker, The Colour Purple
This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valour is reborn, when the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn.
– Bernard DeVoto, The Hour
One of the most useful things Roland Barthes brought to the theory of photography was the notion of the punctum – something unique to the photographic image, “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”, the magical detail in the image that holds the eye and touches the imagination without patronising the viewer with mere beauty or banal symbolism.
Although a product of the era of the analogue camera, it remains relevant in the digital age, a pivot of the subjective. It can also be found in these images – a tree, a sign, a road cone, a streetlight reflected in a puddle like the sullen ember of a dying star. Sometimes they’re an accent, functioning like a distant ruin in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, counterpointing the transcendental Sublime of the morning sky, or as in the Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of transience, ephemerality and imperfection. At other times it might simply be a random object that anchors the image in twenty-first century Christchurch in what is otherwise a timeless, placeless scene.
The tick-tock between site (a concrete and locatable space) and non-site (a map of a place, a synthesis of representation and abstraction) is the engine that drives the image – the place is present, but also an elsewhere the image refers us to. There is a Romantic frisson; rather than a strictly descriptive, literal interaction with the scene, we are invited into an emotional connection. The human element is dwarfed and redundant – a mere Ozymandian footnote to the haunted trees and a sky that seems infinitely vast and like a flat lid simultaneously. The trees seem oddly spaced because they were once part of people’s gardens and now lack that framing architectural armature.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky.
– Walter de la Mare, “The Listeners”
Avalon. The grey Fields of Asphodel. The eerie oddness of it, the Unheimlich (Sigmund Freud’s term for when the familiar and cosy suddenly becomes strange and alien) gives the setting an air of folk-horror, playing on the friction between pasts (wilderness and agricultural) and futures (post-industrial and post-human). Obviously, few people are around at that time of the morning, but the Marie Celeste-like absence is palpable, as if some terrible weapon had been unleashed, vaporising all the humans and their objects, and outsiders are only now cautiously groping their way back in. Not even the ghosts of theory linger, for these photographs are retinal and spiritual pleasures.
One can’t really imagine living in the Red Zone per se, though until relatively recently there were plentiful fruit trees and other edible plants. It’s a strictly transient and transitional place that you visit in a science-fictional sense – an alien planet or an ultra-terrestrial dimension you enter through a portal. Time works differently there. It seems like there isn’t anybody home. There are some holdouts against the baleful governmental powers who would like to be rid of them and the expense of keeping them on the grid. Zusters speaks of one woman, Annette Wilkes, whose family had lived there on Glenarm Terrace for a hundred years, when the neighbourhood was still cow paddocks. Forced out last year, she returns every day to visit and feed her blackbirds.
Life flourishes here, even if the council keeps trying to kill it off or control it, weighing native against exotic in the balance. The daemon of this place fights back through its sheer, perverse persistence. Something pagan and dangerous lurks beneath the surface, demanding our attention and perhaps our worship… Or sacrifice…
But it’s not all haunted landscape. There is also consolation: the emptiness, the stillness, amplified by the frozen time behind the crystalline pane of the photograph – the ecstatic quietness of Samuel Palmer’s dreamy, moonlit countryside and William Blake’s Beulah (the subconscious, Arcadian source of poetic inspiration available in dreams and visions to the people of Ulro, the fallen and corrupt material world). The solitude doesn’t have to be frightening, it can be restful, or it can inspire.