River Road by David Cook, Park by Richard Orjis and Old New World by Mary Macpherson – review

by Sally Blundell / 06 October, 2012
Cook’s photographs plot a parallel journey by river (the Waikato) and road (River Rd) from Hamilton to rural Ngaruawahia, says Sally Blundell.
River Road

“I have a habit of speeding through the landscape,” writes photographer David Cook in RIVER ROAD: JOURNEYS THROUGH ECOLOGY (Rim/Photoforum, $40). This book, a collaboration by Cook, historian Wiremu Puke and designer Jonty Valentine, is a disciplined slowing down. Cook’s photographs plot a parallel journey by river (the Waikato) and road (River Rd) from Hamilton to rural Ngaruawahia. Prosaically named (Flood, Traffic, Damaged), the images record the ebb and flow of ecological attentiveness, from industrial pollution to replanting programmes and community gardening. Where Cook’s record is objective, Puke’s is personal and emotive. His essay begins on the deforested flanks of Taupiri and tracks the landscape from its prehuman state to the early years of Maori settlement, to European invasion and land alteration and on to a future in which the Waikato is “a powerful and salient statement”. Intimate, heartfelt, unashamedly local and beautifully produced.

The flowers, foreign and fleshy, are lurid. The german shepherds book-ending PARK (Melanie Roger Gallery, $60), a survey of Richard Orjis’s work, are wolfish. In-between, Orjis’s photographs draw on pagan rites and sacred rituals. Candles, poppies, coal dust and bread dough are placed in elaborate tableaux. Figures appear covered in mud, golem-like. Or in flowers – cultic, exotic and erotic. Or – bizarrely, excessively – in bling. Shamanism meets Arte povera, mythic transgression meets pop culture, all beautifully, stagily contrived against the stark-black backdrop of the underground, late-night terror or primeval chaos. As David Eggleton says in his essay, “His is a church of the unholy.” Wedged in the middle is a three-page evocation by Harry McNaughton, beginning with an overtly visceral performance and ending at a ginger patch that smells of “tea, and rot”. It is a riff that demands to be read aloud, a wildly poetic accompaniment to an extravagant collection.

“One of the things I especially didn’t want to do,” says photographer Mary Macpherson in her introductory interview with Gregory O’Brien in OLD NEW WORLD (Lopdell House Gallery/Photoforum, $50), “was to make a statement about quintessential New Zealand.” More an autobiographical drive-by, the following pages trace the old (mid-century symbols of identity such as war memorials, a red telephone booth) and the new (jokey murals and advertisements) in small-town New Zealand – Geraldine, Alexandra, Foxton, Bulls and, strangely, Queenstown. There may be personal resonance in these depopulated landscapes, and formalistically the photographs are flawless, but it is undeniably forlorn: the big-box supermarket, ubiquitous Marches, real estate signs, real estate. Without cultural or curatorial framing, be it rural heartland or the cheerful faux-nostalgia of Kiwiana, the curtained windows, the bare fences, the locked-up halls appear bleak, the “IRGIN WORLD” sign on a building in Twizel unbearably sad.

Sally Blundell is an art writer and journalist.
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