Kate van der Drift reviewed - July 2018
Water Slows as it Rounds The Bend
Kate van der Drift
2 Kent Street, Newmarket, Auckland
12 June - 1 July 2018
Reviewed by Nina Seja
Landscapes are multilayered entities. At the base, there is the mud, the tussocks, the winding river. There are the seasons that inflect new tones and patterns: bird and insect life changes, the sun rises and falls as the months progress. Then there is a human layer: how we interact with and alter the landscape, whether there is a symbiotic relationship, and the seasonal rituals we have in a particular environment. And still another layer: the policies, laws, and governance that shape not just our connection to landscape, but also our relationship to each other, as mediated through the environment. Such intersections appear (many implicitly) in Kate van der Drift’s photographic suite Water Slows as it Rounds the Bend, a core show of the 2018 Auckland Festival of Photography at Sanderson Contemporary.
It is difficult to see a landscape, in this, our age of worrying climate change, without these many layers. van der Drift’s work from Water Slows as it Rounds the Bend navigates through the ecological and the human. The stillness offered by the images evokes a space where the viewer can sink into the visceral qualities of the Hauraki Plains, a key protagonist in the photographs. Simultaneously, the show is a reminder of the fragility of New Zealand’s environs: while the country’s urban interior garners continuous, increasing global attention, it is critical to remember the ecology immediately around us.
They’re not the spectacular, vaunted South Island landscapes that New Zealand is known for in the tourism media. Instead, van der Drift’s photographs are placid and impressionistic. They’re the images that call up damp autumn Sunday walks under a moody sky. Nature moves at its own pace; it is the antithesis of human time. The photographs capture a slow unfolding. A plump possum leaps between tree stumps and a dog peeks up with canine curiosity. A flock of birds dot the sky in the journey across an early morning or dusk sky. Reeds in the largest pond in the wetland, reflected in sharp detail. As van der Drift writes, “land and water surfaces can become one another.”[i] Colors are muted and dusky in some photographs. In others, the palette is greens and rusty browns. There is something in the photographer’s work that is an antidote to modern life and its relentless speed and noise. Some art sparks; other decompresses. Canal, From the River East shows a thicket of draping vines and branches. As in Four Birds, the power of the images also comes from the sensory details that are invoked. I can almost hear the stir of a breeze and the birds calling out to each other above the chilled river.
While the beauty of van der Drift’s landscapes is undeniable, her critical lens encompasses colonization and industrialization, and the ways such practices and processes transform an environment. The photographer writes, “Drainage schemes in Aotearoa New Zealand are responsible for the loss of 85 percent of its wetlands, making it one of the most dramatic cases of draining known anywhere in the world.”[ii] This is prevalent in the Hauraki area, which is the focus of Water Slows as it Rounds the Bend. As such, the show is also a reminder of the destructive consequences of humans reshaping nature. Floodwaters are controlled by systems including drains, canals, and pump-houses, as we see in Pump-house, Southwest. Young Kahikatea, Northern Large Pond is another example of the legacy of human presence. In the half-light, the kahikatea reach for the sky. Upside down, the reflection emphasizes tree height. Being center of the image, it appears as if a sentinel, protecting the surrounding area. Kahikatea were once populous in New Zealand, though became decimated through logging and land clearance, particularly for agriculture. They are known to intertwine their roots with neighboring kahikatea trees. In so doing, they gain strength from each other, especially in swamps where the ground is unstable.
Water Slows as it Rounds the Bend has accomplished a challenging task: it is at once restorative as it is a warning and judgment. The latter is not, however, didactic nor catastrophic. It depends on picturing the languid unfolding of nature doing what it does best, without us.
Nina Seja is a writer, academic, and curator. She received her PhD from New York University and wrote the landmark book PhotoForum at 40: Counterculture, Clusters, and Debate in New Zealand (Rim Books, 2014).