Cultivated - reviewed
Toi Moroki / Centre of Contemporary Art
26 January – 17 March 2019
Reviewed by Sally Blundell for PhotoForum
In Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch young Theo leaves New York to live with his feckless father on the fringes of Las Vegas. Here, on Desert End Road, houses stand unfinished, roads peter out into sand, streetlights stand sentry over unrealised roads. At the frayed edge of the city, under the “oceanic, endless glare” of the sun1 and the unflinching blue of the Nevada sky, the transition from rural to urban, desert to development, remains stalled, caught in a scrubby process of incompletion.
In Mitchell Bright’s provocatively titled exhibition Cultivated, a series of 23 large unframed works and smaller framed works, the wide arc of the Canterbury sky dominates a similarly liminal scene, a transitional landscape in which rural farmlands in Canterbury and Selwyn districts are transformed into a new map of urban subdivisions, motorways and designated “future business areas”.
Stretching out between the east coast and the Southern Alps, this has long been a place of wide open plains, isolated farmhouses, ground-scouring nor’westers, long straight roads dominated by small street signs and orderly rows of poplars; a landscape that has inspired poets, novelists and the hard lines and stark contours of artists Bill Sutton, Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Rata Lovell-Smith.
It is also Bright’s stomping ground. He grew up in Selwyn and studied and lives in Canterbury. But it is changing, fast. In response to the urgent need for housing following the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes, new subdivisions are encroaching onto pasture land, turning paddocks into pavements and tidy cul-de-sacs. In accordance with the 2013 Land Use Recovery Plan, the second stage of the new Christchurch Southern Motorway is now charging across the flat lands in a bulky line of land-altering earthworks. In years, maybe months to come, this topography will be unremarkable: a new urban fringe added to the map of Christchurch, a highway fast-tracking traffic between the two provinces (Selwyn is one of the fastest growing districts in the country).
For now, however, like Tartt’s depleted city limit, it is a ragged, makeshift frontier, surreal in its enactment, inhuman in its sheer scale. The march of power pylons across the skyline, the uniform flanks of endless rooves glimpsed above the relentlessly grey border of a 1.8 metre fence, the piles of shingle and dirt, the vast tracts of levelled ground all illustrate the ambitiousness of the project driving this industrial-scale makeover of the land. But with a welcome poignancy, Mitchell also captures fragments of a rural past – the farm fenceposts peeling paint, the wildflowers, the dense shelterbelts of macrocarpa, the ‘60s brick house just visible behind around a hedge. With disarming and unsentimental clarity he focuses on the unusual juxtapostions and incompletions of a landscape in transition: the small strangeness of pristine roads dissipating into dirt, streetlights marching un-purposefully towards grasslands, the surprising greenness of a manicured lawn in a landscape of scrub. Here, on the scrabbly edge of an excavation pit, we see the glaring white of a row of house facades, propped up as if in a film set; there, an old wrought-iron driveway gate protecting an empty site, a yellow hazard sign warning DANGER ASBESTOS DUST HAZARD. It is messy, untidy, at times unsightly. Car seats lie in inexplicable abandonment, orange plastic netting is strangled in weeds, a crushed water cylinder, stripped off its copper inner, lies in newly created wasteland. While there is evidence of human activity in the partly fenced tennis court, the criss-cross patterns of a laid lawn, the refuse, the construction, this is a depopulated geography. In the long southern twilight, lines of corrugated iron containers have the air of relics. Machines of excavation – loaders, compactors, excavators and graders – are stationery, like sandpit toys parked in neat alignment in readiness for the next day’s activity.
Anchored by the enduring presence of the Port Hills rimming the horizon, the line of shelter belts, the vastness of the sky, Bright’s photography calls on the traditions of landscape painting and topographical record as well as the current discourse around urban planning and development. In 1921 historian and literary critic Lewis Mumford described New York’s sprawling outer boroughs as a “dissolute landscape,” a no-man’s land, he wrote, “which was neither town or country.” In 2013 US urbanist and executive editor of NewGeography Joel Kotkin defended the suburban edges of traditional cities in their offering of lifestyle, affordability and, according to The New York Times, their “hipsturbian” appeal for Generation X and even millennials.2
Bright resists comment. Instead he applies a fine arts sensibility to this documentation, capturing a beguiling beauty, at times a wry humour, in this prolonged disjuncture between the past and present, destruction and construction. The late afternoon light saturates the colours, sharpens the shadows. The blue of the sky deepens, poplar trunks glow golden. While political success relies on a swift and relatively unseen transition, Bright holds the moment, conveying this transient moment of change in which promised cul-de-sacs and monolithic motorways, the big, dusty, noisy manifestation of Council-approved charts and plans, are drawn over a longer, slower rural tradition.
This series of work, part of Bright’s 2018 Masters in Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, also feeds into Place in Time: The Christchurch Documentary Project, established in 2000 by former Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts, Glenn Busch, and now under the directorship of Tim J. Veling, to record Ōtautahi Christchurch and its people through photography, documentary writing and oral history. In their insistence on the human relationship to landscape, these works capture the discordances, the compelling fragility and transitoriness of place – and of this place.
1 Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little Brown, London, 2013), p237.
2 Joel Kotkin, “The Triumph of Suburbia in New Geography, http://www.newgeography.com/content/003667-the-triumph-suburbia (accessed 1 February 2019).
Sally Blundell is a Christchurch-based journalist and arts writer.