Reprinted from Art Toi Magazine, November 2020
Twenty-twenty was a year of cacophonous crises which ruptured the patterns and structures of our lives. Yet in the middle of that upheaval – perhaps as a response – there was a quiet turning inwards here in Aotearoa New Zealand, a narrowing down of focus to the here and now, to the confines of our proximate parameters. Isolated from the rest of the world by travel restrictions, we became a ‘bubble’ defined by our border.
Some commentators said New Zealand had become excessively isolationist; others saw us as an attractive utopian refuge offering the hope of some semblance of calm and normalcy at a time of global uncertainty. President Trump’s bizarre criticism of New Zealand’s Covid-19 approach brought these two attitudes into collision: idyllic photographs of the New Zealand landscape shared across social media with the satirically mocking hashtag #NZHELLHOLE.
This pandemic, and its related presidential rebarbative rebranding, made me think about the early colonial perceptions and depictions of the New Zealand landscape. How did these depictions reflect and shape our national identity? What were the reasons for this? How do we work as active participants in interpreting, perpetuating and enacting these narratives?
Representations of landscapes are never objective or neutral. Products of invention, they convey symbolic meanings that reflect and reinforce the creator’s viewpoint. This is more so the case when a landscape is appraised and shaped by an occupying foreign power rather than, in the case of New Zealand, by tangata whenua (people of the land). The paintings, photographs and literature produced by European settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries entrenched a colonial approach to describing and visualising the New Zealand landscape – an approach that persists today.
Seeming both familiar and unnervingly different, the New Zealand landscape occupied an uncertain, ambiguous place in the Victorian colonial psyche. Eliciting awe and fear, the terrain was envisaged both as a Utopian escape from industrial Britain and as the mysterious ‘Anitpodes’ – an abstract landmass that was a distorted mirror of Britain in its remoteness and perceived strangeness. The terrain was a focus of the colonial project and consequently a locus upon which colonial identity centred. It reflected settlers’ fears and aspirations in the face of a new environment – their sense of dislocation and desire to overcome that feeling by moulding this foreign landscape into a new home. Physically detached from one hemisphere and mentally estranged from the other, colonial settlers occupied a hazy third space in the near beyond, where imperialist determination was muddied with longing nostalgia.
Depictions of the landscape sought to find a form that would give meaning to what was out there in the ‘space of the beyond’, responding to and articulating colonial aspirations to know and possess the land by enabling people to visually ‘traverse’ terrain reframed by a decidedly European gaze. Painters, photographers and writers harnessed a mélange of visual references to find a form that could make familiar the strange, while translocating Eurocentric ideals and expectations onto a landscape breathing and humming with the whakapapa (lineage) of tangata whenua.
In the hands of artists like Albin Martin and John Hoyte the maunga (mountains) of Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland were re-envisaged as a pastoral idyll, borrowing heavily from the Italian Renaissance and the sun-drenched 18th-century landscapes of Claude Lorrain. This is evident, too, in artworks by Alfred Sharpe, who vehemently asserted the need of a local style grounded in ‘literal truth’ to convey the ‘salient features of an entirely new country’. From his brush the contours of the land were transformed into tidy rhythmic expanses of colour and line that shimmer underneath a sun-drenched sky. This visual language asserted perceived similarities between the new colony and Europe – ‘taming’ the landscape and reassuring viewers that while they may be geographically far removed from their homeland, intrinsically their new environment was not too dissimilar, and it was their domain.
On the other hand, the landscape was sometimes positioned as being unnervingly disparate to those of England and Europe. This was an attempt to understand and define the newest site of empire through difference. Edmund Burke and Ruskin’s reverence for a sublime landscape which fascinated and repelled, overwhelmed and ignited the imagination, was adopted with zeal by writers and artists in the colony. New Zealand’s irregularities – its geomorphic and biotic forms, its monumental peaks and its hissing geysers were emphasised, framing a ‘weird, sinister, eerie, uncanny’ Antipodes with ‘its suggestion of magic, of monstrosity’. Abstracted and disoriented through cropped compositions and flattened forms, made monumental through dramatic sweeps of light and shade and aggrandised scale, the landscape represented in this pictorial vocabulary seems inscrutable, unknowable, untamable.
Writers, too, adopted a remarkably pictorial, Romantic vocabulary to construct a sublime ideal of New Zealand to understand the land, and perhaps even tame it through colonial enterprise. In describing ‘Our Antipodes’, Godfrey Charles Mundy writes in awe of the ‘luxuriant beauty of the wilderness traversed by this monument of a young colony’s energy and industry, the gigantic size of the timber . . . the dark, tangled and absolutely impervious glens, rock and ravine’. For Blanche Baughan the terrain was unpredictable, eerie and sinister with its ‘ Bristles against the sky, all the tawny, tumultuous landscape / Is stuck, and prickled, and spiked with the standing black and grey splinters ’. Katherine Mansfield’s The Urewera Notebook – edited notes she made during a 1907 camping tour of the North Island – describes an enchanted, mysterious landscape: ‘I hear always the whispering of the water – I am alone – I am hidden – Life seems to have passed away drifted – drifted miles and worlds so beyond this fairy sight.’ Written far from New Zealand, Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley, based on the life of her friend Mary Taylor who had emigrated to the colony in 1845, evocatively encapsulates the Victorian vision of an Antipodes that,
is indeed far from England; remote must be the shores which wear that luxuriant aspect. This is some virgin solitude: unknown birds flutter around the skirts of that forest; no European river this, on whose banks Rose sits thinking. The little quiet Yorkshire girl is a lonely emigrant in some region of the southern hemisphere. Will she never come back?
Mostly devoid of people other than the narrator or observer, a profound sense of distance and isolation exudes from such pictorial and literary portrayals, perhaps expressing colonial subjects’ hesitancy, fear and detachment within a landscape that fascinated at a distance but up close repelled with its wildness; a land that while physically occupied was not emotionally, spiritually or historically theirs.
Feeling unsettled and imprinted upon rather than at one with the land, for many colonials the remedy was travel – physical or visual. Guidebooks proliferated, for which artists and photographers provided illustrations. Photographic albums compiled a vast itinerary of visual journeys across harsh environments. Novels, diaries, poetry and promotional books about the colonies created written topographies of the land that were distinctly visual, mapping it with plenitudes of
hyperbole, metaphor, simile. Whereas in England and then America, where it has been argued there was a distinctly philosophical romanticism of nature at play, it seems that the colonial New Zealand world was seen through an emotive, pictorial lens, perhaps because of an overriding sense of estrangement and being out of place.
The spatial contractions experienced through lockdowns around the world have invested landscapes and natural environments with particular symbolic import. The Instagrammed photographs of sun-dappled forests, panoramic mountains and glass-like lakes speak either of a flagrant disregard for the ‘stay-at-home’ orders or proclaim a rare, once-taken-for-granted freedom to roam, a privileged access to a utopia beyond the temporal and spatial realities of our current state. Feeding wanderlust, eliciting envy, providing a moment of vicarious escape, the multitudinous social media images are for some an antidote against Covid estrangement, for others an obnoxious FOMO inducer. So, in a time of unsettling change and alienating isolation, travel is, once again, perceived as a way to conquer our feelings of remoteness and stagnancy; the landscape is once again a locus for our hopes and fears.
 Blanche Baughan, “Uncanny Country,” in Studies in New Zealand Scenery, Whitcombe & Tombs, Auckland, 1916, p 105.
 Godfrey Charles Mundy, Our Antipodes, Or, Residence and Rambles in the Australasian Colonies with a Glimpse of the Gold Fields, Richard Bentley, London, 1852, p 380
 Blanche Baughan, ‘A Bush Section’, 1908, in Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (eds), The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2012, p 103.
 Katherine Mansfield, Ian Gordon (ed), The Urewera Notebook, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, p 84.
 Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, Smith, Elder & Co, London, 1849, p 122.