This series investigates my connection with the Pestfree movement in New Zealand. The below text and images trace my journey in the development of the series from it's instigation until today and the works that have been inspired by it.
When I was a young teen I had a fairly ordinary experience (for a kiwi kid), which profoundly influenced me. I participated in a father and son possum bust; a nighttime culling on a local farm to curb the invasive possum population. Each boy in the group, with over a dozen onlookers with torches spotlighting the action, had the opportunity of shooting a possum from the tops of a tree - a rite of passage for a young man. I was excited to undertake this and when my turn came, gun raised and the possum within the sights… I realised that I couldn’t pull the trigger. I instinctively knew I’d gain no pleasure killing this small furry creature, an act that seemed by the shining faces of those around me was for the fun of it. The rest of the night, followed by my long walk back to the car, was full of shame, the crowd seemed very pleased with their adventure (my father made no comment upon my own perceived shortcoming).
Since that early experience and empathy felt for that single lone possum, I have comprehended more of the issue that invasive introduced species have inflicted within New Zealand. The decimation of the indigenous plants, leaf by leaf, the flowers, leaf buds, fruit, eggs, birds, insects and snails will lead to the total elimination and the extinction of some of our distinctive native flora and fauna.
I became involved with Pestfree NZ; restoring the native wildlife from extinction by trapping and killing the local possum and rats until an allotted, designated area is culled. I take no pleasure in this grim task as the introduced animals which have been deemed ‘pest’ were brought here by your fore-bearers and mine. The Pacific rat was introduced by early Maori settlers and soon stoats, rabbits, cats, possums, hedgehogs, etc followed with the European settlers. I believe the wildlife unique to New Zealand is worth saving and I believe that means removing the threat that our ancestors placed here.
The image is a painting from memory of that night from my childhood with my father and I at the right, I'm turned away looking at the shadow that the gun casts into the light. It is painted with acrylic and oil paints onto prepared builders paper. Possum Bust , 2008, original artwork gifted
Here be Sea Monsters - mixed media on paper
Here be Monsters...
Before human contact New Zealand’s wildlife evolved in isolation over millions of years, a distinct ecosystem of varied inhabitants consisting mostly of a wide variety of birds. Some had become permanent ground-dwellers (there were few predators to evade) while some grew vast; the Moa stood up to 3.7 meters tall, or the Haast’s Eagle which had a wingspan of 2 to 3 meters and is the largest eagle to ever have existed. Others grew eccentric and inquisitive like the Kākāpō whose diet consists of lead nail heads and car rubber, the weta have their ears on their knee’s or the national flightless Kiwi which have the shortest beak of any bird in the world due to their nostrils being at the end of their long beak (beak length in birds is measured from the nostril to the tip).
This natural and rampant diversity was altered in the thirteenth century (between 1250 to 1280) with the first migrants from Polynesia. New Zealand didn’t make it onto the world map until a few centuries later after Able Tasman was sent to discover an imagined southern land mass at the bottom of the globe (to balance the known land in the north). He anchored in Golden Bay in 1642 (he named it Murderer’s Bay after a run in with the local Māori). Around this time World maps began to be finalized by cartographers and the unknown began to become the newly discovered and the colonized. Previously it’s geographic location on seafaring maps may have depicted a hybrid sea monster/animal to describe dangerous waters and the threat of a all lives lost at sea, inscribed with the words: “Here be sea monsters”.
European migration provided the major influx of people following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Along with the initial settlers and those that followed, also came predatory species like the Pacific rat, cats, stoats, possum, weasels, hedgehog, rabbits and ferrets. It wasn't long before the local inhabitants and habitations began disappearing. With this arrival came the felling of vast forests for pasture land, many of the native birds had no protection, their long evolution had left them unequipped to defend themselves against the influx of the tooth and the claw. The list of New Zealand species known to have become extinct since human settlement includes one bat, at least 51 birds, three frogs, three lizards, one freshwater fish, four plant species, and a number of invertebrates*…. and 1000's more now endangered.
* The difference of being human: Morality, Francisco J. Ayal
Radical Rat - Mixed Media on paper, 10 x 14.8 cm
A rat dressed as a stormtrooper (pictured) had me contemplating the language and tools utilized in the depiction of opposing forces and that the dichotomy of good and evil, right and wrong are senseless ethical expressions when attributed to animals. Morality is a human condition and it should also be humane. "Humans have a moral sense because their biological makeup determines the presence of three necessary conditions for ethical behavior: (i) the ability to anticipate the consequences of one's own actions; (ii) the ability to make value judgments; and (iii) the ability to choose between alternative courses of action."*
It is the narrative of human history to define the details by winners, losers, heroes and heroines of the past, to create a hero’s journey for others to follow and to transcend. An animal transposed into a new and foreign environment isn’t guilty of genocide by the consumption of that environment. It is merely obeying its own instinctual needs for survival. The harm they have caused is due to man’s intervention into the balance of the biodiversity of the environment and can only be rectified by further interventions. - we have to believe that what has been done, can be undone.
For the next years Pocket Edition and Works on Paper shows I looked at an old favorite tv program I used to watch as a kid, Star Trek (the original series). I thought I'd dress my native birds in Star Trek uniforms to display a certain quirk of the show, which was; if you beamed down to a new planet on an away team, and you are wearing a red coloured shirt (the uniform of a security detail), chances are you wouldn't be coming back. The supporting cast were usually the first to get killed by the dangerous inhabitants of any new planet. By incorporating this with the plight of the native bird species, I wanted to display the frailty of further existence for many of our treasured birds.
Along with the 5 Star Trek small paintings for this concept, painted with bright technicolour backgrounds, was a somber group of 5 painting in monochromatic greys called collectively: the Fallen. These referenced the nostalgia of old photographs of lost loved ones and pictured were birds that have now become extinct.
Morality is a Human Condition
Are we the Baddies?
The same year the format was expanded for another show called Works on Paper. It included A1 sized sheets of watercolour paper (840 x 590mm) which allowed for a greater scale of work than the limited size of an A6 postcard. 30 artists were each given 2 sheets of A1 Hahnemule watercolour paper to create their works upon. I had the idea of creating a Star Trek landing party bravely beaming down onto a strange new world. The initial sketches depicted native New Zealand birds dressed as the crew of the starship Enterprise (pictured) and I played with various scenario’s of the concept… but nothing would consolidate into a composition I was happy with and I couldn't comprehend why.
Then I realized - I had it backwards! The endeavors of the Starship Enterprise, boldly going where no-one has gone before could be interpreted, in the concept that I had devised, as a metaphor for the colonisation of the world by the European empires and the initiation of connections with species that decimated the local inhabitants and habitations. Once the roles of the away team were exchanged for introduced predators and the inhabitants of the undiscovered world became New Zealand’s native birdlife - it all fell into place.
The crew of the Starship beaming down to a strange new world became the possum, rat and stoat. These 3 have each done irreparable damage to the biodiversity of our islands and the initial meeting between the away team and the curious natives come to investigate is captured in The Landing Party (below).
I dressed the crew in the same red shirt of the security detail uniform in a forewarning of their future fate (a hopeful prediction of the battle we have yet to win)
Our existence relies completely upon the biodiversity of our earth, we live directly from it - it nourishes us with the food that we eat, the air that we breathe and the water we drink. We are of the earth, a part of the biodiversity of all living things; inextricably interconnected. I believe that we are moving to a societal perspective that realises the importance of our biodiversity for our own subsistence, as much as for the lives of the animals we face with extinction - we are the problem which also means that we are the solution and I think we can find the answers.
the Landing Party, 84 x 59 cm, mixed media on paper, 2016, sold
This painting is from my Battlelines series. The series began with a concern for the fate of our native species which are being decimated by predator species introduced by our forefathers; the rabbit, possum, hedgehog, rat and many other flora and fauna. It depicts a melee of consumer items, animals and everyday products all intertwined in a battle for limited space and resources.
The forefathers that arrived in New Zealand from overseas, whether for nostalgic yearning and/or commercial venture, created acclimatisation practises of animals and plants that decimated the local inhabitants and habitations. These choices, that were once considered modern progress for a burgeoning new country, have now become polarising issues needing urgent attention to try and save the dwindling populations and habitats of the native species and environments.
Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Type: Oil on panel
Dimensions: 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 64 in)
My painting was inspired by this masterpiece: The Fall of the Rebel Angels, painted in 1562 by the Netherlandish Renaissance artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The original work depicts Lucifer along with the other fallen angels that have been banished from heaven. As the angels fall they fight with ungodly hybrid creatures that Bruegel created. I was taken by this artwork when thinking about the historical introduction of outsider species into New Zealand.
Title: Out Damned Spot
Size: 99 x 99 cm
Medium: mixed media on canvas
Status: private collection
The title: Out Damned Spot is drawn from the guilty words uttered by Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth trying to remove guilty blood from her hands. As a New Zealand European, I am also a hybrid, my heritage confounded by the people before me. Their reasons for being in this geographical location decided long before, yet today all animals introduced and native must via for the same limited space alongside man’s ongoing ambitions; playgrounds, factories, leisure activities, roading, housing and all of the other scattered debris of modern living ~ and all are intertwined in a melee of contorted limbs and angles, relying upon the other for survival.
The composition is circular although the painting is stretched onto a square frame, it can be hung from any side as there is no 'up' or 'down' in the work. The content is a spot or blemish, contrasted against the crisp whiteness of the background. The entwined flora and fauna depicted revolve around the central figure of the recently acclimatised White Faced Heron. All share a kindred history of human intervention through land development, consumerism and/or importation.
In connection with Bruegel's artwork, the living creatures are often categorized in a dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Words like native, indigenous, endemic, foreign, coloniser, pest or introduced are used to determine their qualitative human value, but all; introduced or native, are simply living authentically to their nature.
For a group exhibition titled: Works on Paper which was held at NorthArt in 2016, 20 artists were given 2 large (A1, 840 x 590mm) sheets of watercolour paper to create a work in whichever fashion they so desired. My first design for this show was the Landing Party (above), a sketch of a meeting between invasive predator mammals dressed as members of Star Trek and native wildlife come to investigate their demise. As a companion piece to this work I looked to a powerful painting by Emanuel Leutze titled Washington Crossing the Delaware. A great work of hierarchy and the display of power.
I refashioned the concept of the painting, substituting Washington and the Continental Army for anthropomorphic predator animals, the rat, possum, a rabbit carrying a sprig of gorse, a hedgehog and mouse with the Endeavor anchored in the background.
The painting commemorates General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War.
Landfall, mixed media on paper, 2016, sold
- Work in Progress -
The latest work which carries on the Battlelines series. The drawings show the development of the idea and a detail of the early progress of the final painting. This idea has spent years in the concept stage. The content represents an imagined meeting between predator animals arriving in New Zealand and the indigenous natives watching them approach. It's about curiosity, foreboding and a moment before everything changes. This is also a metaphor for western colonialism and the havoc this has caused those lands newly 'discovered'.