A benevolent by-product


I was doing a seminar three years ago and was asked to describe my relationship to my work. Then, as now, I described it as a benevolent by-product of my way of life. Some students didn't like that at all, thinking it was easy, flippant and lazy to talk about one's work that way. By calling it a benevolent by-product I was somehow taking art away from the centre of my whole existence. It may not be the centre - it may be a spin-off.

I've been an amateur ornithologist a lot longer than I've been a painter. You can't just look at birds without getting an interest in diverse species and I'm apt to see New Zealand from this standpoint. I absorb a great deal and the input becomes so intolerable it must come out somehow. In my case it happens to come out chiefly in paintings. If I didn't have the skills I do have for painting, I would still go on caring about these things.

I paint and draw because I'm thoroughly committed to and involved with environmental, natural stimuli - the landscape, the wild-life. A number of drawings I've done over the last year, for example, have been done at the end of one or another road, the point where one's motor-car is of no further use. This is where you make your beginnings.

You must approach the landscape or the bush with reverence. To my mind, loyalty to New Zealand doesn't consist in conforming to conventional expectations, but in acquiescing to beings like the forest god Tane. They tell me what to do and what not to do.

DON BINNEY Untitled bird and hills 1968
oil, 1221 x 152 cm. (collection of Fletcher Holdings Ltd.)

A friend of mine who is interested in comparative religious imagery and the universal belief in the fairy, the demon, the pixy, the duende, was talking to a group of students. One question he asked was: 'Does anyone here believe in an enchanted forest?'

I'm glad to say that the general consensus was that a forest must be enchanted. The enchanted forest must be entered with reverence, but freely, like a shrine. The minute it's said, 'You will not enter this place without a permit', it has ceased to be a shrine: it's become a profit and loss thing.

I regard what's left of the native bush in this country as really the shrine of Tane; I acquiesce to the power of the old authority. When you go into a major forest or walk along an undefiled stretch of coast you feel an accumulated force of experience - not just human experience. It's the sum total of the earth's gravity, the movement of wind, the cycle of seasons, the energy expenditure of millenia of plants, the life and death of ever so much wild-life. You feel it all around you, like wraiths, the whole miracle of what has been and what yet will be. It is these forces that presuppose the election by primitive peoples of gods of forests and gods of waters, be they Mexicans, Maori, Eskimos or our own Celtic forbears in Ireland or Scotland. Every natural ecology becomes a spiritual ethology, and we must come to terms with this - nothing less. The forest is the abiding place of Tane, and when, as a Pakeha, I go there I am prepared to acquiesce to the god of the Maori.

In Auckland we have the emergence of a philistine, greedy and self-interested culture on the land that was inhabited by Polynesians, who took the concept of tapu to a transcendental state of thought or philosophy. It's indicative of our own culture that when we say something is taboo, we use it in a narrow, post-Freudian sense, whereas the Maori had taken the tapu concept much further. It was not the imposition of the Judeo-Christian 'thou shall not'. The minute you understood tapu you knew that with your self-restraint came knowledge - almost in the way that an ascetic in any culture has access to the whole.

My own feeling of the sense of tapu, and for that matter involvement with the environment, began long before I started painting - with bird watching. You can't go deeply into ornithology without becoming exposed to the mystique of the environment. The very first trip I took to Miranda on the firth of Thames, in 1950 was for me not just an excursion into the realm of the rye-bill plover and the South Island pied oyster-catcher and the godwit and the turnstone and the knott and the stilt: it was also an excursion into the salt marsh, the salicornia, feeling the sometimes painful crunch of oyster shells under your instep, the smell of the mud and the sound of tiny crabs bubbling in their holes in tide pools. It was an agglomeration of stimuli. I can remember as much about how it felt and smelt as the number of species. This is where I part ways with the orthodox ornithologists too many of them put a notebook and a biro in your hand and say: 'Look, will you please make sure you come back with the correct assessment of the number of South Island pied oyster-catcher and turnstone within this grid.

However commendable this may be in establishing the breeding number of the species - and it's well that we understand these things - if I see some plant or some old piece of weathered kauri or if the sun shafts at a curious angle and throws something up in a totally new light, I'm going to stop and look at it. I'm an ornithologist, but not an ornithologist at the expense of everything else. I think that a lot of ornithologists should go back to the creed of Thoreau at Walden Pond, and to the way T.H. White and Lawrence and Gerald Durrell have approximated an environment as well as its species. We ought to be able to use human sensibility in all things, and even if we have a principal interest, it surely should be a way to come into touch with the rest.

A lot of the drawing and painting I do has been done on the spot - not in the studio. On the other hand, although I took two sketch-books and drawing materials to little Barrier recently, I never got to use them because there wasn't time. If I'd started doing a drawing I'd have missed a whole lot of other things. But this is how I think of my art as a benevolent by-product: some months later, on a wet or indifferent day, something will happen - a few frames of the whole film inside my head of little Barrier will just freeze for a while and I'll make a statement about them. Whether it's good bad or indifferent is over to others, the consumer public, to establish. But that is how it will happen.

And there are times when writing about a thing may augment one's understanding. I have a camera and take pictures too: but you'd be surprised at how little use photographs are when it comes to drawing or painting. I respect photography; I'm really interested in it. But you can't work from photographs because good ones are interpretations in their own right. The minute I start doing a painting, the departure from a photo reference is so rapid that one puts it on the shelf and forgets about it. I keep trying, when I'm working on something like this, not to regard the drawing much at all; I keep forcing my attention out into the land. The drawing is really secondary, and that's why I say it's a benevolent by-product, a notation. The most important thing is your dialogue with the place: it's what you're learning, what you are taking and giving, with or without the drawing being an extra spin-off.

Don Binney
photograph by Tom Turner

Art is something that emerges as a result of a dialogue of one sort or another. It may be between the artist and a vision, a particular person, a particular ideal: the involvement perhaps between artist and model, or the subject of the portrait; some aspect of the human condition; the ideological ideal - as with some of the twentieth century painters. My own involvement in a particular place gives an example of how a painting came about.

My admiration for an old two-storied kauri-built house in Mount Eden was brought about by recalling the building my father had been born in and had lived in in Edwardian Devonport. The Mount Eden house was very similar same style, same coloured glass in the front door, same bay window in the principal room. I admired this house for some time but never went inside the old colonial gate or up the curving drive past the Lebanon cedar. The tuis were flying overhead. They came from the public reserve in Mount Eden to feed on the nectar of various eucalypts and other winter-flowering plants in the area.  I painted what I'd seen and admired in this place in the early winter of 1965.

I think by the end of that same year the bulldozers had moved in. Development was going full steam ahead. I saw the louse being blitzed inside, the glass windows being yanked out, a hollow-ringing echo of whalloping going on inside. It ceased to be a house and became a shell. And then it collapsed to the ground. The bulldozers moved right over the top of where it had been. There was an atmosphere of joyless, vicious, abandoned waste. The bulldozers even blitzed the old Lebanon cedar, eradicated the phoenix palm and the nikau. There was no joy, just total destruction which I couldn't do a thing about.

I'm just so glad I did that painting.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 7 August/September/October 1977