STATION OF EARTH-BOUND GHOST
Originally published in Te Tangi a te Matuhi : Jack Books, 1999. pp 29-72
GHOSTS AND ANGELS
Ghosts and angels are well known spirits of the Western world. A ghost is a spirit of the dead that presents itself to the living. An angel is an agent of the gods, which also presents itselfto the living but never was one of them. Unlike a ghost. Both ghosts and angels work the space between the here and the hereafter. They travel freely between the realms of the material and the spiritual, between the visible and the invisible – 'where is my angel eyes? Excuse me while I disappera'. Between the realms of the familiar and the strange, between meaning and nonsense, between, I daresay, all fixed differences. Ghosts and angels may choose their shape (natural or artificial), their medium (whatever idiom, cultural form, or language suits), and their moment. Which is out of a clear blue sky, even. There's seemingly no saying what triggers it.
Ghosts and angels, as I say, are not the same. They dress differently, ghosts often having nothing better to wear than the clothes they were laid out in. Angels are known for their wings. being earth-bound, that is, headed for or tied to the earth, means one thing to a ghost and quite another to an angel. Ghosts are spirits of the dead that have made themselves present to the living. As such they don't really belong either on earth or in heaven. Ghosts, they're Mr and Mrs Inbetween.
Ghosts are the dead who don't lie down. They may mean trouble, and have been known to make it. They don't drop in for no good reason, you know. A ghost at your table is not the same as an angel. They have stories about unfinished business, matters not-so-easily-forgotten, or forgiven, or explained. Stories that fill the houses of memories and mystery. If their unexpected arrival finds us unprepared, and leaves us rattled, and if their repeated haunting unhinges us, sinks us in melancholy or provokes us to act, can we pretend we did not ask for it? Angels, on the other hand, have their homes in heaven; their visits are annunciations entreating us to look: look up! look ahead! They call us to attention, alerting us to what presents itself to us. They make prophecies. these serve to awaken our desires – for justice, truth, beauty happiness, life. To confound us with complexity and perplexity, so provoking thought or inciting action. Angels want to take us higher.
HAU AND THE INBETWEEN
There are ghosts and angels aplenty among these flags. 'Macoute the aerial elocution of the angels' humm..' This flag invokes, gives voice to the languageof angels. Lingo from language limb:'humm, glossing dat high pitch mute/bure tin border corona Tihei Mauriora...' Two lines transporting us across the firmament of post-colonial languages, from the Caribbean, to melanesia, to new Zealand, in a single breath. The figure, with the raised arm similar to Ringatu at its heraldic centre, derives from the flag known as the Te Kooti standard, and is said to represent the Archangel Michael (Mikaere). This spirit, God's warrior angel, who appeared to, who made himself present to Te Kooti, is the one who brought him word of his holy mission and became his, as they say, guardian angel thenceforth. It is the angelic in Te Kooti 'who speaks God' and who in hos own words 'desires life', consummation of his marriage to Te Rongopai. Likewise it is the angel in Princess Diana that 'desires life and beauty'...even as she 'saw remotecoronal hulls of gods darkly...' The brilliant flash of a rosella ('vividness caught') is adored as it cuts across the space of a porch transformng it into the space of angels. The kingfish Matiu Rata fought to the end of his life and 'fought to end' the injustice done to his people. This flag celebrates his life. he is not easily forgotten, he's one of the dead who won't lie down.
Stations of Earthbound Ghosts is not so much concerned with the contrasted realms that are the origins and destinations of ghosts and angels, as with the meaning of the inbetween space itself, including the systems which structure, the hau which animates. Two flags, one red and one black, carry this single word, hau. Outside the exhibition, from a flagpole in the Railway Station grounds, an extra large red Hau flag flutters in the sea breeze. Taken together the two smaller flags make up another word: hauhau. Last century, English settlers described members of Pai Marire, the most influential of the early Maori adaptations of Christianity, as hauhau because of a chant of theirs which involved the sucking and expelling of breath in unison. This 'goading flagrance' as Davis puts it, focused settler horror at the estrangement of ceremonial forms and beliefs represented by the new religion. In no time it was being used to demonise all forms of Maori resistance to colonialism. Hau is Maori for wind, air, or breath; also the word for vital energy, the life force of a person or thing. As a verb it means to strike, or hit and was used as a battle cry. It is Maori for what makes flags lively in the medium in which they exist, for the wind on which they may take wing and fly, high in the air between earth and sky. A name also for what makes speech of the written words they carry.
Ghosts and angels are well known spirits of the Western world. And hardly the same as the celebrated spirits of the pre-contact Maori, the Pacific world. Yet because Davis' inbetween, his 'te Ao Marama,' is so determined by a theory of hau and hauism, it is a strangely hybrid spiritual realm we have to speak of here. Hauhau, writes Davis, 'signifies marginal experience, where established codes meet, where difference is flushed out and made visible, differentation appears, pattern recognition takes place and within the feedback and confusion a new thing or understanding arises.' At its most intense in these flags, this feedback and confusion amounts to a kind of turmoil. A turmoil of power and belief at the bleeding edges of Empire. A turmoil of weather, of El Nino, and tropical cyclones. Turmoil of sex, tumult of roses, ferocity of marriage. The turmoil of language, mouthing of space, confusions of zaum, o tshshrauowsh-h tuttutshowshh. So ghosts and angels enter these poems mainly as stout hearted figures for turmoil, figures who transfix the system, in words or deed, by confronting it with the challenge of change.
FLAGS AND ART
Already these flags have shown themselves to be ghosts. Neither just regular flags nor just works of art, they made ghosts of both classifications. Guests from the world of flags at the table of art, and guests at the table of flags from the art world. The world of flags we think of in terms of visual icons of national identity. We think also of the white flag of truce, the red flag of socialism, the skull and cross bones and...? It is a larger world than this, of course - do we think of semaphore flags, or Buddhist prayer flags? Anyway, national flags are made of rectangles of fabric about twice as wide as they are high. Attached at their short side, called the hoist (their long side is called the fly), they are flown outdoors from the top of a staff or pole fixed to the ground or a building. Two or three of the following seven colours - red, white, blue, yellow, green, black and orange - are grouped into vertical or horizontal stripes making a field over which is laid a more detailed device or symbol such as a shield, star, or cross, either in the centre or in the upper left corner (the canton). The world of visual art we think of as made up of individualised visual statements. Paint ings they are called, and they, too, are made of rectangles of fabric (canvas) of similar proportions, although their orientation may be either horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait). They are then stretched on a wooden frame and hung indoors flat against a wall, usually white.
Jasper Johns ' 1954-5 paintings of the American flag are the best known examples of flags that situate themselves between art and life. Asked about these paintings, Johns said:
The white flag adds another between-state, that between the visible and the invisible; for one critic its whiteness throws a 'haunting shroud' over the Stars and Stripes, but no one has so far suggested Johns has disguised it as a flag of truce. This is because Johns is more interested in the flag as a kind of object or sign that makes visible something about the codes that govern painting, and less in the meaning of flags in their contexts of use. Given that Davis ' starting point is poetry rather than painting, his interest is in both. The use of the Union Jack in British Pop art, as in works by David Hockney, Billy Apple, and Peter Phillips, threatened codes of flag behaviour more than Johns' use of Old Glory. David Mellor claims it originated with a Royal College of Art textiles student, Geoff Reeve, who in May 1960 painted Union Jacks on the lenses of the sunglasses of a friend who was going to a party to celebrate Princess Margaret's wedding to Tony Armstrong Jones. A few months later he horrified college staff with silkscreen fabric designs of the flag which gave it, Mellor writes,
Leigh Davis' flags are not paintings that might be mistaken for flags, they are flags. Manufactured by a flag company, they have been made so they can be hoisted and flown. Regular flags rarely ever use words, but with his flags words, over a hundred in some cases, are often the main feature. It is obvious from this that Davis happily sacrifices the visual efficiency of the regular flag, which must be fully understood from a distance, in order to enhance its expressive potential. Many more than seven colours are used, and apart perhaps from the yellow background of 'Where is Arikirangi' none have the bright, unmixed colours associated with national flags. While some, like the Hau flags are one colour, others have five, often in understated and subtle combinations. Stripes and crosses feature in several designs; in this respect 'Ishmael' and 'Te Rongopai' are most like regular flags. A sexy text about biblical Susanna and the Elders, in the canton where the stars of the Southern Cross should be, makes the pink Temptation of the World a tumidly provocative and witty perversion of the national flag. Davis's flags also recognise the convention of the centrally placed symbol; in the place of the usual totemic animals, his feature maps, trig stations - instruments for colonising the land - in the place of a crown, Te Kooti's wool hat. These ghost flags are sufficiently like regular flags that we are constantly reminded of them and their history, yet sufficiently unlike that we can't avoid reading them for their difference.
FLAGS, ART AND WAR
Art and flags, of course, play very different parts in the world, although there are places and times when they come together. In battles of old, to take an example of particular interest to us here. Compared to today's conflicts, those wars were costume dramas with pennants, banners and flags for props and symbols. Ulrich Horndash, a German artist whose installations explore the space between painting and decor, has recently recreated an 18th century flag display, Decor du Caf e Militaire, which recalls those days of old. It was in the 19th century that much of the pageantry was stripped from the field of battle. Herman Melville, writing from another bleeding edge of the Western Empire, the American Civil War - roughly contemporaneous with the New Zealand Wars - registered these changes in stanzas strikingly modern in their irony and unpoetic diction.
State ceremonial, of course, preserves some of the gaud of glory to this day. Tightly scripted and rigidly choreographed, these set piece events are a type of public theatre. Sometimes the scriptwriters lose control of the plot, and the players or the audience forget themselves, unexpectedly breaking ceremony's comforting spell. For example, because of the contestable in-betweenness of its protocols, its now central political and historical significance, the Waitangi Day plot is liable to seizure, and ghostly visitation. This year protesters lowered the New Zealand flag, replacing it with Maori nationalist flags. On previous occasions police have acted to protect or restore the authority of the event, but this time they did nothing. Disruptions of the celebrations have now become such a regular feature of the event, they have in effect been added to the script.
The global response to the death and state funeral for the British Princess Diana gave rise to a single poem which stretches over four separate flags. The world's media and its audience experienced seizure on such an unparalleled scale that it seemed to signal a transformation in the meaning of public life: 'people felt the Hauhau quality', said Davis, 'the sense of sudden expansion/disorientation/disturbance and massive change when Diana Spencer died. It triggered an amazing search for an invisible culprit. Diana Spencer's death was about global literature becoming visible, its machinery seen going about the business of constituting a Diana, dramatising her death, constituting her mourners as subjects. It was an industrial event.'
What got Davis going, his models and inspiration, were not so much regular flags, as the 19th century hauhau flags of Maori resistance movements, which, while they mimicked those of the constituted national authority, also challenged it. The symbolic and ceremonial usages of European flags were swiftly recognised and adapted to Maori purposes. The flagstaff, or niu (news) pole, and the flags that were designed and made for it, was a feature of the Pai Marire movement. The ceremonial practices which were centred on it apparently invested the flag with vivid and exuberant presence because straight from the pressure cooker of religious and political conflict. One of Te Kooti's battle flags substitutes for the red, white and blue crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick on the Union Jack canton red, green, black and white. The same flag features three stars, similar to those featured by Pai Marire flags.
Others, strangely, bore letters, words and numbers. Strangely, because they were absent from settler flags, and because pre-contact Maori culture was oral. As Davis notes, these elements 'convey by their placement, compression, abbreviation, and graphic style that they are apprehended by a convert and not a native speaker, that they are being used by someone for whom writing is an activity of a second language.' They are used like captured trophies, exotically otherworldly. After the war years, Te Kooti and his followers rode behind a flag which carried the words 'Te Rongo Pai' on a white ground 'as an emblem of their mission'. This continued improvising of standards to grace and galvanise his pilgrimage seems characteristic of Te Kooti's genius and sophistication. On others, star shapes, flowers, hearts and crosses bloom, multiplying the appearances of new codes, at once familiar and obscure, returning in kind to the enemy that faced them in struggle, civil or military, an experience of fluttering mystery that is the flag.
FLAGS AND POETRY
The poetry here is jumping; visually it keeps changing, from short poems (one word, even) to long (the Diana poem has more than sixty). From short lines (one word, even) to long (thirteen). From upper to lower case, and from large letters to small, from colour to colour. Not only from flag to flag but within individual flags. Lines are seldom justified to the left (or right) margin - commonly they are centred, and sometimes so broken up by spaces, or by some image, varying the distances between words and phrases and gaps between the lines themselves, that the words might seem scattered arbitrarily across the page. Like a pattern or a texture. Reading as immersion. 'Be a swimmer of the sea of seizures'. Reading as snakes and ladders. For example: after reading Mulberry tree, line by green line, left to right, read the words in red. For example, Un guerrier's five sentences - in what order do we read them? The one in yellow, dropped out of black - we might read it before, after, or between reading the four in green.
All have to be read with their images, which are never illustrations. The kauri in Grace Epitaph, which the poem tells us will be for sure an earth-bound ghost of Grace, seems an illustration (we recognise the tree) until we see the word 'Cedre' (cedar) at the foot of the engraving. The epitaph is thus freighted with another history, with that of the intersection of colonisation and natural history. The designs are not visually secondary to the text; the connections between them are typically a bit oblique, partial, ambiguous (fought to end) and varied. Gaps for leaping open up. What's the connection between the trig station on Where i s Arikirangi, and Te Kooti's return to Rongopai? Jump jack. Flash. 'Do not,' writes the poet on another flag 'construct your experience one step at a time.' Beyond the design elements echoing and sustaining the flag look, the images are usually quotations. The precise sources are less important than the context of reference they bring to the poems. Since the poet's creativity is as a hunter and collector, there is a 'continuous work of lifting', the hoisting/heisting of pre-loved words and images, he comes across as a reader who renders and rearranges what he reads.
Incomplete as they are without their visual devices, these poems demand also a hearing. The flag poem certainly privileges the written, the visible word, but speech is not demeaned in the process. A listening out for 'the aerial elocution of the angels' humm'. As hau gives the flags a lift, so the voice lifts their language. This space of carriage is also a space of mouthing. Periodically a groundswell rhythm surfaces in a rhyming, a chiming of sounds, words, phrases. Characteristic accumulations of noun phrases, two adjectives for every noun. Groups of chiming adjectives and nouns linked by, swinging on, a monosyllabic 'of on which these poems ride. 'The flowing of royal colour slowing, between rolling sky and sea!'; 'minor flak of collapsing laps resounding'; 'infrared detection of Christ Child's havoc of old dancesteps, inundations of the Infant Jesus ushering at Wild Beast Point'. Evocation and description is often in the context of speech to someone. To Te Kooti, Diana, various saints and sinners are addressed, prayed to, entreated, questioned, commanded.
Station of Earth-Bound Ghosts is a poem about the past whose language is vividly and musically always in the present tense. 'Kahawai words.' It may seem that sound is more present than sense, overriding it like surf. The verbs are all in the present, and on going; in some poems present participles predominate, keep them moving, flowing, slowing, rolling, collapsing, ushering. We are in the midst, not only of one poem, but of the entire collection. Each of these poems is loosely structured, its sentences or sentence fragments only lightly and paratactically connected one to another, and insecurely anchored in meaning. Each phrase a 'suspension bridge from this day forward'. Each, often enough, has a strangeness, the result of the radical metaphor's compression, the 'combustion of currents'. For all their visual and aural attraction the opaqueness challenges the reader.
POETRY AND 'BEYONSENSE' (ZAUM AND TE REO KE)
Leigh Davis is best known for Willy's Gazette, a book of poems published more than fifteen years ago which earned him the reputation of being the terrible child of 198os New Zealand poetry. His subsequent silence as a poet, which coincided with his successes in the business world, was a source of relief to some; it had less to do with a disenchantment with poetry as such than with its vehicles, especially the book, especially the slim, effete tome, and the limited terms of its circulation in this country. Maybe the book was done for? Maybe it has been washed into some backwater by the fluid forces of the new electronic media? Regis Debray suggested that the computer's 'dematerialisation releases thought from the weight of things, increases its mobility, multiplies its possibilities. From the bookish metaphor to the computational one, the passage is not only, indeed, from heavy to lightweight, rigid to soft, rough to smooth, but from inert to the animate.' By this account the computer releases the hau of language. Despite evidence of the computer's role in the making of the flags - the pixellation of the images in Great Mercury Island and Last Waves - Davis has clearly opted here for a far from modern vehicle. But while flags seem the obstinate vestige of an all but obsolete sign system, so unequivocally and literally do they continue to mark situations of ownership, power, rule, nationhood and so on, their part in shaping the public domain remains undeniable. And so the more public space Davis wanted for poetry.
He was 'a terrible child' because young and avant-garde. Critics called him a rebel, his book part of a 'single revolutionary programme to unsettle the assumptions on which 'New Zealand literature' ... 'had been based.' Again, poetry and war approach one another, the avant-garde is art in militant mode, the term itself taken straight from the field of battle. Davis' drive to open up a more public space for poetry is not about making himself over into a poet of the easy -peasy. Station of Earth-Bound Ghosts is a development, a raising of the stakes, not a disavowal of his earlier position. The writing remains a challenge, a test for readers and viewers. Poems that are about change, as these are, which do not face it at the level of their own language, remain hostage to the status quo. Poetry is nothing if not as good as its word. 'The question is always,' wrote Charles Bernstein, 'what is the meaning of this language practice; what values does it propagate; to what degree does it encourage an understanding, a visibility, of its own values, or to what degree does it repress that awareness?'
The hau keeps Davis' language in a space between meaning and nonsense. Well, let me rephrase that -in a space sufficiently far beyond the common sense, the only too common sense, that it may be mistaken for nonsense. There are precedents aplenty for writing of this sort in the history of the avant-garde. A clear historical 'limit case ' which is interestingly related to the prophetic tradition is the 'zaum' poetry of the Russians, Khlebnikov and Kruchonykh especially. Pure zaum approaches nonsense through dislocations of language at the level of the letter or the individual sound, the structure of the word, or of grammar.
Another, more recent, example is the American ' L=A=N=G=U=A=G =E' poetry of the 1970s and 80s. The dislocations in Davis' work are far less extreme; more at the level of the relations within and between words, phrases and sentences. For Khlebnikov words have a daylight, everyday meaning and a starlight, essential meaning; it's the latter that is released in zaum where the pure sounds of language have their say. There is no doubt, he wrote, 'that these sound sequences constitute a series of universal truths passing before the predawn of our soul'. Zaum language has something in common with Te Kooti's 'te reo ke', the strange language. From the very beginnings, Te Kooti's prophetic sayings, the kupu whakaari, were prefaced by dislocated and rearranged 'beyonsense' Maori words and phrases. These were sacred words communicated by the Angel Michael and thus the carriers of universal truths. They were said to test and challenge his followers to reach meaning beyond common sense.
THE STATION AS INSTALLATION AND MEETING HOUSE
The flags were first exhibited in the Auckland Central Railway Station in May, 1998. Despite its title, though, Station of Earth-Bound Ghosts was neither named nor produced for this or any other specific site. And yet any more culturally neutral a site would hardly have served so well. These flags are not really at home in art galleries, they do not particularly like a white wall. They do benefit from a bit of a breeze -some hau. So, lacking any natural indoor site, their venue necessarily becomes a matter of negotiation.
Auckland's Railway Station had been in limbo since 1994 when New Zealand Rail, while continuing to use the platforms and tracks, decided to vacate the building. Besides the long-standing decline in passenger traffic, the status of the entire site had become complicated following the Government's offer of first right of purchase to Ngati Whatua as part of its settlement of the tribe's Treaty of Waitangi claim. Two years later, with financial assistance from the sweetly named Magellan Corporation, Ngati Whatua took up the offer. The area was subdivided and in 1997 the building and its surrounds were onsold to another company which has since set about converting it into a student apartment complex. So by the time Davis hired it for what was to be its last public outing, the Station had remained cavernously empty and unused, if not neglected, for some five years. While the flags certainly filled the barrel-vaulted length of the Grand Concourse, they were not visible from the grandly cavernous entrance hall, nor from the dark, low-ceilinged corridor that joined it to the Concourse. So large and colourful though it was, the installation dissipated little of the melancholy air that had gathered in its halls over those years.
Nor did it drown out the conversation the building was bound to initiate. The Station's function, its history, design and decor, provided an intrusive context, and it was simply not possible to read the flags in isolation from it. For the countless New Zealanders who had passed through it since r930, it was already a house of memories of arrivals and settings out, of farewells and greetings. And thronged with ghosts. Philip Matthews, for instance, read the context of Station of Earth-Bound Ghosts as a 'type of obituary for a decommissioned public facility; for the washed-up grandeur of the building, stranded in a no-man's land of carparks, small traders. It might also say something about the kind of nationhood the building represents, about a national narrative that has unravelled, of centralised cohesion and progress, the forming of public networks. Along the walls of the concourse, between the rows of flags, are original deco-ish shields representing North Island destinations: Auckland, Wellington, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Napier, Palmerston North. One decorative motif throughout the building is an emblem with Maori and Pakeha facing each other and the glorious future with the word 'Onward!' underneath. Vanished, optimistic times'.
Suspended from ten wires, the flags left the interior fabric of the Concourse virtually untouched. An annexation of the rest of the building as a whole was effected by the projection of names in light on the walls and ceiling of the interior and on the exterior facade. On the entrance hall ceiling: Bay of Plenty, in the dark corridor to the Concourse: Waioeka Gorge, and in the Concourse: Te Rongopai. This map laid lightly over the Station's floor plan turns the viewer's approach to the exhibition into an enactment of Te Kooti's longed for, but never achieved, return from exile. A return the consummation of which is imagined in the last flag of the show, Where is Arikirangi. This light touch - flick a few switches, undo a few wires and it's gone - is a mark of the nomad nature of the project, of its potential for other conversations.
'Station', the word resonates variously here. In the title it denotes the place where the earth-bound ghosts convene, where they have been gathered together as a stand of flags. As in a stand of trees - not a stall, except as we find it in in-stall-ation. The collection of poems, the collection as a single poem, the stand of flags, the exhibition.
In 19 73, the French artist Daniel Buren hung a row of identical striped rectangular banners in the John Weber Gallery on the fourth floor of 420 West Broadway in New York, a row which extended out the window and across the street to the building opposite, changing thereby from a line of paintings to a line of washing. 'Every place,' he wrote 'radically imbues (formally, architecturally, sociologically, politically) with its meaning the object (work/creation) shown there. Art in genera l... pretends to ignore or reject the draconian role imposed by the museum (gallery), a role both cultural and architectural. To reveal this limit (the role), the object presented and its place of display must dialectically imply one another.' This is what happened with the first stand taken by Davis's flags at the Auckland Railway Station. The flags, having no given architectural home, are nomadic, on the move, from station to station.
We hear 'stationary', stopped, not moving, fixed, at rest. Not migratory or itinerant. A railway 'station' is, however, a regular stopping point for itinerants, travellers. As is a petrol station. Radio and TV stations are transmission, relay, points for the circulation of information. See references to 'wireless English'. See signal flags, the flag alphabet. A message sent with signal flags is spelt out in a sequence of hoists.
Besides 'stand' we hear 'standard', 'standard bearer', we hear 'I have my standards and signs of worldly carriage' (A Suspension bridge). A person of standing is of high station. As we have said before, there are many such people gathered here; although linked to institutions of heavenly and earthly authority and power, they're marginal, controversial, figures who make trouble for those institutions. They are here with various pinch-hitting Madonnas and Saints elected, presented their colours, by the poet-Pope, to flesh out his elevated company.
1. Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, ed. Kirk Varnedoe, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1997, 98.
2. The Sixties Art Scene in London, Phaidon, 1993, 120
3. A Utilitarian View of the MOnitor's Fight, Battle-Pieces. Herman Melville.
4. Writing and Method in In the American tree, ed. Ron Silliman, Orono, National Poetry Foundation, 1986, 589
5. 'Confusions of currents', The New Zealand Listener, July 18th 1997, 40