Life-affirming: Barry Thomas plants his first seedling in "The Cabbage Patch" (1978) More than a political, or even a social, revolution, the upheavals of the late-1960s and 70s reflected a revolution of the spirit – almost, one could say, of the soul. And, like all internal human experiences, it tended to manifest itself through art.
I REMEMBER with almost cinematic clarity the day I first heard The Doors’ hypnotic/psychedelic track, "Riders on the Storm".
I was comfortably ensconced in a corner of Wellington’s Resistance Bookshop flicking through the pages of a dense little volume entitled Marxism and Alienation. The rich aroma of burning incense (and quite possibly less acceptable resinous substances) was drifting up the narrow staircase from The Merchant Adventurers of Narnia shop below. Through the windows of the bookshop I watched storm clouds massing in sympathy with the sound-effects of Jim Morrison’s song.
Across Upper Willis Street, the Wellington Settlement bustled with its usual collection of hippies, university students and bored bohemian housewives - all in search of strong coffee, hand-made leather goods, tie-dyed T-shirts and "underground" posters.
Beneath Morrison’s portentous lyrics: "Into this house we’re born/Into this world we’re thrown"; the insinuating hiss of the cymbals merged seamlessly with the patter of falling rain. Entranced, I allowed the moment to imprint itself on my memory. Never again would the counter-culture of the 1970s leave such a deep impression.
The counter-cultural "moment" was, of course, more than personal. With its surging enthusiasms and portentous "alternative" philosophies, the world-wide rebellion against the monolithic uniformities of the post-war "affluent society" entranced millions of young people.
It is recalled now mostly through clichéd media images of swaying, blissed-out hippies and angry student demonstrators – but it was so much more than that. More than a political, or even a social, revolution, the upheavals of the late-1960s and 70s reflected a revolution of the spirit – almost, one could say, of the soul. And, like all internal human experiences, it tended to manifest itself through art.
Those with a yearning to "feel the vibe" of those revolutionary times through the work of some of this country’s politically active artists should pay a visit to the "Artists as Activists: Environment" exhibition which opens today in the galleries of the NZ Academy of Fine Arts, located in Shed No. 1 on Wellington’s Queen’s Wharf.
Featuring the work of Don Binney, Dean Buchanan, Nick Dryden, Ian Hamlin, Sam Mahon, Euan McDougal, Rosemary Mortimer, Michael O’Donnell, Michael Smither, Graham Sydney, Barry Thomas, Brian Turner and Jane Zusters, the exhibition presents an array of "protest art" loosely gathered around the theme of transformation/conservation. It ends on 12 September.
Sam Mahon has this to say about the ultimate fate of the counter-cultural impulse:
Art is no longer seen as a medium for change. Along with all other revolutionaries it has been captured, branded and turned into wallpaper. The dealers and city art galleries and the public art advisory groups do not ask any more what art has to say; they inform art just as a captain of industry informs the shop floor. It seems that the safest place for art these days is the street.
To which Mahon’s fellow exhibitor, Barry Thomas, would undoubtedly say "Amen!". Since the 1970s he has driven art like a sharpened stake into the heart of the corporate/political beast.
There’s a lovely image taken of Barry in 1978, squatting bearded and bare-chested like an Antipodean Cat Stevens in the dust of a Wellington vacant lot - his hands cupped protectively around a fragile cabbage plant.
Thomas’s "Cabbage Patch" – a conceptual artistic statement against the life-negating conservatism of the Muldoon years – quite literally "grew" into a life-affirming (and edible) challenge to Wellington’s bureaucratic soul.
Like so many of the other exhibitors’ work in the show, Thomas’s forces us to focus on the deadening shadow which falls, as T.S. Elliot says in The Hollow Men: between the "idea and the reality"; the "motion and the act"; the "emotion and the response".
"There’s a killer on the road", warned Jim Morrison all those years ago. He was right. The counter-culture proved as vulnerable and short-lived as Barry’s cabbages.
Thankfully, however, New Zealand’s activist artists proved equal to the task of not only riding the storm – but recording it.
Go take a look.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 20 August 2010.