mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 21: Spring 1998

Gregory O'Brien — The dark plane leaves at evening

page 26

Gregory O'Brien

The dark plane leaves at evening

Some notes on the history of aviation, the aerial perspective, various kinds of elevation and turning 21 in Australia, 1982


In all the important, decisive plane trips in your life, it is impossible to think of yourself as a passenger. Rather, from your economy class seat, you are piloting the aeroplane—it is your willpower that is lifting the 747 from the tarmac and directing it towards whatever destination you have in mind. My 22nd year is bracketed by two such flights—the first to Melbourne, a few weeks before my 21st birthday, the second back to Auckland from Sydney almost a year later.

The last thing I saw of New Zealand from my aisle seat as the late-night flight departed was a spotlit, billowing windsock—a cylinder of air, a receptacle of glowing colour against the stark blackness of the night sky. Over time, I have come to think of that windsock as a flag flying over my year away—if periods of time can have flags—a three-dimensional ensign containing and representing 12 months as well as one or two Australian cities. I came to the conclusion, not long after, that the flag of the country to which I belonged (as yet unspecified) was, in fact, a windsock.


The summer before I moved to Australia I worked in the research library of the Auckland City Art Gallery, where a painting by the English/New Zealand artist Patrick Hayman (1915-1988) hung just inside the library door. Entitled Atomic Explosion in the Pacific, the picture is a turbulent assemblage of imagined life-forms: above a Gauguinesque nude and a trawler flies the curiously hybridised form of a bird/fish/aeroplane—a flier at once apocalyptic yet warm-spirited page 27 and almost awkward in its trajectory—like an origami swan gone seriously wrong.

The skies in Patrick Hayman's paintings are often inhabited by such strange, enigmatic presences, be they animal, human, mechanical, or all these things at once. In the case of his 1965 painting Self-portrait as a flying machine, the front end of the biplane's fuselage has been replaced with the bearded, spectacled visage of the artist himself. Here we have a different kind of ‘aerial’ view—a vision of the artist as inhabitant of the skies. Beyond nationalistic agendas and the conventions of landscape, portrait, and still life (all earthbound by definition), we have the artist as resident of his own imaginative stratosphere.

Black and white image of painting

Patrick Hayman, Self-portrait as a flying machine (1965)


If, in previous centuries, the sailboat or oceangoing vessel was a symbol of the voyage, in the 20th century the aeroplane has usurped that role. As well as the aircraft that pepper Hayman's skies, depictions of yachts and fishing boats—influenced by the Cornish naive painter Alfred Wallis—trawl or cruise on through a great many of his paintings and drawings.

In the best Freudian manner, Hayman's sea-paintings often include a female figure—eroticised, totemic—whereas the aeroplanes are unabashedly male symbols. Reiterating the Duchampian analogy between machines and the male sex (see Duchamp's Bride Stripped page 28 Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), the intrusive presence in Hayman's Woman frightened by a flying machine is unmistakably sexual in nature. Hayman's aeroplanes are crazed, mechanistic spermatozoa—intruders into a psychosexual landscape of bulbous forms and stalklike tree trunks. His painted sculpture The Indian Flier (1980) is another such Jungian/Freudian construction, a truncated, winged totem; a delicious (obscene from some angles) insect-aviator.

Black and white image of painting

Patrick Hayman, Woman frightened by a flying machine (1976)


A momentous occasion upon my return to New Zealand in 1983 was visiting the touring National Art Gallery Rita Angus exhibition. Included in that show was Journey, Wellington (1962-3), an enigmatic cityscape above which an airliner—reminiscent of Hayman's aeroplane-spermatozoa—floats between two egg-like moons. This connection between aviation and maleness, however, was conveniently disrupted elsewhere in the exhibition by a painting entitled Aviatrix—a portrait of the artist's sister Edna who was the first woman member of the East Coast Aero Club to obtain a pilot's licence. A sad irony of this work was that while Angus's sister managed to master air as a trained pilot she would later die from lack of it, succumbing during an asthma attack in the last month of the 1930s.

The asthmatic's peak-flow meter is not all that dissimilar from the windsock with which we began these peregrinations—a fact which leads me to ruminate on the tentative nature of air, a substance which sustains both aviator and asthmatic alike. (An asthmatic myself, the only time I have not suffered considerably from the condition was page 29 during my year in Sydney. Having enjoyed unimpeded breathing for 12 months, upon my return to Auckland the accustomed coughing and wheezing resumed.)

A great many artists this century have, understandably, been obsessed with aviation: the weightlessness, acceleration, speed and the way it reconfigures the world before your very eyes. The aerial perspective destabilises the natural order—the horizon, for a start, becomes an arbitrary line; foreground and background become redundant, as do conventions of one point perspective and tonal recession. As well as the speed, however, there is the stillness of being transfixed that far above the firmament—suspended, detached, cut loose, set adrift.

The Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism (Eight Red Rectangles) (1915) is, on one hand, a summation of purist abstraction, the world and its orchestrated effects removed, boiled down. All we are left with is geometry, the colour red and the noncolour white. At the same time, however, the painting can be read as an aerial view of a group of red rooftops in the midwinter Russian snow. Malevich was, in fact, fascinated with aviation and aerial photography, and later became preoccupied with early notions of satellites and space travel. In the art of Malevich and the Dutchman Piet Mondrian, the soaring heights of abstract art and those of technology neatly coalesce. Both artists also shared a belief in spiritual and temporal progress not unlike that of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who spoke of ‘the adoration of the Upward and the faith of the Forward’.

Black and white image of painting

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism (Eight Red Rectangles) (1915)

page 30


As my flight for Melbourne departed, the windsock pointed back in the direction from which I had come: an extended finger signalling ‘go back’ or, at least, ‘consider again what you're leaving behind’. Hence, the windsock came inadvertently to denote the place I had left.

In Australia I was greeted by another windsock, pointing back in the direction from which the landing aeroplane had approached the runway. Since then I have noticed windsocks around the world, all of them identical and all of them pointing back in the direction from which the aeroplane has just come, pointing towards the past.

In contrast to the backward-facing windsocks of my departure for Australia and all the other destinations, I imagine the windsocks of Malevich and the Russian Futurists magically reversed and pointing towards a dizzying, irrational future.


An English translation of the fourth volume of Blaise Cendrars's memoirs, Sky, appeared in English in 1992. The book is, for the most part, a memorial to the author's son, an aviator who, having been shot down by the Germans then imprisoned, survived World War II only to die in a plane crash shortly after the end of hostilities. As was the custom for a pilot, Cendrars's son was buried wrapped in a parachute.

As a means of copying with his loss and commemorating the tragic descent of his son, Cendrars devotes much of Sky to recounting the lives of Catholic saints who, during their lives, were supposedly capable of feats of weightlessness, of levitation. To this end, Cendrars quotes verbatim lengthy passages from Olivier Leroy's aptly titled tome La Levitation (1928). It's a puzzling literary strategy, although perhaps a necessarily circuitous and distanced one given the immensity of Cendrars's grief. Incapable of finding his own words, he appropriated those of someone else—the saints' lives providing a supporting structure for his largely unspoken elegy.

Sky is, in effect, an attempt to populate the vast empty spaces between people, as well as the space through which the author's son fell. It embodies the emptiness into which the author plummeted page 31 upon hearing of his son's death.

Central to Cendrars's book is the figure of St Joseph of Copertino, the ‘New Patron Saint of Aviation’. Coincidentally, a few years before coming upon Sky, I had written two compressed lives of St Joseph of Copertino in my novel Diesel Mystic, which appeared in 1989. In my book (a work much preoccupied with weightlessness and flight) two adjacent churches with the same name—Saint Joseph's—have erected billboards on facing sides of the highway. The two identically named churches use these billboards to compete for new parishioners, constantly trying to outdo each other with miraculous tales, most often of a levitational manner. In Catholic saintology, levitation is one of the more common proofs of sainthood; another is bilocation—the ability to be in two places at once (a quality I have St Joseph manifest literally in Diesel Mystic by living his ‘life’ simultaneously on the two opposing billboards).

Some years after Diesel Mystic appeared, a friend of mine related an interesting story involving the book. My friend works in the library of a provincial New Zealand city, where the husband of one of her workmates is a prominent land rights activist. She tells me that while this fellow doesn't care much for books, he does carry a copy of Diesel Mystic around with him. It surprised me that someone involved in land rights should be, according to my friend, so ‘involved’ in a book which has as one of its central premises the whole business of levitation, of escaping from the land, the ground.

Calling to mind Patricia Grace's story collection The Sky People and the vaporous bird-humans of the painter Hariata Ropata Tangahoe, in my imagined postscript to the story of my friend's friend's husband, the activist becomes as interested in Air Space as he is in Land Rights and accordingly devotes a sizable proportion of his activism towards that end. ‘Where would we be without our air,’ he points out. ‘We are the people of the sky above the land.’

page 32


Shortly before I left for Australia, the brother of a friend of my sister's flew me from Auckland to Rotorua in a small aircraft. The machine, parked at Ardmore aerodrome, looked like one of those motorised pretend-aeroplanes outside supermarkets, although with flimsy wing extensions and a FOR SALE sign leaning against the fuselage. The asking price was $22,000 ono. Clambering into the cockpit, I was shocked that the only instrumentation was a speedometer and a dashboard-mounted compass which looked like something from a cornflakes packet.

Soon, miraculously, we were airborne and cruising down-country at just under 100 miles per hour, which, despite the fact it was the top speed of our machine, seemed too slow for an aeroplane. Looking down on the farmland, I thought of Baxter's ‘Cattle like maggots / Green porcelain paddocks’. Some motorists on State Highway One appeared to be overtaking us.


Between flying in and out of Australia, the only flights I embarked upon were the intermittent ones into the imaginative airspaces of books. For my 21st birthday, my brother Brendan gave me a copy of For The Birds by John Cage. The American composer/writer/artist declared that he was ‘for the birds, not for the cages in which people sometimes place them’.1 This belief in creative freedom was Cage's credo, although he did have the good sense to question the romanticism of both birds and flight, noting a few years earlier: Artists talk a lot about freedom. So, recalling the expression ‘free as a bird’, Morton Feldman went to a park one day and spent some time watching our feathered friends. When he came back, he said, ‘You know? They're not free: they're fighting over bits of food.’2

Ian Wedde pulled off a similar ornithological nose-dive in his poem ‘Mahia, 1978’: ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull gulped worms and shit’, while admitting, begrudgingly, ‘Oh certainly he could fly’.3 Despite page 33 appearances to the contrary, the French composer Messaien's preoccupation with birdsong was certainly no decorous affair, as his piano-crunching Catalogue d'oiseaux attests.

Living in a heavily built-up part of Sydney, the flights certain books offered were the greatest freedom. The year was bracketed at the other end by the gift from my brother of two books: Louis Zukofsky's long, baffling poem A and Wassily Kandinsky's collection of prose-poems, Sounds. As was the case with Cage, Kandinsky and Zukofsky were great mixers of music, art and literature. Kandinsky developed theories concerning synaesthesia—the exact correspondence between music and colour—to such a literal degree that he believed specific orchestral instruments matched specific colours.4

Occasionally during that year flocks of parakeets would swoop down onto our rooftop, a raucous, iridescent pink wave—confirming, you could say, these colour-sound relationships before I had ever really thought about them.


It is October 1997 and I am collecting the Japanese avant-garde electric guitarist, ‘psyche monster’ and ‘noise terrorist’ Keiji Haino—also known as ‘The Prince of Silence and Noise’—from Wellington airport. His concerts are notorious for their extreme volume and the violence of his approach to his instrument. Haino is accompanied by an interpreter who knows only fractionally more English than he does. Driving past the end of the runway, I hear a guttural murmuring from the backseat (Haino, I am told, prefers speaking an ancient Japanese dialect), then the interpreter beside me gestures towards the runway and asks: ‘What … is … that?’

‘A windsock.’

He translates that for the backseat passenger and I hear them both laughing and saying, ‘… wind … sock …’

The following day, delivering the two men back to the airport, as we approach the runway I notice their conversation in Japanese is punctuated by the English word ‘windsock’, which is accompanied with a breathless laughter and an enthusiasm counter to their usual cultivated gloom and high seriousness.

page 34


Two large collections of poetry accompanied me to Australia: Collected Writings in French by Jean (Hans) Arp and James K. Baxter's Collected Poems. 5 On the return flight, these weighty volumes were again consigned to hand-luggage to lighten the significantly overweight suitcases in the hold. Travelling east, I remember reading Baxter's ‘Air Flight North’:

I do not like this chariot. It gives me
Faustian dreams. Undoing the seat belt

And lighting up a smoke …

… I meditate the doom

Of Icarus, while the hostess brings
Coffee in trim red mugs. A calm flight.

These lines rang true for a 21-year-old with only a suspicion or intuited sense that all was not right with the world, and an emerging belief that poetry might almost make up for that. In hindsight I think that the year 1982, to start with, was a runway we taxied out onto. The rest of the year was one long plane trip, from the time I took off until I landed 12 months later.


How do we record a flight? We have a few Baxter poems, Smithyman's ‘Flying to Palmerston’, Stead's sequence ‘Yes, T.S.’, which links Auckland with England, and Bill Manhire's ‘Breakfast’, which brings us back home via Singapore … We have Colin McCahon's North Otago and Canterbury landscapes with their cubist-inspired, tilted planes of landscape—views which would be inconceivable without air travel. There's McCahon's famous, now destroyed, 1953 canvas entitled International Air Race, the artist looking down on two aeroplanes and through sporadic cloud to the earth beneath; also McCahon's ‘Jet Out’ works of the early 1970s and the drawing entitled page 35 Birds, Bread, Bug (a work John Cage would have approved of) with its disturbed, vertiginous perspective, hacked to pieces by the artist's hesitant yet brutal marks.

We have the aerial cityscapes of British/NZ painter Robert Ellis, who was an aerial photographer in the Royal Airforce during World War II, then spent the rest of his life painting roadways and urban geometries from that same viewpoint. Even Ralph Hotere's abstract paintings of the 1960s were influenced by his training as a pilot in the air force during the previous decade, Bill Manhire suggests.6

Black and white image of a drawing

Colin McCahon, Birds, Bread, Bug (1972)


‘Windsock’, that orange word flapping in a breeze that is constantly leaving and arriving, reaching as far as Australia then returning.

Our two-year-old son Felix has been obsessed with windsocks for some months now. We drive him across town to observe the windsock at the end of the Wellington International Airport runway as it tenses and relaxes, sways then is still. ‘Windsock’ was the third or fourth word he learnt to say.


The aerial viewpoint has dominated post-World War II Australian painting to an even greater degree than it has New Zealand painting. The painters Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams were both, at various times, preoccupied with aerial views, having experienced epiphanies while flying over the Australian landscape. Some of Nolan's best earlier drawings are of either Icarus or of an aeroplane crashing in the desert page 36 (an event he actually witnessed while stationed at Wimmera during World War II). In 1949, after flying over the interior, he began painting the unpopulated central Australian landscape. While Nolan's paintings were the first sustained series of Australian aerial landscapes, they were prefigured by Margaret Preston's small masterpiece Flying over the Shoalhaven River (1942) with its flattened space and Aboriginal-inspired pictorial rhythms.

‘The flat canvas became the perfect way of realising the experience of looking down on the landscape from an aerial viewpoint,’ Patrick McCaughey wrote of Fred Williams in 1981. ‘Just as the landscape flattened out below Williams, so he made it do so for the viewer.’7 The denuded language of the Australian desertscape, as depicted in particular by Williams, also conveniently echoed, in the late 1950s and early 60s, the pictorial strategies of Post-Painterly Abstraction as embodied by the work of Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt.


Towards the end of 1987, I read extracts from my then unfinished novel Diesel Mystic in the lounge bar of the now demolished Gluepot Hotel in Ponsonby, Auckland. Just as I was concluding the title chapter, in which a Maori flamenco-guitarist/diesel-mechanic from Ruatoria attains an illuminated state and starts levitating, the painter Tony Fomison stood up in the midst of the audience and said: I know that man.

The guitarist/diesel-mechanic's name was Robin Williams—the same as the Hollywood actor—and Fomison had heard him busking at the Otara Market. I would later record that moment of recognition in the published version of Diesel Mystic in a chapter entitled ‘The verge of losing somebody’:

The park is located on the verge of the highway south and on the verge of losing somebody.

Can I tell you a story a diesel mechanic from Ruatoria once told me? Johnny Ruatara asks.

I know that story, I reply. I know that man.8

page 37


An archaeologist or geologist stands on the ground and looks down into it—an aerial view, if you like—staring miles downwards into the earth, his attention plummeting, free-falling through the clay, rock and layering of whatever else. He is, of course, also staring down through time.

Fred Williams's landscapes are archaeological in their register of underlying patterns, textures and forces. Their nervous twitches of imagery, their recesses and moments of detail are similar to those that permeate an important series of aerial photographs of New Zealand taken by Kevin L. Jones.9 Not unlike microscopic or atomic photographs, Jones's landforms are full of suggestiveness: a reclining figure emerges from the Northburn herringbone tailings. The landscapes look like the human nervous system or x-rays. Or a child's drawing—a feathered or string man, even. At other times the surface of the land looks like human skin under a microscope: porous, bathed in light. (The way the land continues out beyond the borders of the photographic image reminds us that photographs can only ever be fragments of a viewpoint.) This is close to the territory of Paul Klee and, for that matter, early Gordon Walters—an organic mythology of insinuated and oblique forms.

Black and white photograph

Kevin L. Jones, photograph from Nga Tohuwhenua Mai te Rangi: A New Zealand archeology in aerial photographs, (VUP, 1994) p. 215

page 38

While Colin McCahon was drawn to the mass and structure of the primordial hill country and coast, the inessentials which he usually removed—such details as trees, roads and buildings—are essential to Kevin Jones's photographs. Out of these he creates a sparse, puzzling calligraphy. And whereas McCahon's aerial view revealed an ‘order’ which paralleled that of Old Testament Christianity—a land permeated with darkness and light, suffering and redemption—Jones's photographs offer a far less simplified or generalised reading. They are hymns to the particular and the disordered. Instead of the changeless, primordial landscape, we are presented with one that changes by the minute, the time of day, depending on the season—or depending on the speed, height and angle of the aeroplane in which we are travelling. It is like the landscape in Andrey Tarkovsky's films ‘Andrej Rublyov’ and ‘The Stalker’—it is a place of inscriptions, inferences and traces. It is strewn with human history, with relics.

Black and white drawing of flags and wind socks


In 1987 I spent a few weeks in Australia, during which time I completed a series of drawings including various configurations of windsocks—a profusion of them rather than the accustomed singular example: an image, then, of indecision or possible confusion, inferring that there might be more than one direction (to counter, in a roundabout way, Colin McCahon's famous dictum: ‘There is only one direction’).

page 39


A warm afternoon in early September: I am standing at the top of Auckland's recently completed Skytower. The city recedes into the distance in every direction; however, there is one direction in particular I find myself returning to—my eye travelling up Remuera Rd, past Mount Hobson and on towards Meadowbank. It is nearly 20 years since I lived in Remuera, on what is now known as the ‘northern slopes’. Driving through the suburb in recent years, I am struck by how much the area has changed. It's an amazing thing how money can run a suburb down.

The resonant spaces of an unassuming childhood have been replaced by the bleeping of automatic car locking devices and the constant ringing of malfunctioning burglar alarms. Travelling through the suburb by car or on foot, there is nothing left of my childhood. Our family home at 5 Eastbourne Rd has now been replaced by a heart-stoppingly monstrous million-dollar condominium. I visited the street in 1995, by which time our house had been deemed unworthy of its location and shipped off in the middle of one night. All that was left was a life-size floor-plan of the basement where much of my childhood was spent. This was another kind of aerial perspective: the floor of the rumpus room, workshop and wine-cellar rendered as a sequence of connected two-dimensional planes, the sheltering walls and roof gone.

From the top of the Skytower, the light is golden and washes over the seemingly flat landscape (the elevation renders undulations in the landscape inconsequential). My ostensibly detached and distant gaze is drawn into this landscape with its memories of a childhood spent on bicycles, tunnelling through bush or knee-deep in the tadpole-laden creek beside Portland Rd…It is not a ‘realistic’ view per se—it is the distanced, ‘formalised’ view from a height. It is the aerial perspective of a Malevich, a Fred Williams, a Kevin Jones. The most surprising thing, however, is that, having never before seen the suburb from this perspective, the view appears familiar. In fact it feels exactly the same as the diagrammatic floorplan of the suburb which, as a child, I constructed and was constantly drawing up in my mind.

page 40

This experience of sighting or recording some intimate ‘truth’ from such a detached and unlikely vantage point has an analogue in the artist's need to find or create a necessary height or distance (in time or space) so as to see afresh past experience, to unearth its street formations and floorplans. The poem, a case in point, needs this kind of space—it can't be formed while nestled hard up to its originating experience.

My year in Australia, aged 21, was an attempt to construct this kind of distance and vantage point, then to furnish it with imaginative materials. The future of the creative enterprise, as far as I was concerned, hinged on this manoeuvre. It was as if everything had been thrown up into the air and allowed to hover there for a time, awaiting whatever might eventuate.

Black and white image of newpaper caption and photograph

After 80 years, St Gerard goes home


I have seen with my own eyes one of the levitating saints cited in Blaise Cendrars's Sky: Gerard Majella (1726-55), a Redemptorist lay brother who fell into an ecstatic trance one day while listening to a blind beggar playing a popular canticle on a flute. For five years (1989-94), I lived beside a monastery named after that saint, overlooking page 41 Oriental Bay in Wellington. During this time, the monastery chapel, which had been a regular venue for Sunday Mass, was closed. On the wall above the altar, there was a large 19th-century oil painting of monastery's patron saint, levitating outside a church above a bewildered gathering of women and children.

With the chapel no longer in use and the future of the monastery buildings uncertain, it was decided that the painting of Saint Gerard be returned to the Italian town of Mater Domini, just south of Naples. The picture, by Gagliardi, had been gifted to the Wellington monastery around the turn of the century and was now worth millions upon millions of comparatively worthless Italian lire which, surprisingly enough, when the figures were rounded up, came to roughly one million NZ dollars.

I sighted the levitating saint crossing Hawker St, carried by two workmen who were struggling to steady the canvas against the prevailing northerly. The saint, his arms outstretched, appeared to be flying parallel to the pavement, after the fashion of a missile or a child's drawing of a jet. Or a migrating bird heading for the northern hemisphere. (The seasons were changing and the saint's trajectory could quite accurately be described as a kind of migration.)

The last I saw of Gerard Majella, he was gliding headfirst into the back of an O'Brien Removalists truck (the legend Don't Risk It, Let O'Brien Shift It emblazoned on the rear door), to reappear, I imagine, some months later in Mater Domini amidst great celebration and solemnity, the one leavened by the other.


Building a structure, a vantage point: that is the business of the poem—to lift itself beyond subjectivity and sentimentality by an inherently irrational process involving sounds, echoes and tremors, as well as sense. The end result: such towering yet immensely vulnerable structures as the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars. Like the small boy in Allen Curnow's poem ‘Survivors’, we are lifted onto the shoulders of the effective poem. We are held up there as the wind ‘freshens across the park, the crowd begins / thinning towards tomorrow. Climb up and see.’

page 42

Which brings us to that most humane yet difficult objective of poetry: the recapturing of time, the repossession of past experience—in particular, childhood—and, beyond that, the unravelling of history, the renewing of its significance.

As a book by Louis Zukofsky, read on the floor of the Sydney apartment, December 1982, puts it:

To reach that age,

a tide
And full
for a time

be young.

The poem, then, is an opportunity to ‘be young’, to re-experience that which is familiar as though it was fresh, newly awakened.

In the belly of the aeroplane taking off there is a moment when we are all children again, defenceless, silent, our language (and all its reassurances) lost to us. And then, a moment later, we are safely off the ground and the drinks trays and dull magazines separate the adults from the children once again.

James K. Baxter offered a disgruntled account of such a trajectory in his poem ‘The Chariot’, the banality of aircraft offset by the ‘unreal vantage’ it offers:

Though the god Technology has lifted
Me above myself in the dead metal belly

Of the thunder bird, over the winding silted
River bends and grey feathered willows…10

page 43


In one of Patrick Hayman's last dated paintings—perhaps his last—The dark plane takes off at evening (1988), a black aeroplane flies upwards directly into the sun. Left behind is the figure of a woman, a hybridised bird-human (reminiscent of The Indian Flier) and one other. A valedictory symbol, the dark plane is a crucifix. No longer the sexualised mechanism of earlier paintings, here the aeroplane—like that in McCahon's ‘Jet Out’ drawings or in Malevich's Suprematist works—prefigures and enacts the flight of the human soul leaving its earthly garden. Having shed the quirky particulars of Hayman's earlier motorised inventions, this Dark Plane, in its stark, universal symbolism, can be seen as a reprise to D.H. Lawrence's ‘Ship of Death’, the aeroplane supplanting the vessel in Lawrence's poem while inheriting its function:

Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
for the dark flight down oblivion.11

This painting is the beginning of Hayman's dark flight, the creatures of earthly desire at once left behind yet somehow involved and implicated in whatever might eventuate.


From this height looking down, I watch a ridiculous 21-year-old with far too much luggage struggling along Williams St towards Kings Cross, Sydney, where he will soon be installed, just around the corner from a delicatessen which does a brisk trade selling Lemon & Paeroa and Banana Bikes to homesick New Zealanders, a few metres along from the largest Coca Cola neon in the Southern Hemisphere, or so we were told, or so I am telling you now.

…the vast, shimmering moment.
The contracted, pearl-like year…

page 44

There are threads that one is left holding at the end of every year. In the case of my 22nd year there are a succession of windsocks, a series of meditations on air and aviation. Also, a suitcase full of books—including Teilhard de Chardin's Letters from a Traveller, the Yale Gertrude Stein and the Penguin edition of Blaise Cendrars's Selected Poems—which I am still unpacking. There is also an acquaintance with the New Patron Saint of Aviation, Joseph of Copertino, standing there amongst all the other statues at Saint Canice's, King's Cross. Into his good company I would commend Patrick Hayman, with his strange, airborne society; McCahon, with his flying crucifixes high above Muriwai Beach: Keiji Haino, with his one word of English; and Blaise Cendrars, the poet of youthful intoxication and delirious elevation, whom I would nominate as the patron saint of high-spirited youth; and the patron saint of all of the above.

Black and white image of painting

Patrick Hayman, The dark plane takes off at evening (1988)

1 John Cage, For the Birds (Marion Boyars, 1981)p.11.

2 John Cage, Silence(Marion Boyars, 1971) p.25.

3 Ian Wedde, Tales of Gotham City (Auckland University Press, 1984)p.17.

4 This correlation between music and colour he took even further to encompass literary expression as well. In the preface to his book Sounds, Kandinsky stresses the interdependence of all the arts and complains on behalf of artists intent on breaking down barriers between genre: In the past the painter was looked at askance when he wrote—even if it were letters. He was practically expected to eat with a brush rather than with a fork.

5 Two reasonably accurate accounts of how much of my 22nd year was spent were published in Sport 13 as ‘Disasters in Splendour’ and as ‘Flying Wall Café’ in Man with a Child's Violin (Caxton, 1990).

6 These comments were included in an interview I conducted with Manhire, ‘Some paintings I am frequently asked about’, published in Landfall 191 in Autumn 1996. En passant, Ralph Hotere, according to various sources, continued to fly after his training and piloted a small plane around Northland during the late 1950s while working as a school arts inspector. On occasion these school ‘visits’ to remote rural areas consisted solely of a fly-past—with Hotere, in goggles and flying cap, waving from the open cockpit—then continuing on his way. Later, you could only assume, the real challenge for the aviator was somehow convincing the Department of Education that this did in fact constitute a ‘visit’ in the best bureaucratic sense.

7 Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams, The Pilbara Series 1979-1981 (CRA Limited, 1982) p.11.

8 Travelling around the East Cape on the Words on Wheels tour in February 1998, I read the aforementioned chapter of Diesel Mystic out at the Uawa school and mentioned Fomison's response. Like Fomison, the local Maori nodded in recognition and later pointed out that the Williams family—many of whom played flamenco guitar—extended all around East Cape.

‘The place is crawling with Joses,’ one woman said and went on to explain how, last century, a Spaniard called Jose had been shipwrecked on the Cape and settled there, subsequently taking 15 or so wives. ‘His descendents are everywhere,’ I was assured. Many of the Maori also happen to be citizens of La España Peregrina (Wandering Spain) and, not surprisingly, they inherited this original Jose's passion for flamenco guitar. ‘The hills are alive with the sound of Joses,’ someone else remarked.

9 Kevin L. Jones, Nga Tohuwhenua Mai Te RangiA New Zealand archaeology in aerial photographs (Victoria University Press, 1994).

10 James K. Baxter, Collected Poems, edited by John Weir (Oxford, 1995), p.423.

11 D.H. Lawrence, Selected Poems (Penguin, 1972), p.254.