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Road from Eden - 2012

Road from Eden At the Crossroads by Richard Wolfe 2012 In 1839 New Zealand was promoted as a country ideally suited for settlement from Britain, its many attra ...

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Road from Eden

At the Crossroads by Richard Wolfe 2012

In 1839 New Zealand was promoted as a country ideally suited for settlement from Britain, its many attractions including forests where trees grew to ‘a towering height’ and offered ‘an inexhaustible supply’ of timber. First among these trees was the ‘magnificent’ kauri, already in demand for ships’ masts.[1] Shortly, English-born artist Charles Heaphy would paint a number of scenes of New Zealand, including the beginnings of its timber industry.[2] In one such image a team of sawyers is busily reducing felled kauri trunks to planks, ready for the needs of immigrants.

Some 170 years later, Matakana-based Mark Wooller began an alternative view of the fate of the kauri. This series was first shown in 2011,[3] the exhibition title ‘The Last Post’ referring to both the documentation associated with the sale of land, and the loss of forests that went with it. ‘Road from Eden’ now continues the theme, using New Zealand’s best-known tree as a focus for the implications of settlement from Europe.
In Kauri forest on the Wairoa River (2011), Wooller has painted what he describes as ‘ a dirty muddy … polluted river’, meandering through a landscape that was once of ‘unparalleled beauty’ but is now ‘sad and desolate’. He provides a glimpse of what was lost with a reproduction of another of Heaphy’s images,[4] of a dense stand of kauri lining the banks of the same river in Kaipara. Wooller also moves from the hinterland to the town, and his imposition of grid-like street layouts over areas of bush suggests planning done from a distance, with no allowance for irregularities of local geography. Nor did it acknowledge what was obliterated in the process, for the names of the new streets and roads honour only leading lights of the Empire, among them Victoria, Wellesley and Ponsonby. The many postal items included represent another layer to this modification of the landscape, carrying the (entirely fictional) transactions of bankers, lawyers, land agents, speculators and settlers. Postage stamps on the envelopes bear images of Queen Victoria, as if endorsing the extension of her Empire into the far reaches of New Zealand.Wooller contemplates an alternative Auckland, but one which may be no more fanciful than that devised by the settlement’s real-life surveyor, Felton Mathew. He paints one of the city’s defining landforms, Maungawhau (Mt. Eden), bush-covered and presumably predating human settlement. The extent of this vegetation suggests Europeans imagined that an untouched and verdant land awaited them; in fact, some areas had already been substantially modified and were under cultivation by Maori. Compared to Heaphy’s clean and mast-like trunks, Wooller’s kauri are weathered and ancient, and so their imminent demise is all the more regrettable. He has developed a range of diagrammatic trees, packed together in profile in a manner suggesting the vision of the untrained colonial artist. Meticulously painted in various shades of dark green, they capture the impenetrable – but now vulnerable – nature of the New Zealand bush. After clearance by axe and fire, the kauri suffered the further indignity of having its name adopted by a local brand of tobacco. Wooller has arranged images of tins of the product in the form of a cross, alluding to both the intersection of streets and roads and a memorial to the trees they replaced. Tins are also scattered across the canvas as if regular allotments of land, and in Fallen Kauri (2011) they completely replace the trees, each recording a location where forest giants once grew. But is not just the trees that are gone, as confirmed by the title The Lost Waterfall (2011), while in several other paintings a sinuous river snakes through a pristine forest whose fate has already been sealed by the accompanying documents.Charles Heaphy’s paintings were intended for publicity purposes, to entice settlers to New Zealand. There was probably no more potent symbol of the change to the landscape resulting from that influx than the kauri, whose stocks were once considered ‘inexhaustible’. Mark Wooller is concerned with the consequences of human settlement, and makes the point that the natural environment remains at risk. As suggested here, and filtered through a historical perspective, its fate may still be at the crossroads.

1. John Ward, Information Relative to New-Zealand, Compiled for the Use of Colonists, John W. Parker, London, 1840, 33-52. Charles Heaphy, Kauri forest, Wairoa River, Kaipara, 1839, watercolour, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa.
3. ‘The Last Post’, Warwick Henderson Gallery, Auckland, 13-30 April, 2011.
4. Charles Heaphy, Cowdie forest on the Wairoa river, 1840, watercolour, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa.


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