29 September 2011

A mode of conveyance

In 2007 I sold my trusty Mitsubishi Mirage wagon, which was my first car, the day before I flew out to live in London. It had been a reliable vehicle, making the journey from Wellington to Auckland and back plenty of times without any incident, plus coping admirably with a week driving around the varied roads of the South Island. By the time I sold it the Mitsubishi was 17 years old, so I was prepared to take whatever I could get for it, mainly to save my family from having to sell it in my absence. As it happens, finding a willing buyer was no problem at all. I polished the bodywork, tyres and interior to within an inch of its life and took it to a small car fair in downtown Auckland.  Within ten minutes of driving into the car lot I had sold it! Clearly the buyer recognised the opportunity to make a quick buck, because he would have been able to sell it on to backpackers later in the day for a profit. This didn’t bother me at all – I hadn’t paid much for it to start with back in 2000, and anything I got from its sale after seven good years of driving was a bonus as far as I was concerned.

Then in my four and a half years in England I had no need for a car. I only drove when visiting New Zealand, or on the one occasion in England and Northern Ireland when my friends Ruth and Phil and I had a rental car and I was able to get behind the wheel for a couple of days. But now I’ve returned to live in Wellington it was always part of the plan to acquire a car for shopping purposes and for weekend expeditions.


And here it is. This is the trusty wagon that has belonged to a friend’s dad since the mid-90s, and now sits in my garage. It may only have two hubcaps and they may not match each other, it may be as old as my old Mitsubishi was when I sold it, and it may only last a year or two before its retirement, but for now it’s great to be mobile again! 

13 September 2011

Lost in memories of punishing velocity

The Isle of Man TT motorbike races have killed 237 people since they began in 1907. Each year they wound and sometimes kill more and more riders. Yet the ones who survive are ever eager to pick themselves back up, get their wounds stitched, bones re-set and spines bolted into place, and get out racing again on the most dangerous roads in motorbike racing.

It's a form of collective insanity demonstrated time and again in the interviews that form a large part of the documentary TT3D: Closer To The Edge, which followed the 2010 races. These are people, mainly men but a few women too, absolutely in the thrall of this ultimate motorcycling challenge. In a sensible world, the TT would be banned. But luckily, the people who participate and the fans who love the sport are not sensible people. You can see it in their eyes and the repeated tales of being cruelly injured one year and being back racing the next; in the voice of the former racer who drives the film crew around the circuit in a car - his excitement is palpable, and he even makes motorbike engine noises like a little boy, lost in his memories of punishing velocity. 

The clear star of the film is the rebellious larrikin Guy Martin, with his Wolverine muttonchops and rakish charm: he talks non-stop and most of what he utters is complete tosh, but the camera loves him and so do the crowds, who will him on to the winning title he has thus far never claimed. He tinkers with his bike incessantly, sleeps rough in his van re-watching old race videos searching for a lost fraction of a second, and foolishly flouts track regulations out of sheer petulance. Every second he's on screen is a small joy. The other riders are equally fixated to the point of obsession too: a veteran champion in his golden Winnebago trying for one last trophy, a quietly-spoken local Manx tryer hoping to delight his hometown fans, and the compulsive Steve Davis-like figure of a would-be King of the Mountain, pumping iron in his gym in case it gives him the slightest edge.

The 3D camerawork is exciting, without being intrusive or overplayed - it perfectly illustrates the brutal yet somehow graceful kineticism of low-to-the-road racing. The slow-motion flight of a 1000cc superbike over one of the TT's many bumpy village roads is both exhilarating and strangely terrifying to watch, because in every feat of superhuman control there lurks the smallest possibility of terrible disaster.  One wheel wobble and it's all over. (In a cruel but apt piece of irony, the race grandstand looks out onto a packed local cemetery, close at hand for those who require its services). One brief segment of only a few seconds sums up the visual power of TT3D - a swooping helicopter shot follows a pack of racers throwing themselves into the tightest of hairpin bends on a steep hillside spur, then follows them for a moment until they're lost around the next hair-raising bend.  

And this is no glossed-over story, despite the rather incongruous narrative by the American actor Jared Leto. Riders are injured, and yes, some even lose their lives. The carnage is astonishing, but it's handled sensitively, and those who survive are allowed to tell their story before the truly terrifying crashes are shown to the viewers. One can only wonder at their fortitude, or perhaps at their inability to see death staring them in the face.

I've never ridden on a motorbike, and perhaps I never will. It looks pretty dangerous to me. But being in the cinematic company of people insane enough to race these machines and run the very real risk of falling off them at 170mph on an uneven road, going around a tight corner hemmed in by drystone walls? That's a rare pleasure. TT3D is a must-see documentary for anyone who appreciates an exciting story peppered with tremendous imagery and fascinating, yet somewhat mental, characters.

TT 2010 summary (spoilers, naturally - don't read until you've watched the film!)

TT3D trailer:

07 September 2011

Auckland's new old art gallery

The new wing, Auckland Art Gallery
On Saturday I ventured into downtown Auckland on the train from Onehunga to pay a visit to the refurbished Auckland Art Gallery after its three year closure. While a small part of me resents the loss of the fountain in the exterior courtyard that so fascinated me as a child, the extra space and the $120m new extension to the Victorian building is undoubtedly impressive. It was also pleasing to see so many Aucklanders visiting the gallery on its first day - possibly the busiest day in the gallery's history?

The new spaces are strikingly modern and upmarket, but the interior contrast between new and old is not jarring. From the outside the shift from stonemasonry to ultra-modern might be problematic, but realistically there isn't much of a vantage point to view the whole structure, because the building stretches along the narrow Kitchener Street.

The original gallery building

Three new art installations impressed me on my first visit: Choi Jeong Hwa's Flower Chandelier and Red, and Jeppe Hein's Long Modified Bench Auckland.  These definitely have the potential to become attractions in their own right, and it's only a pity that a delightful work like Flower Chandelier will only be on display in the gallery for a year.  I expect its constantly inflating and deflating petals will need patching up after a full year of display.

'Flower Chandelier'

'Long Modified Bench Auckland'

Exterior roof detail
As for the conventional art collections, the building displays a surprisingly impressive range of overseas and New Zealand material. Julian and Josie Robertson's magnanimous Promised Gift collection, which includes a sumptuous range of Picassos and other greats, will form the backbone of the expanding overseas collection and enable the gallery to attract a superior range of visiting exhibitions in future. But there's also an eye-opening range of European art that rivals many of the smaller galleries of Europe, including a splendid village scene by Brueghel and plenty of Raphael engravings.  Sure, there's also a pretentious conceptual art space upstairs too, but it's not excessive.

The refurbished Art Gallery will boost Auckland's status as a city that respects culture, and will act as a popular tourist attraction too.  I will definitely be paying another visit to its collections the next time I'm up in Auckland, because there's still plenty more to see. It's heartening to think that Auckland finally has an art gallery that can be considered world class.