Dangling Conversations by Trevor Plumbly
I’m sure Paul Simon will forgive me for borrowing his song title, but these communications that lack purpose or conclusion really do happen. I thought I’d said it all about the problems of the cell phone invasion, but I haven’t quite finished yet; nor it seems have Vodafone and Co, so please bear with me. Their current strategy is to convince us that it’s more economical to cancel the landline phone and switch to a cell phone caller plan, which enables you to natter to all sorts of people for a few cents a minute; but the basic problem with cell phones is that they’re not really conducive to extended conversation. There’s something reassuring about sitting at home on the landline phone chewing the fat until one or both run out of words, as opposed to trying to communicate with a disembodied voice belonging to someone pacing around and probably counting the minutes. That might be a bit harsh, but very few folk seem capable of sitting down and having a relaxed chat using a cell phone. To me, there just seems to be a global infestation of trivial urgency that devalues purposeful contact.
Don’t Call . . . Write!
Journalists in all branches of the media are masters of the dangling conversation; the recent tragic loss of the Malaysian airliner is a sad example of their talent for transposing the unknown into acceptable headlines. In the early days following the news of its disappearance, we were deluged with theory and counter-theory from news networks who managed to fill every branch of the media with headlines and breaking news without the benefit of a single fact. Terrorism was ground out to exhaustion and replaced by conspiracy and when that dried up we were treated to rumours of a sort of airspace ‘Bermuda Triangle’, some even drawing parallels with the ‘Marie Celeste’. To add to the lunacy, these so-called ‘professional’ journalists were backed up by scores of experts in one field of aviation or another offering all sorts of ‘scientific’ explanations for an event about which nobody had any factual knowledge.
On a local note, here in NZ there’s no better example of the media’s tenacity for the tenuous than their treatment of Kim Dotcom (a colourful bloke, well worth a google). Anyway, on top of his multiplicity of sins, it seems that Mr Dotcom owns a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’ signed by Hitler. This news so shook the nation that one ‘journalist’ publicly exhorted him to burn it (will the real Nazi stand up please?), whilst others dropped vague hints about the significance of a Nazi flag ‘someone’ had seen in the house, leaving me to wonder whether ‘investigative’ journalists should re-title themselves as ‘creative’.
On a lighter note, contemporary art is a natural home for dangling conversation; it lives in a sort of conceptual country with few boundaries and a language all its own, unsafe territory for an antique dealer. Certainly I often looked at contemporary art but lacked the education to make any judgment on its meaning or merit. I treated it much as I do everything else: if it interested me I stopped and spent time with it, then moved on. In the early 1980s I met and formed a loose friendship with Ralph Hotere which lasted until his recent death. Artists, according to English literature, are tall, languid and a bit precious; Ralph was short, full of carefully stored energy and as basic as you please. Not being one of the ‘arty’ crowd, I never discussed his or anybody else’s work with him which I later discovered suited him fine. He felt passionately about Apartheid, French nuclear testing in the Pacific and the construction of an aluminium smelter at a nearby unspoiled beach. These inspired a huge body of ‘protest’ works ranging from affordable signed prints to major pieces of national importance. Sadly, I never really ‘got’ Ralph’s early works but yesterday, at an art auction preview, I spotted a banner from his ‘Song Cycle’ series, produced in the mid-1970s to combine art with the poetry of Bill Manhire and the music of Jack Body. The series shown in its entirety must have been almost intimidating, but individually they’re still stunning. Standing in front of the painting, I thought about Ralph. The humour that allowed him to joke about my white cane, the darting eyes that I always reckoned could see round corners, his incredible generosity and quiet intellect. Walking away, I wondered if the screeds of academic and artistic theories about his works and their meaning ever bothered or amused him. He never said, but I never asked. Some things are best left ‘dangling’.