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Sport 21: Spring 1998



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)