Sport 24: Summer 2000
Laurence Fearnley — Only touch me with your eyes 1
Only touch me with your eyes!
We began driving along a gravel road and through the rear-view mirror I watched the dust roll into a neat ploughed row behind us. It was a large car and there was no point in trying to move the driver's seat forward. It wouldn't budge and your fingers would just wind up touching something awful, something soft and damp, like a paper bag containing half a meat pie, if you groped down below the seat to find the release lever. So, whenever I drove I had to sit on the edge of the seat, my toes extended, ballet pointe, my arms straight, fixed ten to two on the steering wheel. When Jeff drove it was different. He was able to drive like anyone driving a Holden station wagon should: his elbow resting on the edge of the open window, his right hand loosely fingering the steering wheel as his left hand spidered across the shelf above the dashboard searching for a plastic animal, a small length of curved wire, or whatever else it was he wanted to show me. Jeff had a very particular way of driving. He would start at the left of the road, gaze through the windscreen at the view around him until the front wheels of the car were just over the white centre line, at which point he would jerk the car back to the left of the road before letting it drift once more to the right. I would keep my eyes fixed on the road straight page 4 ahead, not so much because I was scared we'd have a crash but because Jeff's driving made me carsick. So, I drove. The dust rising behind us, seeping into the car like poison gas in a scary film. When we arrived at where we were going and climbed out of the car there would be two perfectly formed circles on the bench seat, the only dust-free patches in the entire car. On the outside the dust would settle into the corrugations on the roof and bonnet, the same colour as the car itself.
This was his ordinary car. When you first look at it, it just looks like a hunk of rubbish2
Jeff's car was never empty. Perhaps, when he tried to sell it at Webb's auction in March 1993 or when he shipped it across to Australia in May of the same year, it might have been less full, but I never saw it empty. I never saw it empty and I never saw it without a tow ball—that's where Te Papa have got it most wrong.
The inside of the car was always dusty and throughout summer would smell of spilt milk and the cardboard pine-tree-shaped car deodorant which had been bought to cover the smell of the milk and had subsequently got lost amongst all the other things which filled the car.
It was impossible to get into the car without looking at your feet and first figuring out how you would arrange yourself around the cans of paint which were always on the floor on the passenger side. One of the last times I saw the car close up, I noticed that someone had knocked over a can of paint, and that the floor of the car was layered with yellow-soaked newspapers. On the concrete outside the car were yellow shoe prints which gradually faded as they walked from the car, across the car park, and up the stairs towards the entrance of the Dowse Art Museum.
The objects in Jeff's car could, I suppose, be divided into two categories: tools and other objects. Three categories if you included all his clothes—a clean set and a stick of deodorant would be stuffed into a bag somewhere in the car—and food. It seemed that he only ever ate food that came served in a thin white paper bag.
Besides the rolls of fencing wire, the things that were most page 5 noticeable to anyone travelling in the car were the small plastic animals and rivets. The animals served as models for many of his works. In the glove box, for example, was a small black plastic gorilla which served as the model for the corrugated iron King Kong which looms over an ice-cream shop on Napier's Marine Parade. The rivets covered most of the surfaces of the car—they were always on the seats; their spent tails, short sticks of metal, poked into your legs every time you shifted position. We had rivets in our knife-and-fork drawer in our flat on Talavera Terrace in Kelburn.
Jeff had an exhibition at the Bowen Gallery and arrived late one night from Napier with his trailer loaded with curved sheets of corrugated iron. The iron was stacked high, tied with lengths of yellow rope, ripped shreds of foam rubber placed under the rope at intervals so as to protect it from the sharp edges of the iron. He parked his car where I always parked my car: outside the neighbours' house, in the residents' car park. In the morning, tucked beneath the windscreen wiper, was a lavender-coloured envelope containing a folded sheet of thick lavender writing paper which read: Do not park this car (crossed out) thing here again.
That's the shit, that car3
Travelling in Jeff's car was like being on show. In my old car, a Toyota hatchback, I was as good as invisible—no one ever looked at me. In Jeff's car we were always being looked at. Even if you kept your face forward watching the car in front of you, you knew that to your side, the driver of the car next to you would be looking your way. It was even worse when you were towing something, like a large corrugated iron elephant, on the trailer behind you. Everything always took a little bit longer to do because there was always someone hanging around, waiting to ask the question that everyone else asked: How much does it weigh?4
We were standing outside a fish‘n’chip shop in New Plymouth waiting for our order to be filled. It was a Friday night and a few other people were coming and going. They would go into the shop, place their order, come outside, look at the car, hit it with their fist and page 6 then ask Jeff, ‘How much does it weigh—with all that iron on it?’ Jeff would reply, ‘The iron doesn't weigh all that much—about the same as an extra passenger, perhaps two at the most.’ The person who had asked the question would nod and then lean back against the wall of the fish‘n’chip shop and look some more at the car. The next person would come out of the shop and ask the same question. And then another. And now it wasn't Jeff who was answering the question but the first man who had asked it. It was always like that—except in Havelock North.5
I wasn't in the car, and I'm not sure that it happened, but Jeff told me that once he was driving down K'Road and had stopped at a set of traffic lights when the Front Lawn car, a car like his but covered in green astro-turf, pulled up alongside him. That must have made a few people laugh.
I love you now as much as I love a good sheet of rusty iron6
Jeff found the sheets of iron for the car at the rubbish dump. They came from the old Criterion Hotel in Napier, a building which had been gutted by fire. Jeff had a way of testing iron which he showed me. He would take the corner of a sheet of iron between his thumb and forefinger and bend it back and forward. If the corner snapped off, the iron was too brittle to use. It the corner didn't bend at all, it was too stiff. The corner of a good sheet of iron would fold back and forward without breaking. As each piece of iron passed the test he would lift it up onto the Holden, where it would lie snugly, its corrugations matching those of the roof of the car.
Jeff used to work in an old milk factory in Taradale in the Hawkes Bay and, if I was around, I would watch him. No matter how many times I saw it, I never tired of watching him cut a sheet of iron. He had a favourite pair of tin snips, yellow-handled with a footprint marked on the metal. He would rest the sheet of iron across his knee and simply cut it as if cutting a length of material with scissors. His hand and forearm seemed massive with strength and it was a beautiful thing to watch.
He wrote to me once about a visit he made to Don Driver's studio page 7 in New Plymouth: ‘… The galvanised objects I delivered from my local recycling depot in Napier were carefully untied (from my trailer) and placed on the footpath from where Don carried them upstairs to his city studio. I managed to carry the last two pieces up and found Don had been arranging them on an aptly coloured greyish paint splattered tarpaulin—I placed my two things, he slightly changed the positioning and that was it—Sculpture finished (5 minutes) Found it really refreshing to see someone working so intuitively and spontaneous. Made me think of the many, many and many hours and a few more I put into individual works …’7
At night we used to drive the Holden into the studio and roll down the door behind it. When we did that, it always seemed to me to be like the part in Batman when the Batmobile returns to the Batcave. Everything suddenly seemed shadowy and calm and I would watch as, under floodlights, the sparks from Jeff's oxyacetylene torch sprayed off into the dark.
Today I'm about to start the first work for Sydney. CI, drainpipes, guttering etc. (still life wall relief). Studio clean and spacious—letters being typed for BHP and oz road safety people in Canberra—fax to Ray Hughes, trip to collect materials at recycling and letters to you and organisations in Melbourne … the car and container will leave for Sydney on the 20th May arriving early June. I look forward to our holiday and venturing onto new ground 8
The day of the exhibition opening at the Ray Hughes gallery was the only time I saw the Holden in Australia. It was parked in the entranceway to the building and it looked out of place. Jeff had made a new aerial for the car—a length of Number 8 wire bent into the shape of Australia (with Tasmania)—and we had planned to leave for a three-week holiday straight after the exhibition opened.
I had been reading the poems of Philip Hodgins and Laurie Duggan and wanted to get out of Sydney, to see rural Australia and Gippsland, before my annual leave was used up. The Holden, though, wasn't roadworthy. It was rusty. It had sharp edges. The steering wheel and the dashboard were cracked. The vinyl covering the interior ceiling page 8 was ripped … and all around me, on the night of the opening, I could hear people say, ‘It's a lot easier to get a warrant in Queensland. The Sydney authorities are a pack of bastards …’
I never travelled in the Holden again. After the exhibition opening I hired a white Datsun Sunny with 3650km on the clock.
Only touch me with your eyes! If you want me to survive, please just look at me
I was working in the Museum of New Zealand Project Office in November 1994 so I knew the museum had bought Jeff's car for its collection. Jeff and I were no longer living together. I didn't really look at the car, stop and look at it, until a month ago, during my last visit to Te Papa. For most of the hour I was by myself, though from time to time a school group or a visitor would come and stand next to page 9 me to look at the Holden. I've worked in art museums and galleries and so it's been drilled into me, the thing about not touching art objects unless you're wearing white cotton gloves. It's just something I can't do—like folding a page corner in a book or dropping litter. The people who came and stood next to me had no such inhibitions. They all touched the car, ran their hands over its corrugated iron cladding, or knuckle-tapped its roof. I stood and looked at the car, all the time wishing I could open the door and sit inside and have a poke around in the glove box or run my fingers down the back of the seats to see if any rivets were still stuck in the upholstery. More than that, though, I wanted to run my hand across the bonnet, to feel the warmth and roughness of the metal, the texture, like skin on summer-cracked bare feet.
I couldn't touch the car though and I felt sad. Really sad.page 10
1 Label attached to Jeff Thomson's corrugated iron-clad HQ Holden station wagon at Te Papa, Museum of New Zealand.
2 Tour guide. Te Papa. 2 December 1999.
3 Visitor comment. Te Papa. 2 December 1999.
4 I can remember that this was the first question I asked Jeff when I met him in 1991.
5 Jeff lived in the Hawkes Bay and spent a lot of time in Havelock North, Hastings and Napier. He moved down to Wellington in July 1993 and drove a Morris Minor which was partially clad in corrugated iron.
6 Letter from Jeff, December 1992.
7 Letter from Jeff, 22 November 1992.
8 Letter from Jeff, 31 March 1993. Jeff had an exhibition at the Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney in June 1993 and then workshops in Melbourne until July.