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Sport 19: Lightworks

Bill Manhire — Fault

page 161

Bill Manhire



Whose fault is it? There are two of them (two artists/two lines) and probably they are both at fault. That is, though they would not choose to be called collaborators, they have certainly drawn the line between them. Those dark rectangles of glass might have their history in canvas or hardboard or corrugated iron. Like any Hotere painting, the blacker they become, the more they seem to entertain reflection. And that lifting line of light, the neon, has made its way along other corridors, in other countries, in and out of the Culbert family suitcase. Sky and cloud step out at either end.


They were correcting a fault—abandoned sheets of glass, a house made up of openings that wouldn't work. But how did they set about it? Did they stand in silence, for example? Did they walk about a lot? Did they hum and ha? Did they sit late at night and stare out the window? Was there wine? Perhaps a star? Did one say dark and the other light?

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They left ghosts in the facade: a world of borrowings and books still haunts the words above the windows. The letters themselves are carved in stone. Thus the line of light lifts from Philosophy to History. I used to come here with my kids every Saturday morning. If we were lucky we would park the car out here, just where I am standing to admire the fault (jet trail, song, pure note rising on a string). There was grass (still is). You could see people inside the building. They walked around with books and newspapers, keeping quiet. We filled the car with books. I never noticed the names above the windows; I just looked through. It always looked to me as if they threw the whole place in through the windows.


The fault is full of power. It's working. It uses about as much electricity as a modest two-bar heater.

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Useful Arts

But is it one work or many? I want to know and they won't tell me. There's the promise of narrative and rhythm: chapter headings, the line ascending left to right. Page after page, and each window with its title, each like the last but different, like a row of pictures hanging on a gallery wall. So what's the story? Maybe they've turned the inside out? I go up close and look. Matt black. Osram. Hellweiss/Cool White. Some of the neon tubes are ‘Made in Italy’ and some ‘Australian Made’. Then I come and stand back here. They're working late at the gallery: dark windows and all the light is on.

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Or maybe Civic Square is the meeting house, the wharenui? Maybe the windows are tukutuku panels—ribs and tears, teeth and stars—and the dark panes of glass are lattice webs that shine with everything they capture. It looks like an exhibition. This and this and this. But no one's selling anything. No one's taking money at the door.

Fine Arts

Shriek in the dark, lightning frozen in the glass. The sleepy light at dawn. The way things shift and change. The banister shines above the staircase, the wave beside the shore. The earth goes quaking on its faultline, which is also the line on which the child will learn to write. His first word is underlined before he gets it out. Crevasse. How small he is, with his chalk, his crayon, that quiet gleam already in his eye. At dusk the fault softens, shivers at the edges. Light spills across stone. Surreptitious warmth. The kids have all gone home. The way things shift and change. You notice the windows high in the opposite building. Bright electric light inside a frame. Curtains. Look, there's a man inspecting a sheet of paper: my latest parking fine.

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One small window has escaped both the darkness and the line of light. Is it faultless, or a mild mistake? Look high, the second row, the upper row, top right-hand corner, there, the one without black, without neon, where the building is tied to a horizontal sail, tugging against sky and water. It's the tea-room. The gallery staff are up there, clutching their mugs, chuckling to one another, glancing down into the square. They are pleased and anxious and transparent, safe for the moment, which is of course only the moment: there may be dangerous men on the streets with cans of paint, women with bricks, librarians, artistic children. The gallery staff watch the square, the citizens coming and going. They stare out at the contemporary weather. They note how the light changes, and they see their own building reflected in the windows opposite. How history wavers! Look, there's a woman inspecting a sheet of paper. Undertow. Oh soon the night will come: the dark with its moon, the dark with its streetlights and headlights, the dark with its stars. When that happens, they can go.

‘Fault’ was first published in 1994 as a
small book by the City Gallery,
Wellington, at the launch of Fault by
Bill Culbert and Ralph Hotere, on the
facade of the Gallery.