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Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction

Ian Wedde — At Home in the Dark

page 28

Ian Wedde

At Home in the Dark

In the kitchen at our place hangs a photograph of the square in Palmerston North when the PDC department store still had the Kiwi Bacon kiwi on the roof [p81]. The flightless bird is poised in a kind of awkward plié next to the sign of its name ‘in lights’ (at night that would be) but in the darkness of daytime it is a black silhouette beside the black billboard stencil of its name against a washed-out sky. Though captured in a ‘first position’, the dumpy, earnest bird is not about to rise or jeté into an apotheosis in the sky above the provincial town whose sign it, haplessly, is.

The darkness of this image is not just found in the literally dark silhouettes of our national symbol and its name, and not just in the pooled darkness in the fore-and middle-ground, where car interiors are filled with shadows—in the case of the car closest to us, so dark we don't at first notice the little girl with her fingers curled over the top edge of the car's front passenger seat window-glass. The darkness of the image is also in its vocalisation, let's say, in the way it's telling its stories. The claustrophobia of the narrative, with the kid trapped in the car and seeming to strain for air at the window's open edge, the kiwi on the roof burdened with gravity and hemmed in against its own name—this is another kind of darkness. It would perhaps be ‘Gothic’ if it was without irony, but it is ironic: there are those craftily isolated wayfinding road-signs, arrows pointing in simultaneously contradictory directions: Where are we? Where are we going? Is there a way out (let alone a way in)?

In a sense, the darkness of this image is a simple sign of gloom—a simile that places ordinary phenomenological darkness beside a kind of national condition: the entrapment of the provincial, the boredom of childhood waiting in a car, the odd desolation of a town centre with no real heart, the depressing functionality of the PDC department store façade with not even the tacky glamour of marketing or branding to enliven its peculiar version of form meeting function—as though shopping had to be contained within the grim precinct of a building like a transformer station or public works warehouse, and the only sign of consumer excitation a hobbled national emblem next to the terse utterance of edible pork. Get up, get crack(1)ing, have a decent breakfast, don't fool yourself, there's no way out, make the best of it, and don't spoil the kids.

What's interesting about this phenomenally bleak image is, however, in the end, its odd tone of affectionate, forgiving levity. Its darkness is in its overarching poetry of claustrophobia and entrapment; its lightness in its little, grimacing details. Its laconic, koan-like yarns.

The image has a simple structure within which these droll details are sought out. There is a pale, almost washed-out upper band consisting of sky and the vacuous façade of the department store. Then there is a darker lower half, filled with cars themselves full of shadow, and in one of these interiors, the trapped, dark-haired child. Needles to say, this child is the free spirit in all of us, in need of a driver, a way out, someone with enough wit to transform the sardonic details of the scene into an emotional escape—a grande jeté out of the frame, the miracle of flight .

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By contrast, in another photograph by Peter Black [p107] which often hangs by the stairs at our place, the dark image of a stocky, balding bicycle-rider passing the Edmonds Baking Powder factory in Christchurch (another national brand), contains few details. It might be dawn (or dusk) and the man might be cycling to (or from) work. Once again, the top half of the scene is light, a glaring sky beginning to darken (or lighten), with an overcast muffling of direct light.

The man's profile is almost totally black and seen in two-dimensional cutout. A spindly pole seems to rise out of his shoulder into the sky, like the pole in a merry-go-round. On close inspection, the man's expression is firm and thoughtful—he's not having a fairground kind of time, he's pedalling to (or from) work, that's immediately clear. He's just passed a window in which there's a tiny band of sentient light, a neon perhaps, and on the outside of the window a functional sign made illegible by the dark.

The big drama in this otherwise phlegmatic story is the section of the Edmonds Baking Powder sign, ‘[SURE] TO RISE’—the ‘sure’ hidden behind the man's large, sure head, the ‘to rise’ rising on an optimistic gradient, in dark, clear-cut silhouette against the dawn (evening) sky, from the man's mouth.

He is sure, he's swallowed the word, and the ‘to rise’ rises from the front of his serious face like breath, like a miraculous utterance, like a call to prayer. He seems to be incanting it across the receding rooftop of the factory, into the pale sky, as he rides his marvellous carousel through the dark.