Reviews, News and Commentary

Two new books about art and culture in NZ

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

 Culture in a Small Country: The Arts in New Zealand by Roger Horrocks

Atuanui Press


A Book of Seeing by Roger Horrocks

Atuanui Press


Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

With his two new books, “Culture in a Small Country” and “A Book of Seeing” Roger Horrocks has provided an excellent addition to books about New Zealand art and culture.

Where “Culture in a Small Country” provides an overview of New Zealand culture “A Book of Seeing” is the authors more personal approach to investigating and understanding art and culture and how we perceive it. One is a wide-ranging exploration of our cultural history the other is something of a guide to the way explore our world .

Horrocks is well qualified to take on the immense task of describing and interpreting culture. He taught at the  University of Auckland  on a range of subjects including poetry, film, TV and  media.

He has published many books including a biography of the artist Len Lye and he wrote the libretto for Eve de Castro-Robinson’s 2012 opera about Lye. He has made films and published two collections of poetry, and he was a co-editor of innovative literary magazines.

He has been influential in a number of cultural organisations including NZ On Air, the Auckland International Film Festival, Script to Screen and NZ on Screen. In 2019 the Royal Society Te Apārangi gave him its Pou Aronui Award and was [previously awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit.

The topics included in “Culture in a Small Country” are an indication of his range of interests – Writing, Publishing, The Visual Arts, Film, Classical Music, Popular Music, The Digital Age as well as a chapter on  the impact of the  pandemic.

Within those general headings he provides a wealth of information and commentary which will remind the reader of our distant as well as recent past and the huge developments which have occurred in the arts in the last fifty years.

He knits together the multiple stands of our culture, the interwoven artists and events which have provided a rich tapestry of histories and ideas

The book combines the elements of an academic treatise with extensive notes along with a down to earth readability with anecdotes and lively information. He has also drawn on personal experience as well as relationships with a wide range of New Zealand painters, writers, composers, filmmakers and other artists.

The mini-interviews and biographies of well-known and influential practitioners helps give the book an informal tone whereby serious subjects are negotiated without too much erudition.

“A Book of Seeing” is a meditation and reflection on  range of topics related to seeing. Here the topics cover the various ways we look at, experience and comprehend the arts.  The more than thirty chapter cover  a number of topics – The Experience of Colour, The Origins of the Eyes, Viewing Films, Science and Seeing, Visual Modesty, Philosophers See Time and Language and Seeing.

In this sweeping and elegant approach to his subject the author follows writers such as John Berger who, fifty years ago in his books “Ways of seeing” noted that “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak”. This recognition that seeing is at the core of the way we need to approach art and that the way we see is conditioned by many personal, social, cultural and scientific factors.

Horrocks takes a personal approach to his subject and in his opening chapter, describes his teenage writings about the suburb he lived in at the time. He reflects on his early intentions and ability to look at his environment and then attempt to describe his thoughts through writing. It is a practice which he has followed since then in all his critical endeavours and it also  sets the tone for the rest  of the book 

He seamlessly brings together ideas, comments and reflection by artist, philosophers, writers, poets, musicians and scientists -Wittgenstein,  Baudelaire, Francis Crick, Borges and Lucretius along with New Zealanders Peter Simpson Michele Leggott and Allen Curnow.

He manages to explore some very simple questions – How do we see? What is it we actually  see?, How much of what we see is conditioned and learned?. In answering these questions Horrocks combines simplicity, a keen perception and an intellectual precision which is revealing and rewarding.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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