An Interview with: TJ McNamara.


Bespectacled with long silver hair and a penchant for wearing black, at first glance TJ (Terry) McNamara looks like most people’s idea of an art academic. However, looks can be deceiving and McNamara has built a forty-seven year career out of eschewing artistic jargon in his columns for the New Zealand Herald. He has since become one of New Zealand’s most well-known art critics.

While art critics were once widely thought of as being the taste makers, nowadays, art critics help their audience to ‘see’ the artwork. They do not barricade the works into explanations. Rather, they seek to open each work up. This usually involves contextualising them art historically or within a particular artistic practice. While viewing art is meant to offer the viewer a chance to reflect on it and to heighten their discernment, there also has to be a connection with the world outside of the painting. What art criticism intends to do is to establish or clarify the relationship between a work of art and society. In theory, this means that art writing should be straightforward and easy to understand. However, many people deem art writing to be complex and too easy for readers to become tangled up in excessively floral language. But McNamara has always been straightforward about the intention of his writing.

For him, put simply -“respond to what is on the wall. I see myself as a spokesman for a public completely outside the art practising community.” He has struck a fine balance between the two literary worlds of art writing and journalism, operating in a space in between them. As a result, his work is characterised by an approachable, well informed writing style akin to international art critics such as Robert Hughes, Simon Schama, and E.H. Grombrich.

When one considers his style and ethos, it makes sense that McNamara’s roots are in teaching, as he strikes the balance between amicable and scholarly. As a boy in Orakei, a  state house suburb in Auckland he grew up with books, but no art. It was Eric Newton’s Penguin book on the history of Western art that first sparked his interest in art history. After winning a public speaking prize in his final year of high school with a talk on da Vinci, McNamara studied English at Auckland University before going onto teacher’s college. It was these years that were to be especially formative, and solidified his burgeoning interest in art history. It was during this time that he met some “particularly lively” art graduates from Christchurch, including prolific artists Trevor Moffit, John Coley, and Quentin McFarlane. This acted as impetus for McNamara to read more widely on modern art. Upon graduating, he began teaching English at Auckland Grammar School. During the 1960s the salient art organisation was the Society of Arts, where McNamara was  soon asked him to give some lectures on art history. After his series of four talks on the old masters- Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Goya he was approached by the Deputy Editor of the New Zealand Herald who asked him to do some reviewing during the Auckland Festival of 1966; he has not stopped since.  Generally, the word ‘critical’ implies to find fault. McNamara sees it as meaning “interpreting, evaluating, and rejoicing in what was well done. I do not believe in constructive criticism. It is not my job to tell the artist what to do, but to look hard at what has been done and seek out the artist’s purposes.”

Art historically, 1966 was a fascinating time for New Zealand In the words of McNamara “there were battles to be fought, and New Zealand art was frontier art.” This was an era where, idyllic landscapes were still the favoured artistic genre, and modernism was controversial. But the times were changing. We were beginning to strain at Europe’s apron strings in a bid to establish our own identity, and the bold contemporary art of this time began to reflect that. Our art began to bear distinctly ‘Kiwi’ motifs in a way that had not been seen before, and artists such as McCahon were beginning to make their mark.To meet the demand of an audience hungry for original New Zealand art, dealer galleries began cropping up. Aside from being a business, they were also used as a space to exhibit then-contemporary art.  It was this influx of dealer galleries that helped lead to an enormous growth in artistic ventures, which has been one of the most notable changes during McNamara’s career. In the embryonic stages of the modern New Zealand art scene and McNamara’s writing, there was usually only one gallery opening a week. McNamara would attend this before dashing to the newsroom to write a piece for the next day’s paper. “This was good because it appeared on the news pages and made new, original art part of the news alongside politics, big fires, and sport.”

Nowadays there are upwards of twelve gallery openings per week in Auckland, meaning that McNamara is spoilt for choice. Previously, the sight of McNamara’s now infamous cape sweeping into a gallery could strike fear into the heart of an exhibiting artist. Because in the beginning, McNamara could be “judgemental about what he thought was poor art.” Now, it’s simply a matter of leaving what he considers to be poor art out, unless he feels that it has been unjustly lauded.  When searching for an exhibition to review, McNamara likens himself to “a gas cooker set to zero. I go to the show to see how much it raises the temperature.” This involves considering a cross-section of elements within the exhibition, namely intelligence, emotion, and technical ability. He is seeking to grapple with art and make it understandable to a ‘news’ audience, to “provide some sort of bridge into the works.” A pertinent approach as the definition of ‘art’ becomes broader, and seems increasingly impenetrable.

This article was first published in the Waikato Times, November 2013.


An Interview with: Sam Hunt.


For fifty years, New Zealand poet Sam Hunt has been travelling the length of the country reciting his works in far flung pubs, clubs, theatres, and school halls. In doing so, he has helped make the written word accessible and unintimidating to a broad audience, coaxing them with his maverick air and gracefully laconic prose.  Written into New Zealand folklore as one of our most loved literary figures, his position was justly bolstered when Hunt was awarded a QSM and a CNZM for services to poetry. The subject matter of many television shows, documentaries, and interviews. Hunt will appear as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival, on October 6th, and his performance will offer a wonderful opportunity to see a New Zealand icon.

Despite the accolades, Hunt quite simply considers himself to be a story teller. He quips “tell the story. Tell it true. Charm it crazy.” These three lines penned by Hunt many moons ago have acted as a “road code” for both his life and his writing.  Hunt’s own story begins in 1946, in Castor Bay, Auckland. He was born to parents who actively shared their great love of poetry, often reciting poems to their son, who penned his first poem aged seven. While his father, a barrister, would have liked him to have forged a legal career, Hunt muses that “In a way, we are both doing the same thing. He had to swing a jury. I have to swing an audience. You’ve both got to have a way with words, a way with people, and a way with the world”  Attempts to get a “real job” involved stints as a truck driver and at teacher’s college, but to no avail. “I don’t mean it to sound pretentious, but I always knew I’d end up doing this sort of thing.” But Hunt points out that being a poet is definitely not a career, but rather an “obsession that has always been central to what I am doing.”

 The lines between the poet and his works are blurred to the extent that it is easy to describe Sam Hunt the poet the way that you would describe one of his poems- unostentatious, likeable, and eruditely insightful.  Just as life evolves organically, so too do his poems.  Like a true lexophile, Hunt finds himself “writing subconsciously all the time. I don’t pick a subject and write on it.” Rather his poems are informed by the ebb and flow of personal experiences. He likens his writing process to a woman giving birth. “From the time of conception, the finished work takes anything from nine seconds to nine years to form.”

Talking to him, it is clear that Hunt has an unwavering faith in the power of poetry, and it is important for him that poems do not get lost in the study of poetry.  While “it’s good to have your poems work on an academic level, they are not an academic exercise.” Ever the romantic, Hunt is interested in “the telling of poems, in the terms of poetry being heard in the silence of your own head and heart. Like with music, it’s not necessary to know everything.  I’ve got no way of knowing what Beethoven was thinking when he composed sonata number 24, but I know how it affects me.” Music is of significance to Hunt, and the “sheer sound of words” also helps inform Hunt’s writing process.  Throughout his career, Hunt has worked with musician David Kilgour (The Clean, The Chills), The Warratahs, and has opened for Leonard Cohen.

Interestingly, Hunt does not consider an audience when he is writing. “They just get what they want to get, nothing more mind bending than that. I don’t have an agenda, it’s just got to sound right and true within myself. But if my audience like my poems, then I am honoured.” But when one talks to readers of Hunt’s poetry, it could be argued that these poems have become just as much a part of New Zealand as they are about Hunt’s own experiences.  His words have a formidable life force printed on the page, but something truly magical happens when they are performed live.  Elegantly tousled with an easy laugh, Hunt punctuates his performances with witty anecdotes that further add to his renowned affability. He recites a mixture of his own poems and what he calls “cover poems” which he selects from his favourite poets  (Neruda, Yeats, Baxter, to name but a few) because they are “poems that I cannot forget.”  People attending the Hamilton Fringe Festival can also expect a few new poems from Hunt’s yet to be released book Salt River Songs due out Easter 2014. Aside from that he “doesn’t know what they (audience members) can expect. A nervous breakdown? A return to childhood?” We will have to go to find out.

To the question “What do you want your legacy to be?”  Hunt laughs richly. “I’d like people to say who the fuck was he again?” When you have given such a rich contribution to the literary landscape, this might be easier said than done.

This article was first published in the Waikato Times in September 2013

An Evening with Haruki Murakami


Every so often, you pick up a book that is exactly what you need at that point in your life. So it was befitting that I first picked up Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood as I grappled with  loss of life and love. As a late bloomer to grief, the unfamiliar sense of being filled with emptiness was unsettling.

It could be argued that the western world has an unhealthy attitude towards death, be it of a life or of a relationship, as it is rarely spoken about in real terms. Rather, it is easier to deny or hide the existence of it.  Murakami acted as a counterpoint to this in Norwegian Wood. With a straightforward lyricism to his prose, he outlined simple truths about loss, grief, and the importance of recognising the impact of it on one’s mind. As a writer and as a human being, it was a pivotal read.

Although he has been writing for 35 years, Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s first internationally successful novel. Since its 1987 release, over twenty have followed includingThe Wind up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84, and recently Colourless Tsukuru and his Years of Pilgrimage. He is also the recipient of the Kafta Prize and Jerusalem Prize for his distinctive writing, which walks the tightrope between reality and dreams, the whimsical and the brutal.

It was with great fan-fare then, that Murakami was announced as the headlining speaker for the 2015 Auckland Writer’s Festival, and the event quickly sold out, with a single ticket that was originally purchased for $35.00 being snapped up on TradeMe for $200.00. In literary circles, Murakami generates as much buzz as The Beatles.

When the night came, it was fitting that I was greeted with a surreally banal stage set up for An Evening with Haruki Murakami. Sleek armchairs and a coffee table sat atop a Turkish rug, this oddly intimate mis-en-scene was framed by large palm trees on either side of the stage. The talk was chaired by US editor and writer John Freeman, whose meticulously thought out questions were expertly tempered with ad-libbed witticisms. Aside from the usual literary questions, topics meandered onto included his collection of 11,000 vinyl records, tofu doughnuts,  cats , evilness, translation, and rebelling against his parents. Murakami carefully considered each question put to him. In many ways, he writes how he speaks and vice-versa. When he first began writing he would translate his novels from English to Japanese, and this was how he found his “simple, clear and very easy to read” voice, after making the decision to write while watching a baseball game aged 29.

Murakami himself was surprising. If those present were expecting a melancholic man, they got the opposite. Warmly wise and humorous, he clearly relishes the opportunity to “be anyone in fiction” and tell their stories.” Each story is “unpredictable” even to him, which is perhaps what gives his tales their organic quality.  However they all usually requires him to go down into “the basement, the darkness of people’s minds.” From an outsider’s perspective, he approaches writing in a very disciplined manner, rising at 4am and writing for 4-5 hours before breakfast, then exerting some energy on his much publicised daily runs, and returning to translate authors, which is his “pastime” before winding down in the evening by watching baseball.

As the evening drew to a close, audience members were given the opportunity to ask Murakami their questions. A woman who had flown from Sydney to see him asked if he had“any tips for aspiring writers in a conservative publishing environment” to which he responded with typical honesty “I have no idea…I found my own style, so that is important…to write a good story is not easy. It’s a tough life. Hang on.”

While it’s hard to give An Evening with Haruki Murakami a conventional review, what it did highlight is that New Zealand audiences are desperate for the calibre of events on offer at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Featuring over 150 panels, talks and workshops, there was bound to be something for everyone during this five-day festival. Writers are such a vital part of society, because they allow us to understand the world on a deeper level. With the unfortunate cancelation of New Zealand’s Book Month (again) we need to encourage writers and readers now more than ever. Also, in case you were wondering if cats were imbued with a spirituality for Murakami, the answer is no. “It’s just a cat.”

This article was first published in Rip It Up magazine on May 18th 2015.

Noel Fielding: Curiouser and Curiouser

An Evening with Noel Fielding can be summed up by two quips found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, courtesy of the Cheshire Cat. “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality” and “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.”

Amidst rapturous applause from a sold-out crowd at Auckland’s Aotea Centre, Noel Fielding billowed out onto the stage wearing a fantastically sequined cape. Now 41, he opened with the observation that being over 40 “is like being a helium balloon. You’re not up in the sky or on the ground. You’re midrange.” As the show progressed, it was clear that Noel Fielding does not have a midrange. Not that that was a bad thing as we tumbled deeper down the lo-fi rabbit hole he had rechristened ‘the fantasy zone.’

Fielding’s quintessential brand of hyperbolic surrealism was as ridiculously whimsical as you would expect from a man who made his name as one half of anarchic British cult classic The Mighty Boosh and his solo project Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy. Fielding cleverly intertwined characters from both shows in his two hour routine, and with a mixture of animation, song, as well as charming improv, there was a nuanced method to Fielding’s madness. Oscillating between playing hopscotch with Kanye West and namechecking Charles Bukowski, Fielding was asked by various characters (played by long-time collaborators his brother Michael and Tom Meeten) whether he was presenting jokes or concepts. True to form, it tottered between the two, which is befitting of a man previously dubbed “the confuser.” I don’t think the audience minded one little bit.

This article was published in Rip It Up magazine on May 12th 2015.