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For the past thirty years artists, writers and spectators have been making regular treks to the western most point in the middle of New Zealand's North Island. To a number of people involved in the arts community this pilgrimage to New Plymouth, a coastal settlement with a population of little more than fifty thousand, has become an integral part of re-registering their belief in contemporary art. The irony that a number of the most innovative exhibitions and artist projects in New Zealand have been produced by the regional Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, has not been lost on either local or international audiences. In many respects this gallery has become an icon of what can be done on the geographical margins, off the beaten track and out of the urban spotlight. It is this history that has continually seen people leaving State Highway 1 to do an art drive-by.
With this in mind I once more buckled up for the sortie mission down to the self-titled 'Energy Pulse' of New Zealand. Having spent three hours on the road passing through the tranquil settings of Te Kuiti ('The Sharing Capital of New Zealand '), Te Awamutu ('The Rose Gardens'), PoiPoi and the great Awakenu Gorge, I felt I had put in the necessary mileage for an exhibition called Drive. As the brochure for this extravaganza claimed this was 'a rare opportunity to witness vintage, classic and contemporary views on the car and the highway, by 60 leading artists worldwide', all of this and the possibility of the world's longest car parade along New Plymouth's main drag. While the car and the freeway have become synonymous with the birth of technology, a metaphor for rediscovering oneself or the manifestation of escape, its influence on the back blocks of New Plymouth seems to reside in the basements, garages, car lots and petrol stations which scatter the city. It is from these sites that the weekend car enthusiasts, hoons and petrol heads emerge, revving it up along the strip, burning rubber in secluded car parks, or putting the pedal to the metal on the outskirts of town. In many respects it is this culture of the car that has left its most potent and indelible mark on the psyche of towns like New Plymouth, and which I sought to locate in the Drive exhibition.
Curated by Greg Burke and Hanna Scott, Drive attempted to unravel some of the symptoms and consequences of the car's invention and dissemination through the consciousness of people across the globe. Of course this was only one aspect of an exhibition whose thematic approach engendered close associations between the seemingly most disparate collection of objects. On entering the gallery one was treated to a selection of images which revelled in the fetishisation of the machine: this was epitomised in Ann Seymor's Cruise, a photograph of the ultimate road accessory- the plush realm of the backseat driver (shag pile, television and minibar). This altar-piece to the road shared a similar Smokey and the Bandit/Dukes of Hazard, aesthetic with Judy Darragh's Wild Things, which brought together an array of kitsch airbrushed posters that are usually found in the backrooms of businesses, in the toilets of building sites and across the walls of boys bedrooms. Here buff men flexed, topless women lay across car bonnets or straddled bikes and a Salvador Dali poster was not out of place. But Darragh's posters were different, the imagery was self lubricating- the nude torsos, chromed machines and 'Candlelight Dreams' erupted with a fountain of spunk, the image was simultaneously bearer of meaning and the target of adulation, the symbolic cum shot. Mungo Thomsen's LA Rubbing, a frottage of the top of a gear stick enhanced this sexualisation of the car and all its parts, while Scott Eady's lifesize pink fibreglass flat-top, The desert fox, saw boys own sandpit fantasies (the Tonka toy, matchbox, or even ZZ Top) being played out with the inert hyper-real customised car. The simulacra of the car was echoed in Julian Opie's Track, a stylised wall drawing of the road and its markings, here the road became an horizon which enveloped the spectator.
Drive was an overwhelming visual experience. The mesmerising conflation of car parts, sounds, road works and carnage made one simply want to get in a car and drive. Alter all, there is a bit of bogan in all of us.