Flight Recorder

by Andrew Clark first published in Auction N˚4 catalogue, 30th Nov 2016

Although much has been written about Bill Hammond’s painting since he first appeared on the national scene in the 1980s, he remains to some extent an enigma. Commentaries on his work often cite his trip to the Auckland Islands in 1989, which has been described as “transformational,”¹  and which has as a result become part of the “official” mythology which surrounds Hammond’s practice. However, aside from pointing out the post-colonial metaphor implicit in painting native birds as the inhabitants of a primordial, pre-contact landscape, much of what is written about these works focuses on describing their contents, attempting to “close-read” them as though they were archaic comic strips or freeze-frames from some Palaeolithic television drama. This is in part a result of the almost aggressively figurative nature of Hammond’s works; they are rarely anything other than representational, clearly meant to show us images of objects and things, even if what exactly those things are can be difficult to make out, at times.

Flight Recorder, from 1998, shows Hammond at a transitional point in his career. The bird-folk, who have since become the defining motif of his work, are in full evidence, but the work retains traces of Hammond’s late-eighties style, a frenetic blend of Japanese ukiyo-e influences, underground comix, and punk rock. The painting is executed across six unstretched canvas pieces, three of which are elongated triangles, like sporting pennants. Here, as in early works such as The Look of Love plus The Sound of Music (1986), the composition consists of a scattered collection of objects and motifs: birds and bird-hybrids; aeroplanes; running figures; a mattress; an angel with a trumpet, perhaps heralding the End Times; a stuffed bird and a drawer of eggs; a meticulously rendered bat with a human face, like a specimen from a nightmare cabinet of curiosities; and an airport arrival board, humorously informing the viewer that flight 3058 from Wellington has “DELANDED,” and is perhaps now trapped in a quantum state. However, such a description amounts to little more than a catalogue of the work’s contents, offering few clues as to its meaning and purpose.

In order to do more than just “read” the surface of Hammond’s works, it is necessary to address those elements of their construction which remain intangible and difficult. Hammond has succeeded as an artist in part because of his reticence to explain himself; much of the strength of his works is related to their aura of mystery, and their unique atmosphere: perched somewhere between esoteric arcana and thrift-store kitsch, they resist interpretation as much as they invite it. However, some clues may be gleaned from Flight Recorder’s disparate elements.

Firstly, this work is concerned with the idea of fragmentation and reassembly, of putting things together, both in the sense of repairing things which were one whole (like the triangular pennants, perhaps sliced from the same sheet of cloth) and also of attempting to reconcile things which were never meant to go together, a kind of conceptual and metaphorical assemblage. This complexity is addressed by the work’s title, which contains a range of possible meanings. A Flight Recorder could be a black box salvaged from the remains of a downed aircraft, memorialising the chaos and terror of the plane’s final moments, but the word “flight” could equally apply to the act of running away, in which case this painting would also be a recording of a retreat—although from what, and towards what, remains somewhat obscure. The idea that this painting is a recording, a document, or a testament is beguiling, especially given its fragmentary nature.

Secondly, in this work, as in most of his “birdland” output, Hammond is concerned with depicting an “Other,” but not necessarily the commonly understood Other of the colonial worldview, defined by inferiority to, and difference from, white European understandings of self. Rather than infantilised inferiors, subject to the whims of the colonising impulse, Hammond’s birds feel more like ancestors or superiors, mythological figures who move behind the scenes of the postcolonial landscape. Like Thoth, the ibis-headed god who presided over magic, science and writing, Hammond depicts birds as an unseen, mediating presence in his works. In the large rectangular bottom panel, two birds stand by the side of a bed, as though holding a wake for the indistinct, cloudlike form on the mattress. Rather than a vanished race, supplanted by unfeeling colonisers and reduced to the status of museum exhibits, they are still here, still at large.

Lastly, Hammond’s painting is, and has always been, partly a response to and a celebration of the transformative effects of music. With reference to this painting, it is worth bearing in mind that, in Hammond’s punning vocabulary, a “recorder” is also a child’s first musical instrument. The presence of birds in the New Zealand landscape often takes the form of their songs, which alert us to their invisible presence. The central motif of Flight Recorder is the aforementioned angel, blowing the trump of doom, away from which a crowd of tiny figures are fleeing, tripping over themselves in their haste to escape their inevitable fate. The microphone in the upper right canvas also suggests the idea of recording, perhaps in the sense of cutting a record, freezing a fleeting, momentary performance in the grooves of a vinyl disc.

Hammond’s oeuvre contains numerous examples of paintings which depict music: people (and, often, animals) listening to it, dancing to it, or making it. However, works such as Radio On (1985), Jingle Jangle Morning (2006) and Flight Recorder can also be read like musical notations themselves. Repetitions, patterns and harmonies suffuse his works, making the experience of viewing them more akin to a process of listening than of looking. Rather than an illusionistic space, which is apprehended and understood as a whole, Hammond’s paintings are experienced piece by piece, consumed over a period of minutes or hours like passages of song.

Footnotes
  1. Jennifer Hay, “Jingle Jangle Morning” in Jennifer Hay, Laurence Aberhart, Chris Knox, Ron Brownson, Bill Hammond: Jingle Jangle Morning. (Christchurch, N.Z.: Christchurch Art Gallery, 2007), 25.
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