The Wellingtonista

Random stuff about Wellington since 2005

Notional Significance: Takeoff

by Alf Rune on March 14, 2011 in Art, Notional Significance, Suburbs, Transport

National significance begins with a roundabout: from the air it looks like a navel, the axis of the world, the green Omphalos where one begins. But what is beginning here? There’s a distinct impression that more traffic comes from the eastern suburbs via Broadway than from the airport itself, which would make this a somewhat arbitrary choice for the start of the highway. Surely the national significance of the highway rests on airport traffic (the “four lanes to the airport” mantra), rather than privileging a particular set of commuters? 

Regardless, I dash across the traffic to investigate the curious figure inhabiting the centre of the roundabout. She’s a sculpture by Paul Dibble, who appears to be making a career of roundabout memorials (together with the New Zealand War Memorial marooned on the traffic island of Hyde Park Corner), and while the inscription on her cheek reads “Pacifica 2000”, her official title is “Lady Down Under”. That, presumably, is why her one visible arm (and one of her three feet) points downward, plunging an index finger into the earth. Perhaps somewhere beside the Autovia de Castila there’s a bronze fingertip poking up from the earth at a bemused Spaniard. It’s odd that an airport company so keen on being “world class” should draw attention to our antipodean status: Europeans are on top, the true inhabitants of the right-way-up globe; and we’re down under, the rumoured, impossible antichthones.

Back on the road. Enormous billboards hector drivers about “choice”, their flimsy messages supported on hefty legs: engineered for a hurricane and firmly bolted to their concrete foundations, they look like they could support an oil rig. But further down the runway, another, more modest sign has more to say — or at least, says more through what it avoids. A small billboard simpers “Welcome to Wellington” beneath an uplifting photographic montage, and in smaller print below admits “Capital of Nuclear Free New Zealand”. This replaced the bolshie original “Welcome to Wellington/A Nuclear-Free City”, erected in the activist ‘80s, when it was decided that it no longer fit with “the council’s new strategic vision for the city”. Even the current wording, weaselly and dehyphenated as it is, was a reluctant sop to outraged peaceniks. The original now lies battered and bisected in a museum, replaced by this bland piece of puffery. But even this seems to be sending odd mixed messages. One of the images is a quick Photoshop job that recontextualises the famous fern ball into an oddly retro ‘50s-style atom, with a background of faded ones and zeroes. What is this saying? That Civic Square is secretly a Jetsons-era nuclear reactor, and that our IT industry is so hardcore that they still code in binary?
Some of them are probably coding away right now, buried away from the brisk, bright Sunday in anonymous concrete buildings not far from the highway. It seems odd, in a way: all that escapist imagination seething away amid the functionalist shells of defunct factories and superseded aviation outbuildings. But the area from Kilbirnie to Miramar has always been home to not just the hard realities of war, infrastructure and industry (Rongotai’s Tiger Moth factory, pa sites and forts around the peninsula, flying boats and gasometers), but to entertainments and populist diversions (the Kilbirnie Speedway, Centennial Exhibition, Wonderland’s aquatic rides). Lyall Bay once even had a wave machine. 

But the mixture of aviation and entertainment can be a risky one. A fundraising pageant for the Macgregor Memorial Fund (“Mad Mac” Macgregor, ex-WWI flying ace, died after clipping an anemometer pole at Rongotai) went pear-shaped when the famed daredevil parachutist “Scotty” Fraser dared the devil once too often and reached terminal velocity in the shallows of the Bay. I haven’t heard of any Fraser Memorial Spectacular: perhaps they didn’t want to push their luck.

The wind is getting up as I make my way between barbed wire and the hard-scraped edge of Rongotai Ridge, heading towards the end of the airport. At the next roundabout I turn away from the brutal gouge of the Miramar Cutting — just one of the more visible signs of a land constantly being sliced and priced, drained and contained — and walk beside the crisp slope of the runway’s northern end.

I crouch against the hurricane wire, pointing my camera skywards, hoping to catch one of those photos — you know the type — where a plane roars overhead just metres above me. Nothing. Still nothing. I settle for a couple of shots of the airport infrastructure (approach lights, windsocks, mysteriously bristling structures), and in the end I find their sculptural qualities more satisfying than the typical takeoff shot. Some of them rival the wind sculptures along the MEWS walkway for their abstract formal qualities.

Alongside the other side of the runway runs Jean Batten Street and the Jean Batten Garden, complete with laser-cut sign celebrating “Hine o te Rangi – Daughter of the Skies”. Hemmed in by barbed wire and the sullen crouch of light industry, it’s hard to imagine a less glamorous memorial for the aviatrix whose determination and allure left a legacy of daring aviation achievements and penniless fiancés across the globe, before drifting into seclusion then ending in a mass grave in Majorca. The “Garbo of the Skies” moniker supposedly arose from her glamorous style and later reclusiveness, though the signage reminds us that she flew a Gypsy Moth with the call sign G-AARB, which may have nudged the nickname into existence. 

My mind seems to be running off on a tangent, away from the road that I’m walking: perhaps it’s because I’m struggling to find a connection between the location and the figure commemorated. There are photos of Batten at Rongotai aerodrome, but it seems that neither she nor any of her famous feats had any real association with this city. The threads of national significance spin out across the globe, though they become tenuous with distance, and I may be reaching too hard to find a psychogeographical connection between Batten and the complementary industries of aviation and entertainment that suffuse this place.

It’s one of the dilemmas of the would-be psychogeographer: immerse oneself in the deep connections, or lose oneself in the sensations of the moment? The sun grows fiercer, but is countered by a northerly that is now firm enough to whip up whitecaps on Evans Bay. The sound of traffic is building, but still a discrete series of vehicles rather than a constant roar. On this side of the road, there is infrastructure, corroding industry and an attempt to claim an elusive hero; on the other, there’s a recreational walkway, a strip of salt-hardy planting and the wide-open bay. Ahead of me, there’s a long road winding its way across this ever-changing isthmus, the sandy umbilicus that joins Motu Kairangi to the former mainland.

Alf Rune

Guest blogger: currently walking and writing my way through the Wellington region.

Maximus March 16, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Nice.
But: “anticthones” ? Really?

Alf Rune March 17, 2011 at 9:16 am

I promised not to get all Francophile, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sneak in some Greek (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antichthones). Looks like St Augustine wouldn’t have beleieved in us.

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