Monday, May 14, 2018


I recently had cause to write a poem for the naming of a baby. It was not for a particular baby, but for an assignment. I needed to find a poem and I could not find anything I liked. It was all too syrupy and conventional. 

I remembered when my daughter was born and how amazed I was by her. I wanted to glorify her with names. I suddenly agreed with the British royals, who gave their babies strings of names representing their whakapapa, or family histories and connections. I resisted the strings of names but she did end up with more names than she could use. 

I also considered naming ceremonies from cultures where names are magical things. They might be bestowed by Shamans and relate to spirit guides. There is an idea bout secret names and use names as opposed to formal names. Even in our society, where we give names according to fashion or what sounds nice, we kind of know intuitively the power of names when our mothers tell us off, and suddenly we are 'Christopher James MacKenzie!!' in our mother's Voice Of Power instead of just Chris. 

So here it is.

May your name glorify you.
May your name be big enough to grow into.
May your name carry forward the best of our traditions, and also be uniquely yours.
May your name be whispered with love, called with pride, and remembered with respect.
Many your name fall from heaven and rise from the dear earth, for it is a blessing from the divine powers that stand behind us all.
And this is your name.
And your name is this.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


He whose Gates are open'd in those Regions of the Body
Can from those Gates view all these wondrous Imaginations.
-          William Blake
Art criticism is not for me as a rule. I lack the knowledge. However I am interested in the intersections between art and other things, such as science and politics and activism. And I do enjoy things that make me feel uneasy, if it is for the right reasons.

This was all the wrong reasons. 

The Body Worlds exhibition is famous and has travelled the world.  It consists of several real human bodies which have been donated by their previous owners, and which have undergone a process of plastiination. Doctors have preserved and sterilised them so that their inner workings are in full and detailed view. You can see one in a swimming pose, cut lengthwise in half, so that some organs are on one side and some on the other.  Another is the body of an elderly man, showing how his body parts have weakened and slackened over time. There are also on display many real body parts such as bones, organs and systems displayed in order to show the processes of disease and decay. An example which intrigued the crowds was the cross section of a blackened and cancerous lung. 

All of this sounds somewhat confronting and this is my point. It’s not. Not at all. The exhibition was held at a hotel, and it was crowded. There was a wait list to get in. There were many families and children. It was a much more varied crowd than you would get at an exhibition at an art gallery, a ‘proper’ art exhibition.  Everyone was intrigued and thoughtful. People read the information and discussed it among themselves. Children asked questions. Nobody was disrespectful or rude.  The plastinated bodies were vivid with colour, which was slightly ironic. They were posed in glass cases where you could move right around them, to be drawn in by the details of tendon and nerve and the elaborate plait of muscle.  Around the walls and in other display cases, were videos and posters about health and disease. Adjacent to the displays of brains, there was a well-produced film about dementia. A large wall poster illustrated the dangers of sugar in the diet. The message was clear; this was an exhortation to health and physical wellbeing.. This was made more obvious by the fact that the exhibition was sponsored by a life insurance company. And - at the end we were invited to drop a token into a container to symbolise a pledge to a particular lifestyle change such as cutting down on alcohol or exercising more.

I didn’t like it at all. I left early. I did not want to drop my token into a container and make a pledge. I did not do it. 

The new friend I was with asked if I was a bit squeamish. Actually, I thought at the time, I am not squeamish enough. I could not fathom my discomfort. 

Now I can, a bit. 

Here are some analogous exhibitions, in that they are populist works that straddle art and science. As examples they may generate more heat than light, but that is my intent. 

The first ever neonatal unit was at Coney Island, and it was essentially a freakshow. Tiny premature babies were displayed for the public to gaze at and wonder. The doctor who ran this, invented the incubator. He would hear of a preemie baby, and take his big black car and go and get it. He employed only the strictest of standards of hygiene and only the strictest of nurses, whose moral behaviour was monitored. It was a seriously innovative business, and the babies survived and thrived from a state of prematurity that has not really been surpassed. It was also, as I said, a freakshow. The public got to look at the tiny little hands and marvel and learn. In its day it was considered slightly tasteless, as freakshows are of course, and it would never happen now. But this was how the first ever neonatal unit funded itself in the land of the free. In the few accounts I have read about it, the public were invited not to participate or interact or study, but frankly, to gawk. To wonder. 

Above is a link to one of many fairly thoughtful articles about the Anatomical Venus. She is an exquisite example of eighteenth century aestheticized science.  This is from a time when people were fascinated by anatomy and artists captured the wary eroticism of it with paintings of old male doctors spending too much time on their own with young female cadavers. Its piquancy comes from what I call High Transgression. It is not just being naughty. Anyone can break laws and norms unthinkingly and selfishly.  The purpose here is lofty and serous and knowing. And yet it is as dodgy as fuck and you just know that intuitively.  It is in the space of tension between lofty scientific  endeavour and Baudelaisian smut that High Transgression flourishes.

This transgressive space is necessarily difficult, but even more intuitively so when it comes to the body. The Body Worlds exhibition has been criticised by indigenous people and I can see why. It is not that it is disrespectful exactly.  Its fault is that it simply makes no account of what we know to be true – that the body is the site of the sacred and the profane all at once. Things that are inside the body should stay inside the body. Body fluids particularly are both sacred and profane once they leave the body; they are unclean and magical and curative and just plain dangerous. Things that are outside the body should be dealt with carefully before they go inside the body. We must not eat unclean food or take body fluids inside us once they have left someone’s insides. 

At Body Worlds, the bodies are beautiful, sanitised and somehow unreal. In the past, when body parts have been preserved, there has been the incipient threat of decay. Kick the jar over or make the solution too weak and nature takes its course. Plastination not only preserves, it perfects and perpetuates. Thus we are distanced from the real human bodies on display. We are voyeurs, we look and become curious and then we get to consider our health and our life styles and the take home message is something as specious as ‘Well I saw that black lung and I think I will quit smoking’. A message I can receive passively many times a day if I smoked.  We are never invited to wonder or to become passionate or shocked. Despite all the dire health warnings, we are never invited to see our bodies as the stinking, appalling, wonderful, ridiculous , exquisite, sensuous, dignified, changeable things they might be.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


We were celebrating an achievement the night before last, myself and some ex work mates. One of us, Sherry, had managed to score something remarkable and rare. We were very excited for her. We all agreed that it was well deserved, and she had worked in a painstaking fashion for it for some years. She was jubilant, talking about how this would impact on her life and that of her children.

So what had Sherry achieved? A PhD from Harvard? A partnership in a prestigious law firm?

No. Sherry had gained herself a job. An actual job. A permanent, 8 till 4.30, Monday till Friday job with sick leave and annual leave and all the trimmings. She has worked on the qualification for this for two and a half years. She has worked in places where you can get fifty hours a week or twenty, where you can work for thirty six hours straight, counting the sleepover shifts, where split shifts wreck your day, where you are away from your kids in the evenings. Managers can decide suddenly that you are working less than 20 hours a week, in which case you lose your child support and your Working for Families top up for those on low wages with children.

Sherry's new job pays just on the Living Wage, estimated to be $20.20 an hour in New Zealand in 2017. The Living Wage is an amount that covers not just the basic expenses, but enables people to participate in society. It is $5 above the minimum wage. Sherry has benefited from ferocious union activity in her industry, resulting in a pay equity claim that forced the government to subsidize the largely female work force.

I have written before about life in the precariat, the new class that experiences income precarity and often accommodation precarity as well. We talk about 'hours' not jobs. Getting enough hours this week. Losing hours. Our jobs may be permanent on paper, but how much we work is subject to the 'just in time' economic thinking that gives us the split shifts and the being called at no notice. Even professionals work like this. Teachers, for example, are employed term by term.  You may have a good income for now, but you can't plan and you can't have a stake in your work environment. Precarity keeps us edgy, a little hungry, a little worried, and leads to short term decision making. There is no long game. We discount the future. We dissipate our scarce energies. We are depoliticized.

As we partied, drinking cheap beer and cider and eating ice cream in a chilly kitchen, I took a moment to think about how Sherry had achieved something that used to be common. A steady, full time job was once considered almost a right, especially for the family man. It was certainly the norm. Maybe it wasn't great back then. It was stultifying and monocultural after all. Now, we have the opposite problem. We are grateful for anything that gives us stability and enables us to separate leisure and work and spend time with our kids.

So, go Sherry you good thing. And we raise a glass for you, and your kids who will now see you regularly every evening whether they like it or not.

Image result for images of working hardA Note on searching for images - if you google 'Working Hard Images' you get a heap of stock images of
a) men sitting at desks
b) quotes about how you must work harder
I can't begin to describe how little this means to the working class woman.

Thursday, February 22, 2018


This is a poem in an old Norse style where the last sound of the line goes with the first sound of the next line. It came very directly to me while meditating on nature spirits in Australia.

Five trees grow from one who died
Abide in loving unity
Family dig deep
Sleep not for knowledge gained
Pain for love of Yggdrasil

Image result for images pine trees australia

Tuesday, January 16, 2018