Editor’s note: It is instructive and amusing to write about places in one’s own country as if you are a visitor from overseas. That was the task in this article which appeared in Newscorp newspapers (The Australian, Daily Telegraph, Courier-Mail etc.) and websites across Australia in September 2015. The instructive thing is that it makes you see things afresh – and reminds you how beautiful New Zealand is and how lucky we are to live here.
On a wild Pacific coast, beside a dormant volcano, John Corbett visits a world-class art museum.
New Plymouth’s coastline is credited with influencing the world-famous kinetic artist, Len Lye, to make the city the repository of his memory. Photo: John Corbett
“YOU WERE ON MY PLANE,” said the guy in the designer scarf and architect-type glasses. So too were several of the other visitors threading their way, on a crisp Saturday afternoon in August, through the galleries of the spanking-new Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth. Whether consciously designed as such or not, the snazzy, award-ready art gallery is bringing the concept of “destination architecture”, along with well-heeled art lovers, to a previously low-profile regional city on New Zealand’s west coast.
A 40-minute hop southwest from Auckland by Air New Zealand ATR-72 turboprop (Jetstar will commence services from 1 April 2016) New Plymouth and the province of Taranaki have long been better known for cow farms and dairy factories and the looming presence of Mount Taranaki/ Egmont, a dormant volcano that dominates the landscape. Sharp-eyed visitors will also notice petro-drilling platforms: since the 1960s, offshore finds have amplified the region’s wealth and made New Zealand self-sufficient in natural gas. Now, watched closely by other regional centres, the Len Lye Centre is literally giving the city lustre.
Finished in three storey-high walls of fluted, reflective stainless steel, the Centre honours the life and work of an ahead-of-his time New Zealand-born film-maker, sculptor and kinetic artist who enjoyed a well-connected mid-20th century career in Europe and the USA. One of the radical creative geniuses that New Zealand produces from time to time, Len Lye (1901-1980) moved with ease between mediums (painting, film-making, photography, sculpture) and art movements (surrealism, abstract expressionism, kineticism). The roll-call of famous names he knew and worked with – Robert Graves, Joan Miró, Georgia O’Keeffe, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and many more – is impressive.
Although Lye was never sufficiently interested enough in art fashion and art politics to really make the history books, the Centre makes a determined case for him as the greatest of all kinetic sculptors. In the Centre’s high-vaulted galleries with their restrained Modernist palette of charcoals, greys and whites, the thrumming, illuminated energy of Lye’s sculptures brings the spaces to vibrant life.
There’s vitality too in the streets surrounding the Centre, which include Puke Ariki, an excellent old-school natural history museum whose atrium features “Meg”, a ten-metre replica of an extinct megalodon shark which swam in the local seas three million years ago. A lively mix of good hotels, boutiques and atmospheric bistros and bars draws locals into the downtown area throughout the week, and despite some thoughtless demolition there is still a healthy collection of architectural styles: a 360-degree spin in Queen Street next to the Len Lye Centre takes in a timber-laced nineteenth-century hotel, an Edwardian clock tower (rebuilt in 1985) and a 1950 Modernist office block. The nationally important Govett-Brewster Gallery, to which the Len Lye Centre has been added, started life as a picture theatre.
UNTIL RECENTLY, the attractions of New Plymouth were sedate. Parks and gardens – some of national significance – feature prominently in the city’s tourism literature and tour buses flock in each spring to Pukekura Park (est.1876) for the annual Rhododendron Festival. A Womad music, arts and dance event every March lends an edgier note. Thirty minutes away, the slopes of 2518-metre Mount Taranaki/Mount Egmont offer year-round hiking, snow pursuits, rock climbing and abseiling.
The presence of the wild Pacific coast two blocks from the Len Lye Centre is credited with the late artist’s decision to make New Plymouth the repository of his memory. In recent years the city has capitalised on its seaside setting in another way with the building of an award-winning Coastal Walkway. Designed to accentuate the sense of being on the edge of the sea, the 12.7-kilometre promenade attracts people to stroll, exercise and contemplate the everchanging moods of the ocean. A 45-metre-high Wind Wand sculpture by Len Lye holds pride of place.
The last big attraction of Taranaki province can be deduced, surprisingly, from vulcanology displays in the Puke Ariki museum. Over geological time, the symmetrical pattern of pyroclastic outflows from Mount Taranaki (which last erupted only 150 years ago) has created dozens of world-class surf breaks that attract champion-level competitors from around the globe. Load up your station wagon, strap your boards to the roof and head west from the city along Surf Highway 45. In a 105-kilometre semicircle you pass epic surf beaches, artist’s studios, historical sites, spectacular coastal scenery and cosy cafés.
If you are flying out of New Plymouth, a complete circuit of Mount Taranaki takes you through the towns of Hawera, Eltham, Stratford and Inglewood, whose roughly equidistant spacing, I was told, is a far as a bullock cart could amble before the milk it was carrying turned to butter.
There is interest aplenty: Hawera was the home of another under-regarded artist, Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1922-1972) whose darkly comic novels explore the underbelly of small-town provincial life. Also in Hawera is Nigel Ogle’s quirky Tawhiti Museum devoted to displays of scale models, and in Inglewood, Fun Ho!, where an iconic New Zealand range of hand-made, cast-aluminium toys has been made since 1932. Unexpected in their setting, the attractions are of a piece with the region itself: a fascinating corner of New Zealand that yields surprises for travellers of every kind. www.alimentary.co.nz
New Plymouth is a 4.5-hour drive from Auckland, and a 40-minute flight by Air New Zealand domestic ATR72 turboprop. Jetstar NZ starts services to New Plymouth in April 2016.
See airnewzealand.co.nz, jetstar.com
New Plymouth has numerous hotels and motels in all price categories. Alimentary recommends The Waterfront Hotel on the oceanfront at St Aubyn and Egmont Streets: a modern, well-run, tastefully decorated 4-star hotel that includes Salt, its good in-house restaurant. Chef Freddie Ponder’s latest accolade is a Silver Fern Farms Premier Selection Award.
Hire a car and take a trip “around the mountain” along Surf Highway 45 and back through Hawera and Inglewood. The annual Taranaki Garden Spectacular (30 October to November 8, 2015), attracts enthusiasts from all over New Zealand. The next NZ Womad festival is at TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth, 18-20 March 2016.
Len Lye Centre, www.lenlyecentre.com
Puke Ariki, www.pukeariki.com
Taranaki Garden Spectacular, 30 October to November 8, 2015, www.gardenfestnz.com
Womad, TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth, 18-20 March 2016, www.newplymouthnz.com
Coastal Walkway, www.newplymouthnz.com
Surf Highway 45, www.newzealand.com
Tawhiti Museum, www.tawhitimuseum.co.nz
Photos by John Corbett