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To understand an object, animate or inanimate, observe it closely. To understand more deeply, sketch or paint it. By this measure and method of understanding, Ray Ching has a deep knowledge of the birds, trees and water courses of his country of birth, Aotearoa New Zealand.
Ching’s ‘passionate and wondrous’ rendering of the avian inhabitants of this and other countries is well known to the bird- and art-loving world. Previous books such as Raymond Ching, the Bird Paintings (1978) and New Zealand Birds (1987) have established his reputation. In recent years, Ching has begun an exploration into the classic Aesopian fables, retold and transplanted to the Antipodes. From this exploration came the 2012 book, Aesop’s Kiwi Fables. Now comes Dawn Chorus.
Dawn Chorus is the love child of several glorious unions. Ray Ching is responsible for the idea and design, the shaping of the fables, the handwritten script (reminiscent of Hotere’s), and the paintings. His wife Carolyn Ching has created the story ‘The Voyage,’ which describes the fabulous journey undertaken by Aesop’s spirit, guided by an albatross to the Land of the Long White Cloud. The news of his coming precedes him; the birds of these islands begin to assemble; there is to be a great concert in his honour. Self-appointed as court artist for this kingdom of birds, Ray Ching has then recorded the details of the various scenes (Pitt Island tuis, freshly bathed, unusually communal kingfishers, a slightly unwelcome mynah, the celebrated kakapo choir) with an expert technique.
The verisimilitude is staggering, but what elevates the artwork is the vibrancy, the style, the drama and graphic excitement. Hues, gleams and shadows substantiate the ambiguity of matter. Water eddies and ripples from a seal’s oily head in brush strokes. Beaks have texture.
Dawn Chorus is placed before a librarian, who swoons and, when she comes to, swiftly orders a copy for the Oamaru Public Library. Dawn Chorus is placed before a child, who protests.
“That is not a painting. Is it?”
“It can’t be.”
“How did he do that?”
“He practised heaps.”
“How good was he when he was five?”
“Probably pretty good.”
“Can I try?”
An hour later in front of the child there is a watercolour tieke, southern saddleback, announcing a start to proceedings. An albatross (‘from southern oceans they come, great birds with beaks of unexpected hues.’) A weka with an ankle twisted in the attempt to eat a bunch of juicy grapes. To watch the child’s concentration is to catch a microcosmic glimpse of Ching in his studio, also perhaps chewing his pencil or brush. Echoes of John Ruskin travel down the ages, Teach them to observe, to draw, to learn how things work, how they are, and hence how to love them! This is where art, society and ecology collide.
In his introduction to Dawn Chorus, Ray Ching outlines the process he uses in painting these birds and landscapes. In his studio in in the west country of England, he paints from study skins and mounted taxidermy specimens. To set them in their homeland habitat of southern rainforests, rivers and mountains, he commissioned a series of photographs, undertaken by Auckland photographer Robin Lock, who consequently traveled the islands of New Zealand, finding the birds, plants and places needed for paintings. The birds are alive again.
The final part of Dawn Chorus is committed to the re-imagined fables; ‘Aesop lived amongst the animals of Aotearoa New Zealand for some long while and was able to leave more than one hundred fables concerning their ways, fifty of which, hitherto unseen, are included here.’ What results is the condensed verbal and graphic wisdom of Aesop and Ching, both having employed metaphor and myth to illustrate that which may be necessary for the survival of all creatures, including humans. For example:
‘A young saddleback said to his mother: “Teach me a trick that will help me escape when I am foraging for food and taken unawares by a ferocious stoat.” The other replied, “There are many tricks for escaping stoats and other enemies. But best of all is to stay safe on this island, so they neither they see you, nor you them.” (It is best to avoid low company whether they come in peace or not.)’
Ray Ching and his collaborators have allowed their imaginations to roam and forage, making bounteous use of a multi-lingual fluency: visual, verbal, maori, latin, musical, comic. There are ‘Parts’ but no boundaries to this book; it is a manifestation of the creative spirit, an intensely observed and realised gift to us and our senses, a gift, a gift!
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
Dawn Chorus: The Legendary Voyage to New Zealand of Aesop, the Fabled Teller of Fables
by Ray Ching
Published by Bateman
Ray Ching’s collection opens at Artis Gallery in Auckland today, from 16-21 December. Images above taken from the listing about this exhibition.