Dawn Chorus: The Legendary Voyage to New Zealand of Aesop, the Fabled Teller of Fables, by Ray Ching

Available in bookstores nationwide.

To understand an object, animate or inanimate, cv_dawn_chorusobserve 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.

dawn_chorus_artworkThe 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 is.”
“It can’t be.”
“It is.”
“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.

dawn_chorus_2The 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
ISBN 9781869538910

Ray Ching’s collection opens at Artis Gallery in Auckland today, from 16-21 December. Images above taken from the listing about this exhibition.

Book Review: Bird Murder, by Stefanie Lash


Bird Murder is available now, at selected bookstores.

Birds of a feather flock together, or so they say.
And Mākaro Press bunches three first-class poets in its Hoopla Series. Stefanie Lash, an archivist from Wellington, is the fledgling of this group, with Bird Murder her first collection.

Lash’s collection evades pigeonholes. Perhaps it is best pegged as a poetic thriller (indeed, the cover does cast it as ‘crime’). But Lash resists conformity to any one mode. Bird Murder flitters between legalese and the natural sciences, between steampunk and colonial New Zealand history. Norse and Greek references couple with local geography.

The work is a hodge-podge of elements, but by no means a mess. Imagery is integrated. The ‘not-quite-fictional’ setting of Tusk and its colourful inhabitants are vivid and convincing. Yet the reader is torn between feelings of repulsion and delight. There is something both exquisite and abhorrent about this other-world. The ‘pretty bird’ becomes ‘grotesque’ in death, and there is something oddly artful about the ‘creamy intestines’, the ‘teacup of blood’.

Bird Murder is in turns haunting and hilarious. It is verse as storytelling. However, this is no linear tale. Rather, each verse acts as a clue to the overarching narrative. Characters are sketchily rendered. Birds, birdmen and human forms move in and out of view. There is an element of theatre in the movements of characters − the maid stands at ‘stage right’, people adopt the ‘contrapposto pose’.

This is theatre at the ‘World’s End’. One senses the credits have fallen, and Tusk is a world in its death-throws. The slaying of the huia bird, an almost magical entity, is symptomatic of such breakdown. And in the dystopian dim it seems ‘no good can come of seeing faces fully after dark’. The huia, once taxidermied, is purged of its magic − ‘the actual animal is released’.

In Bird Murder, Lash has gifted us fairy-tale and caution. A bird in the hand is worth nothing if it is dead. ‘No man should revel in extinction’. But Lash’s tone is not didactic. Her style is more ‘show’ than ‘tell’. Lash invites us into a world rich with imagery – from the anatomical to the culinary.

This is poetry with guts.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Bird Murder
by Stefanie Lash
Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780473276492