Even though there is a picturesque charm to ‘The Inquiry’, with its open sky, serene sand dunes and sea view, there is also a palpable sense of isolation and loss. The work seems haunted by powerful feelings and undercurrents; and Wong’s reputation as New Zealand’s under-rated surrealist alerts us to the probability of the scene’s symbolism.
While Wong’s Surrealist antecedents are from early 20th century Europe, there is something distinctly of his own time in the gesture of staging his psychological drama on a local sandy shore. With the relation of the house to the sand there are echoes of similarly powerful and symbolic scenes in movies which were released in the years immediately prior to Wong’s painting; and these may shed coincidental light on Wong’s symbolism.
In Hiroshi Teshigahara’s ‘The Woman in the Dunes’ (1964) a school teacher is entrapped in a house deep within a sand quarry that constantly threatens to engulf the house and its other occupant, the woman of the title, who must dig the sand in return for water from the villagers above. It is a vision of a suffocating, claustrophobic hell; and yet it becomes a world that the man adapts to and chooses to inhabit.
In the closing scene of Franklin J. Schaffner’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968) the Earth astronaut George Taylor and his companion Nova follow the shoreline of the Forbidden Zone and eventually discover the beach-covered remains of the Statue of Liberty, revealing that the supposedly alien planet is actually post-apocalyptic Earth. Realising that he is doomed to remain at a destination that is both alien and his former home, Taylor falls to his knees in despair and anger.
What both movies share is the powerful visual trope of sand dunes engulfing an object symbolising the impossibility of return. The house in the dunes and the whole planet of the apes dominate and constantly remind that hope for somewhere else has been extinguished.
But even in this bleak realisation there is a kernel of hope, perhaps as small as a grain of sand, but hope all the same: that there is the possibility of something new from within even troubling present circumstances. It is a sentiment that seems to be shared by Wong, where the foreground post which may mark an imaginary way out, certainly marks a way into the landscape; and therefore towards reconciliation rather than only despair.
Brent Wong, “The Inquiry” 1970, 63cm x 105cm, acrylic on board.
Essay previously published by International Art Centre, Parnell, Auckland, NZ (May 2014).