Chris Heaphy’s This is the World that We Live In describes a globalised culture in which time and space is collapsed. His paintings reveal an agglomeration of signs drawn from popular culture, social and natural histories, and symbolic languages from multiple artistic traditions. In a world where millions of images are available at the click of a mouse, Heaphy investigates questions of cultural cross-pollination across time and socio-spatial distances.
Eschewing traditional cultural hierachies, the images on his canvases are connected at one level through the democratising form of the silhouette and their consistent leftwards orientation (are they looking forwards or backwards?). Other connections are more difficult to ascertain immediately. Mickey Mouse, collections of walking sticks, and various animals sit alongside westernised images of geisha, Māori and celestial clouds which would be at home on a Chinese dragon robe.
On one level, Phar Lap and the Princess disrupts the conventional story of New Zealand’s favourite racehorse, pairing him with a female rider from decades earlier. Dressed in a Victorian riding habit and adorned with huia feathers, it is unclear if she is Māori or pākehā, but she is undoubtedly a woman of rank. Heaphy deliberately reconfigures familar artistic tropes of European painting, inserting his own version of Hans Holbein’s anamorphic memento mori into the painting. The particularly English pastoral genre is likewise subverted, and horses, foxes, and hunting dogs in the manner of eighteenth-century painter George Stubbs are there to be discovered in Phar Lap and the Princess and other works in the series.
A bellicose stag dominates Now and Forever and his challenge is mirrored by that of the Māori warrior in the top corner of the painting. Heaphy subtly juxtaposes this however, with Parihaka’s white feathers of peace and a silhouetted ANZAC digger with Death looming over him. The seemingly random assemblages of walking aids and disembodied legs are tied into the myth-histories of the faith healing performed by Tahupōtiki Ratana (1), adding another layer to universal stories of conflict and resolution. Those familiar with Heaphy’s practice will recognise other historical sub-texts of some of his recurring motifs: the clubs and diamonds of playing cards directly reference their use by Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana and the Ratana church. It is this re-presentation of symbol and meaning across varied cultural landscapes that Heaphy wants us to explore.