A few days after the 2007 earthquake, someone left a dinghy on the side of the road across from my place.
Painted on the hull were the words: Take me away.
They seemed a cruel and unusual taunt. The boat was one kilometre from the sea with no hope of getting back. It was beached as. The message could have been an existential cry. It could have been something oracular, except it was stuck on dry land and without a rising tide it wasn’t going anywhere. Even in the event of a tsunami generated by an avalanche in the submarine Hikurangi Trench 40km away, the boat wouldn’t have time to float. The first and last any of us in these parts would hear of that would be the match-stick snap of Norfolk Pines along Centennial Marine Drive.
There was no point in covering the dinghy in wet sacks and calling the Coastguard either. It was Christmas Day. No-one wants to attend to a landlocked boat on Christmas Day. Even if the Coastguards weren’t already sotted on rum and flogging the cabin boy, a row-boat on the footpath was not a maritime emergency.
I’d be referred to the Request For Service line at the district council.
Or, given the prescience of the message, Civil Defence.
Or, for the same reason, Ward 11.
I thought about packing a few things and sitting in the dinghy. It was Christmas Day after all so you never know. Anything was possible – except the whole thing was probably an ironic joke.
I toyed with the idea of spraying on the far side of the hull, “This is not a boat” as a wave to the Surrealist painter Rene Magritte. In 1927 Magritte painted a picture of a pipe and beneath the pipe he painted the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). But then it occurred to me the boat and its message was some kind of conceptual artwork.
Conceptual art puts art in service of ideas rather than aesthetics. It’s not everyone’s fur cup of tea (Surrealist Méret Oppenheim’s 1937 sculpture Object consists of a fur coated teacup, saucer and spoon) but people who get conceptual art, get in a big way. It’s not a competition; that’s just how it is.
Some conceptual art works can be constructed by anyone who follows a set of written instructions. The grandfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp once sent written instructions to his newly-married sister to suspend a geometry textbook by strings from the couple’s balcony. Exposed to the elements, the wind chose its own problems. A photograph of the text book shows intersecting circles with unhappy looking eyebrows (or tangents, as they are know to mathematicians).
Duchamp called the work Unhappy Readymade.
The marriage did not last.
In 1918, Duchamp – the artist who also brought us the bicycle wheel mounted on a stool – created a Sculpture de Voyage, a soft-sculpture made out of shredded bathing caps. The idea was to suspend the construction on strings in his cabin on a trip from New York to Buenos Aires. The idea did not make it out of his apartment where he kept his bicycle wheel on a stool along with the web of shredded bathing caps.
The conceptual artist’s bicycle wheel had a big influence on absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett.
Beckett’s characters are invariably trapped by the fact of their existence. They advance as time advances but habit and memory means they repeat the same patterns much like a bicycle wheel – or, for that matter, the spools of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In the play Krapp’s Last Tape, Krapp gets through his birthday by replaying on his reel-to-reel tape recorder monologues he recorded on previous birthdays. He interweaves these with fresh recordings about his current state.
In a photograph by playwright Mary Manning Howe, the existentialist writer sits in a coffin-like dinghy in a tiny pond he dug himself. The boat is moored by a short piece of rope to the shore.
He’s stuck in his dinghy and he’s not going anywhere.
So I figured even if the dinghy across the road from my place, and its enigmatic message wasn’t a piece of conceptual art, I could make it so. It was already working that way in my head.
I went and fetched my camera but by the time I got back a van had pulled up across the road.
A man got out. He opened the back doors of the van, pushed the boat inside and took it away.