This is a proposal for a piece of writing which will hopefully one day end up, in print, in National Grid…
Beyond their obvious kitsch appeal, boring postcards have stories to tell about notions of national identity. Such stories are all the more valuable for their apparent lack of calculation, their naive sincerity.
Reviewers of Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards books have observed distinctive ‘types’ of dullness: staid British self consciousness, brash American self-belief. Similarly, New Zealand boring postcards have a unique character, reflecting our own post-war experience and offering an visually rich resource of Pakeha identity construction.
They betray a taciturn Protestant culture, still content for the most part to follow Britain, gradually loosening up and enjoying the summer sun during a period of prosperity and burgeoning independence. In these cheap commercial colour reproductions, the nation is ascendant, proud. Predictably, we are presented with a boosterish images of agriculture (dairy cows, lambs with daffodils), natural beauty (mountains, beaches), civic pride (clock towers, war memorials, municipal marigolds), great public works projects (dams, bridges, power stations), and tourist ventures (model villages, marine theme parks). More than the landscape, however, it is representations of indigenous culture which identify these images as distinctly and unmistakably ‘of New Zealand’.
Despite its ongoing reluctance to devolve power in negotiating the colonial exchange, Pakeha society has nonetheless from the earliest days of its existence sought to define itself through the appropriation of Maori visual culture. Typical of such appropriation is the use of images of indigenous species. To this end, it has been proposed that the ‘uniqueness’ of Pakeha visual/cultural identity lies in the distinctive combination of environmentally modified agricultural landscapes on one hand, and ‘wild’, ‘natural’, and ‘untamed’ indigenous flora and fauna on the other. This combination is so familiar to us, so much a part of our psyche, that the inherent contradiction within it seldom registers.
In this image, a kiwi and a kowhai branch are posed in front of a wire fence on a closely cropped lawn in the Napier Botanic Gardens. The kiwi tentatively nibbles on raw minced beef. As a text, the postcard offers an economic, elegant precis of these key symbols of Pakeha identity: agricultural fertility (grass, beef) and distorted images of indigeneity (nocturnal kiwi in daylight, dismembered kowhai blossom).
Beyond the content of the images, the compositions commonly reflect a prosaic late colonial Pakeha mentalite. Behind the plain geometry and lurid colour, lies a suspicion of sophistication. These are beautiful, boring postcards for a beautiful, boring country.