Are you reusing a particular cast of objects in this picture “Tu”?
Yes, but there are new things – like the book here by the Maori writer Patricia Grace. It’s called “Tu” – a fictional story about a fifteen year old Maori Battalion soldier at Monte Cassino. A story about the effects of the brutality of the battle. Patricia Grace’s father was at Cassino, and all the men in my family with one exception were at Cassino, and all survived. I was taken and shown Cassino. That affected me a lot, and I think it helped me understand why I demonstrated against the Vietnam war.

How do the still lifes differ from other series you’ve done. Is this the first series?
No, they’ve gone on. The picture on the card I sent you was a very early one. It was about going back to Spain, just after I left art school.

This was part of a series? There were other variations on this theme?
Yes, there were several of them. I’d won the Richard Ford Award, a scholarship to Spain and to the Prado, and I was going to Spain that day. I scrawled that across the wall. I was painting those objects, and I had to take the flight that afternoon, and since I’d written it on the wall, I put “I’m going back to Spain” into the picture. I had spent time living among writers in Barcelona in 1980’s immediately after the collapse of “La Dictadura”. Earlier I had hitch-hiked right around Spain for several


So that picture records a specific event in your life?
It’s all about departures. Like the postcard in the painting “Back to Spain” of the ship that goes across the Cook Strait which was sent to me by a great friend of mine who had taught the North Vietnamese Paris Peace Talk delegates English. She had worked in North Vietnam, at a time when New Zealand was at war with North Vietnam. She sent a card which said ‘I’ve lived in Notting Hill but my next journey is to where I know not whence’.

And full of autobiographical references
They all are, all my pictures. I don’t want to be a derivative Uglow or a Freud. That’s an easy strategy...

Easy maybe, but not a good strategy long-term.
Well, it’s easy because people think it’s just like a Freud so it must be good... Sometimes my pictures have sold and sometimes they are difficult to sell.

They are very personal, which is what give them their strength, their interest.
I’ve always been fascinated by the two heads you’ve done of my children. They’re bursting with some sort of unspoken life. You’re not quite sure what it is, as if they’d bottled up some kind of secret identity that’s become almost painful. They’re very arresting portraits. I really want


On the one hand there’s a constructed still life, and on the other a completely imaginary sphere where you introduce images which have struck you from different parts of your life.
Ed has said to me ‘you’re like La Fille du Régiment’. I was brought up as a boy, in the mountains in New Zealand. There was no option to be a girl. There weren’t any other girls. I suppose that’s why I was quite content to keep my own company. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the war and what it did to the men who came back from it. I was brought up by old soldiers.

How does that relate to these pictures?
Ondaatje says in the "English Patient" the art during the war was like map for the soldiers

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