Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Great expectations

In what is either a stroke of brilliantly understated humour or a total marketing failure, Hamilton greets visitors with a billboard bearing the wistful civic slogan "Hamilton... more than you expect." As slogans go, it's an improvement on "Hamilton: Fountain City" which, when adopted back in the 70s, required the immediate construction of several extra fountains to justify the designation. Lexically, it certainly beats "Hamilton... just what you'd expect," although for my money, "Hamilton... more than you suspect" would have had a more alluring and mysterious ring to it. Anyway, it's catchier and a tad less corporate than "Hamilton... exceeding your expectations since 1877."

Leaving town, the back of the same billboard simply bids you "Farewell/Haere ra," which is a bit of a missed opportunity. I'd expect at the very least a cheery follow-up on the original assertion. Like, "Hamilton... what did you expect?" You could even have a wee booth distributing customer satisfaction surveys or conducting exit interviews. Age, sex, country of origin, and a few multi-choice questions, like "Did Hamilton exceed your expectations (a) quite a lot, (b) somewhat, (c) barely, (d) not at all?"

I'd have to say, the underselling approach works: after spending large chunks of the last couple of weeks in Expectation City, I can unequivocally answer (a). Especially once we found the play equipment and relocated the art museum. Down by the very pretty lake, Busytot cut his teeth (as it were) on one of those frighteningly unreconstructed playgrounds that make New Zealand kids the tough little beasts that they are. I stood to one side, trying not to make like a manic micro-managing Manhattan mama, while my little fellow wended his way through a series of finger-chopping, leg-breaking, head-donging obstacles all the way to the wide-open summit, where it's only a two-metre drop to the rubberized surface below (the sole apparent concession to liability laws).

I'm alarmed at the extent to which I've absorbed the risk-averse vibe of the excessively regulated jungle-gyms in the so-called urban jungle of New York. Only a week earlier I'd scoffed at a witty article in the Herald that, I thought, overstated the link between the relative timidity of North Americans and their buffered, babyproofed playgrounds. But after a few mornings down at the swings, I'm persuaded… Sir Edmund Hillary didn't get where he is today by not stubbing a few toes and breaking the occasional arm. Which may have been what inspired the particularly stroppy mother in Pt Chev the other day, who, when her youngest child hopped off the centrifugal merry-go-round thing as his sturdier brothers cranked it up to warp speed, yelled "Get back on there, ya bloody wuss!"

Anyway, after hauling Busytot away from the water's edge, where he spent a happy half hour feeding the ducks, geese, and small native birds, we made for the always impressive Waikato Museum of Art and History (no link, as it lacks an appropriately beautiful or up-to-date website... oh all right, go see for yourself). We had a bicultural agenda: we wanted to renew our acquaintance with Te Winika, the beautifully restored Tainui waka, and to grab a decent coffee in the café. Alas, the major art wing was closed for restoration and we'd missed Robyn Kahukiwa and Len Lye; but good luck, there was Te Winika in all her glory; and even better luck, down in the one wee exhibition of contemporary art, we stumbled across the weekly mother-and-baby group.

Busytot and his dad joined forces with the kiddies' group while I explored the exhibit. A security guard hovered nervously, not sure who was less trustworthy -- the group of under twos playing quietly with arty toys at a safe distance from most of the sculptures and paintings, or the dodgy looking art fan who leaned a millimeter over the white line to see round the back of one of the sculptures. It was an intriguing piece by an overseas-based New Zealander, consisting of a suitcase full of assorted items – photos, objects, signs -- to be arranged ad hoc by the gallery staff. As the gallery notes explained, ponderously and redundantly, it was all about being overseas and dragging your "cultural baggage" around.

It was a cute concept, or should I say conceit, but for me the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail left something to be desired. If you're going to wad up a ball of tinfoil to represent a planet, it could at least be symmetrical. There's no such thing as a "fractal black hole." And the picture of Stephen Hawking with his eyes poked out seemed gratuitously nasty and just plain weird. A couple of the other pieces made me want to poke my own eyes out, with their yawn-inducing obviousness. My vote for best bang for material buck went to the wit who had stapled a length of vintage orange and brown printed fabric onto a thick wooden frame and slapped it on the wall. The curatorial notes instructed me to wonder if the piece was a mattress or perhaps a couch, which might explain why I dutifully nearly fell asleep on my feet while looking at it.

Always one to applaud and defend smart-assery in art, I was beginning to wonder if I'd suddenly tipped over into Hamish Keith territory and would never again like anything made by anyone under thirty out of cunningly rearranged salvagings from the latest inorganic rubbish collection. Thank god, then, for the centerpiece of the exhibition: the genuinely witty, well-made, and subtle (apart from its silly title) "HYPERREAL TOOLBOX FOR THE REINVENTION OF A TRANSGLOBAL EMPIRE IN A PARALLEL UNIVERSE?" by Dave Stewart, which nattily deconstructs and reimagines the iconic crate of beer. It's classic. It won a big prize. I'll drink to that. Although I can't imagine how it might be displayed in the home of a private collector. You'd have to keep it well away from the fridge.

Thoroughly refreshed, I followed the tots and their groovy mums to the café where, over glasses of feijoa nectar (yum) and some world-class coffee, we outed ourselves as visitors from Manhattan – albeit one of us a Hamilton boy -- merely masquerading as locals. More fool us. It turned out that everyone around the table knew someone who was either living in New York or had just moved back, which in a sense made us thoroughly local… in fact, you might say, more Hamilton than you expect.