Peter Robinson ‘NZ: Some People Call It The World’s Arse, I Call It Home’

Martin Edmond
Posted on 7 March 2024

Peter Robinson made this work in 1998, the year he was also a guest at the Sydney Biennale. I don’t know if he showed it there but, if he did, its McCahon-esque qualities would have been instantly recognised: white hand lettering on a previously painted matt black background; not a framed canvas but a scroll meant to be hung loose upon a wall. Australian viewers would also have recognised the sentiment in the koan-like statement at the bottom, so like, and yet unlike, one of McCahon’s lapidary pronouncements. Only a few years before Bob Hawke had accused Paul Keating of calling Australia ‘the arse-end of the world’; if it wasn’t ‘the arsehole of the world’.

There are New Zealand precedents as well. Tim Finn, for example, in a song, more decorously, has Aotearoa: ‘Glisten like a pearl / At the bottom of the world’. Then there are the opening lines of the title poem of Bill Manhire’s 1991 collection The Milky Way Bar: ‘I live at the edge of the Universe, / like everybody else’. Manhire, in an earlier collection, also had something to say about the ‘N Z’ which Robinson places front and centre in this work, somehow both enlarging and miniaturizing the letters. Words that begin with Z, the poem ‘Zoetropes’ suggests, ‘alarm the heart’; but when the speaker finds out that what they are reading (in London) doesn’t refer to their home country, their eye moves down the page ‘to other disappointments’.

Peter Robinson

NZ: Some People Call It The World’s Arse, I Call It Home

oil on unstretched linen canvas

signed and dated ’98 in pencil lower right

2140 x 1810mm

$60 000 – $80 000


Private collection, Wellington.

Purchased by the current towner from Anna Bibby Gallery, Auckland in 2001.

View lot here

There is a further dimension to this work which might not be apparent to a casual viewer. Robinson, born in Ashburton, is of Kai Tahu descent; you can read the inscription of the initial letters of the European (that is Dutch) name for his ancestral country as white (Pākehā) writing over black (Māori). It’s a possible reading, not a prescribed one. But if New Zealand is, in some people’s opinion, the world’s arse, then it is indeed paradoxical that Robinson should want to call it home. Meanwhile ‘some people’ is unspecified but you may be sure it is a group to which the artist does not belong.

Another paradox: the lettering of the ‘N’ and the ‘Z’ approximates marks made by machines and especially typewriters; but is in fact hand done. The curious relationship between those two letters, each of which looks like the other one turned on its side, is both accentuated and contradicted by the serifs with which they are adorned. There is another contrast with the script along the bottom, hand-written in sans serif capitals which also approximate, without actually imitating, print.

So there is a mordant humour at work here, and a larrikin element too, albeit understated. Keating denied he ever said what Hawke reckoned he did; subsequently it turned out that the joke, if it is a joke, had been used before — by Barry McKenzie, a cartoon character invented by Barry Humphries in 1964, drawn by New Zealander Nicholas Garland, and played in the films by Barry Crocker. Robinson turns the whole thing around again: NZ may be black as the arse of the world but is here re-inscribed with the bright white light of home.

Martin Edmund