Review: Little Doomsdays

Reviewed by Jessica Agoston Cleary

‘Little Doomsdays, whatever it is, is a tour-de-force of the power of art to capture and express complex, heavy ideas and spark deep contemplation and conversation.’

Sometimes, it’s the little things that are the heaviest, the most significant.

Nic Low and Phil Dadson’s Little Doomsdays is little, as far as art books go at least. At just 95 pages and weighing no more than a few hundred grams, the weight of the words and images contained within the smooth thick cover have weighed heavy on my heart and mind since cracking open cover and leafing through the pages. Heavier perhaps because of where I was when I immersed myself in this mysterious, maybe even mystical series of Little Doomsdays: thousands of feet above the earth, hurtling at hundreds of kilometers per hour between Melbourne and Sydney.

Looking up from the pages to gaze out the window at the shifting earth through the little Perspex window (windows I have always thought seem too impossibly fragile to withstand the pressure of flight), I was struck too many times to count by how similar Dadson’s images were to the vistas through the window. Even those of zoomed in, detailed abstraction looked as if somehow, Dadson had already seen what my eyes were seeing. This Sharman like ability to harness the very essence of things – from sound to moving image, to paint and even air itself, is what Dadson is known for. To have his artwork - most often contained within large, open, three-dimensional spaces - condensed, concentrated and contained within this little book is part of its magic, going some part of the way to explaining how it is that a thing so small almost bursts at the seams.

Dadson’s dynamic, earth energy infused works are laid out in direct opposition to Low’s Items. A series of rhymical, non-fiction poems-come-travel-logbook entry. Each item, expertly crafted and stripped back to the bare bones of requirement for a sentence, perfectly capture the fragility of life on earth and the role we humans play in tipping the balance. When it comes to doomsdays, there is no time for flowery, overly emotional language. The glare of reality and factually accurate recounting of events does not need embellishment. Yet, Low’s language is neither cold nor clinical. It is precisely and elegantly crafted, tapping into our a priori knowledge and just enough to invite us to colour in the background.

The best and only way I can think of to describe Little Doomsdays, beautifully designed by Gary Stewart, is as an art/work. It may have a cover, a spine, paper pages and even a bright orange ribbon page marker, leading one to think of it as a book, but it is not. And, also, it is. Because it must be, mustn’t it? Occupying a liminal space, somewhere on the edge of being a book, or an artwork, disguised as a book, opens it up to the widest spectrum of interpretation and response. Low’s words and Dadson’s artworks collectively paint the clearest picture of the mess we’re in, but it is not all doom and gloom.

With each turn of the page, we encounter a new artwork and a new elegy for that which is lost and what we yet stand to lose. Low and Dadson become more than artist and writer; they are guides, leading each reader on a journey through space and time. Departing from the lower South Island, in the late 20th century: ‘It’s said – in the quite between buses, down the back of the pub, in the hushed elevator rising to the penthouse – that in the late twentieth century an unstable grouping of scholars, writers and fanatics from several Ngāi Tahi hapū in Murihiku created what has come be known as the Ark of Arks.’

Our guides lead us to hover above pivotal, course-of-humanity altering moments and moments of great personal intimacy. From down the back of the pub, we’re jettisoned across to the hushed corners of the British Museum, encountering George Smith as he translates the Epic of Gilgamesh in 1866. A few pages on, we find ourselves at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where,‘It’s said that little doomsdays happen daily. Freezers fail…’ As we approach the end, we meet the future:

 “(Crying in shock): Tihei mauriora! Purpled, face screwed against the world’s sudden light…

 Language as a lever to move the world.

I would preserve these words for our whanau…

Would I put them in a book?” 

Shortly before landing in Melbourne, at an ungodly hour due to gale force winds in Sydney forcing runway closures, the true-blue-Aussie bloke sitting beside me plucked up the courage to ask me what I was reading and why was I scribbling so feverishly in the margins? Over one or two glasses of Shiraz, as is often the catalyst for conversations between perfect strangers, I told him I was reading a book - or what I guess could be described as a book although it was more of an artwork with a book cover - by New Zealand artists called Little Doomsdays.

“I noticed the cover and title when you were eating dinner,” he said. “I’ve been sitting here wondering, what is a Little Doomsday?” I replied: “I don’t know for sure myself, even though I’ve read the book. I think, maybe, little doomsdays are all those seemingly insignificant things that collectively have a big impact. Like the butterfly effect. Sometimes you can see the connection between one thing and the next, other times it might be completely random. And, because these things occur along the spectrum of time on earth, they’re all inherently entwined, as much as we’re all entwined with each other.”

“Doomsdays are usually anything but little” he said. “Doomsdays are the end of days. The beginning of the end. Not great reading for a plane ride” he said. “Oh, quite the opposite!” I said. “What better place to read a book that reminds you there is so much at stake - so much beyond our comprehension and that the balance is so fragile and we humans play a vital role in the end game, that we have to make wise choices for the future of our families, and hopefully avoid making the same mistakes as our ancestors -  than in a giant metal tube with wings that looks like it shouldn’t be able to fly?”

Little Doomsdays, whatever it is is a tour-de-force of the power of art to capture and express complex, heavy ideas and spark deep contemplation and conversation. Whether you choose to refer to yourself as reader, viewer or passenger on the journey with Low and Dadson matters not. Nor does it matter where your experience of its force takes place. Thousands of feet above the earth, sitting on a train or even perched on the toilet, Little Doomsdays works on you as only truly good art does.

Reviewed by Jessica Agoston-Cleary