Landschaft - The Bridge to Nowhere, Whanganui

Ann Shelton, Artist

This is one of the photographs in our collection. It was made in Whanganui Region, New Zealand in 2007.
Part a: 715 x 900mm
Part b: 715 x 900mm
Whole: 740 x 1850mm
C-type photograph
"The bridge to nowhere, situated in the Mangapūrua Valley west of Raetihi and spanning the Mangapūrua Gorge, is now encompassed by the Whanganui National Park. A substantial steel-reinforced concrete structure, typical of its time, some 34 metres in length, nearly 40 metres high and 38 metres above the water, the bridge is close cousin
to the Bridge to Somewhere in east Taranaki. Both serve as monuments to public confidence and fine engineering in difficult terrain, but also to futile enterprise and abandoned settlement. The Mangapūrua Valley was‘opened’ in 1917 by the government to provide land for retuned soldiers under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act (1915). Some 10,000 veterans were served by the scheme, but many thousands were sent to remote areas to clear bush, create industries and new communities. The world war they returned from, for all its horror, cannot have prepared them for the hardship of remote rural settlements. The Mangapūrua Valley settlement was one of the first of its kind, with forty returned servicemen and their families, cheap land and the promise of a road to Taranaki given by Prime Minister Massey. Holdings were soon cleared in dense bush, a school was opened, the valley prospered. But the settlement suffered from infertile soil, remoteness and difficulty of access. The concrete bridge was the subject of long agitation,
and replaced a wooden suspension bridge built in 1919 that was narrow and rotted. Roads to and beyond the bride did not materialise before the settlement failed. Slow migration out of the area after the crash in agricultural prices of 1921 drained the life of the settlement. Three families remained in 1942, before a flood the same year, and the government’s refusal to fund roads, led to the closing of the valley.

The last settlers,after decades of persistent labour, gave the settlement up to the bush.

Amidst disappearing road and fence lines, exotic trees and brick chimneys, the bridge is an out-sized remnant of settlement. A feature of the 1986 film Bridge to Nowhere, and the subject of a book by Arthur P. Bates, it is today a popular tourist attraction on the Whanganui river, forming part of the two-day Mangapūrua Walkway. A category one heritage building since 1994, it gets more use from tourists than it ever did from settler-farmers. Here is ‘nowhere’ because something was supposed to happen that did not. Otherwise, it would not be no place. The imprint of settlement is negative, a void. The bridge begs the question of its existence. It is about the non-event of an imagined
community, a non-event that inheres, in-exists, in settlement today. The bridge is itself an achievement, but serves as evidence of the event of failure. It is negative evidence, signifying something that is not there and never was. The far side of history, the truth of waste, is negative evidence; the near side, our own, is positive, and about us. Failure isn’t something you see, or even something you know. It inheres in settlement as immanent possibility. The enterprise and
industry of settlers, their focus and future, their whole being, is oriented around the success of settlement. They think before the fact in terms of the success of their endeavour. They must do so in order to settle – their thinking so makes them settlers. The fact of failure cannot be registered in terms of the continuous narrative of settlement. Failure is discontinuous, disjunct, merely theoretical. It cannot be integrated with the subject-settler – an idea of who and where ‘we’ settlers are. The photo reveals the inner dialectic of settlement, an absence internal and unconscious to it. The
photo witnesses the future absence of the settler-subject – the very absence of futurity. The immanent possibility
of failure is not dramatic, spectacular. It is a falling off, floating away, an edging toward a void. The mood is
eerie, dispersed, serene. The bridge to nowhere is absurd, mocking. It continues to nothing, and continues nothing. The futurelessness of failure is not even an event. It is just something that didn’t happen, and has no existence. The photo is evidence of something that didn’t happen. The photo documents a real bridge, but registers an inadmissible
silence. A settler-subject has not eventuated, so some place has become no place (the failure of the settler has made a particular place ‘nowhere’). The reality of failure is the event of the photo itself. Its subject is not the settler, or settlement, but the non-event of futurelessness. The subject is not the new country, the national story, the citizen of the
nation-state (the story of ‘us’, our story). It is the non-person of a nonplace. Non-people and non-places have their own history that is not the history of nations. The national regime classifies, orders, regulates, makes known all aspects and elements of settlement, except being without a future. Once cannot be a settler and exist in place
that has no future. Our knowledge of the settler situation is structured by exception.

We are inherently shaped by in-existing failures."

From the catalogue "Wastelands" accompanying the exhibition " A ride in the darkness" 2010 at McNamara Gallery, Whanganui in March and Starkwhite Gallery, Auckland in July.
Credit Line
Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. Purchased, 2007.
Collection Type
Permanent collection
Acquisition Date


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