Belonging to the infamous Buller series, Bill Hammond’s Volcano Flag (1994) pays a sinister tribute to the notorious ‘bird stuffer’, whose work had a lasting effect on the artist. During his trip to the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands, Hammond came across a ‘birdland’ that was “a beautiful place, full of ghosts, shipwrecks, and death”. (Gregory O/Brien, ‘Bill Hammond: Song and Picture Book’, Lands & Deeds: Profiles of Contemporary New Zealand Painters, Godwit Publishing, Auckland, 1996, p.58). Around the time of this trip, Hammond was to discover the work of Sir Walter Lawry Buller – a Victorian ornithologist who was responsible for the trading and killing of thousands of native New Zealand birds. Buller’s passion for collecting these birds is equalled by Hammond’s disgust at the practice; it is the eerie and shadowy nature of Buller, along with the other-worldly idea of birdland, which was to become a predominant subject in much of the artist’s consequential works.
In Volcano Flag, Hammond conjures an undeniable sense of death by incorporating skulls in his humaniform creatures. His bird-like figures are strategically aligned in an objective order that implies their eventual march towards the volcano. They seem without identity or cause as they stand glumly side by side before the volcano’s looming gloom. Painted on a section of WW1 Army tent, Volcano Flag inevitably references the past, cementing the ominous sense of a paradise lost. The lack of bright bold colour results in a monochromatic colour palette that furthers the sense of decay and erosion over time.
In exposing Buller’s controversial ornithological activities, Hammond holds a mirror up to our post-colonial society, bringing light to such misdeeds that took place in, and shaped, New Zealand’s past. The original use of army tent material fosters a sense of history that seems to validate Hammond’s critical, yet sensitive eye, whose work results in a piece that is as dark and haunting, as it is beautiful.