Monday, March 12, 2012
When encountering an unknown name for the first time, legendary founding editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross, used to ask "Who he?". The same question might be asked of Lucien Rizos on the appearance of his first body of work between hard covers. His name appears in neither John B Turner & William Main's 1993 New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the present nor David Eggleton's 2006 Into the Light: a history of New Zealand photography. But he's been around for over thirty years, haunting the margins of the medium's practice, a bit of a pioneer in terms of his approach to photography and film, a photographer's photographer, with not much desire in him to hog any limelight. Pretty fatal these days when ptofile is at least fifty percent of the game.
There's a slight but very telling referent to Rizos in the 1990 Wellington City Gallery's exhibition catalogue for Peter Black's seminal Moving Pictures project. In the acknowledgements Black thanks him "for the inspiration", which, given the nature of the project, is a fairly big deal. And when you come to know more about Rizos' earlier work through this new publication you can see how it dovetails into the origins, framing and scope of Black's seventy-part portrait of the New Zealand of Rogernomics.
Rizos' business takes him around the country, and while travelling he records both obsessively and dispassionately moments of compelling ordinariness, anonymous portraits that add up to something very specific indeed. Between 1979 and 1982 he took around 24,000 photographs throughout New Zealand. Those of us stranded somewhere between late puberty and the Gold Card, and lucky enough to be living in Wellington at the time, may remember a show of some of this work at the PhotoForum Gallery's mini space in Harris Street during the first half of March 1980. It seemed boldly experimental, a mix of prints and - mostly - proof-sheets of these seemingly random, shot-from-the-hip images. Most of us hadn't heard of Cindy Sherman's untitled film stills then (she was still making them at the time), but there was definitely a sense of Rizos' images being cut out of some larger, mysterious narrative. Routine now, but radical back then.
Of course, the presiding genius of this sort of project and the look of these kinds of photographs is the Swiss-born Robert Frank who, on a Guggenheim scholarship, made a road trip through the United States in 1955, resulting in one of the most influential photography books ever, The Americans. First published in Paris in 1958 it had its American debut in January 1960. According to Anthony Lane's Road Show piece in the New Yorker, 14 September 2009, Frank took around 27,000 photographs during the year of his trans-continental journey. After processing the 760-plus rolls of film and printing the contact sheets he made a thousand work prints which he pinned up around the walls of his New York apartment. From these he selected just a hundred, all the while aware of the sequence required for the book that was always envisaged as the project's end-product. In the end, eighty-three photographs made it to publication. Jack Kerouac, who wrote the book's introduction, said Frank had "sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film". By the end of 1960 the book was out of print. According to Lane, the photographer had been paid a total of just $817 "for his pains".
Rizos' road to publication may have been as painful in editing terms but it's certainly taken much longer. His intention had always been for a book too, but either from discouragement or a change of focus he gave up photography at the end of 1983 to concentrate more on his film-making. When the Turnbull Library acquired the negatives in 1988 the photographer put together a number of photocopied "books" where he attempted to herd flocks of his pet sheep into comprehensible pens. Fast forward to 2005 when Wellington City Gallery's Hirschfeld gallery mounted a show of the work: Rizos decided to re-start the publication project, partly driven by the enthusiasm for it by art historian Damian Skinner. Hence, A man walks out of a bar... The size and look of the book consciously apes that of The Americans, with sixty-six images compared to Frank's eighty-three. Rizos' sequencing is just as savvy as Frank's and is one of the real delights of an otherwise rather austere publication. The sharp-eyed photographer is as astute off the road as on it.
What to make of this book appearing thirty years after the images were made? Harold Ross also once asked if Moby Dick was the man or the whale, and in terms of historicity, a similar question might be asked of A man walks out of a bar... Had the book been published, say, in 1983, it would have been seen in a very different context from the one existing now. Is the book's sequence merely a homage to a past project, a tribute to a certain kind of tenacity, or does it have something to say in, and about, 2011?
An interesting comparison might be made between Brian Brake's attempt to portray this country in his 1963 New Zealand: gift of the sea and Rizos' attempt a quarter of a century later. Steichen's Family of Man was clearly an inspiration for Brake - both the exhibition and the publication - but Frank's much grittier, and less optimistic approach seems to have passed him by, perhaps being just too crude for a successful photo-journalist usually beholden to masters with a firm grip on a commercial agenda. Brake's book began as a long, commissioned article for National Geographic, and however much he was dissatisfied by the end result, something of that magazine's house style suffuses the pages of his gift of the sea. There's not a trace of National Geographic in the Rizos book: he's a one-hundred percent card-carrying Frankophile. Brake was a patriot and keen to portray the land of his birth with a missionary zeal that sometimes feels like public relations. Less of a nationalist, Rizos reveal none of this need in the sucking of his sad poem. There's a comprehensiveness about Brake's approach entirely missing from Rizos'. His landscape is more fragmentary, bewildered rather than confident. Brake's writer, Maurice Shadbolt, ends gift of the sea with this observation: "A horizon that knew Polynesian canoe and European sail - her, where New Zealand ends and the world begins, a new race of islanders stands with a wondering, sometimes troubled, seaward gaze". Rizos' subjects also have that "wondering, sometimes troubled" gaze, but this time it's turned landwards.
Making comparisons between two attempts at a nation's portrait is all very well, but, like the Great New Zealand Novel, is it simply a redundant concept? Is the very quest merely a sign of an insecurity that we're gradually getting over? Whose picture do we believe anyway? The one that happens to suit our own established view? Is America of the 1950s the country of National Geographic or the landscape of Robert Frank? Are they compatible as different views of the "same thing"? Can that man walking out of a bar tell us? Brake seemed to be sure there was an answer. Rizos, like Gertrude Stein, asks about the question.
Photography has sometimes had to bear something of a burden as a chronicler of time. (To be fair, though, many photographers have cheerfully shouldered it, irrespective of the consequences.) Oddly for a medium so "realistic", its ability to represent time is often more symbolic than anything. In any of Rizos' sixty-six images it's easy to see what he's photographing. But just what is it he's documenting? Well, you need the whole sequence to get a handle on that. But then, what is the whole book about? It's about a slice of time in New Zealand, and what you make of that all depends on where you were and what your memory of the experience is. Of course, your memory of it is going to be altered, however slightly, be seeing this sequence of images. That's how it works. Or fails to.
Many photographers set out to describe a time, but few have the distinction of defining it. Brian Brake is of the former: Robert Frank the latter. How and why this happens must be the subject of endless debate. And no matter what the consensus may be at any given time, the next generation's view may differ markedly. Opinions and assessments come and go but the images burn on forever.
It's now exactly forty years since the publication of Hardwicke Knight's pioneering but magnificently flawed social and technical history of New Zealand photography. Since that foundation was laid most effort has gone into building the upper floors by the publication of various historical aspects of the medium and, by now, countless individual artist monographs. The significance of Rizos' new book is that it marks the beginnings of some reflection on the nature of this construction. In his mimicking of Frank's The Americans Rizos is, consciously or not, posing a question about the fit to this time and place. One of the godfathers of the whole fitting process, Beaumont Newhall, once said that his housekeeper's shopping list couldn't be mistaken for a poem by Dylan Thomas but in photography we hadn't yet been able to make the distinction. The publication of A man walks out of a bar... is a sign we're starting to get it sorted.
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The scenario goes something like this: a friendly group of young people from Auckland hang out regularly at a camping site on Great Barrier Island. They have names like Slade, Oscar, Alesha, Daniel, Anneke, Luke, Jesse, Sam, Ruby and Brendon, Jack and Charlotte. No Haydens or Jasons, Sarahs or Angelas: they'll be in their thirties now. Over the past three to four years Derek Henderson has been of the party, photographing these guys semi-naturally: not quite formal portraiture, but not random snapshots either. In only one of the images - Alesha & Slade, 2009, the image used on the show's poster - is it possible to imagine the subjects unaware of being photographed. So, at the heart of this exhibition is a tacit relationship between photographer and campers. The big trees and the blue sky query the nature of this relationship, this freely entered-into exchange.
Anyone not hiding under a rock will know by now that Henderson's a successful fashion photographer, a circumstance central to this sequence of images and illuminating for the unfolding account of photography socially and historically. Histories of photography based on the art model have been very coy, until recently, about acknowledging fashion photography. According to the high-minded Modernist model, fashion was too frivolous to be taken seriously, and its brazenly commercial focus had something of the tradesman's entrance about it. Never mind that Modernism itself kept a close eye on its own catwalks and that the sound of money tinkled audibly and continuously in the background like a waterfall at EuroDisney. Fashion photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen and Richard Avedon were more likely to be represented in these history books by their "straight" portraits than by spreads of their commercial work. A seasoned professional of thirty years' experience, Avedon wasn't taken seriously as an artist until the publication of his influential Portraits book in 1976. And, in Naomi Rosenblum's 700-page A World History of Photography of 1997, for instance, there are just fourteen pages devoted to the genre of fashion.
This situation is changing. As usual, for a raft of reasons. The contemporary art world is much less sniffy about noticing the fashion industry. They have, after all, finally owned up to what they have in common. Fashion's become a sexy topic: to study, to write about, to exhibit, to collect. In the past decade it's not hard to see the influence of fashion and style magazines on the look of a great deal of contemporary photography. But the traffic hasn't been entirely one way. Hamish Tocher's two photographic series from 2004 and 2005, Resemblances Parlante I & II (also shown at McNamara Gallery Photography), presenting a range of Renaissance images that echo tellingly in contemporary fashion advertising, is a good example. One of Modernism's beefs with fashion was its apparent shallowness. Like a Good Shepherd, Tocher's gone after the lost sheep and has rounded up quite a flock, revealing an historical whakapapa having more roots than Ellsworth Kelly.
Henderson's faux portraiture isn't one way trafficking either. The exhibition's juice stems from its feed from fashion to art and vice versa. Any of these unsmiling, semi-staunch and very self-aware kids could be advertising the clothes they're wearing, their camping masquerading convincingly as a fashion shoot. That's not a criticism, just an observation. There's a moral neutrality about these images that draws you in: any romantic attempt to "express the real personality" is bypassed in favour of simply depicting the figures as they are, devoid of any effort on both sides to enforce content; either projection by the subjects or imposition by the photographer. What are we left with? A bunch of attractive young people who look good being photographed. It may not be "deep" but it's honest. They're at ease with themselves and with being photographed; Henderson's at ease with them and with his camera. If this scenario's advertising anything - and it's a big "if" - it could be the singular virtues of photography - a medium, interestingly, not welcomed at the Adam Portraiture Award.
There's a spooky but revealing coincidence in this Henderson show's timing with the latest Adam Award at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, located at Shed 11 on the Wellington waterfront. It would be churlish to attach bad motives to those driving the Portrait Gallery project, but one can surely wish that the notion might've been thought through perhaps a little more rigorously. Nor can the generosity of the donors who sponsor this bi-annual competition be fairly questioned. But to compare the present earnest and cliche-ridden contents of the Shed to what Henderson's doing is indeed an instructive exercise. The metre upon metre of the Adam's clunky attempts to "capture the essence" of the sitter have all the vivacity of waxworks at Madame Tussaud's, the only success involved being that of convincing viewers this may be a worthwhile enterprise. For Henderson there's no essence to be sought, only an image. It's the difference between looking back and looking forward. As Shakespeare posed at the end of Love's Labour's Lost: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way, we this way".
Dominating the show is a single, large format landscape photograph, Mount Hikurangi, Great Barrier Island, 2011. It depicts rough, slightly forbidding terrain receding into the distance under a glowering sky, anchoring the series of portraits in place, and offering a contrast too: the craggy, worn features of the landscape the direct opposite of the smooth, fresh faces of Henderson's twenty-something subjects. And, photography being photography, this landscape image anchors, as well, the show in time. The portraits are two-dimensional: literally, and in their depicting lives that, in terms of experience, are largely tabulae rasae. Of course, the landscape image is also literally two-dimensional, but what it demonstrates is the third dimension of history. The big trees and the blue sky measure the distance between the two.
Friday, February 24, 2012
On the face of it, photography and film could have a lot in common. Both children of the nineteenth-century, both gaining their stride in the twentieth, their relationship has nevertheless remained as if they're distant cousins rather than brother and sister. Once the still picture got nailed in the later 1830s, inventors dreamed of stringing them together to mimic the experience of what's rashly called "real life". Eadweard Muybridge had a good crack at it in the later 1870s to demonstrate the physical facts of animal and human locomotion, but his project was scientific rather than artistic. Other inventors, such as Thomas Edison with his kinetoscope, tried to realise the dream, but it wasn't until the Lumiere brothers got the technical gearing right that what we know as "film" could actually happen.
Laurence Aberhart has said that photography is science's gift to art, but it applies equally to film. Both technically-oriented mediums struggled during their early years to have their legitimacy as vehicles of human artistic expression accepted - a process still incomplete, it must be said, such is the hegemony of the traditional visual mediums. It probably began happening earlier for the younger cousin, for a range of complex reasons: by the end of the 1950s it's likely that more film-goers would've accepted film as an art form before making room in the pantheon for photography - a situation that possibly still prevails, despite the ubiquity of the latter over the past couple of decades.
When Cindy Sherman started making her now-famous film stills in the later 1970s it seemed a novel idea. And slightly suspect. For the same purist reasons that kept "serious" photography black and white for so long. Modernist prescriptions tended to discourage any construction of the narrative that "film stills" imply. Telling stories was the kind of thing that got Victorian painting into such trouble, the kind of trouble that Modernism saw itself as redeeming art from. Sherman's enterprise must seem pretty ordinary for anyone under thirty-five now, but it was ground-breaking in its daring to challenge strictures against story-telling which were mostly the party line in those days. In retrospect, her work was also suggesting that perhaps photography and film were more closely related than being merely cousins. Postmodernism issued a general pardon to narrative, and for the younger generation of artists now its absence would be incomprehensible. As would be the notion that film and photography could be anything other than almost identical twins.
James K Lowe is part of that younger generation - he's just twenty-two - his first solo show, Ever, ever taking place at McNamara Gallery Photography in the middle of 2010, the second, American Night, on show over December 2011 and January 2012. In between, he represented New Zealand at the collective photography biennale PhotoQuai 2011 in Paris - a positioning not to be sneezed at, especially for someone who's barely shaken the dust of Elam off his feet.
His is a generation, too, completely at ease with the construction of photographic images, an absolute taboo under Modernism, whose purist notions of truth and honesty were the foundations of photography's claimed unique connection with "the real". In retrospect, this concept of truth was a bit simplistic and the concept of "the real" fatally literal. "The camera does not lie" was a lovely idea and a great comfort for those who used photography to preserve memory, but believing that the photographs cameras made were some kind of proof of reality was, ironically, a leap of faith. In many cases the only reality being proved was that a bunch of stuff had been photographed. Any other inferences came with terms and conditions applying.
Just about every history of photography without exception has mentioned the work of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson as a kind of cautionary tale: what might happen if the straight path of truth and honesty and "the real" were strayed from. In Naomi Rosenblum's World History of Photography (3rd ed 1997) for instance, there's reference to Rejlander's "flawed judgement", "unfortunate results", "grandiose compositions" and his sentimentality. Rejlander's Two Ways of Life and Robinson's Fading Away do have their comic aspects admittedly, but for Lowe's generation these despised allegories are part of their history and models for their practice. Oscar and Henry are up for canonisation. They certainly are the patron saints of Greg Semu's recent tableaux - two decades ago, who could've imagined that his 2010 reconstruction of Leonardo's famous but ruined fresco using Kanak models and entitled The Last Cannibal Supper would be one of fifteen finalists in the prestigious Singapore Art Museum's Signature Prize?
"Making it up" is a covert description of lying - what in Parliament must be described as "being economical with the truth" - but although Lowe is clearly making it up, there's no way he could be accused of that kind of economy. The notion of allegory has been embedded in human discourse for a very long time, suggesting the need for a parallel narrative conveying not so much literal truth as presenting a set of circumstances aligning credibly and recognisably with our own conscious experience.
Lowe's first show was accompanied by a quotation from Schopenhauer's On the Suffering of the World, a startling choice for one so young, and there was an initial temptation to regard this, at best, as bravado, at worst, as showing off. When the young Damien Hurst began exhibiting the formaldehyded shark suspended in a tank as an allegory, crusty Spectator art critic Giles Auty said he wasn't going to be told about life and death by a twenty year-old. However, the six works in Ever, ever were perfectly prefaced by the chosen text: If you imagine, in so far as it is approximately possible, the sum total of distress, pain and suffering of every kind which the sun shines upon in its course, you will have to admit it would have been much better if the sun had been able to call up the phenomenon of life as little on the earth as on the moon; and if, here as there, the surface were still a crystalline condition.
In an interview in Artzone 34 (April-July 2010), Lowe is reported to have "a profound interest in the 19th century philosophy of existentialism, which sees human existence as completely separate from the physical world". It's likely there may have been a few journalistic leaps in this description, but you'll get the general idea. Even in garbled form it usefully informs the photographs, and is itself an exact description of the nature of film: a form of human existence completely separate from the physical world. This disconnection lies at the heart of Lowe's work, his images dark in all senses, their emotional force suggesting the energy of desire trapped by a physicality whose boundaries frustrate the possibility of any real connection - physically, intellectually, emotionally - to that point of communion the human heart longs for. In lesser hands this could be a rather bleak project, but the mystery with which this photographer cloaks his imagery allows for some possibility in this predicament, and this chance offers a form of consoling redemption that might pass for hope - even amid the suppressed anguish these images so powerfully portray.
Ever, ever was also remarkable for an innovation. Four of the six works were double sided, and to view the "back" it was necessary to take the framed object off the wall. At first sight this seeming tease initially re-fired the doubt sparked by the Schopenhauer quote: Hey, is this guy for real? Let's return to the film still that is so central to Lowe's practice. His work is often compared to that of photographers such as Gregory Crewdson and Justine Kurland because the look is similar. But there is a crucial difference: their undoubtedly film-influenced imagery more resembles tableaux, whereas Lowe's photographs assume a frame before and one following in a more authentic stills' narrative. Perhaps this fractionated element of film - a series of stills masquerading as a continuous narrative - provides a key to Lowe's back-to-back photographs, and in this placement of two virtual stills he's pulling the rug on the masquerade?
American Night, the second solo show, featured an artist statement: There's a relationship with the in between - the setting and situation is all in the midst of the greater picture. A snippet of what is to come, and what's happened before you arrive. The in between is the promise of something better, or dread of something worse. It is a dark truth, and an unforgiving happiness. It is the situation where you find yourself acting for the future, even if it hurts you now. Here again is that narrative, less filmic, more emotional this time. It's as if Schopenhauer's accepted the sun had called up "the phenomenon of life", however regrettably, so that now there's no choice but to get on with it.
American Night is marginally less dark than Ever, ever in that the images largely depict dimly-lit interiors rather than a nocturnal outdoors, but without any lessening of the noir element suffusing these secular stations of the cross. There is one image common to both shows, Standing Still In The Present Time, and it's unusual in depicting a brightly lit, tumbling body of water, and for being devoid of the human actors Lowe deploys. That Still of the title is a double entendre linking it to the world of film, as the phrase The Present Time plays with notions of reality whether it be via the mediums of film or photography. Old Schopenhauer may have wished for a "crystalline condition" to save us from the human condition, but young Lowe tells a different story in his mysteriously moving pictures.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Over the past decade Deluxe has staged a number of exhibitions in the Capital, and they've traced a gradual move towards photography as her preferred medium. Her work at the Whanganui art school prior to that was determinedly multi-media, part of her often theatrical tendency to avoid at all costs (one of them often being coherence) anything smacking of the conventional: conventions of imagery, media or approach. Indeed, the very evolution of her name is a sub-plot of this history. Sexuality was her frequent subject, and there was a strong sense that her ambitions were more often satisfied by shocking her viewers than by any subtle seduction of them. She was a fiercely committed artist and one longed for her to grow up.
Owing to family circumstances she was exposed at an impressionable age to one of the narrower, more puritanical forms of Christianity and, somewhat predictably, she rebelled in the only way she could: highlighting the other end of the spectrum, where the origins of that religion were shrouded in and sometimes indistinguishable from practices and mythologies generally identified as pagan. Ancient equivalents of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, those Dionysian impulses that have mocked the spectre of a death lacking the sure and certain knowledge of any resurrection.
Those readers not having seen Deluxe's productions from this earlier period are best left to imagine their material forms. Think Liz Maw on speed and steroids and you'll begin to get an idea. Given the sort of coolness encouraged by current art world events such as the City Gallery's Prospect shows, her high-octane work had an exhilarating kamikaze quality that certainly kept more hardened gallery-goers looking, as one solo show followed another. Persistence has its own rewards, as they say, and even though her website still warns "contains nudity and sexual themes" the desire to shock has subsided into what is a more thoughtful and occasionally penetrating investigation into the structure and histories of sustaining mythologies.
Yeah, yeah, but what does this high-fallutin, abstract stuff mean? For a start, it's instructive to compare the content of her two most recent shows: New Zealand Bound (2009) is overtly "about" bondage whereas An Exercise in Futility (2011) is less sensational, but more telling in that the images, initially seeming more disparate, are all ways into a wider range of human experience of which, say, bondage is merely a peripheral part. The very singular objects forming the subject matter have very general titles such as Vanitas, Salvation, Decadence, Godliness, Hedonism, Loss, Love and Motherhood. All of them sustaining mythologies with their own histories. Deluxe's successful trick is to find, and sometimes construct, material things that, with simple precision, carry the weight of those myths, and - more significantly - offering reinterpretations of them that refresh their meaning and reposition their relevance in a secular and increasingly virtual world. Scale-less, all these objects float in a black space highlighting their fetish status and isolating their connection to the "real" world.
Salvation depicts frontally an ordinary seven-day plastic pill container, each compartment bearing the capital letter of the days of the week. The image's much larger-than-life scale is initially disconcerting, but even that "larger-than-life" takes on its own significance once the nature of the object becomes clear. Debates may continue about what happens when we die, but for now, salvation's located in that austere little plastic box.
Love depicts a half-length rabbit soft toy which, as they say, has seen better days, its battered, repaired and grubby state aligning it to a history of loving as closely as it simultaneously rebukes the dangerously shiny surfaces of the notion of romantic love. There's almost a pairing of Love with Memento, another small animal figure but one definitely not a soft toy but instead encrusted with shells, a la Andrea du Chatenier. Love calcified? Who needs a Hell to go to later?
The imagery of a further work involves a pair of animal forms: Loss. In a nod to Jeff Koons, this photograph features a maniacally staring brown ceramic bear holding the limp corpse of what could be an embryonic puppy in the crook of its right paw. War memorials everywhere have struggled to encapsulate in material form the loss sustained by a culture of those young males whose sperm and muscle are so crucial to its future. Wisely, sculpted grieving figures have given way to stoic Greek orders and bleak scrolls of names. There are losses and losses, of course, but Deluxe's image is weirdly, unforgettably about loss period. No valour to commemorate or resurrections to hope for here.
These appropriations and constructions are, of course, all part of standard Postmodern practice, so much so that we no longer notice them happening. But something else is occurring here in these shows too. One of the more conspicuous elements of earlier Postmodern practice was an ironic stance that sometimes was mere sarcasm but most times a kind of studied boredom, as if it all had been seen, depicted and described before and that it was smarter to admit this than to strive any longer for the passe originality of Modernism. As in the eighteenth-century, there was often enough a point to real irony. Their need to mock social forms was as genuine as ours to knock originality off its skyscraping pedestal.
Pointing and giggling can be a lotta fun, but after a while it's just tiresome: as analysis it doesn't run very deep. So perhaps this posturing phase of Postmodernism is over and there's a rediscovery of the sort of mythologies being investigated by Deluxe, Tangaroa Birch and, yes, Michael Parekowhai's magisterial On Looking into Chapman's Homer.
Another Deluxe image, cannily entitled Godliness (as in "cleanliness next to") depicts a very diminished cake of ordinary soap, freshly used, the surface festooned with half-spheres of transparent bubbles. This little hymn to matter lyrically suggests the physical principle whereby nothing is created or destroyed but simply transformed, and that after the Big Bang does theology matter more than, say, the environmentally efficient disposal of waste-water? The hereafter in her work is more here than after.
Whatever. It's time for Fiona Pardington to make her brief but promised appearance. Devotees of photography will readily recall her 1996 double image Taniwha, a photograph of the classic New Zealand soap that cleaned up at the 1997 Visa Gold Art Awards and signalled the beginning of the photographer's investigation of her own whakapapa mythology that continues to the present day.
The taniwha is perhaps the most potent myth in contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand. No single aspect of "the Maori world view" can be so guaranteed to stir up such a hornets' nest of doubt, debate and despair when it collides with the Pakeha world view, be that anywhere from the pub to the Supreme Court. For Pakeha, it's probably the hardest concept to get their heads around and the easiest with which to saddle doubts about Maori sincerity and motives. The taniwha's a powerful symbol anyway, but when positioned at this junction of biculturalism it can become a very stroppy presence indeed.
Maori artist Israel Tangaroa Birch's installation Ara-i-te-Uru at Wellington's City Gallery addressed this business of taniwha with all of Deluxe's visual seduction but with an added dose of physical discombobulation that suited the circumstances entirely. In the dark with mirrors reflecting the work's glinting, angled surfaces on walls and ceiling keeping your bearings was something of a challenge.
In his catalogue essay Deane Gallery curator Reuben Friend made a connection with the 1991 collaboration between Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert entitled Aramoana - Pathway to the Sea, where a long line of Culbert's signature florescent lights lying on the floor is paralleled by a line of convex paua shells with an incision the exact width of the floros revealing the turquoise and purples of the paua underneath, mimicking the adjacent "pathway" of light. This famous work may have been an inspiration to Birch, but his own installation has an individual intensity and mystery quite apart from it.
Let Friend continue with the talking: "Ara-i-te-Uru, like Aramoana - Pathway to the Sea, is set in a dark space with a brilliant column of light running down the centre of the gallery. Birch's installation however utilises form, shape, colour and reflection to recreate these columns of light, and ... it incorporates a large floor-based installation of concertina shaped sheets of spray-lacquered steel. ... Birch ... likes to relate this interplay between light and darkness to a story passed down to him from his, and Hotere's, Ngapuhi tupuna (ancestors) from the Hokianga harbour who were guided to Aotearoa by the light of two very special stars - Ara-i-te-Uru (also known as Araiteuru) and Niua (also known as Niwa or Niniwa). These two stars were key navigational beacons used by the crew of the waka Mamari and Nga-toki-mata-whao-rua to orient a south-west coordinate from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. Each night as the moon and stars emerged out of the darkening firmament, the crew of these waka would see columns of light appearing across the ocean's surface. Bobbing up and down alongside them in the water, these now water-born celestial bodies were personified in oral traditions as supernatural sea-creatures known as taniwha. Beckoning them on through the aria (veil) of te uru (the west), the crews eventually arrived at the headlands of the Hokianga harbour where they, and their taniwha, still reside to this day - Ara-i-te-uru in the southern headland and Niua in the north."
As they say too, you had to be there, but being there was an unforgettable experience, and while the artist's re-creative installation, of course, made no doomed attempt to explain the inexplicable, the force of Birch's art shifted one's head several degrees to the left, leaving little doubt as to the mystery and power of this particular myth and, as well, more disposed to accept Friend's contention that "... taniwha, while existing in metaphysical space, have not only historically shaped the characteristics and social dynamics of Maori communities, but they continue to do so today". The Deane Gallery on this occasion was anything but a metaphysical space. it wasn't so much the result of an artist abstractly interrogating a myth as a human being weaving pure magic without any dependence on sleights of hand.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Stuff happens. We react.
The stuff of the Christchurch earthquakes has calculable dimensions, as does all the physical damage. The Red Zone has precise geographical parameters. It gradually becomes known which buildings are to be demolished, which can be repaired: this one, that one. Detailed plans are laid for the reconstruction, with measurable maps, established timelines, dedicated amounts of money. These are facts. They have jobs to do. One of them is offering reassurance at a time when when very little can be depended on, when any notion of "ordinary life" has become just a memory.
There's very little of the factual, though, in our reactions to situations. That we're reacting is probably the only identifiable fact. How we react is the realm of emotions and their background of personal history, a cauldron of circumstances with no calculable dimensions whatever. This is where the common distinction between the factual and the emotional breaks down (that old objective/subjective binary chestnut) because the felt realm is just as real - try asking anyone in Christchurch.
There is some stuff that happens which is almost impossible to comprehend: natural catastrophies such as the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami, cultural tragedies such as the Holocaust, where any concept of "normality" ceases to apply, and the human beings most directly affected may easily succumb to a numbness just to get by, a sort of emotional Red Zone, cordoned off with guarded checkpoints. How can we get our heads around the facts and consequences of the Canterbury earthquakes? No listing of the facts surrounding them is going to encompass the enormity of their impact on the lives of the people living there. The jobs that facts can do have their limitations. It's worth recalling that the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 gave the whole Enlightenment project a big jolt too. So, the question is: where to put one's faith if any sense is to be made of such intense, frightening experience?
Of course, isolated facts are anyway pretty meaningless. It's their context and the internal consistency of their ordering that compels our respect and enables our belief. Perhaps surprisingly, the thing we call art can operate along similar lines. Surprisingly because art's processes are almost automatically assumed to be the opposite of science's and the factual approach they depend on. Veling has already demonstrated his skill in this contexting and creating internal consistency with his 50-part series Pre-marital Bliss. Very few of the images
on their own tell you much about the subject - apart from, perhaps, indicating the photographer's uncommon formal abilities. But, these images add up, incrementally, to an unforgettable picture of a personal relationship in all its tentative and tender dynamics.
"Orientation" is the perfect word to title this new sequence of 20 photographs taken over the past several months inside Christchurch's Red Zone. Veling may be doing the traditional reportage of the documentary project, but he's also trying to make sense of his experience by putting faith in his image-making, re-orienting himself to the vastly changed circumstances of the place where he lives. And in terms of context and internal consistency, Orientation is as successful as Pre-marital Bliss in building a whole out of a sequence of discrete images. Successful's a rather clinical description in these particular circumstances though. Just as, say, Grunewalds's Isenheim Altarpiece of 1506-1515, The Crucifixion, might be seen as a "successful" resolution of form and content. There's actually quite a bit more to it.
That famously distressed and broken body (painted to inspire acceptance of suffering and commitment to hope in the inmates of a hospice for victims of St Anthony's Fire) might serve as a metaphor for Veling's latest project. His subject is a broken central city, scarred, empty, devoid of health, and seemingly doomed. The suffering and hope Grunewald addressed are implied in Orientation's dedication: "... to the people of Christchurch. When the cordons are removed, when the land is cleared and our city rebuilt, may we never forget those no longer with us". The painter's concern was for human physical affliction: the photographer's concern more for the psychological sphere.
Superficially, Veling's images are as dead-pan as Fiona Amundsen's - there's a whole international style of urban depiction of this sort right now - but the more you look into them there are details that stab you in the chest and send the photographs from the category of factual reportage into the theatre of emotional response, the very coolness of these views suggestive of a certain numbness of feeling and a compulsive need to make sense of what's happening. This search and these seemingly objective images are suffused with a melancholy almost palpable.
The book's simple, sober design can only reinforce the photographer's project, the repeated three elements of it suggesting a pulse paralleling a slow, funereal drumbeat. It's not just a matter of giving the images an appropriate context though. The design actively channels Veling's desire to draw our attention to the details. It's now necessary to describe the layout in some detail. The page format is vertical A4. You open the book, and in the middle of the left-hand page, occupying about a quarter of the space, is a map of central Christchurch, a red do showing the location of the following photograph (as yet hidden). In the middle of the facing, right-hand page, on the same scale, is a fuzzy, often puzzling image - often so pixilated as to seem almost abstract - that turns out to be a tiny detail of the following photograph (still remaining hidden). This right-hand page folds out, to reveal the full-sized photograph, on A3 scale. This strategy gets you looking, scanning each image forensically for the clue and - of course - finding much along the way, just as the photographer intended, each discovery adding to the weight of what Veling's camera is unearthing.
This extraordinary publication is the most recent in a long line coming from Glenn Busch's A Place in Time Documentary Project, initiated in 2000, after he became a photography lecturer at Canterbury University's School of Fine Arts at Ilam. Busch has been a crusading presence in New Zealand photography since the mid-1970s, when he established the pioneering Snaps Gallery in Auckland. He published one of the first contemporary photographic portfolios, his 1975 Marylands' series, and later became known for his Working Men series, published as a successful book in 1984 along with a nationally-touring exhibition.
A Place in Time was set up "... with the purpose of making documentary work about a city and a cross-section of its people that might contribute towards an increased knowledge, perception and tolerance of one another". In 2000, the place of traditional documentary photography wasn't the sexiest on the planet, certainly in the art world, which was only then beginning to comprehend that the photographic medium might have something to offer. Even in just the past dozen years this situation has changed markedly, but while some public galleries - such as New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster - are taking documentary work more seriously, this hasn't trickled down very far with regard to the galleries generally (exhibiting and collecting), or private collecting. And it's pretty hard to make any connection with what goes on these days in auction houses and A Place in Time's "tolerance of one another". The documentary strain of photography clearly still has much work to do and a long way to go.
It's one of those ironies of history that when Busch began the project, with its seemingly old-fashioned aims, no one could have predicted that its first decade of endeavour would merely be preparation for what its job might be in the wake of the earthquakes. Veling's Orientation is the first sign of this. It could become our orientation too.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Photographs by Haruhiko Sameshima
McNamara Gallery Photography, Whanganui, 3 - 24 June 2011
Haru Sameshima's latest curatorial outing is a group show, but one entirely featuring his own work. Walker Evans used to talk about "signature", that indefinable, unique stroke of the hand that gave an individual's works a connecting thread, a name. A Walker Evans. We all know how to recognise them. In Modernist critical practice it was a reliable sign of authenticity. A matter of trust. These days it's not so simple. For a critic, this is a damned nuisance: are you looking at a series of worthwhile differences, or just another careerist scam?
To make matters worse, Sameshima doesn't exhibit often - he's 53 this year and this is only his tenth solo show - so it's not easy to get a fix on what his work is about. He's a kind of archivist too (and maybe a bit of a magpie) and each show has a quite different quality. So his "signature" can seem pretty smudged. In the past century we've learned to assume that exhibiting regularly is how artists keep us in touch with their practice, how we become exposed to their ideas and development. Of course, the associated dealer and critical system in orbit around art-making can only reinforce this assumption. They're easy bedfellows, clenched together out of mutual need.
Later in 2009 Sameshima published Bold Centuries: a photographic history album, and in its own typically quiet way it's an extraordinary book. Densely packed, defly sequenced and intriguingly multi-layered it's a gift that keeps on giving. His name is on the cover, but many of the images inside aren't his in the Walker Evans "signature" sense. At Wellington's City Gallery right now there's a show of four Maori women photographers - Maiden Aotearoa (reviewed by this writer on the eyecontact blogsite) - and one of the four is Aimee Ratana. Her work is a sequence of images relating to historical Tuhoe land issues. Again, some of the images are hers but most have been drawn from the collection of the Whakatane Museum. And again, this transgresses the Modernist notion of authorship on which "signature" depends. Ratana's point is that the her of her are these issues, and to some extent this also connects with Sameshima and his relationship to and identity with the wider world. Maybe that "death of the author" theory has some traction after all - but perhaps not quite in the way its proponents intended. Anyway, Sameshima's practice may indicate that publishing could gradually be supplanting exhibiting as the principal vehicle by which we get to know what artists are up to. Of course, it's been an adjunct to that for quite a while, but now it seems to be moving towards a more central, commanding position.
In his focused role as cultural tourist Sameshima's literally all over the place as well. And not just geographically. While this new show at McNamara Gallery Photography features subject matter from locations as diverse as Egypt, America, New Zealand and the outer space of his imagination, the several groups of work in it could've been made by several different photographers too. Three of the four Egyptian works are platinum prints (superbly made by Mark Stevens) that "look like" Francis Firths or Antonio Beatos. There are six contemporary-looking images from the US that could've been made by one or two wide-awake documentary photographers; a couple of fetishized objects in black and white (an empty milk bottle and a Rolleiflex camera) that could be undiscovered earlier Peryers; and a pair depicting grouped plastic containers, under-lit, that might resemble Bill Culberts at a dozen paces. It's enough to have Walker Evans's ghost wringing his hands. But remember, this show's not called Vexing Objects for nothing.
This wily photographer wants to vex us beyond the merely intriguing subject matter. He's out to experiment on viewer perception and assumption. Superficially, these images may seem very conventional photographs, but in their relationships and the questions they raise - about authorship, "signature", history, photography, the world - they soon distract us from the fact that our feet are no longer touching the bottom. Hey, come on in, the water's fine!
Sameshima's tourism ranges widely from the provinces of popular culture - so beloved of photography since its inception - to the more ironic borders of multi-cultural interaction. Less than direct influences, there are echoes here of Atget and Walker Evans in the former and Mark Adams and Peter Black in the latter. He's bought a ticket to traverse photographic history too, which he does with all the grit and adventure of a passenger on the Trans-Siberian Express, but with a subtlety and self-effacement unknown to, say, a Harvey Benge.
Despite the relative paucity in the frequency of his own solo shows, Sameshima's put together a lot of them over the years as a curator, several for Auckland PhotoForum. He's community-minded (remember that stuff?) and something of an entrepreneur, and so is generous when it comes to supporting and promoting fellow photographers. While every show's a fresh take, curatorially they're all very considered - that consideration being almost a personal trademark across the whole spectrum of his diverse activities.
Artist, cultural tourist, curator and now publisher, in Modernist terms this starts to look like a serious case of dispersion of talent. Besides, in New Zealand you're only allowed to do one thing well. In Postmodern terms though, it's a form of multi-tasking that actually reinforces and illuminates his central project: the inter-connectedness of the often slight and weird in the world, a mix that with his sharp eyes and dexterous hands becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
Sameshima doesn't just join the dots though. He's the Watson and Crick of association, the elements of his constructions forming a classic, active double-helix of mirroring and self-reference with seemingly endless possibilities. For instance, Vexing Objects: still-life experiments as a show, is itself a still-life experiment. Think about it. In the hands of a clever dick, this process could be merely exhausting, a display of conjuring dexterity by a photographer on the make, drawing attention to the hat rather than the rabbit, leading ultimately to irritation, not illumination. Sameshima's surely a magician with an instinct for calibrating a sleight of hand. These still lifes are very lively indeed.
Images from this show and, importantly, installation shots
can be found on the gallery's website.
Saturday, June 4, 2011
Now that the survey exhibition Brian Brake: Lens on the World has closed at the national museum it may be timely to survey the wider picture, not only the context of the show itself but also various reactions to it, as well as other Brake-related phenomena, such as the contemporaneous exhibition and book published by the Auckland auction house Art+Object.
It's necessary to state here right at the beginning that although this writer was commissioned by Te Papa to provide one of the essays for the book accompanying their show, he had no other connection with any part of preparations for the actual exhibition.
Brian Brake was famous for New Zealanders for three decades from the middle of the 1950s. His fame rested on two pillars: that he was a successful photo-journalist, and that he had "made it" overseas. For anyone under about 35 it's impossible for them to imagine what that word - "overseas" - meant and conjured up. When only the well-off were able to travel, when the most direct and vivid information about foreign parts were travelogues at the movies, and when just about every local frame of reference was compared, unfavourably, to anything from "overseas", Brake's achievement had a glamour that was almost mythical. It was as if Ulysses were found to have been a New Zealander.
Brake was proud of his national origins, a tireless promoter of his native land, and throughout his many years of living abroad he maintained close contact with his many friends here. He was an assiduous networker, partly from seeing the professional advantage, partly from personal need. Always on the move - just following his itineraries is exhausting - it must have involved enormous focus and energy to maintain the correspondence he did, and there's an edge to this vast undertaking that can't be explained simply in terms of ordinary friendship. He was an ambitious man (nothing wrong with that), keenly aware of his status, and prepared to use it to align himself with the great and powerful and use that influence to push through projects he deemed worthwhile. You were either with him or not with him. He had no time for those in the latter camp.
He always envisioned returning to New Zealand, seeing it as the necessary base for achieving more locally-sited projects occupying the latter years after his ceaseless international life. His untimely death at the age of 61 ended many of those plans, but they had been partly frustrated anyway by his having, to a telling extent, lost touch with the dynamo of this rapidly developing culture. The New Zealand he left in 1954 was not the New Zealand he returned to in 1976.
The myth of "overseasia" - if one may call it that - was still alive and well here in 1976 however. A strange aspect of this was that while anything from overseas was automatically assumed to be better than anything from here, it was seen as seriously breaching the social code to be disparaging of anything local. As A K Grant once observed in his book The Paua and the Glory, there were three "isms" New Zealanders couldn't tolerate: Communism, idealism and criticism. So, it was pretty much a case of fame resembling a peerage: once gained you had it for life. (In those days people were known for their achievement; now, being known is the achievement.)
But, as they say, fame is fleeting, and it's interesting to track what happened to Brake's reputation after the mid-1960s, when it seemed at its zenith. There's an interesting paragraph in the catalogue essay written by the Dowse's foundation director, David Millar, for a show he curated of Brake's work in 1976. After writing about the heady days of 1950s' photo-journalism he comments: "But Photo-journalism, as was then understood, was about to founder. The days when photographers could be given budgets and eighteen months to produce a series were going. Brake saw the writing on the wall and took avoiding action. He set himself up in his beloved Hong Kong, established his own documentary film company, and there he stayed, until in 1976 he returned again to New Zealand to settle in Titirangi". Brake's fame was intimately tied to photo-journalism, and what Millar describes as professional re-adjustment is actually a tacit admission that Brake's career had passed its midday.
The Dowse exhibition of 40 prints largely featured Brake as the assured serial photo-journalist in colour. The only exceptions were one image from the famous Picasso bullfight event, two from New Zealand: gift of the sea (the Kumeu dairy farmers and the dramatic Milford Sound panorama used as the book's end-papers, but the Dowse preferred the colour image from the original transparency), one of Mao, one from the Arabian medical operation story and, right at the end, Brake's first photograph used by Life magazine, the highly Pictorialist Lake Mapourika from 1951.
This first-ever gallery survey of Brake's work gained much publicity - he had, of course, been famous overseas - and the response was overwhelmingly positive. There was little enough art criticism then worthy of the name let alone photographic critical writing, and there's a sense that the nature of the general response was more conditioned by gratitude that the work of this famous New Zealander was being shown than by any critical assessment that the work was worth showing (which it was) or that the exhibition was a good one (which it wasn't). The only "bum note" was supplied by Des Kelly, reviewing the show in PhotoForum magazine, #33, August/September 1976. Very different from the media's general cheer-leading, Kelly's piece placed the work in a wider context, posed relevant questions and made fair critical comments that still have traction.
This review was, probably, the first real sign of dissent in a photographic community that, until the formation of PhotoForum in 1972, was dominated by camera clubs and commercial studios, all of whom unquestioningly accepted Brake as New Zealand's most important photographer - albeit largely on the grounds that he was the best known. Conflating "best known" with "most important" is a sure sign of an insecure, provincial culture. Of course, the practice of photographers such as John Pascoe and Les Cleveland in the 1940s and '50s had signalled its own form of dissent, but it was individual, not organised.
Organised dissent reared its contentious head on the issue of one of Brake's favoured local initiatives: the establishment of a New Zealand Centre for Photography. It was a doomed project from the start, the two main competing interests unlikely to ever find enough stable middle ground for such an institution to survive, and lacking a focus in sync with actual needs and realities. It was as if the Republicans and Democrats had joined forces to create a game park: was it to be filled with elephants or donkeys? The debate left bad blood, spilling through to the present day.
After Brake's death some protracted negotiations saw the bulk of his large archive acquired by Te Papa, and the deal seems to have involved an undertaking to mount some exhibitions. One of the shows the Museum of New Zealand did in 1995 prior to its Te Papa days was Brian Brake: China in the 1950s, consisting of almost a hundred images and a handsome monograph. The introduction by Eve Arnold went no further than being a personal memoir of their time together at Magnum, and the Museum went no further than claim he "is New Zealand's best known photographer". In 1998 the new Wellington waterfront venue sported the exhibition Monsoon: Brian Brake's India - the best known series from the best known photographer. Best known: where could this mantra go next? (Oh, it had already. The "rain"-faced Aparna Sen is the best known image of the best known series of the - well, you'll be getting the hang of it by now.)
Time, as it happens, was against the mantra going much further. As curator Athol McCredie wrote in his introduction to Brian Brake: Lens on the World: "This publication, and the exhibition it accompanies, is an attempt to bring Brian Brake's photographs back to life and allow viewers both to understand their original contexts and to consider how successfully they work as individual images. It also subjects Brake's work to critical examination, the first time in which this has been done in any sustained way. Its ambition is to peel back the overlay of myth that has accumulated around Brake's name and to examine the inevitably obscuring claims to greatness and iconicity applied to him". That statement is a bit of an icon itself, announcing its own coronial fiat on the death of "overseasia": an ability, willingness and courage within a national museum - no less - to face up on our own terms without fear or favour. Let's have a new national day to celebrate.
There are any number of interesting, pertinent, relevant photographic exhibitions that Te Papa might have devoted such considerable resources to. Doing the Brake show was an institutional choice - commitments made, marketers consulted - not a curatorial one. It's likely that McCredie, as their curator of photography, would've much rather done any one of several other shows. But he stepped up, and whatever reservations one might have about the content of the show - never its range - the book will stand as a model of its kind for a long time to come.
Not everyone is happy though. Many personally close to Brake have been uneasy with this "peeling back the overlay of myth", seeing the project as another instance of a Postmodern cynicism and a taste of what critic David Eggleton has called "revisionism" with regard to the book's essay by Damian Skinner. In this respect, Brian Brake: Lens on the World could be regarded as an extravagant and extreme form of Tall Poppyism.
The day after the show opened at Te Papa on 20 October 2010 a piece by Diana Dekker appeared in the Capital's Dominion/Post newspaper. Called Brake with the Past, it was liberally sprinkled with quotes from the exhibition's curator whom Dekker had interviewed in some depth. With sometimes breath-taking honesty the usually circumspect McCredie let be known what his more personal feelings were about Brake's work. "I think there's some interesting bits in it" being a good example. It was as if the royal jeweller were questioning the quality of the Crown Jewels, and this piece only fuelled dissatisfaction among those who felt the whole project had belittled Brake's achievement and reputation. But it was a refreshing instance of curatorial candour, and especially so considering how image-conscious Te Papa tends to be. It would be wise to remember that no one - apart from Brake's partner Aman Lau - could be more familiar with Brake's work, and that no one at all will have thought more about it than Athol McCredie.
The Dominion/Post's regular art writer, Mark Amery, reviewed the exhibition in the paper's Arts & Entertainment supplement on 20 January 2011. After giving a summary of Brake's career and a description of the content of the show, he asked: "Yet beyond all this, looking at the photographic evidence with fresh eyes, it's hard to see why Brake warrants yet again such significant attention". Lens on the World hardly equates with the two earlier Te Papa shows in both scale and depth for a start. And, Amery seems to have overlooked McCredie's introductory remarks quoted earlier here. The exhibition wasn't just about the images, it was about the wider historical context and a deconstruction of the Brake myth - the very tasks of an institution claiming to be a national museum in a country assumed to have some spunk. This writer has been a long-time critic of the Te Papa project - since its inception around 1989 - but is happy as to be making acknowledgement when the Museum starts doing the job. Too often the public galleries are buying into the commercial promotion business best left to the private sector, mounting shows that do more for an artist's profile and their own on-to-it image than unravelling the complexities of this effervescent culture.
The private sector is allowed to be shameless in the promotion department. Although, art being art, there's at least a veneer of respectability and seriousness usually applied to what is, essentially, the moving of product. Six weeks after Lens on the World opened at Te Papa, the Auckland auction house Art+Object held a sale of "selected vintage photographs from the Estate of Brian Brake", including many of the prints from the 1976 Dowse Art Gallery exhibition.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of this enterprise was Art+Object's publication of a 48-page, full colour, slip-cased hardback catalogue on the occasion of the auction. In his introduction, A+O's Ben Plumbly admits that "This book constitutes ART+OBJECT'S first foray into the publishing world and is the first time an auction house in this country has attempted to create a substantial publication aimed at having shelf life beyond the impending auction which justifies its existence and which brought it into being". The publication contains eight short essays by seven writers, two of them from A+O. The other five are: Gavin Hipkins, Kriselle Baker, Bruce Connew, Peter Simpson and John Perry. Apart from Connew - who tells the straight story of Aparna Sen, the "Monsoon girl" - the others are all pretty much a form of sales pitch that add little to the Brake conversation.
Not all the information is reliable. In his enthusiasm, Plumbly claims that Brake and Shadbolt's New Zealand: gift of the sea "remains today the most popular illustrated book about New Zealand ever printed". It isn't. In terms of sales, that peculiar distinction belongs to Kenneth and Jean Bigwood's New Zealand in Colour, Vol. 1 of 1961. And the reproduction of Lake Mapourika, 1951 - Brake's first in Life - is printed upsidedown. These are minor points of course. But when Plumbly claims in his essay Australasia 'Pricked' that "Brian Brake's photographs are loaded with that indefinable but unforgettable 'pricking quality', or punctum, which Barthes speaks of" it's necessary to point out a triumph of sales talk over intellectual reflection. The great French philosopher never intended punctum to be shaken like confetti at a wedding, and his application was to the perception of an image, not the selling of it.
Towards the end of his introduction Plumbly makes an interesting observation. A+O produced the book, he says, "...acutely aware that simultaneous to the publication of this book and the upcoming viewing and auction, a major retrospective exhibition of Brian Brake's work curated by Athol McCredie at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is taking place accompanied by a monograph on Brian Brake. At the time of writing we have not had the chance to see either the monograph nor the exhibition yet I feel it important to note that it is not our aim to attempt to compete with either. Rather, we hope that through this publication we can add to the somewhat overdue but now richly renewed dialogue around one of this country's most important and internationally recognized artists". Of course, encouraging dialogue is always good, although to describe it in advance as "richly renewed" may suggest a certain disposition to gloss the evidence. But to assume that Brake remains "one of this country's most important and internationally recognized artists" is to set parameters on that desired dialogue which effectively close down the debate Te Papa's Lens on the World has started. But, product needs to be moved, and that "best known" has handily segued into "most important".
Brake's story is a complex and intensely interesting one. The arc of his career will remain embedded in New Zealand's social history. New Zealand: gift of the sea will always be treasured for the great leap it made in both conception and design, as well as for being the clearest statement of what Brake believed in. But ulimately it's about the work - shorn of the artist's reputation. After Lens on the World what we're left with is a handful of images likely to survive beyond their historical context, the context of Brian Brake being a highly professional, hugely competent and remarkably successful photo-journalist. No more bests. No more mosts.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Brian Brake, Damian Skinner & David Eggleton
Here we have an artist doing a project, an art historian giving a context to this aspect of the artist’s work, then a critic questioning the validity of that context. Three guys with things to say. Will throwing a net into this turbulent sea catch anything worthwhile? Peter was once described in The Good Book as “a fisher of men”, so here goes….
Brake’s employment as a photographer of Maori artifacts had, as anything does, a peculiar and particular intersection with the prevailing beliefs, political ambitions and artistic practices of the time. As, indeed, do Skinner and Eggleton later as writers. Dr W B Sutch, a pivotal figure in New Zealand culture from the later 1930s til the early 1970s, first conceived of a project that would, internationally, foreground the cultural production of tangata whenua as art rather than “merely” ethnology, an inspiration that lead directly to the Te Maori phenomenon a decade later. When chairman of the then QEII Arts Council, now – sort of – Creative New Zealand, Sutch initiated a publication attempting to fulfill this aim that later appeared in 1979 when Hamish Keith was chairman: Art of the Pacific. A very handsome book, published jointly by QEII and Oxford University Press, the rich and dramatic illustrations came by the hand of New Zealand’s most famous photographer, Brian Brake. For such an important publication –signalling both a shift in perception and a positioning of a small nation globally - who else to employ? Brake had earned his chips professionally, particularly with his spectacular recording of ancient Egyptian culture for Life magazine around 1966, and he was clearly the man for the job.
What did Life want and why did they want it? Before the “other” became a pet concept of Postmodernism, the vaguer notion of the exotic has held sway since the great Western colonising movements of the 18th century. Different = interesting. The US, being the major post-war imperial power, was fascinated by earlier manifestations of the condition: hey, the temples at Thebes bore an uncanny resemblance to the Presidential memorials along the Mall in Washington DC, with the gigantic statues of former rulers within serving pretty much the same function. Power’s handmaiden is awe, and in photographing these Egyptian ancient monuments so dramatically at night, Brake more than succeeded in meeting the magazine’s requirements for an equivalence that partially legitimized a 20th century cultural empire. All done with the best of intentions of course, the overt project being “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge” as the National Geographic’s charter has it, for instance.
The subtler logistics of the colonising project remove the cultural productions of colonized cultures from the realm of everyday use to the catergorising realm of science. However well-intentioned, it’s nonetheless a process of anaesthetising. One which the practice of museums continues in their collecting, storage and exhibiting. It’s often said that Te Maori marked a fundamental change in this, but the show didn’t propose a different screen for viewing, it just slightly enlarged the existing one. Te Papa’s current E Tu Ake exhibition is no different: while one of the two conceptual pillars of the show is the notion of whakapapa – connectedness – the objects and images included remain isolated, unconnected, their sense of estrangement not at all lessened by the screeds of texts attempting to glue them together.
Old photographs of museum displays show the objects piled up together, arranged more like a school photo than anything respecting their individual and collective whakapapa. If Te Maori signaled anything it was a change from regarding these objects as merely illustrative of the “other” to displaying them as works of art in their own right. In the quarter century since that landmark show it’s been assumed that this was a positive development. But this upgrade in status was founded on another Eurocentric assumption, that the category of art was more important than the category of ethnology. The greater prominence the art category now gives these objects (and the political purposes to which they’re now put) has tended to mask the failure to ask a more fundamental question: does this apparent change mean anything of real significance for these taonga in terms of connectedness anywhere outside of current museum culture? In other words, is the anaesthetic wearing off?
One of the ways to avoid answering this question is to employ the diversionary tactic of dressing the objects up. Hey, they look better, so it must be all good, right? Well, Goya put paid to that one in his 1799 Los Caprichos etchings which sharply relate the perils of relying on appearances. However, when Brian Brake was brought in to do the photography for Art of the Pacific he was, as usual, up to date with the latest ways of making objects look sexy. He was the consummate professional who knew how to keep ahead of the game.
His approach to the task of depicting tribal objects was informed by the same impulse that lead the Cubists and other early European Modernists at the beginning of the 20th century to collect and quote from African and Oceanic objects. It was part of a rejection of both the “realistic” and materialistic values of the 19th century and to a large extent was based on the notion of “natural man” promulgated by Rousseau in the 18th. This is the whakapapa of the images in the book. Tribal images indeed, but a thoroughly Eurocentric context. Compelling in their placement, looming out of a blackness redolent of prehistory, mystery and the sacred, the lighting bestowing honour and calling forth admiration for the workmanship, the objects are suspended in a contemplative space totally separated from anything site specific, hint of use or human association. The style of separation continued with the illustrations in the Te Maori catalogue, but with two important differences: firstly, throughout the book there are several images giving the objects a context: a contemporary carver at work, the exteriors and interiors of wharenui, some historical sites as well as some significant geographic locations. Secondly, most of the objects have been photographed – by Athol McCredie – in more natural light with backgrounds a range of lighter, neutral colours, the loss of visual drama more than compensated for by a sense of familiarity and approachability.
Te Papa moved towards putting a large Brian Brake exhibition together from the early 2000s, the project taking definite form in 2008. Having acquired the photographer’s extensive archive it was in a position to take a thorough look at his work, and, more importantly, enough time had elapsed since the photographer’s unexpected death in 1988 to allow for a more dispassionate view of his oeuvre within the context of the time it was made. In his lifetime Brake had accrued the title of “New Zealand’s most famous photographer”, which some enthusiasts - especially since his death – had evolved into “New Zealand’s greatest photographer”. It was time to examine the evidence. Our national museum has often been criticised for marketer-driven shows that defer to perceived popular taste, and it would have been easy, in this instance, to produce an exhibition and catalogue simply deferring to popular perceptions surrounding this famous photographer. To its credit, the museum grasped the nettle and risked bruising or even upsetting those perceptions by pursuing the show’s critical examination of Brake’s achievement.
The book/catalogue accompanying the exhibition Lens on the World contains six essays by different writers looking at aspects of Brake’s work. One of them, Object Photography: 1966-1988 by Damian Skinner, traces the evolution of Brake’s approach to photographing cultural material, how he dealt with taonga, and what the wider implications might be for a culture in transition such as ours. (It should be stated here that this writer contributed one of the other essays, but at no point has he ever discussed Skinner’s essay with its author.) With a scholar’s patient determination to examine the evidence, and proven record of skillfully negotiating material at the cultural interface, Skinner outlines the history, makes a case and draws his conclusions. As stated here at the beginning of the second paragraph, artists and writers are creatures of their times, and whatever one may bring to their reading of Skinner’s essay, no one could deny that the points made are supported by evidence and that the writer’s conclusions are, at the very least, stimulating contributions to the - of necessity – ongoing debate about, for instance, how taonga should be exhibited and illustrated, and who should be allowed a voice in this process.
Fast forward to the New Zealand Listener of 21 May 2011 where regular contributor David Eggleton reviews the new edition of Maori Art: the photography of Brian Brake, with foreword by Witi Ihimaera and introduction by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, originally published in 2003. Eggleton is an experienced photography critic and is also author of Into the Light, 2006, so far the most substantial history of New Zealand photography.
He uses, legitimately, the review to question the argument proposed by Skinner in Te Papa’s Brake book. Once known as “the mad kiwi ranter”, it’s perhaps no great surprise that Eggleton tends to overstate his case, and in language surprisingly intemperate. At one point he describes Skinner as “Fulminating like a pulpit preacher”, overlooking, in his passion, that he himself may well be looking into a mirror here. No one reading Skinner’s essay sitting down could possibly hear the sound of a raised voice. Compare Skinner’s tone to that, say, evident in Into the Light’s chapter ostensibly about Pictorialism entitled Fuzzygraphs. Here the preacher would indeed be fulminating in a pulpit, but only if he could get off his high horse to enter it. This chapter constitutes a gross misrepresentation of an, admittedly, little understood historical movement, the history-telling an exercise in sustained gratuitous sneering and a confident display of an ignorance that only an unreconstructable Modernist could muster. Go on, read it. The chapter isn’t history, it’s exhibitionism. Any historian has a primary responsibility to submit personal prejudice to the light of evidence in the interests of historical fairness, but in Fuzzygraphs Eggleton has blindly resisted going into that light.
In his Listener review Eggleton stitches together a list of phrases from Skinner’s essay with the air-brushing ease of a Soviet prosecutor, making a case more for misrepresentation than a case against Skinner’s argument. For instance, unless you’d read Skinner’s essay carefully you could easily gain the impression from the review that he’d described Brake as ‘a “suspect” photographer of things Maori’. Not only does he nowhere claim this, it’s hard to believe him even thinking it. Also, there’s a reference in the review to “Skinner’s revisionist essay”. “Revisionist” is one of those words, like “elitist”, which tend to describe the attitude of the person using it rather than describing any real state existing in the real world. It was applied widely to James Belich’s 1985 New Zealand Wars at the time of publication, but now a quarter of a century later the book’s accepted, for the moment, as the standard history. Skinner proposed an argument: Eggleton demonstrates a position. He’s clearly extremely vexed by Skinner’s approach, and while there’s a great deal of sound and fury in his response, there’s little actually resembling a contrary argument. For instance, he accuses Skinner of “self-contradiction” but nowhere gives an instance of it. He doesn’t like what Skinner wrote, and that’s OK, it’s a free world. But within that context of freedom any critical writer has an obligation to at least get the facts right and at least attempt a degree of fairness. Neither of these requirements is a feature of this Listener review.
Further in the review Eggleton addresses the book under consideration and refers approvingly to Te Awekotuku’s bringing “a measured voice to the debate about representation of traditional things Maori…”. (Take that, Damian Skinner!) The reviewer goes on to suggest that she sees Brake as ‘a pioneering photographer in presenting Pacific and Maori artifacts as “art”, as opposed to the “factual description” and literalism that any number of strictly ethnographic photographers had previously provided’. But neither Te Awekotuku nor Eggleton seems aware that this view may simply represent an unquestioned acceptance of the very Eurocentric hierarchy whereby “art” is higher than “ethnography”. The “upgrading” of taonga to “art” that Te Maori symbolised was essentially a political shift of advantage to both Maori and Pakeha - but for very different reasons - that few have acknowledged and that no one has publicly debated. It’s not just about black backgrounds and raking light, fellas.
Eggleton skirts the minefield of who decides what kind of representation by somewhat coyly separating major opinion into two opposing camps: “…although there is a school of thought that declares by painting with light Brake has merely beautified and romanticised carved sticks and stones, another school argues he has succeeded in making mysterious objects expressive and poetic…”, carefully avoiding having to state that the former school tends to be Pakeha and the latter school Maori. If - and it’s a big if - you accept that the “beautified and romanticised” description fairly represents Skinner’s argument, the “expressive and poetic” description, posed as the opposite option, isn’t shared so much, these days, by a younger generation of Maori museum professionals whose scope encompasses photography and contemporary developments more than their own time allowed for both Ihimaera and Te Awekotuku. Besides, it’s only a few decades since an authority such as Hirini Moko Mead declared that there could be no such thing as contemporary Maori art. Te ao marama - the world of light, modernity - is indeed very interesting terrain.
For once, the national museum’s Brake exhibition initative has provoked a series of real debates about things that matter: history, fame, photography, exhibition culture, and the representation of traditional and contemporary “things Maori”. Te Papa’s first CEO used to say “We welcome debate”, while keeping her grip firmly on the remote, as Chris Knox once so amusingly depicted in a Listener cartoon. Brian Brake: Lens on the World may be a sign that the grip is loosening and that Te Papa may become more genuinely involved in actual debate and release some real Awesome Forces at "Our Place". Bring it on.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Rayner Brothers Gallery, Whanganui, 21 May-26 June 2010
images on website: http://www.raynerbrothers.com/
The first question asked about someone in a tribal culture is Do they belong here? New Zealand may regard itself as a First World country, may have grown in self-confidence hugely over the past forty years, and congratulates itself on being innovative and hospitable, but at many levels it maintains an anxious tribalism predicated on knowing who's who and where they fit. Nowhere perhaps is this more evident than within the art tribe. Intensely hierarchical, a tendency to the authoritarian, with the players all jealous of their relative position, it's not very welcoming to foreigners no matter how interesting their work or even if it has the capacity to illuminate the practice of the natives. Belonging's primary, the tribe has spoken.
Andrea Gardner is a native of northern California, a trained, professional "mid-career" artist who has lived in New Zealand for about fifteen years working as a teacher. Unconstrained by the borders of conventional mediums, she has made art out of myriad materials, a roving magpie just - safely - this side of the "outsider" artist combing the dump. This enterprise only increases suspicion that she might be a bit flaky and not a serious artist. Too hard to brand you see.
She's found a niche, though, and over the past several years has had work included in respectable group shows and has exhibited with respected dealers. Perhaps best-known for her small, brown, wall-based ceramic figures that combine cute animals and birds with a morphing into states that would set Freud thinking if not worrying, she has been concentrating on the photographic image for the past two or so years. In the 1970s artists used to talk solemnly about "making drawings", well, Gardner doesn't take photographs, she makes them.
The kid in her retains a strong affection for animals, and images of these feature frequently in her work, as well as a liking for strong colours and richly-patterned fabrics which address the magpie in her. She's a bit of a bower-bird too, her sometimes elaborate constructions courting us by their elaborate juxtapositions, compressed scale and intriguing suggestion. Current trends in international photography favour banal subjects and flat-toned colour, reinforcing a conceptual austerity that is as de rigueur for "serious" photography as black and white was thirty years ago.
Gardner's practice is exactly at right angles to this, and for unreconstructable Modernists the images likely to appear florid and easily dismissible. But, ironically, there's an undercurrent of austerity threading through her work too that might suggest a second look - that's only if her not being "one of us" can temporarily be put aside. Her operatic productions are riven with an almost Calvinistic good-and-evil concern for the state of the planet. OK, before the knowing art-world yawns start here, consider that her work might suggest, among other things, that a cause of the looming predicament could be an idealisation of nature that art has done much to foster over the past three hundred years. In short, Gardner's fakes have a point way beyond current art-world cleverness. She's reconnecting the medium to a reality we'd better believe in.
A favourite device of Gardner's has been to use as "background" details from slightly yellowed 1950s and '60s prints rescued from junk shops, ranging from the likes of Constable to the flower-power people's take on Caspar David Friedrich. Her animals tend to be reproductions too - ornaments from $2 shops et al - or the taxidermied nature morte representations of themselves. It's been fashionable - and timely - for a while in photography to undercut belief in its assumed connection with reality, but Gardner goes the whole hog in constructing her credible alternative worlds consisting entirely of representations. No subtle references hinting around the margins for her.
The images are alluring in the way that insect-eating plants are alluring - all those bright colours, attractive objects and intriguing scenarios drawing the unsuspecting viewer into a space that's as one-way as a possum trap if you're up for thinking through the implications of what she's doing. What these dense undergrowths of visual layering reveal are confronting issues about sustainability: our treatment of the environment, of animals, and, indeed, even our cultural practice. The urgency of these questions and the vividness of her work should elbow aside any questions about belonging. Gardner is a citizen of the world, and her work welcomes us aboard.