Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Vexing Objects: still-life experiments
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.

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