Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 5 Trans-Tasman

Volk talk
Jonathan Bywater
Folklore: the New Zealanders, curated by Gavin Hipkins at Artspace, Auckland (8 July - 1 August), Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui, 10 October - 22 November

Ken Browning, The Party,
c. 1978, Folklore: The New Zealanders, Artspace
Murray Cammick, from the Flash Cars series,
c. 1977, Folklore: The New Zealanders, Artspace


Folkloric it was not particularly, and in the images themselves ‘New Zealanders’ in any ‘representative’ sense were not much in direct evidence. So it was through the title’s somewhat oblique frame that Folklore: the New Zealanders made its point about the hoary blah blah of that kind of identity, and the photographic stuff in which it inheres. The curator, Gavin Hipkins, carefully mustered a rich and unobvious set of images which were all the more intriguingly grouped for not making easy sense, as I had been led to try and make out, as some straightforward revival of documentary.

Folklore was composed of mostly recent work by fourteen New Zealand photographers, presented as a "shadow history". Given that the candidate edifices for the inscription of an official or shadow-casting photographic history are relatively scarce, the fact that it was a collation of photography at all made it a rare chance to view a range of local work. The most ‘historical’ work in the show, selections from series by Murray Cammick and Ken Browning, dated from the mid ‘70s. Their photos gave ‘90s eyes a glimpse, in classic documentary b&w, of an unwittingly stylishly dressed world of generous hair growth, flared pants and some forgotten minor classics of automotive history. Both photographers were, the effects of time aside, offering us a view of something more or less exotic. Cammick, in the style of Douglas Kent Hall or some other hip pop ‘70s coffee table book documentarian, was out shooting for the nocturnal blooms of bodgie car culture in Queen St: hoods and hoons on the bonnet or at the wheel of their hotted V8’s (from Flash Cars ca. ‘76). Browning, much in the manner of later Diane Arbus, gave us an entrée into Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital. By playing up some spooky shadows and maniacal background leers, he managed to make the atmosphere of an in-care birthday party as eerily haunted as a noninstitutionalised viewer might expect (from The Party, ’78). Between the ‘70s and the ‘90s there was something of a gap, the stated rationale for which I’ll get to soon. One general strategy for making sense of the show in light of this absence was to look for some relation between the older and the newer works. Even before seeing the exhibition, an obvious parallel we might expect to see drawn between the ‘70s and the ‘90s (with specimen Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki on the wall just down the road in the Australian National Gallery touring show Love Hotel) was a return to pictures of people-portraiture, documentary, snapshots, fashion photography, and all the blurrings effected by the popularity of Wolfgang Tillmans et al. However, Browning’s and Cammick’s photo ‘stories’, directly about specific cultural subsets, were almost alone in depicting the literal human form. Apart from the images by Ann Shelton and Ava Seymour they were joined only by the tiny rehearsing firemen in Ian Richardson’s Collingwood Street Bridge, Nelson and an obscured farmer figure in one of Peter Black’s works.

Although utilising a much older photocollage technique, Seymour’s work most resembled the ‘70s images in the exhibition, in that she chose to directly represent ‘other’ people (Daycare Walkabouts, Welfare Mom, Emma Nurse, ‘97). Her subjects in these works are fictionalised inhabitants of New Zealand’s state housing neighbourhoods. Weatherboards, cul de sacs and dead ends are printed up in faded colours suggestive of hand tinting. These backdrops are overlaid with a black and white populace of freakish, scale-shifting composite figures. Their found limbs and features caricature an underclass of care-giving and/or in-need-of-care women and children. Seymour’s reworking of ‘20s Berlin Dada cut and paste photography amplifies the sympathetic and dramatic in the Arbus/Browning strategy to the point of feedback, but risks at the same time achieving an even more insulting effect.

Hung strikingly at shin height, Ann Shelton’s Big Head (‘98), demonstrated elements of ‘70s style and—like Cammick’s shots—some flash bogan elements at that. Turning away from the viewer the back of a freshly shaved head displays a beautiful array of tattoos—a genie, an anime girl, jewelled sword, grim reaper, snake-clad fantasy figure and bug-eyed skull. Big Head, then, quoted some of the ‘70s chic of Cammick’s USA1 stars’n’stripes number plate, but while Cammick documents the ‘authentic’ lifestlyle of glamorous strangers, Shelton shows us a posed photo of a friend who has had fun dressing up. Style here is unselfconsciously self-aware, something we can make up, borrow and have fun with. Shelton’s image of retro decor and lick and stick tattoos reflects a New Zealand in which even the fashion of Auckland teenagers acknowledges to some extent ‘the constructedness of gender,’ a concept once the province of ‘80s art and social science. Dress up, make believe and play with signs give Shelton’s works a special twist that positions them in sharp relation to the bona fide waif and slumming model glamour of iD and The Face contributors.

In the signage accompanying Folklore Hipkins highlighted his intention to "conveniently side-step the constructed photographic strategies [of the] ‘80s". Since then, ‘constructed’ and digitally faked images have become well and truly familiar to most people, via billboards and magazines. The theatrically heightened realism of American photographer Jeff Wall, for example, finds a closer companion in the new Stella Artois campaign than in the work of his NZ contemporaries, and Cuisine magazine utilises digital illusionism for its billboards (This month we’re doing amazingly mysogynist things with Photoshop). What Hipkins was eliding, or ‘shadowing’ in his curation, was the self-conscious, artifice-laden photography of the ‘80s New Zealand show Imposing Narratives. No Dawson, then, no Pardington, no Shannon, no Jenkinson. Few women, in fact, and little feminism. But though it may not be in the style of Sherrie Levine or Cindy Sherman, ‘constructed’ these photographs surely were.

Shadowing the ‘80s women artists, in some way, was the grimy quasi-symbolism of Minerva Betts. Betts offered roughly hand-trimmed and paint-marked images, palm-sized exposures of a dandelion seedhead resting on a leafy wallpaper (Puff 1-3, ‘83-’92) and a wooden toy (Horse, ca. ‘80). In their pre-war photo album blur, and evocation of hazy childhood memories, these works could plausibly be read as psychoanalytical in intent, with all the gender considerations that entails. The lushness of Betts’ anti-technique, suggested, however that her work could be understood in relation to our expectations of the photographic medium, as much as to the rest of our experience.

Likewise suggestive of a story about the medium itself, and much more obviously an exception to Hipkins’ sidestep, were Ronnie van Hout’s Nudes In Landscape 1 & 2. Borrowing the benchmark ‘constructed’ style of the American photographer David Levinthal, van Hout’s images seem to represent the very qualities Hipkins sought to eschew. Perhaps van Hout’s inclusion can be understood because of the way his images arguably operate as quotations, suggestive of an overriding conceptual strategy? Or maybe Hipkins sees van Hout fitting into the exhibition simply because his work is ‘90s ‘constructedness’ rather than the old-fashioned ‘80s variety? His blurry shots of plastic figurines in a greeny, browny backlit diorama do seem to say more about artifice, whether it be the conventionality of genre, photography’s relationship to nature and painting, or the ethics of art practice (the sincerity, originality stuff). Like Shelton’s portraits of everyday dress up, van Hout dresses up for fun too, borrowing motifs from the international art hit parade with similarly make-it-my-own ease. Generic white people represented by plastic dolls emptily, clownishly strike gendered postures. Ridiculously nude, they parade a wry but grim selfconsciouness about the patheticness of, well, art itself.


Ian Richardson, Box Truck, Hawkes Bay, 1993,
c. Folklore: The New Zealanders
, Artspace
Installation view,
Folklore: The New Zealanders
, Artspace

The sure-to-rise clarity of Peter Peryer’s and Laurence Aberhart’s silver gelatin mastery paired them apart from the other artists. Together these two represent the grandest most ‘photographic’ photography practised in Aotearoa, a received style of art photography even more venerable than ‘70s documentary.

Aberhart was represented by fifteen exteriors of Masonic lodges, a veritable blank wall of blank walls. His paternal status in our photographic culture was linked by this selection to the ‘mysterious’ world of mute architecture and secret handshakes pictured in his tight lipped photographs. The perverse formalism of these images— Aberhart used the Masonic compass and set square emblem as a key to his compositional use of telephone lines, road markings, and architectural features— seemed as neatly inscrutable as the halls themselves, which, whether they resemble suburban homes, public toilets, libraries or schools, each reveal nothing of their interior.

Of a slightly less formal bent, Peryer’s work didn’t look nearly so interesting. The dusty chains, bits and stirrups of the mock-up farrier’s forge or backblocks barn played up the unreality of the exhibit in a tired way (representation of a representation, yawn) (O’Kains Bay Museum, ‘97). His close-grazed grass and tree stumps shot (Summit Road, Banks Peninsula, ‘97) seemed hard to push past an achingly banal ‘look what we’ve done to the land’ colonialism comment.

Peryer’s image-as-metaphor tone harked back to Hipkins’ choice of ‘70s works, a selection which was rich in visual quirks and felicities of background detail. Both sets of work found metaphors and unintentional signs in the world-out-there. In one of Cammick’s Flash Cars photos, the windscreen wipers leave a pattern that echos the curved geometric bonnet paintjob, and the customised numberplate reads ‘DB’. In The Party photos, a chianti bottle precariously hangs over the head of a nervous looking man with a monkishly severe haircut, his hands clasped as if in a prayer for deliverance.

Closest in intent to Peryer and Aberhart, and also sharing something with the serendiptious detail of the ‘70s photographs, were Peter Black’s from-the-car shots of the roadside, pinned to the wall artily unframed (from Moving Pictures, ‘87). Less studied in their formal aspects, Black’s blurry, casual view still seemed to be reaching for poetic imagistic summaries of things. The rather too good to be true graffito on a water tank proclaims with untranscribable scriptual ambiguity that "AOTEAROA WA/IS MAORI LAND", along with a coincidental visual allusion to McCahon’s windscreen wiper/finger of god (top left of Tomorrow Will Be The Same...).

On the other hand, Jim Speers and Darren Glass both composed their prints with no such sense of a telling glimpse, offer incidental city views of no special moment. Glass’ medium, his large pinhole camera, dominated two lo-fi images of a suburban street. Speers on the other hand let the camera do the work, taking the medium for granted, as is possible in a snapshot world. Speers framed the reflections cast by buildings onto other buildings (or the reflection of buildings in the schematic represenations of buildings found on buildings, in their fire alarm status panels). In these snapshots the photgrapher’s image is visible as a dark ghost in the foreground, itself a reflection too. A commuter’s flannerie.

With a knowing blankness Anton Parsons showed us two deadpan portraits of well groomed cars (1970s Movement ‘96 (blue), 1980s Movement ‘98 (orange)), unstylish style samples. These photos were built into big metal stands, with backing coloured, one blue, one orange. Their redundant titular decoding, by decade and colour again, rather drily repeated the obviousness of the categories through which Parson’s subjects are seen.

Cars starred too, in Ian Richardson’s work. His evocation of the ‘amateur’—not just technically, through snapshot grade film stretched into hazy enlargements, but stylistically, as if aspiring to grander photographic ends—reminded me of the disappointment of childhood holiday prints that naively sought to reproduce the glossy panoramas of postcard landscapes. The mundane was made eerily poignant, and his work provided a highlight of the show. The service station calendar portrait of a box truck (identified as such with boy’s-eye-view car savvy in the title); the Humber parked under autumn trees with a Bible hour flare of rainbow colour in the glare through the leaves; the Vauxhall blurred down a bank on a rural road; a caravan under seaside pines; all with the graininess of images printed on a scale larger than the negatives were intended to allow, which made them appear as if laminated at a mall kiosk, and pinned to the gallery wall with fat white drawing pins. Somehow at this point the show did seem close to articulating a photographic vernacular—far from the babies and dogs kitsch of the NZ Listener photo competition, yet something anyway that moved away from an understanding of the art photographer as our clued-up spokesperson.

Looking out with pastoral caring from the corner of one room, Hipkins’ own piece, ur-Kiwi, possessed a taciturn formalism. A myopicly thin depth of focus rendered the large brown object it pushes into the lens ambiguous between the obvious—the fruit of a Chinese gooseberry bush—and some kind of dish scouring device— something brown, rounded and fibrous anyway. This ambivalent owning of the symbolically ‘kiwi’, perhaps posited such symbols—kiwifruit, rural ‘characters’, Buzzy Bees—as the material of ur-identity, something primitive, and something to be looked at more closely.

Nearly two years ago Gavin Hipkins wrote "Perhaps we’ve become more self-conscious since Ans Westra or James Siers published their photographic versions of The New Zealanders" (a title he was then offering as an alternative to Second Nature for Peter Peryer’s survey show, Monica, August/September ‘96). It seems true of his own show, as he noted at the time, that ‘we’ the public have stepped out of the photographic picture, presumably because the smaller ‘we’ for which Hipkins can speak—photographers—have become more self-conscious about the responsibility of representing other people. Nonetheless, as curator he was bold in his claims about the show’s ability to show ‘us’ ‘ourselves.’ How the term ‘folklore’ might be understood in relation to the show was implicit in the claims of the introductory wall text, where the show’s theme of ‘New Zealandness’ was boldly elaborated. These images were interpreted for us by Hipkins as "celebrat[ing] the visual stories we tell about ourselves, for ourselves, as New Zealanders." Such bravely unqualified, potentially homogenising use of the first person plural, in the face of a world where a media-dosed public has become quite conscious about how images-photographic, personal or corporate-operate, seems a little odd.

How the exhibition might tackle these issues remained obscure. Whether the show was any more plausibly about ‘ourselves’ for Hipkins’ decision to downplay ‘constructedness’ is at least moot. Perhaps the gist was that ‘identity’ is to be found in everything, not just icons, and it’s something that can be consciously or unconsciously pieced together by each in her own way. It could be that tired of the breakdown given by ‘ethnicity’, ‘gender’, ‘region’, and ‘New Zealandness’ (of the tui and pohutakawa variety), if not of the stale general concept ‘identity’ itself, curators, amongst others, are keen to resist work that is too easily read as illustrating such concepts. Hence, perhaps, the initially surprising exclusion of work that would have addressed the apparent theme of the exhibition more directly, such as two of my recent personal favourites, Haru Sameshima (who held an excellent show of New Zealand park and garden views at Anna Bibby Gallery (Wet Dreams)) and Vanessa Jack (whose recent contribution to Golden Prospects was photos of her Chinese New Zealand grandparents). Keeping a straight face as it wheels on 1930s style volk talk of artists as our righful story tellers and representatives, Folklore insists that even artists making work self-consciously strategised against art’s historical of use of photography, can say as much about the style consciouness of a wider community, its pessimisms, exhuberances and old fart persistances.

Jonathan Bywater
LOG Illustrated, Spring 1998, p 28-29


Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room