Work from the Co-orbital project featured in Issue 2 of Common Ground, with thanks to Christine McFetridge
Recent works from Maunga series.
Maungarei 2013 Installation at Te Tuhi gallery
Sacred maunga, rich resource & reservoir, tourist landmarks, public parks: the volcanic cones of Tamaki Makau Rau are embedded in our daily lives and simultaneously somehow invisible.
Websites maintained by Druids on the other side of the world pay homage to the ley lines of connectivity that string them together. Archeologists point to rich records of pre-contact Maori habitation. All are modified; some have been mined into extinction. With recent legislation restoring the role of local iwi as kaitiaki a new era for these maunga is beginning.
We are entering a phase of accelerated ecological crisis that is truly global. No aspect of the landscape remains unmodified or free from the traces of our shifting human values and appetites. I continue to be deeply engaged with the ways the land reflects and offers back these concerns.
I experience these places as rich sites of psycho-geography. Utilising aspects of the derive, and ritualizing my presence in these places, objects are offered up to be re-presented through the forensic medium of photography. My practice intersects with the post-documentary, relying as it does on a co-authoring with the anima mundi or world soul. This triptych strings together a set of sigils that acknowledge the uneasy co-existence of diverse cultural and consumer practices.
Three days spent in Melbourne visiting shows, meeting curators, talking to photographers and participating in a group slide night have sparked a major recalibration.
Slide Night is a group discussion hosted by Clare Rae, Kate Robertson and Ross Coulter. Each invited participant must shoot a roll of 35mm film and edit to three slides. The idea is for these images to act as visual cues for discussion. 6 artists presented during the night, and the conversations were broad-ranging, thought-provoking and articulate. The experience of unearthing a film camera, finding film, exposing, processing and editing it was something I have not really engaged with since 2005. It was exactly the same heady mix of exhilaration, anticipation, disappointment and revelation that I remember from those days.
After this a morning was spent in the dimly lit galleries of Monash, looking at the treasures unearthed from their archives and curated by Bill Hensen. The majority of these images were made in the previous two centuries: The jewel in the show was a tiny, glowing cyanotype, author unknown. Picturing two female figures on a huge fallen tree, with a strange ghost form in the center of the frame, it conjured Arbus’s twins, Edwardian ectoplasm and colonial scrapbooks, all delineated in shades of azure. The past and future of analogue photography seem foreshadowed in this show. No coincidence I am sure that I picked up a great catalogue at ACCA for Tacita Dean’s homage to her beloved 16mm medium: FILM. This booklet contains several impassioned pieces of her writing pleading for the continued ability of an artist to choose their medium, and convincingly describes the huge shifts in artistic thinking that accompany the transition into the digital realm.
These experiences remind me of the deep aesthetic and textural richness of Ben Rivers‘ films. His commitment to 16mm B&W, old cameras and extreme wide angle lenses sets up incredibly tight parameters for his films. But in so doing the film itself becomes foregrounded in a way that beautifully correlates to the content. In my recent works the digital intrusion into the pictures – the device of the clear-cut and Pantone backgrounds – attempts to correlate as tightly to my themes. Of necessity this correlation speaks of insertion, dislocation, the techno-sublime.
I am under no illusions: My work, both commercial and personal owes a huge debt in terms of resolution to the digital workflow. A degree of control and the microscopic refining of ideas are possible within that workflow that simply do not exist in the analogue world. Still, these encounters have been a welcome reminder of my previous deep connection with the material in my photographic process. So tomorrow I will shoulder the view camera and trudge up a volcano with some sheets of Polaroid, just to see what happens…
Below is a condensed and reworked incarnation of some of the thinking that has fed into my current MFA show, Co-orbital. This essay is included in the exhibition catalogue. Images from the exhibition will be uploaded soon.
In these early years of the new millennium, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Our intellectual emancipation from established belief systems and subjective desires is the direct result of the critical reflexivity and questioning at the core of post-modern thinking. This growing self-awareness is the culmination of a long period of breathtaking scientific, democratic and individuated evolution in the West. However, philosopher and astrologer Richard Tarnas suggests that this brilliant trajectory has a fatal flaw, which he describes as the “shadow of the Enlightenment”[i]. He describes this shadow in the following way:
In its primordial condition, humankind had possessed an instinctive knowledge of the profound sacred unity and interconnectedness of the world, but under the influence of the Western mind, especially its modern expression, the course of history brought about a deep schism between humankind and nature, and a de-sacralization of the world….in this perspective, both humanity and nature are seen as having suffered grievously under a long, exploitative, dualistic vision of the world, with the worst consequences being produced by the oppressive hegemony of modern industrial societies empowered by Western science and technology.[ii]
The Promethean progress man has made in the sciences and in technology has simultaneously emptied the world of its numinous aspects; its gods and goddesses, archetypal ideas and taboo or tapu states of being. As the self has become the site of all knowledge and experience, the world
“is viewed as a neutral domain of contingent facts and potential means to our secular purposes.”[iii]
A purely scientific understanding of the laws of the physical universe has placed man at the outer edge of the cosmos; its sole sentient inhabitant. Empirical modernity has riven us from the world, setting the self apart from the disenchanted universe it inhabits. This fragmentation of the psyche, away from the collective anima mundi, or world soul, establishes a view of the world as simply a container for resources to be mined, tilled, dammed and drained. Our post-modern consciousness exposes all states of being as constructed sets of experiences, thus devoid of authenticity or integration. As a consequence the 21st century Western mind is in a stage of “advanced deconstruction”[iv]; the outcome of which is a profound sense of alienation.
Strategies for moving beyond this state of spiritual and intellectual disenchantment lie on the fringes of our Western thinking. Many cultures still carry at their heart an awareness of tapu, a sacred or unearthly state, a framework of protocols and covenants with the animus mundi. In conventional Western thinking these ideas can easily be relegated to historical or religious spheres of interest. The disenchanted mind holds that a heightened esoteric dimension cannot co-exist with our modern daily life.
But states of tapu and noa (the sacred and the earthly) are not side-notes to our lives. Knowingly or unknowingly, we can breach the fragile covenants that exist both within human relations and between humans and the world. These covenants exist in cultural, spiritual, and environmental realms. They need not be acknowledged by us in order to affect us. If, as has been suggested, tapu and noa are not fixed states, but fluid and non-lineal, then human action and ritual are essential in achieving a balance between them.
In modern psychology and art practices, many strategies have been developed to move beyond the fragmented individual consciousness and to close the circle of the self and the anima mundi. These aspirations for collaboration and participation with alternate dimensions align strongly with photography’s historical connections to the esoteric and occult; what could be termed the alternative history of the camera.
Dark boxes, light, silver and chemicals have close alliances with alchemy and the arcane. Edwardian and Victorian photographers felt keenly that this new way of seeing could offer perspectives into the esoteric realm, and offer a counterbalance to the demystification of the burgeoning Age of Reason.
In 1894 August Strindberg, a playwright and poet, was collaborating with the cosmos to create his Celestographs; Hubble-like images created by leaving photo-sensitive paper overnight in a chemical bath beneath the stars. Chris Webtser describes this collaboration as a “chemical wedding of photography and the esoteric.”[v] The outcomes are a mesmeric merging of earth and sky, a presentiment of what we now know: that all matter is derived from the stars.
Similarly, a group of philosophers and artists known as the Pataphysicists sought meaning, connection and resonance between human and object states.
Operating on the margins of the new sciences of psychology and metaphysics, this early 20th century school of thought asserted that objects have a psychic life, an animus, and can speak to the artist. In an attempt to communicate with an esoteric dimension, the Pataphysicists embraced trance, psychoactive drugs and voodoo as aids; tools that allowed artists to draw on the spiritual energy of the occult and re-invest that energy into their art. The movement counted Duchamp among its practitioners, and was instrumental in establishing the central position of the readymade in contemporary art practice.
Author and voodoo practitioner Michael Bertiaux states that:
One of the characteristics (of the school) would be their drawing of inspiration from dream states and a kind of somnambulistic meditation. Another would be that everything has a psychic history. This is related to the “cult of the found object” in modern art, the discovery of “the given.” We know that many artists go around looking for what they call a “found object”- actually they wouldn’t have to look very hard. According to the theory the object would “speak” to them and indicate to them that this was what was needed.[vi]
Brion Gysin and William Burroughs developed techniques in the 1960s to circumvent conscious thought and open up pathways to esoteric influence.
Gysin introduced Burroughs to the idea of the “cut-up”; a text-based practice that allowed synchronicity to intervene in the cutting and rejoining of written texts. This technique could be used in conjunction with ritual and occult practice, such as that set out by Aleister Crowley in his Book of the Law and espoused by Genesis P-Orridge and other radical shamans of the music and art worlds. Gysin also created a system for producing trance-states, which he called the Dreammachine. Using optical flicker at certain ratios, this rotating cylinder operated on the closed eyelids to induce trance-states and heightened creativity.
While these practitioners concentrated their experiments on the sub-conscious and the inner self, other art movements proposed that a relationship with place could also activate relationships with the esoteric. Guy Debord and the Situationists of the mid 1950s, for example, introduced the idea of a psycho-geographic landscape. This was accessed via the derive, or an aimless wander, guided by instinct. The Situationists used these non-planned urban wanderings to break out of societal norms and access the intersections between the psyche and the site.
German Author W. G Sebald traverses the present and past landscapes of Europe in his novel Austerlitz; the eponymous character moves towards an inexorable self-knowledge triggered by the retracing of his journey as a child, away from the Nazi invasion of Poland and into the valleys of Wales, where he lived for many years with no memory of his past or his real name. At the heart of his enigma lies the Holocaust. Sebald lays bare the landscape as both protagonist and catalyst for the trauma of collective experience.
Increasingly, as pedestrian access in cities is reduced to clearly demarcated parks and public spaces, walking takes on subversive undertones. A desire to linger, to wander and to walk in these places is thus imbued with a sense of transgression and resistance, somehow pushing the urban walker to the margins. Rebecca Solnit writes about the meditative and connective powers of walking, and also views walking as a political act. In her book Wanderlust, Solnit flags the myriad threats and barriers to walking in 21st century life, counting the architectures of fear and commerce and the dictatorship of the automobile as among the worst. She states that: “in some places it is no longer possible to be out in public, a crisis both for the private epiphanies.”[vii]
Contemporary artists and writers utilize walking as the tool to set up the conditions for psycho-geographic discoveries. These two-way transmissions and shifts into states of active collaboration with object and place can be accessed via portals encountered during the derive. Writer and walker Robert McFarlane walks the ancient chalk paths of England, and writes of the ways in which the path presses back upon the walker. He states that: “One need not be a mystic to accept that certain old paths are linear only in a simple sense…they are rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to recapitulation and rhyme, weird morphologies, uncanny doublings.”[viii]
Object and environment can therefore still promise resonance and connection to the anima mundi for the active seeker of that dimension. As subject for a photographer, however the landscape sets many challenges. Here in Aotearoa the relentless glaring light delivers extremes of highlight or shadow, lush greens and cerulean blues. Boundless vistas are constantly reproduced in calendars, postcards, annual reports, billboards and commercials. The land is often depicted in a state of apparent Eden-like perfection, signaling an untouched wilderness with no clear reference to a human history enacted thereon.
In simpler times (pre. the billionth upload to Flickr perhaps), a Robin Morrison photograph of a shining wet road, or a Lawrence Aberhart mountain trailing its korowai of cloud could be made; sublime responses to the landscape via the lens. It is still a hard thing to resist, this framing of the land through the viewfinder, the wait for the good light, for that perfect cloud.
It is no longer sufficient however to allow oneself to be seduced into making these images. Acquisition and distribution, conservancy, dairy run-off, mono-cultural approaches to the farming of the land – these and many other problems demand to be addressed in any contemporary contemplation of our environment. Our visible environment has been politicized; it carries the marks of its repeated modifications and translations.
Emily Apter identifies and describes an approach to these challenges as the “radical pastoral:”[ix] a kind of geo-poetics. She highlights the morphing of media and environment via globalization, and calls on an “ecologically engaged conceptualism” [x] that can operate as a “margin of critique inserted in the space where this translation process occurs”[xi] This critique, Apter suggests, explores the links between environment and the interior life of the self, exposing the interconnectedness of site and ideology, economy and ecology.
It is this interconnectedness, the inseparable fate of site and psyche, which I have been exploring. The subject that both proposes and supports the current body of work is the bounded area that divides the south from the north of the city, and is itself cut through with roads and infrastructure. This area is Grafton Gully, a transitional landscape that has registered our varying preoccupations with nature, death and the movement of people and things. As I have walked and thought my way through this site, objects and observances have offered themselves up. Here, place reveals our various preoccupations and shifting values. Here, tapu and noa coexist in a state of flux.
For me, there is the sense that rock and soil are at the heart of this work, and that if I look and listen closely and respond acutely, these fragments of matter can stand for the whole. Tarnas suggests that: “To encounter the depths and rich complexity of the cosmos we require ways of knowing that fully integrate the imagination, the aesthetic sensibility, moral and spiritual intuition, revelatory experience, symbolic perception, somatic and sensuous ways of understanding, empathic knowing.”[xii]Through the acts of walking, listening and seeing, I hope to be receptive to the synchronicities offered up by place and object. Through this active interaction with place and object, I make decisions about content and process.
This co-authoring of the image activates the outcome, creating an impetus that exists at the level of the personal, the ecological and the geographical. There is a triangulated authorship at work in the pictures, one that reverberates between photographer, subject and viewer. This process, when successful, invests the image with a degree of agency; a sense of purpose and impact that does not merely eventuate from my own set of concerns and aesthetics. To work in this way involves what Tarnas describes as “a disciplined alertness to significant pattern in the outer world as well as the inner.”[xiii] The images are literally offered to the photographer to be seen, and then to be re-seen by the viewer.
Finally Bertiaux, when talking of the magical found object, has this to say:
“…and again it goes back to what I said at the beginning. It is the found object that has communicated with the artist, not the object being communicated by the artist’s mind. So it is with opportunities. They open doorways and energies come to us.”[xiv]
[i] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[ii] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[iii] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[iv] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[v] Chris Webster Dark Materials – The chemical wedding of photography and the esoteric. Recovered from Academia.Edu http://www.academia.edu/3152814/Dark_Materials_-_The_chemical_wedding_of_Photography_and_the_Occult
[vi] Bjarne Salling Pedersen Arts and the Occult: An Interview with Michael Bertiaux
[vii] Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust-a history of walking. Verso 2001
[viii]Robert McFarlane. The old ways, a journey on foot Penguin Group 2012
[ix] Emily Apter Critical Habitats October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd
[x] Emily Apter Critical Habitats October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd
[xi] Emily Apter Critical Habitats October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd
[xii] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
[xiii] Richard Tarnas Cosmos and Psyche, intimations of a new world view. Plume 2007
As part of Tangent photography collective I was fortunate to host Melbourne photographer Kate Robertson for an evening during her recent visit to Aotearoa.
Robertson spoke to a small group of lens-based artists at Unitec in Auckland. In her talk she outlined the ways in which her practice both draws on and propagates the processes and insights of community healing groups.
Robertson builds trust and understanding within these quite marginal communities over extended periods of time, and is herself immersed in the activities of each group as she gathers material for her work. This temporal expansion is something that is then reintegrated into the making itself.
Roberston builds her images through laborious sequences of analogue processes in the darkroom, utilizing many techniques associated with the photogram and with traditional black and white printing. She also incorporates digital aspects where the final outcome demands a greater scale than the printing paper will afford.
Her works have an uncanny ability to operate on several planes simultaneously. At once they very directly speak to the avant garde of the 19th century, to the work of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy. They also have a sculptural quality; areas of the image plane are physically raised to create negative space within the image, pushing into a third dimension from the flat paper surface.
There is a mapping at work; the tracing of the physical processes undertaken in the circle-work of the community is integral to the images. Ultimately, the sprinkled soil of the Dust landscapes series and the concentric lines and circles of Cosmic walk and other learnings communicate a strong sense of the cosmos, of a re-enchanted universe.
Roberston’s images have for me a wonderful synchronicity. They speak of the spiritual and of human collective consciousness in a rich visual language that is at once engaged with contemporary art discourse around representation and the ethnographic document while also being richly informed by photographic craft and traditions.
Co-authorship and the esoteric in the work of several contemporary artists from the Southern Hemisphere.
I would like here to reflect on the implications and possibilities of co-authorship with elemental and esoteric forces in the making of an artwork. The sense of a collaborative process, a co-authoring with the site and materiality of my subject matter has real currency for me in relation to aspects of my own process. What I hope that the work gains by this process is a degree of agency; a sense of purpose and impact that does not merely eventuate from my own set of concerns and aesthetics. This is something that I feel to be of importance when considering the relevance of any art practice in what is a time of impending ecological and sociological crisis.
Agency in art; this term infers a sense of artwork as verb; perhaps what Tanya Ecclestone refers to as experiential work, where the work and the viewer experience and in some way act upon each other. I would like to suggest that this agency can be triangulated between the subject, the artist and the viewer through mindful aspects of the making and presenting of the work.
In the following text I consider in particular the process by which this agency or impact is invoked; a process that has implications for the work, the artist and the viewer. There are a number of contemporary artists for whom there is a degree of mystery, secrecy and performance invested in the making of the work; some or all of this process remains purposely obscured from the art audience.
Dane Mitchell talks about his process in terms of the “ritualizing of production”, and describes his collaborative practice as containing “an aspect of co-authoring, and a letting-go of the aesthetic, actuated by the practitioners.”[i]
Here he refers in part to the rituals, usually not revealed to the public, performed by shamen, witches and other practitioners of the occult that are embedded into the production of his installations. Mitchell describes how this sets up a sometimes uneasy friction with his own strong minimalist aesthetic, in such works as Gateway to the Etheric Realm 2011. Here, within the crisp lines of the artist’s trademark barrier structures lies scattered the physical traces of the witch’s spell; “dragons blood, herbs, owls blood, blessed water and salt.” It is left to the viewer to feel out any traces of an encounter with the 4th dimension, and certainly here, as in the rest of Mitchell’s work, no clue is given as to the kind of invocation made, or what its intended effects on the viewer might be.
Radiant Matter II, 2011
Dunedin Public Art Gallery
This to me seems to raise the possibility of a twin or double work; a secret, ritualized aspect to the art making that happens in private and that is not fully enunciated to the viewer. The visible twin is the viewing of the “art experience”, and here Mitchell mediates his ideas into elegant vessels that conjure up traces of the earlier invocations. If the real agency of the work exists at its point of making then in Mitchells’ work there are no substantive clues given as to the possible outcomes of the magick wrought.
Artists have long drawn upon spirits or knowledge of the esoteric to heighten their creative powers. Photography, entwined as it is with scientific revelation, has been perfectly placed to explore and exploit such external forces.
The advent of the Age of Reason eroded traditional views of the order of the universe, with God at its apex and man and his earth at its centre. Artists fell upon the new practice of photography to fill the void. These artists harnessed the twin abilities of photography to create apparently indisputable evidence of the real, and to simultaneously “fix’ what could not be seen by the eye. Spirit photography of the 19th Century may seem implausibly clunky to our eyes, but as Webster points out, its iconography was not dissimilar to, and indeed provided a bridge towards the Surrealist iconography of the bizarre.
William Hope, 1860s
In 1894 August Strindberg, a playwright and poet, was collaborating with the cosmos to create his Celestographs; Hubble-like images created by leaving photo-sensitive paper overnight in a chemical bath beneath the stars. Chris Webtser describes this collaboration as a “chemical wedding of photography and the esoteric.”[ii] The outcomes are a mesmeric merging of earth and sky, a presentiment of what we now know; that all matter is derived from the stars.
Recovered from http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/3/celesographs.php
This reaching out to an esoteric force to co-author art is evident in processes espoused by the Dadists and Situationists and in particular the by ‘Pataphysicists of the 20th Century. Trance, voodoo, somnambulism and the use of psychoactive drugs have all been used to varying degrees in order to access these forces.
This French school of thought known as ‘Pataphysics explored, among other things, “an intuitive extension into the abstract or the transcendental or the less known aspects of experience…. One of the characteristics would be their drawing of inspiration from dream states and a kind of somnambulistic meditation…another would be the idea that everything has a psychic history. This is related to “the cult of the found object” in modern art, the discovery of “the given.” [iii]
‘Pataphysics allows that every object has a psychic life, and that the object will “speak” to the artist, thus becoming re-incorporated and re-animated through the artwork. This idea of communication emanating from the natural or supernatural realm reaches across hemispheres and cultures; Maori indigenous art and spiritual practice places extreme importance on the reading of such messages when working with place and material. Once any kind of encounter with the spiritual or the supernatural has been acknowledged there is a need to engage with protocols and their potential breach. In the Maori world this concept is expressed by “tapu” and “noa”, the sacred and the earthly, and the dynamic and fluid energy that flows between these two states. Implications exist for the spiritual wellbeing of those who, knowingly or otherwise, err in these matters. On the macro level the ever-deepening effects of ecological breaches of tapu can clearly be seen, in climate change, polluted environments and in the diminishing of natural resources and habitats. Passing between the states of tapu and noa on a micro scale, and in each of our daily lives, is something that requires a degree of mindfulness to observe. Dane Mitchell’s recent work Threshold of Beckoning, from the Conservation of Mass show 2013 in RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland stages and illuminates clearly such a transition. Here a plaque set into the cobblestones outside the gallery space alerts viewers to the fact that over the threshold an occult ritual has taken place, summoning the ghosts of past inhabitants of the erstwhile stables. The artist plays on a trope from the vampire genre, the idea that a vampire must be invited over the threshold in order to enter. He also underlies for the viewer that an altered state awaits, and thus allows them to prepare to encounter it. Similarly to his earlier works however, the true purpose for summoning these ghostly presences is not revealed, so at the heart of the work lies the possibility for malevolence; for something unwished for to somehow to adhere to the viewer.
Dane Mitchell. Threshold of Beckoning, from Conservation of Mass show 2013 RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland
Dane Mitchell. Threshold of Beckoning, (detail) Conservation of Mass show 2013 RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, Switzerland
Preparatory ritual and invocation therefore can create states of tapu and noa within the artwork for the viewer to consider and navigate. This territory is being explored in the work of other contemporary artists.
Michaela Dwyer uses performance and ritual as an important aspect of her practice, often preparing an installation by performing a documented gestural ritual while masked. Her sculptural installations have totemic and pagan properties, frequently being assembled in circles, and utilizing organic and constructed materials. Dwyer refers to these circles as “psychic fortresses”[iv]
She works in a site-specific way, responding to the previous lives of the spaces in which the work is shown. A 2010 show on Cockatoo island, BSydney, included one of these circle works (Dwyer usually titles them “Additions and Subtractions”) and referenced the islands violent and traunmatic past as a prison and a remand home.
As part of her “Goldene Bend’er” show at ACCA in 2013 Dwyer painted a large “spell” in the corner of one room, this room serving as a threshold for a performance space. Within the next space Dwyer and a group of dancers performed a public ritual involving excrement. The “Spell for Corner” work very clearly signals that a shift in consciousness and mindfulness is required of the viewer in order for them to fully and safely engage with the ‘archaic” nature of the remaining works.
Mikala Dwyer, Spell for Corner, 2013[v]
Fiona Pardington weaves complex esoteric subtexts together in her prolific Vanitas still-life works. Layering hermetic and arcane subject matter and referencing them in her titles, with each composition she seems to cast a new spell. Earlier works balanced between typology and elegy; her series of heitiki and extinct huia feathers, articulated through the 19th century visual language of the view camera and black and white film, breathed life into those taonga. A series of head casts, taken from indigenous peoples of the South Pacific during one of French explorer Dumont d’Urville’s nineteenth-century voyages telescopes time and allows the long-dead a photographic presence.
In my own practice I am very aware of the “charge” that these taonga carry. Time spent in photographing them is meditative, removed from the now somehow, and the work requires the artist to “hear” the object. I sense this process operating strongly in Pardington’s images.
Fiona Pardington.Slave collar, kowhai and precarious absinthe cuillerie 2013
Fiona Pardington. Still life with moon-charged crystal, snuffed candle and Grandma’s incense burner. 2013
A deep undercurrent of the uncanny resides also at the heart of the work of contemporary New Zealand photographer Yvonne Todd. Often Todd’s images seem to conjure up a coven or cult, containing elements of the grotesque wrapped in a catalogue fashion aesthetic from an indefinable era.
Her pictures exist in a strange twilight world between the post-modern construct of the studio space and the Stepford Wives suburbs. Her female characters gaze out from the frame with a vampiric vacuousness, channeling both Sharon Tate and her grisly end simultaneously.
A sense of the private and arcane processes behind the scenes is hinted at in her mysterious and compelling titles. These offer hints of contextual information, while also firmly keeping the viewer at a remove from the true artistic purpose for the work.
Yvonne Todd. Moon Sap from Wall of Seahorsel show, 2012
Yvonne Todd Glue Vira from Wall of Seahorsel show, 2012
Each of these artists makes their own terms with the supernatural and esoteric forces that collaborate and conspire in the making of their work. The viewer must navigate a complicated and fraught path through the work, understanding that engagement with it may on some level bring an exposure to conditions, benign or otherwise, that cannot be completely controlled or even understood. Herein lies for me the real frisson of the work; a sense of hidden possibility and revelation that elevates the art experience beyond the material plane of art shows, galleries and catalogues and into a more magical space.
[i] Presentation, Whitecliffe College, July 2013
[ii] Dark Materials – The chemical wedding of photography and the esoteric. Chris Webster. Recovered from Academia.Edu http://www.academia.edu/3152814/Dark_Materials_-_The_chemical_wedding_of_Photography_and_the_Occult
[iii] Arts and the Occult: An Interview with Michael Bertiaux
[v] Mikala Dwyer, Spell for Corner, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery Sydney and Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis
Ruminations on an interview with Alec Soth and Roe Etheridge at ParisPhoto L.A. 2013
This conversation, facilitated by ParisPhoto LA and MC’d by Douglas Fogle, seemed to frame much of what is up for debate in contemporary photography today. While Soth makes a plaintive case for fraternity (via facial hair and similar age brackets) it seems clear that Etheridge and Soth are in fact poles apart; underlying schisms revealed in everything from their differing approaches to beards (hipster vs. unkempt), through their presentation prep (PDF vs PowerPoint) to their real motivation for image making. For Soth this is an attempt to push back the overwhelming tide of images that threaten to wash away any sense of specificity; it is a return to the centrality of the narrative. Etheridge, however, plays his cards relatively close to his chest throughout the piece, in contrast to Soths’ thoughtful and soul-baring contributions. For him form, and what he describes as a sort of “synesthesia” seem to be the key dictators of his design.
Etheridge enjoys masking meaning. His juxtapositions seem willfully obtuse, as if the meaning hinted at by their sequencing is there to be read only by those with a special code. He allows that he subscribes to the Jasper Johns mantra of “take a thing, do something to it, do something else to it, then stop”, and tells us that he applies this formula to aspects of design such as the organizing of background colors. Beyond that, any motivation to shape the content, be it personal, political or aesthetic is consciously withheld. Etheridge asserts that a level of frustration with the image-overload may be a motivating force, as could the desire framed by John Gossage to simply make something that annoys people. In an intriguing segment Etheridge talks about the conflicted and co-dependent states of his existence as a commercial and fine-art photographer, and one senses that a level of contempt may also feed the juxtapositions and appropriations in his work.
It may come as no surprise that I rate Soth’s work. I have long been a fan of his ability to make pictures that communicate complex human situations, and that unfold in sequences that layer and complicate meaning without ever obfuscating it. His main direction in this interview, framed as a question he posed Etheridge and that he constantly poses himself, is “why this picture?” Though Etheridge never really furnishes an answer beyond describing editing as the cooking of a good casserole, Soth spends a lot of time elucidating his reasons for making the bodies of work he has made, and one of the points that resonated strongly with me was his need to go out and have a ‘real-life experience’ in the process of making the pictures. This ultimately is what I feel invests Soth’s work with a depth and relevance that Etheridge’s lacks; this desire to connect, to head out into the world and to bring something back that ultimately reaches beyond the self.