Cabinets of wonder
Wellington artist Neil Pardington talks to Virginia Were about his love of photographing spaces that are empty, yet redolent with strangeness, mystery and narrative.
We’ve all heard the saying about not talking about ‘the elephant in the room’, which implies that something obvious is being ignored and people are turning a blind eye to an unpleasant issue or subject that is staring them in the face.
When I randomly opened Wellington photographer Neil Pardington’s book The Vault, which reproduces his series of large format photographs of New Zealand museum and gallery storage spaces, it fell open at page 26 – a perfect visual pun of this saying. The book accompanies Pardington’s exhibition The Vault, which is part way through a six-venue tour of New Zealand public galleries.
Titled Mammal Attic #1, Canterbury Museum, this photograph shows a room (barely) containing a taxidermied elephant with an ominous tear in its shoulder, and in front of it a shark – its fin visible behind a set of steel shelves. The wooden crates, shelves and scrunched together cloths in this image suggest the mysterious activities of preserving, cataloguing and caring for the curious miscellany of objects deemed worthy of exhibition in our national institutions.
Pardington’s images of these hermetic storage spaces deep within the belly of museums and galleries, which the public will most likely never visit, are strikingly surreal – not so much as a result of the way he has arranged or shot these images but because of the bizarre relationships and juxtapositions of the objects themselves – hence the surprising co-existence of the shark and the elephant in the same overcrowded room.
Because of his cool and systematic way of making this ambitious body of work, when we’re confronted with a somewhat chilling image of stuffed sea birds lying on their backs on metal shelves, or a close-up of two deer foetuses scrunched up in jars, we’re not shoehorned into taking any particular moral or intellectual stance. Instead we’re left to wonder about the scientific, cultural and social values that drove and continue to inform and direct these collections.
The Vault was first shown at Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch, and Suite Gallery Wellington in 2007, before being picked up by Christchurch Art Gallery in 2009 and has continued to travel since then. Though some of the most emotionally resonant images in this series feature taxidermied animals, many of the photographs are distinctly minimalist and architectural, showing the repeated grids of shelves, racks and cupboards – and the sculptural forms of the objects themselves. However, Pardington is quick to point out he’s not interested in architecture per se; instead his projects generally focus on the use of space – its history and the human activities that take place within it. Paradoxically, all his images are empty of humans, though signs of their busy activity are everywhere.
“Initially I went into The Vault thinking about the spaces, but as I worked more I started thinking about the artifacts and moving in a bit closer and making them more a focus of the project. I found this idea of collecting, taxidermying and storing dead animals in basements quite a bizarre thing. I’d grown up seeing them in museums, and when you grow up with things you think they’re normal. If you came from outside our culture and saw people doing that, it would seem quite bizarre.”
Pardington first hit his stride in 2002 with The Clinic, a series shot over several years, documenting hospital operating theatres, postmortem rooms and anatomy rooms in teaching hospitals throughout New Zealand. Looking at these images, which preceded The Vault, is like seeing a stage set where the actors have recently departed and may be about to return at any moment. Because the human presence is implied rather than stated explicitly, we bring our own (often highly dramatic) stories to bear on these images, whose meta narrative is that of life and death itself.
The Clinic, which was critically acclaimed (and included in PUBLIC/PRIVATE, The 2nd Auckland Triennial in 2004) marked the first time Pardington had taken a sustained look at a single subject. The series was sparked by a chance encounter with a chair in a former psychiatric hospital in Porirua, while Pardington was looking at the site as a potential film location. The photograph of this chair, titled Te Whare Rangiora (Chair) (2002), which has kowhaiwhai patterns scratched into its arms, “told a story immediately and directly,” notes Pardington in his interview with Lara Strongman in the book. The potency of this image led him to undertake a sustained documentation of hospital interiors, exploring the way these empty spaces could, like the chair, speak about history and identity and prompt the viewer to insert their own narrative.
“I think emptiness changes our reading of a space and a time and makes the familiar seem strange; it suggests mystery, something hidden or that something has left or departed. I’ve always preferred photographs without people in them and that’s why I feel a kinship with photographers like the Bechers, Laurence Aberhart and Peter Peryer.”
Another – and much earlier – image which also revolves around the physical reality and abject traces of the body is Mattresses (1999). Instantly recognisable in this image is Pardington’s formal, frontal approach to his subject matter, which reinforces the grid of the shelves on which the mattresses are stacked. The Baroque richness of pattern and colour and its crisp contrast with the structural and geometrical elements of the image is a premonition of what was to come later in The Vault. Though some viewers have interpreted Mattresses as a photograph taken in a marae, and interpreted it as a Maori story like that of the chair, Te Whare Rangiora, Pardington (who is of Scottish and Kai Tahu descent) says the photograph was taken at the Statue Bargain Barn in Paraparaumu.
He also works as a filmmaker and designer and there are obvious parallels between ‘scouting’ for movie locations and his approach to still photography – the time spent researching, planning and gaining permission to document the inaccessible and ‘forbidden’ spaces he’s drawn to far exceeds time spent behind the camera, taking the shots. The Vault came about as a consequence of his design work. “While in the middle of shooting The Clinic, I was doing some (design) work at Te Papa and spending quite a lot of time back of house in those areas, and I started ‘seeing’ images – initially in the Te Papa art store, then in the natural history store, and I thought: ‘What great photographs!’ Once again it was that chance opportunity of stumbling across images and thinking they might be a good series.”
It’s interesting to learn that Pardington is a big fan of German photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose practice is informed by 1970s conceptualism and who spent several decades documenting industrial structures such as water cooling towers and blast furnaces. Taking a leaf out of their book, Pardington has narrowed his focus to very specific sites and subjects, creating two powerful bodies of work, The Clinic and The Vault, that continue his investigation into our collective cultural identity as New Zealanders. It’s also interesting to ponder Pardington’s relationship to notions of objectivity and its relationship to the documentary tradition.
“I would start by saying I don’t believe it’s possible to take a purely objective photograph. When German photographer Thomas Ruff (the Becher’s star pupil) gave a talk at Massey University recently, he said the same thing. He said the Bechers believed you could take an objective photograph but now we know that’s not possible. Having said that of course the Bechers are amongst my favourite artists. Their work taught me the value of working in a series – the idea of returning to a similar subject over and over again. Obviously there are similarities (in your images) but more so you see the differences between subjects; so rather than taking just one photograph of a postmortem room, where you’ve explored that idea of the room where dead bodies are taken, you take four or five, and then the little differences in the images become very interesting. Your best shot might be the fifth one, which you would never have taken if you had been satisfied with the first.”
His latest series looks at yet another elephant in the room – meat abattoirs, a subject people definitely don’t want to think about while they’re tucking into their steak.
“I thought that farming animals and processing them as food was interesting as a subject, but the killing and dismembering of them is too gory as a photographic subject. So I liked the idea of going into the spaces on the day off after the plant has been cleaned. I’m interested in the relationship those images have to the series The Clinic, because in a way they are both looking at spaces involving the idea of death. I would call them (abattoirs) a cathedral of death – they’re quite frightening places.”
“I like the idea of saying: Okay this is part of us; this is what we’re about; just like the museum storage area and the post mortem room or the operating theatre, the abattoir is part of being a New Zealander – a very big part of it in fact. I’m off documenting these places, but there’s a bigger idea at play, which is around identity and how we view ourselves in the world.”
What does he most love about photography and being a photographer?
“When you walk into a space that you’ve never been into before and you see the photograph unfolding in front of you – that’s an exciting moment. It doesn’t always happen but there’s an occasional image – the moment you walk into the room there it is, and it actually feels like luck. You know you’ve made it happen, but equally you realise through some chance operation you’ve landed yourself in front of a perfect photograph, and that would be something like the Large Mammal Storage Bay in Canterbury Museum. That was one of those moments, and that is one of my favourite images.”
The Vault: Neil Pardington: Rotorua Museum of Art and History, 19 August to late November 2011; Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, December 2011 to March 2012; Te Manawa, Palmerston North, early 2012; The Abattoir, Jonathan Smart Gallery, opens 12 August 2012.