Hidden in plain sight
Fiona Pardington describes photographs as ambiguous, powerful, dangerous and confusing – and that is what she loves about them. She tells Virginia Were about her recent still life series.
Like the Dutch vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, Fiona Pardington’s recent still life photographs are a meditation on the bittersweet brevity and fragility of human existence. They explore the symbolic potential of objects that are so unremarkable they could almost be described as hidden in plain sight. Her ongoing series of colour still life photographs began three years ago and will soon be collected in a major publication. In November this year a series of images completed during her three-month residency at McCahon House in Titirangi over winter will be exhibited at Auckland gallery Two Rooms.
In these jewel-bright images we see natural and manmade objects in precarious, almost chaotic arrangements, poised on the point of collapse and decay. Dead irises topple from crystal vases, kawakawa leaves are pocked with holes where they’ve been chewed by insects, swathes of fabric are blotched with wax and unravelling at the edges, camellia petals turn brown, a bird skeleton quietly decomposes and kowhai seeds spill across dark backgrounds like tiny pricks of light in a night sky.
Looking at Pardington’s photographs, pinned to the wall of the McCahon House studio, I find myself thinking about the history of painting as much as about photography. These images explore different ways of looking at where meaning lies in relation to objects, and form a daily visual record of Pardington’s time in Titirangi. In the vanitas tradition, snuffed candles, skulls and decaying flowers alluded to the transience of life, and many of the objects in Pardington’s still lifes are art historical echoes.
When she embarked on the residency the idea was to incorporate objects from the local surroundings into still lifes that would connect aspects of McCahon’s life and work with her own daily practice. In the work Still Life with Talia’s Bouquet, Snuffed Candle and Pounamu Arahura we see a plain white candle which references McCahon’s painting A Candle in a Dark Room, painted in 1947 to record his first meeting with poet James K. Baxter. Our eyes are drawn to some white shells, which in contrast to the rest of the image, appear in sharp focus. Looking closely it’s possible to discern an old fashioned sailing ship, which has been upturned as if it has foundered on the rocks – an allusion to McCahon’s addiction to alcohol.
In Still Life with Persimmon, Dead Iris and a Skull Glass, two puriri flowers, found in the luxuriant bush outside the studio, nestle on top of a plump persimmon. The pictorial space in this work is extremely shallow and it’s not apparent what the fruit is resting on. We can intuit a horizontal surface only because we know the kowhai seeds must be resting on something. This strategy of taking the world away from the images by photographing them against dark backgrounds creates a climate of uncertainty and encourages us to see the objects in a new context. It’s something Pardington does often in her photographs.
These images take photography’s inherent subjectivity to extremes. So velvety in texture, so saturated in colour, so crammed with allegory, and so steeped in the history of European painting, they’re ambiguous on many levels. It’s hard to know what you’re looking at – is that a skull-shaped jug inside the crystal vase? Is that a heart-shaped pebble nestled among the kawakawa leaves? Are those really Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish surrounding the Hong Kong banknote? What does the scrawled text on the banknote say?
The objects in Still Life with Ihumoana, Electrical Cord and a Banknote Love Letter have been photographed on a grungy looking plastic table – one of several in the studio when Pardington arrived. We can see its scratched profile at the bottom of the image with a frayed piece of cloth and a black lighting cable draped over the edge. The image is bathed in a aqueous, blue-green light, which gives it a ghostly atmosphere.
“I’m photographing the natural world in such a way that it looks utterly ambiguous – for instance the skins of the jellyfish look like plastic,” Pardington says. “And the fact they’re on plastic encourages you to think of them as not being natural. It’s an awful feeling when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at and you can’t believe your eyes.”
“I like the ihumoana because they’re very unusual, organic, surrealist objects and I’ve been developing certain objects and motifs as emblazoned things that you think of straight away when you look at my photographs. This is what painters do – they develop motifs that become synonymous with their work. And working digitally has allowed me to do that. In photography you’re not usually expected to repeat objects and arrangements; you’re expected to photograph something different every time. For me it’s about repetitiously using unusual objects that stand as motifs.”
Pardington’s art has long explored different cultural attitudes to representation and likeness. Whereas Pakeha draw a clear distinction between a person and an object existing in the world, and a photograph of that person or object, for Maori there’s no such distinction. This was manifest to her earlier series, Ahua, photographs of the life casts of indigenous people made by naturalist Pierre Marie Dumoutier during Dumont D’Urville’s second voyage to the Pacific aboard the L’Astrolabe. The still lifes also embody post-colonial collisions between Maori and Pakeha and pay homage to the native flora and fauna of Aotearoa, which often fly under the radar. Though we recognise the dried kowhai blooms, which are standard images for calendars, tea towels and postcards, we may be less familiar with puriri flowers, ihumoana (sea noses), kawakawa and rangiora leaves.
At the heart of these images is the activity of collecting, and it makes sense to think of them as wunderkammers – cabinets storing natural specimens and other objects of curiosity. This was a popular pastime in the Age of Enlightenment with its new confidence in science and reason, and it was during this time that Dumont d’Urville set off on his voyage of scientific exploration, bringing home exotic biological specimens, cultural artefacts and dramatic tales of interactions with indigenous peoples in the new world. Though Pardington references the European notion of ‘enlightenment’, and the fascination with exploring the new world, she also alludes to the dire consequences of colonisation and the damage it wreaked on indigenous people.
There’s a new freedom and spontaneity in the recent still lifes. They seem less intent on recycling art historical tropes and more engaged with exploring the poetic potential of the ‘local’. The objects are larger in frame, which gives them more emphasis, especially when they’re printed on a large scale. Recently Pardington began to use a long lens designed for bird watching, which flattens the picture plane, intensifies the colours and creates a larger pictorial field. This has allowed her to push the work further and she likens the new series to history paintings rather than still lifes.
Though the arrangements in these photographs look quite casual, Pardington says there’s a ritualistic buildup to making the work. “An enormous amount of preparation goes on before I take the photograph. The activity of collecting refines the project. I work five or six years ahead and wait for myself to get technically good enough to move through the process with the objects. I don’t walk into things off the top of my head.”
“I have to watch myself because I’ll feel pressure building up inside me about particular objects, and I’ll have maybe five things within the larger collection that it’s time to address. Then I have to be aware of the right time to come to the studio, chuck it all together and take the photograph.”
Historically, the Victorian objects in these images – crystal, silver and velvet – coincide with the discovery of daguerreotypy – the first photographic process. This makes sense in the context of Pardington’s ongoing fascination with exploring photography’s complex nature.
“A lot of the stuff I’m photographing is from the op shop and has been thrown away because people don’t want it,” she says. “I’ve always liked velvet because it’s the imagined interior of the womb. I use it in an ironic way – for me it’s this Freudian, sexualised, great, dark lover. I like it because it takes you immediately into an imaginative space. It cuts off a lot of the three-dimensional references around the objects. That makes it easier for people to slide straight into the mind of the work.”
Although initially she saw this body of work as an ending, Pardington now feels she has pushed her still life practice to a new beginning. It will be exciting to see just how far the series has travelled when it’s exhibited at Two Rooms in November.
Fiona Pardington: An Answering Hark from the McCahon Artist’s Residency 2013, Two Rooms, Auckland, 8 November to 7 December 2013.