Gavin Hipkins: The Domain (Victoria University Press, 2017), 240 pp., $70
The monograph Gavin Hipkins: The Domain, released in November 2017 to mark the opening of the Dowse Art Museum’s largest-ever survey exhibition of the same name, is a beautifully produced, super-illustrated tome. It begins with three ‘meaty’ essays, ends with a plethora of historic texts, and contains 147 pages of colour plates (over half the book) in between. Significantly, it provides an opportunity to more singularly study the richly proliferative, multi-threaded and motif-circling practice of a senior New Zealand artist working across still and moving image in both gallery and cinema contexts. However, the non-indexed, non-thematic (and non-chronological) ordering of its wedge of colour plates might hamper that study at times.
In the form of this short review, I will draw a thread through its essays to trace what emerges to me as Hipkins’ agreed-upon domain, as I have also encountered it over the years. Recurring throughout is an exploration of the way that Hipkins’ work of the ‘still’ image has always been inflected by film, and his film by the still image. Across all of it, there is the opening of a creative space concerned with images themselves: their allure, histories and relations. Across numerous locations, photographic modes, periods of time and cultural (sub)texts, Hipkins’ domain is one of the aggregation and collapse of all of those things into visually arresting works loaded with problematically puzzling connections always left open to their material details.
In the opening essay by Dowse director Courtney Johnston, we begin with the artist’s early exhibition of his series of Falls: his falling ‘still’ images hung in long film-reel-like strips. Turning the camera on himself and his domestic environment in continuous takes of ‘looking around’, Hipkins is ‘massing’ single-shot images of a paraphernalia of objects that strobe and stutter their way down the contiguous frames that make a work’s lengths. As in the well-known Zerfall (1997–98), we are co-opted by the rolling detail of each sudden object’s slight variations. Through the curiously enticing clip-fall of a circular light switch, a silhouetted bare lightbulb, round-headed spray nozzles and cream-dispensing pumps etc., our gaze is ‘snagged backwards or forwards or sideways’ as if we are always suspended in the performative act of paying hyper-attention to the artist’s own plethoric form of attention.
Also notable is the still-yet-moving image of Hipkins’ prior work The Field (1994–95): a massive wall of 1500 photograms. Here the light-to-dark reversal of darkroom exposure converts the random light-blocking placement of a polystyrene ball on sheets of white photographic paper into a plethora of illuminated discs cast across dark field-clips. Its visual motif spins out in peculiar detail in all directions, ceaselessly variable in position and subtleties of light across columns and rows. It snags our attention, once again, while opening further trajectories of work: the large-scale compilations of polystyrene balls ‘built’ curiously frame by frame; and the overlay of pictorial scenes with the white flare of delicate domestic accoutrements-in-photogram, or buttons, or – in the case of collaboration with jeweller Karl Fritsch – real jewels.1 At the same time there is also the ‘pervasiveness of circular forms’ that marks the orbit of Hipkins’ vision, and that signifies, for me, the selective (positive- and negative-making) process of engaging sight itself.
Hipkins’ amassment and continual (re)arrangement of images and their motifs typify his process of ‘thinking about image making’ that, recurrently, unsettles the relationship between the act of ‘taking’ a photograph and the settler-inflected impulse to familiarise the territory we occupy. In The Homely (1997–2000), for example, the artist presents a profusion of instamatic images shot throughout New Zealand and Australia in a horizontal frieze.2 A model clipper ship with sails unfurled, a dilapidated imitation Māori gateway, an antique felt snow mask, a lighthouse and its buildings blurred on a landscape’s point etc.: each image seems to inevitably act as a signifier of some kind of nationhood, as we walk alongside. And in his photo-montage works, such as Empire (2007)3 and Second Empire (2008), appropriated illustrations from mid-twentieth-century Commonwealth and Empire boys’ annuals and late nineteenth-century travelogues (respectively) are emblazoned with the slogans and tokens of embroidered urban patches. It is as if the artist is not only expanding his ambit of source material but also charging it with a series of shocks. For, consistently, Hipkins’ collection and sequencing of content opens the image – in all its shifting relations and possible meanings – to a space of constant (re)configuration. And this is borne out in his films.
Beginning with the exhibition of experimental video in the late 1990s, Hipkins’ moving-image work has expanded the visual themes and disruptive ‘narratives’ of his still-image works. In his short films, such as The Port (2014), for example, the artist’s ‘borrowing and coupling’ (Hipkins) of material plays out, even more, the entanglements of geography and time.4 Travelling disparate ports of call, The Port creates a mysterious trajectory of image-and-thought across: the landscapes of the monumental eighteenth-century astronomical structures of Jantar Mantars in Jaipur and New Delhi; the ex-quarry-borne, and master-planned, Stonefields community in Auckland; New Zealand’s scenic South Island; and narration from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) that also travels backwards and forwards between centuries and terrestrial zones. Characteristically, Hipkins increases the creative circulation of image after image to open a multiplicitous space for the re(casting) of our sense of their lineage, over time.
Yet, as outlined in the next essay by City Gallery’s chief curator Robert Leonard, Hipkins’ path to filmmaking was not a quick or necessarily direct one. Initially taking the expected approach of writing scripts, pitching for funding and engaging actors and crews, it was six years before his moving image work took the form of his first short film: the ‘surprisingly conventional’ and ‘angsty’ portrait of an artist on a Christ Trip, The Master (2010). And it was not until This Fine Island (2012) that the artist hit upon his characteristically disjunctive yet strangely conjunctive combination of images and voiceover text – albeit in the first minute of the otherwise ‘coherent’ but ‘over-engineered’ short film. It’s a mesmerising beginning: a ‘disconnected litany’ of fragments of Charles Darwin’s description of the Bay of Islands in his memoir of the round-the-globe Voyage of the Beagle (1839), playing (mostly) over a still (‘locked-off’) shot of the stormy culmination of a waterfall. It typifies Hipkins’ productive space of disorientation that would make his first (and only) feature film, Erewhon (2014) a ‘tour de force’.
A study in Hipkins’ provocative kind of montage, Erewhon runs for a full 92 minutes.5 Its source materials and ‘subject’ seem locally relevant: its voiceover ‘cherry-picks’ from Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) – a satiric commentary on utopian humanism and its geographic expansion, written after his years of sheep farming in New Zealand’s high country;6 and its mostly ‘still’ imagery plays out associated South Island scenes in a slow and beguiling kind of lushness and lull. But Hipkins ‘doubles down’ on the deliberately disorienting effect of Butler’s uncanny ‘nowhere’ land (being the book’s title in anagram) with its not yet colonised native people. And its images – interspersed with other lands and random detail shots – never seem to line up. It compels us to continually seek out a narrative as we ask ourselves: Are we making connections that aren’t there, or missing ones that are? It ensnares us in its seemingly indefatigable ‘historical imbroglio’: in Hipkins’ domain of the ‘moving’ and the ‘still’.
In the last essay, film artist and curator George Clark more theoretically explores the intersection of still photography and film that is materially essential to Hipkins’ practice. Centrally, he considers the artist’s oeuvre in terms of the ‘essay film’ and the way that the essentially paradoxical nature of film – its illusion of movement that arises sequentially from stillness – is heightened by that form’s experimental approach and critical intent. The photographic image is identified as the essential material component of time that is released to create the ‘persistence of vision’ that creates a flow of sight and thought in film. And it is the ‘essay film’ that most works across genres to create lateral, non-deterministic relations between images and text (typically ‘what is said’), in a poetics of thought that explores the nature and histories of those images themselves.7 So, we could say that Hipkins very effectively engages us in the productive ‘gaps’ between image and ‘narrative’, as this is also fundamental to the joint workings of photography and film.
Clark’s thesis is worthy of consideration, but so too is the relevance, or not, of Hipkins’ films to the (albeit nascent) scholarly field of the essay film. For Clark mentions but two of the artist’s films, New Age (2016) and New World (2016), and only in passing.8 Although study of the essay film runs the risk of becoming all-inclusive and all-elusive, as its specialist and film theorist Laura Rascaroli writes, it is a form consistently concerned with the ways in which a direct address to an audience (or with rhetorical strategies, more generally), opens a performative and immersive space of ‘communicative negotiation’ based on its material details.9 Surely in Hipkins’ works there is a rich source of ways with which to think of the ‘essay film’, and to consider the ways in which the artist might both problematise and expand its international field?10
In a second part to his essay, Clark describes the historically loaded sites that Hipkins both photographs and plays back to us as resonant spaces of memory and projection. Those sites and their built structures are, as Clark goes on to explore, a ‘mimetic apparatus’ (somehow embodying their history) which, in turn, charges the artist’s camera which, in turn, creates a still image, which, in turn, is moved into a space of movement punctuated by the gaps that arise in the fragmentation and collapse of given linear narratives. And, in Hipkins’ filmic dynamism of ‘the weird and the eerie’ (Mark Fisher) that plays up the ‘weird’ of what does not belong (e.g. a teeming of images) and the ‘eerie’ of a presence or absence that we did not expect to come next, the artist’s work carries the cinematically-rich embodiment of the still image throughout his practice.11
Hipkins finds a way of processing the ‘selective perception and blindness’ (Clark) that is contained in our histories so that, in the end, we can look back at the still yet moving image, as he always has, in works that invite us to perform a personal yet socio-political archaeology of our subjective and institutional genealogies. This is Hipkins’ rich domain, and with this monograph in hand, it deserves further study.
- Including: The Colony (2000–02) [https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/948571] and The Pavilion (2011), New Age (2002–) and The Sanctuary (2004–06) [https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/779421 and https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/779400]; Tender Buttons (2006) and The Terrace (2008) [https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/848435]; and Der Tiefenglanz (2012–13) [https://wellington-city-council.culturalspot.org/asset-viewer/der-tiefenglanz-octopus/wQH6IckBfFw1ig?exhibitId=VgKCDb4EQVO0IQ]
- Gavin Hipkins: The Homely (2001): https://citygallery.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/PGH.pdf
- Sue Zemka, ‘“Erewhon” and the end of utopian humanism’, ELH, 69:2, 2002, 439–72: www.jstor.org.proxy.bnl.lu/stable/30032027
- Key references are made to: André Bazin and, in particular, his review of Chris Marker’s Lettre de Sibérie: https://chrismarker.org/andre-bazin-on-chris-marker-1958/; Jean-Pierre Gorin and his series The Way of the Termite: www.filmmuseum.at/jart/prj3/filmmuseum/main.jart?j-j-url=/en/film_program/scope&schienen_id=1215680368485&ss1=y; and Eadweard Muybridge’s 1890s photographic study of motion and Leonardo de Vinci’s ‘persistence of vision’ in Thom Andersen’s essay film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer: https://lux.org.uk/work/eadweard-muybridge-zoopraxographer
- For a full list of Hipkins’ films see: www.circuit.org.nz/artist/gavin-hipkins
- Laura Rascaroli, ‘The essay film: Problems, definitions, textual commitments’, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Wayne State University Press, 49:2, 2008, 24; Rascaroli, ‘Performance in and of the Essay film: Jean-Luc Godard plays Jean-Luc Godard in Notre musique (2004)’, Studies in French Cinema, 9:1, 2009, 49, 50-51, 56.
- Here I recognise Robert Leonard’s comment that because Hipkins’ voiceover text is ‘someone else’s words’ and he is not identified as the narrator, ‘the film essay [for him] is a trope’. Yet note the opportunity to discuss this further, in light of the essay film’s variety of rhetorical strategies and the possible use of the ‘essay film’ as a trope within the field of the essay film itself.
- Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (Duncan Baird Publishers, 2016).
JODIE DALGLEISH is a writer, curator and sonic artist living in Luxembourg. She is returning to her own practice after more than a decade curating within New Zealand’s art museum sector. She has been published online and in print in numerous arts-related publications, including the Paris-based online visual arts platform Contemporary Hum.