A Beautiful Hesitation by Fiona Pardington, with Kriselle Baker and Aaron Lister and others (Victoria University Press, 2016), 264 pp., $70
Have I got time to look at this? Books of pictures always seem to have a time signature built into them, and from that point of view Fiona Pardington’s A Beautiful Hesitation is a very long book. The ‘score’ is clearly Adagio. You have to give it the time to unfold, to enable you to engage with at least some of the layers of meaning and beauty it contains. A Beautiful Hesitation has, for me, a whole weave of significations; it must be approached slowly and with respect. There is no quick spasm of ecstasy here; we’re in for the long haul.
Peter Ireland remarks in a slightly bitchy review of the accompanying exhibition on the EyeContact website that it is unusual and possibly dangerous to do mid-career survey exhibitions, feeling that they can ‘suddenly clarify nagging doubts about an artist’s general approach, and begin to settle questions about the depth of the philosophic and conceptual claims made for their work’. Seems a good idea to me here, actually, as it does mark a kind of mid-career milestone in this artist’s chequered and varied output. As for the book, sumptuous and well made it certainly is, with immaculate reproductions, good editorial calls, and an important typographic contribution by the artist’s brother (and also a photographer) Neil Pardington.
Fiona Pardington’s career ticks all the boxes for a contemporary woman artist; a student at Elam in the late 1980s, early 1990s riding the edge between ‘Photoforum Guru’ John Turner’s approach to documentary photography (in Pardington’s words ‘an acolyte of John Szarkowski’, which hardly sums him up), and, say, Megan Jenkinson’s, in those days of fairly militant feminist positions. Pardington did her Masters with a provocative and controversial set of work, (and a thesis on that crazy Pictorialist mystic Fred Holland Day) and subsequently drew in a third vital component, her Kāi Tahu origin.
‘A very painful experience,’ Pardington says to Andrew Paul Wood in an interview included, when he asks her about reconnecting with her Māori roots, and knowing other Kāi Tahu people who seem to have been through some form of this I need not delve any deeper. But we can learn.
So, to the imagery, and ‘Taniwha’, her award-winning image of a block of soap. This would have been the first of Pardington’s photos I ever saw, at a 2004 curated group show somewhere. ‘Taniwha’ was unsharp, slippery, but with a beautiful print quality and physicality, and somehow the whole notion of soap lends itself to a slippery lack of focus. The photo immediately triggered two flashbacks: the first was the bar of Taniwha soap in a concrete twin-tub in Mum’s laundry (1959-ish) and cakes of it for sale, at 9d I think, at the Whatawhata local store.
And the other memory: me and my brother (10 and 11 years old) with a group of Māori boys, Jack Pihama, Muri Paekau, Willie Taipua, by the Waipa river intently watching a branch in the dirty brown water that seemed barely perceptible in its upstream movement against the sluggish current. The boys explained with no further ado that this was a Taniwha and we’d best put off our evening swim that night.
So memory is scary, soluble in dirty water, slick and slightly slimy, faded, losing focus.
Next time we were back in New Zealand, I saw the latest stuff; that was in 2014. Living overseas, our appearances in Aotearoa tend to be a tad spaced out, but the gallerist in Whitespace Gallery in Auckland was glad to show us a stack of Pardington’s recent work in her stockroom. These knocked our socks off: the hallucinatory and formal presence of these wonderful compositions with their restrained palette of marine colours, those of a mystical beachcomber searching for signifiers, and composing like a Victorian; here was a photographer navigating similar complexities and hang-ups to those illustrious artists.
Fiona Pardington’s rapport with the Victorians is far from incidental. New Zealand’s colonial history of course has intimate connections to that eponymous monarch’s long reign. One of the names that comes up most prominently, Julia Cameron, one of the finest photographers of Queen Victoria’s era, had ties to the huge money raked in from the colonies (James Cameron, her husband, had made a mint in the tea plantations of Ceylon).
So when Pardington does a very moving series of text fragments from Arthur Llewellyn Barker’s diary (son of the early pioneer photographer A.C. Barker), while we decipher the boy’s ‘wobbly copperplate words’ we also see that her strategy, as is that of many photo-reporters, is essentially subject or thematically driven. There is always a gap between the real and the photo, but here we are virtually at the level of an exquisite photocopy, with the image maker’s function conceptualised as that of an editor, a cookie-cutter of the reality that history has somehow preserved for us in the artefact. All photography is appropriation, a ‘symbolic possession’, as Susan Sontag told us many years ago.
Pardington’s interest in the photographic act, and its process, is further revealed in the ‘Night of Love’ series, but in a different context. A stale and found collection of sleaze pics has been appropriated – but though of the ‘pin-up’ variety, they are far less erotically charged than her own ‘No Right Way to Do Me Wrong’ or ‘Proud Flesh’ works. (All these series draw on the work of Georges Bataille, Man Ray and Brassaï, as well as on feminist theorists.)
With the 1960s-period ‘Night of Love’ series, I envisage the original photographer as a man with fancy polyester clothes and cheap haircut on the fringe of swinging London, more leering Frankie Howerd than suave David Hemmings, whom he’d so dearly like to be. He has a Rolleiflex camera, a strobe flash, and a couple of 500-watt floodlights on flimsy stands. Essayists in the book have engaged with the contents of this series, commenting on the spaces the anonymous photographer would have worked in: ‘Bedsits, hotel rooms booked by the hour and flats at the wrong end of town … Unlived in transient unhappy spaces’, writes Kyla McFarlane, for whom these spaces have ‘the appearance of crime scenes where naked bodies lie on beds as if thrown there, and their eyes have the dull blank look of the dead’. To McFarlane this dilutes their effect, but remember these are also the favoured places of illicit clandestine sex. And the allusion that Walter Benjamin made to Eugène Atget’s empty rooms and spaces as ‘scenes of the crime’ is not lost either.
The works from the early 2000s show Fiona Pardington doing museum rounds: she’s working on thematic clusters using repro-photography, she’s fascinated by artefacts of some personal significance, but there is other stuff going on, seemingly though also puzzlingly. So, if Ron Brownson calls these ‘resuscitated … forgotten visual cells ignored or entirely unknown to the public’ is that enough? Or are we heading down the slightly wobbly path of those other Kiwi photo art heroes, creating instant icons, where the currency is in the signature and in the articles written around them by wannabe ambitious essayists?
In her interview with Andrew Paul Wood, Pardington talks of the liquidation of her ancestral home, of ‘all of the taoka disappearing’. Her family history and genealogy are complex, to put it mildly, exemplified by the convoluted, barely comprehensible, paragraph on the Wynyards, the Camerons, the Furleys, the te Raus. Invigorating stuff with much activity and confusion; getting it up on the wrong side of sweaty beds, darkness and disorder. Significantly she adds that ‘Libraries, museums and art galleries became places I felt secure in’ in her childhood, and stresses how important her grandmother was to her: ‘genealogy is the unbroken thread, stretching backwards in time, we being the living expression of the moment’.
In her most recent included work, a love, a deep love of the half-orphan, the reject, becomes manifest. Her beachcomber junkshop-rummaged ‘Still Lives’ are a true source of amazement and wonder, valorising the forgotten without a trace of sentimentality, riding an aesthetic edge with sympathy and irony.
In ‘The Dream of Morpheus’ sequence she out-lights my old Pākehā mentor Brian Brake, himself no slouch at studio lighting. Brian came back from Hong Kong to photograph artefacts at the old Dominion Museum with the kind of technical mastery he had from his Asian days photographing jade and gold for the rich auction houses. Pardington goes further, a lot further, and manages to poise on the brink of signification without falling into any of the obvious postcolonial traps in careful and deeply thought arrangements and mises en scène of these objects and memories. The single image ‘Dream of Gentle Morpheus’ is possibly the artistic triumph of this strategy. The work, which is apparently very large, is frankly and unashamedly decorative with a subtle multidimensional narrative in its generous dark space. The whole notion of time is eclipsed or compressed.
Fiona, you answer Andrew Paul Wood’s question of what you would like the public to get out of your work with slippery candour: ‘I hope [my work] will make them happy. I hope it will help them find meaning in the eternal “now”.’ I hope so too, and rather believe it will.
MAX OETTLI is a photographer, writer, archivist and researcher who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. He grew up in New Zealand and returns regularly.