Catalogues of excorcism

Auckland photographer Fiona Pardington talks to Virginia Were about her photographs of life casts – made on Dumont d’Urville’s South Seas voyage.

In October 1986 I was lucky enough to attend the dawn ceremony for the opening of Te Maori at The National Art Gallery in Wellington. This much-anticipated exhibition of artefacts had arrived from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art where it debuted and as yet no one in New Zealand had seen it, though all of the taonga came from here.

After the karakia were said outside the museum the sun came up, the doors opened and hundreds of people surged up the steps into the gallery to be reunited with their taonga and hence the ancestors themselves who are believed to be embodied in these objects.

The obvious emotion as many of the kuia wept and directly addressed the taonga – not to mention the beauty and presence of these objects themselves – made this a deeply moving experience for Maori and pakeha alike, though it was clear both groups had very different understandings of and relationships with these objects.

Like Te Maori, Fiona Pardington’s exhibition, Ahua – a beautiful hesitation, photographs of life casts made of Maori and other indigenous peoples encountered during French explorer Dumont d’Urville’s voyage to the South Pacific in the early 1800s, represents another homecoming, though the cast portraits, the majority of which belong to museums in Paris, are returning not as objects but as photographic images.

Their ‘return’ to these shores where they were made by the phrenologist on board d’Urville’s ship, Alexandre Pierre Marie Dumoutier, is also a circuitous one from the Northern Hemisphere as they will arrive here via Sydney, where Ahua has been selected for the 17th Biennale of Sydney opening in May this year.

Comprised of about 20 large-scale, colour photographs and a selection of smaller black and white images, these elegiac portraits follow in the footsteps of Pardington’s recent work recording taonga held in New Zealand museum collections, notably her darkly romantic images of extinct native birds, heitiki, birds’ nests and shells, which have firmly established her as one of New Zealand’s leading photographers.

On first seeing these images of cast portraits, some white unpainted plaster and others subtly painted with oils, you have the uncanny sense you’re in the presence of an individual from another century who has long since ceased to exist. Like photographs of departed ancestors in a family album, Pardington’s images have a powerful emotional charge, causing us to reflect on the impossible frailty and brevity of an individual’s life, and by extension the briefness of our own.

There’s a sense of stillness, self-possession and repose in these images, taken in sets of three from the front, side and back, which is further emphasised by the fact these figures have their eyes closed. Unlike death masks, which depict people with their eyes open, casts of the living always have their eyes closed. The clearly visible grooves of moko on nose and chin and the palpable texture of skin, eyelashes and eyebrows all add to the intimacy of Pardington’s portraits. Like photography, which it prefigured, life casting was a way of creating an emotionally potent likeness of someone that took on a life of its own, so that in the viewer’s mind distinctions between the original and the cast become blurred, especially for Maori who have a different understanding of portraiture from Europeans.

In the book Toi Ora: Ancestral Maori Treasures (2008) writers Huhana Smith and Arapata Hakiwai stress the fact that for Maori, such objects continue to have a spiritual life that spans generations. They are imbued with the life force of the ancestors who made them, and ancestral ties and genealogy (whakapapa) are in fact a key tenet of Maori culture. This ties into the traditional Maori concept of time as non-linear – the past, present and future co-exist.

Ahua focuses on the different cultural understandings of portraiture and also looks at the ways in which both casting and photography have been used by Europeans as tools for understanding the world and cataloguing the exotic ‘other’.

For Pardington, who is of Maori (Kai Tahu and Kati Mamoe) and Scottish descent, photography is a “fabulous method of interference with the idea that time operates in a linear fashion; it allows the viewer to travel through time and space – to be anywhere and identify with anyone – when they look at a photograph.

“The casts are beautiful objects and they are so full of history and so complex in the way they speak about the duration of our lives; they’ve been caught in a moment in time – in the same way you may be able to understand photography as a moment in time. But there is an enormous raft of complexities that come with them. Looking at them is like standing back in time with somebody from the 1830s.

“I think everybody has a fantasy about being able to look at their ancestors. Nobody knows much about their past beyond four generations, if they’re honest with themselves, and if you spend even a little time looking at your back story, it’s outrageous how it all fans out to include all sorts of people. That is one of the things about the world that interests me – it’s so thoroughly contingent. The only necessary thing in the world is contingency, and that is what photography is to me; it has a very interesting engagement with our wish for things to be still and to be whole and fully identified.”

Popular from the 18th century onwards, life and death masks were highly sought after and collected for many reasons, including ethnographic studies, medical research and as tools for artists to understand anatomy and the body. They were also seen as mementos and curiosities. Casts were used in the pseudo science of phrenology, which sought to make a connection between personality and character traits and the shape of people’s features and the bumps on their head. At the time d’Urville made his epic voyage to the South Seas, seeking to surpass the long distances and exciting discoveries achieved by his predecessor, James Cook, the ‘science’ of phrenology was popular and widespread and d’Urville himself was a convert. Dumoutier’s contribution was essential to the success of the voyage, and returning to France in 1840 with an impressive collection of more than 50 plaster busts of South Seas Islanders and a great quantity of skulls, he was praised in the French newspapers.

The phrenologist’s task was to discover the universal aspect of the human mind in such remote populations, and though phrenology has since been thoroughly discredited, Dumoutier’s travel and records offer one of the first systematic and scientific approaches to human ‘otherness’ by French scholars and are crucial to the understanding of the birth of modern anthropology in late 19th-century France.

Pardington comments that photography’s power lies in its ability to multiply and the practice of casting is the same. Often multiple casts were made from wax moulds of the same person and these were highly sought after and used as items of trade between individuals and museums, hence them existing in collections worldwide.

“I’m interested in casting because it’s like the pre-photographic practice of photography,” Pardington says.

Like photography, casting is an attempt to create a likeness of a person or object and involves similar knotty issues of reproduction, editioning and ambiguities around what is the original image or object and what is a copy, as well as the same blurring of distinctions between the real and the replica.

When I spoke to her late last year she had already photographed two life casts of Maori held in Auckland Museum’s collection and plans were underway for her to visit the Musée du Quai Branly, Musée du L’Homme and Musée D’Orsay in January to photograph Dumoutier’s life casts of Maori held in these collections.

She has been researching casting for five years, gradually narrowing a huge field of endeavour – everything from mushrooms, skin diseases and beautiful body casts taken from live women for painters and sculptors to work from – down to Dumoutier’s life casts of three tattooed warriors: Tangatahara and Piuraki (who are Ngai Tahu) and Matua Tawai (from Kororareka) which she has photographed for Ahua.

“I have a very strict formula for the biennale show. All the research is done; I know exactly what I want to photograph in Paris and how I want it to look, but I also plan to spend time when I’ve taken these photos looking at my other subsets – for instance exploring different types of casting and different applications of the practice in France as well as on the voyages in the Pacific.”

Her visit to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris is not her first. In 2000 the New Zealand Government gifted a selection of her photographs of heitiki to the newly opened Quai Branly, and in 2005 she exhibited her work there in vitrines outside the building. The Quai Branly has a strong interest in Oceania and other non-European cultures and New Zealand photographers Mark Adams and Anne Noble have also exhibited there.

Pardington has become well known for the poetic and romantic sensibility of her work and with their ornate Goldie-inspired frames and dramatic spot-lit presentation in a darkened room, the large inkjet prints in Ahua will continue in this vein. Independent curator and writer Kriselle Baker, who, assisted by Megan Tamati-Quennell, has led the development of this project, has this to say about Pardington’s work: “A defining aspect of Pardington’s aesthetic is the sensual beauty of her prints. The depth and richness of the blacks is frequently contrasted with ephemeral, shimmering whites reminiscent of the ghosting of collodian prints and yet at the same time they are precise images, subtle and articulate.”

Ahua is the Maori word for likeness, appearance and character – and when you experience ahua you recognise the universal things we share as humans. A beautiful hesitation is a poetic description of the idea that a photograph is a hesitation in time. The combination of Maori and English words underlines the significance of these very early encounters between Europeans and Maori embodied by the life casts.

The 17th Biennale of Sydney is from 12 May to 1 August, 2010. Eros and Agape by Fiona Pardington and Charles F. Goldie, is at Suite Gallery, 69 Owen Street, Wellington, from 23 April to 15 May 2010.

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