‘We must’, wrote Albert Camus, ‘imagine Sisyphus happy.’ It’s the only way of reconciling the absurdity and meaninglessness of his eternal torment of rolling a boulder up a mountain in Hades only to have it roll back down again. Thus was he condemned by Zeus, King of the Greek pantheon, for murdering guests at his palace who should have been protected by the rule of hospitality, and twice tricking Death itself.
Sisyphus is the central theme of Francis Upritchard: Paper, Creature, Stone at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Upritchard, formerly of Ōtautahi Christchurch and now an international art star, began work for the show as inaugural artist in residence in 2021 at Sutton House, the former home and studio of painter and Ilam lecturer Bill Sutton.
Upritchard won the Walters Prize in 2006, represented Aotearoa New Zealand in the 2009 Venice Biennale with Judy Millar, and is a fixture of the art scene in London, where she now resides. In 2016, a survey show of the first twenty years of her work, Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs, showed at the Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne and City Gallery Wellington, touring to Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū the following year.
In Paper, Creature, Stone, Upritchard stays with her perennial theme of the museological gaze, but has wisely abandoned problematic ethnographical and anthropological visual puns in favour of classical antiquity. Sisyphus is everywhere, daubed on pots and glass vases in vitrines (the pseudo-museological), in abstract watercolours, and in elaborate sculptures. The latter are most appealing, with their Giacometti-like tautness and unusual old-chewing-gum texture.
They are made of balata rubber, which is a detail so specific and boutique as to be almost absurd. Upritchard’s supply is harvested annually from an alternating two of four rare bulletwood trees in the heart of the Amazon by Macushi tribespeople, who then float the hardened cubes of latex down a river for collection. The process is like something from a New Yorker cartoon, and yet the sculptures are all part of a theme of collaboration to counter the burden of Sisyphus.
This collaboration is evident in the other components that sit somewhat incongruously with the Sisyphean material—the trademark Upritchard goblin-esque polymer-clay homunculi in immaculately tailored hippie garb and velvet gloves made into hands with exquisite rings like Roman Catholic ex-votos or reliquaries. Many hands make light work. This part of the show was made in collaboration with potter Nicholas Brandon, fashion designer Steven Junil Park, jeweller Karl Fritsch, Upritchard’s parents, and her brothers.
The playfulness with scale is typical Upritchard, as is the collaborative nature of the work. Previously she has worked with her husband, furniture maker Martino Gamper, weaver Lynne Mackay, and bronze caster Jonathan Campbell, among others.
Upritchard has a commitment to collapsing the hierarchy of art, craft, and design. Such a vast and diverse practice can be a little overwhelming and the project of unifying it, and collaborators, daunting. We must imagine Francis Upritchard happy. Unlike Sisyphus, she has help.