Lucien Rizos: Processing Power

Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.

Lucien Rizos loved his uncle Gerald, who was like a father to him. At the end of a long life, and suffering from Parkinson’s, Gerald ended up in care in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s Rita Angus Retirement Village. He died there in 2017, aged ninety-three. Then his wife Fausta suffered a stroke and also went into care, vacating their home in Ohiro Road. Rizos was left with the keys to the place. As he looked through Gerald’s stuff, there were some surprises.

Gerald O’Brien had lived his life in the public gaze. He was a prominent politician and businessman, known for his intelligence, progressive views, and good works. He had been Labour MP for Island Bay from 1969 to 1978, under Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling, but his political life was cut short by scandal. In 1976, he was charged with indecent assault, after allegedly inviting two young men for a nightcap in his Christchurch motel room. According to Salient at the time, ‘someone even suggested the SIS engineered the whole O’Brien incident’. The charges were thrown out at a depositions hearing, but the mud stuck. When Labour selected a different candidate for Island Bay, O’Brien stood as an independent, denting the party’s hold on the seat. He was later invited to stand for Social Credit in the same electorate, but declined.

Rizos’s uncle was a towering figure in his life. Coming from a family of Greek Romanian refugees robbed of opportunities for higher education by World War II, he gravitated towards Gerald as ‘a renaissance man’ who nurtured his taste for music and art. Rizos remembers: ‘Gerald was the most educated person in the family. He and Fausta didn’t have children. They lived around the corner in Brooklyn. I would spend Sundays there, listening to music, talking about art. He took me to concerts when I was a toddler, and to music competitions when I was a teenager. I remember him taking me to Wellington Town Hall to hear David Oistrakh rehearsing. When I was 11, he showed me how to paint a sky. When I was 14, he gave me his enlarger, which I set up in the basement of my home.’ Rizos went on to become a photographer and a violinist for the NZSO.

After Fausta went into care, Rizos took photos of the house, documenting it as they had left it. Before disposing of Gerald’s books, he photographed four sets of bookshelves, as an index to his uncle’s interests. The bookcase in the dining room was carefully curated. Rizos says: ‘It was the one that important visitors would see. It was packed with left-wing political thought, including Galbraith, Chomsky, and Sutch; New Zealand history and world history; masses of biographies; and something Indira Gandhi had sent him. But the bookcase in the spare bedroom had all his books on cars. You could see how wide his interests were.’

Rizos made dozens of close-up images of each case, combining them to create detailed, almost full- scale views—close enough to read the spines. He also began trawling through his uncle’s papers, wondering if some—especially those related to affairs of state—might be of interest to a library or public archive. O’Brien had been a hoarder and Rizos learnt much about his political life, but the big surprise was uncovering his private art project. From childhood, into the 1970s at least, O’Brien had created a fictional world for his own amusement. No one knew about it. Like most fictional worlds, it reflected the real one. As a child, O’Brien had created fake history and reference books. There was The Army Chiefs of All Nations (and Other Famous Figures), an illustrated who’s who of invented personages; Escotia, an account of the land ruled by a King Charles III of the House of Brunswick; and History of the Wars 1941–42, which used real press photos to tell its concocted stories. O’Brien also mocked-up newspapers, including The Watchman and The Andanian Herald, reporting on imagined events as they unfolded. He wrote these parodies with a straight face—hand lettered in caps. There were also elaborate maps, marking out the territories of nations. The accounts and the maps included jumbled references to real people and places.

The most exciting find was an archive box crammed with hundreds of paper cut-out figures, rendered in pencil and paint, each about 8 centimetres high. Most were men: rulers and aristocrats in their finery; politicians and diplomats in suits; military men in uniform. They were identified on the back with fanciful names, some of which had been repeatedly revised. There was even a self portrait, inscribed ‘Anthony Geraldi (Rebally)’—a reference to a children’s book character ‘Geraldi—Rebel of the Hills’. O’Brien had also made lists of names, detailing the administrations of imagined nations. This continued well into adulthood; there are examples on House of Representatives letterhead. Names like ‘Albert Albatross’ and ‘Bumsma Bumsmay’ recall George W. Bush’s flair for nicknames (calling Putin ‘Ostrich Legs’ and ‘Pootie-Poot’ and Berlusconi ‘Shoes’). Rizos found other things. There was a suite of caricatures of soldiers he made in early childhood that anticipated the cut-outs. There were cut- outs of sportspeople and of racing cars, a fake newspaper The Short reporting on car races, and fake car-insurance certificates. The rabbit hole went deep. It’s fascinating to speculate on how O’Brien related to this escapist fantasy world. Had childhood daydreams informed his entry into politics? Did his private and public worlds resonate with one another, or were they compartmentalised? (While his project involved accounts of war, in reality he was a pacifist. He was President of the World Peace Council, visited Hiroshima, and initiated the installation of the Peace Flame in the Botanical Gardens.)

Rizos made some calls, but had no luck getting any archive interested in taking the O’Brien papers, in whole or in part. Then Covid hit, bringing lockdowns. He took matters into his own hands, and started scanning it all, organising the material by topic and type. As a photographer, he had made photobooks before and it seemed an obvious way to organise things. He made separate ‘magazines’ on topics: on O’Brien’s various art projects; on his collections of ties, death notices, business cards, and concert programmes; on his collected snaps of his boyhood friends, of Fausta, and of his cars; on files pertaining to a Kirk-period think tank, to the scandal, to his battles with bureaucracy over traffic infringements; etcetera. In the beginning, Rizos didn’t think he was making art—simply compiling a record. Later, he came to understand it as an art project.

The project, now complete, encompasses some sixty- six magazines, in three slipcases: the green one contains O’Brien’s private life, including his fictional world; the red one his public life in politics; the blue one the rest of its public life—his causes, pursuits, and engagements. When Rizos began, the project was called A Man of His Time, but now he calls it Everything, suggesting everything he found, everything that made up O’Brien’s world, and everything that intersects with it.

But where’s the art in it? Rizos made his magazines with care, but without excessive artistry. They are not the fetishistic products we have come to expect from ‘photobooks’. This is not to say they have no aesthetic, but it’s a matter-of-fact aesthetic that emerged from their purpose, the job to hand. Everything resonates with other contemporary-art projects. For instance, its found- image typologies recall Richard Prince’s and Hans-Peter Feldmann’s. Other artists have played nosy detective. Sophie Calle stalked a man in Suite Vénitienne (1980) and went undercover as a chambermaid to spy on hotel guests in The Hotel, Room 47 (1981). Photographer Catherine Opie rifled through the late Liz Taylor’s closets in 700 Nimes Road (2010–1). But, for me, the key precedent is the Inventory projects (1973–), in which Christian Boltanski displayed a deceased person’s possessions—either the things themselves or photographs of them—prompting us to speculate on their life based on this evidence, while also confronting the fact these remnants do not automatically give us access to his subject’s interior world. (Of course, O’Brien’s own project itself has parallels. It recalls visionary, world-building projects, like that of outsider artist Henry Darger, and, closer to home, of Australian writer Gerald Murnane, whose Antipodean Archive is a detailed record of a ‘parallel universe’ involving horse racing in the island nations of New Eden and New Arcady.)

Everything also resonates with an earlier Rizos exhibition and photobook project centred on another uncle, John Fotiadis. Marble Art Ltd. (2017) takes its name from the company the Romanian émigré established in the 1970s. He cast polyester-resin objets d’art, including a bare-breasted Pania figure and a Ma ̄ori-themed mantel clock, along with desktop versions of Rodin’s The Thinker and Michelangelo’s David and of busts of Beethoven and Mozart. Rizos juxtaposes catalogue shots of Marble Art products with found snapshots showing family members visiting ancient ruins in Europe and Ma ̄ori tourist locations, and looking out of place in Aotearoa New Zealand in their folksy Romanian national dress. Framing questions of appropriation, class, and taste within an aspirational immigrant story, Marble Art Ltd. traps us in an ethical quandary.

Marble Art Ltd. and Everything turn on contrasting ideas of art. Despite its nods to elite culture, Fotiadis’s ‘art’ was populist; and O’Brien’s was essentially a childhood hobby. Marble Art Ltd. and Everything reframe these ideas of art within Rizos’s own idea of art, one informed by photography and conceptualism. His uncles’ works have become part of his own game, even if it prompts us to consider what they themselves would make of it all.

In Everything, Rizos has made O’Brien’s private art- and-collecting activity the subject of his own, comparable obsession. On the one hand, he is a devoted nephew, in thrall to his uncle’s material and memory; on the other, an artist, bringing Everything under his own jurisdiction, his sovereignty. While he was assembling the project, Rizos didn’t show anyone, beyond presenting the four bookshelf photographs and a few of the magazines at Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s Photospace in 2020. Like O’Brien’s work itself, Everything has been a largely solitary affair. But in October, Rizos will unveil it all in a comprehensive solo show at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, also in the capital. What will change when Everything becomes a public display of affection?

More from this issue

Jane Malthus reports on high-country farmer Eden Hore whose collection of 1970s designer fashion became a tourist attraction in Central Otago.
Karl Chitham surveys recent toi Māori publishing, making the case for it as an essential vehicle to show the distinctive qualities of Māori art and creativity on Māori terms.
Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Andrew Paul Wood reviews the exhibition at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, 2 April–7 August 2022.
Nigel Borrell reviews the exhibition at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, 18 June–18 September 2022.
Caroline McQuarrie reviews the exhibition at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, 9 April–26 June 2022.

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