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In ‘once more with feeling’, Ann Shelton produced a new body of work in response to items from the University of Otago’s Hocken Collection. To reflect the nature of this exhibition, this review will be two-part: with one response following the other.
For some time, Ann Shelton’s practice has located historical narratives within the contemporary landscape. Revisiting sites of cultural significance, Shelton’s photographs present quiet moments for pause and reflection. Her recent interest in collections, as demonstrated by her series ‘library to scale’1, has instigated further research into the museum collection as a site of constructed histories. Shelton first subverted the Collection by uncovering rack after rack of works by ‘unknown’ artists in the Hocken’s storage facilities. It is as though she feels a sense of duty to represent these lost artists. Their presence in this exhibition is based on their otherwise decided absence, emphasising the subjective construction of the art historical canon.
Several works in ‘once more with feeling’ illustrate Shelton’s signature technique of photographing historically significant sites as diptychs, with the landscape reflected upon itself as in a mirror. Curator Natalie Pound maintains that in Shelton’s works, such as Wintering, after A Van der Velden study, Otira Gorge, and Atlantis, Port Gore, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand, this doubling of the image effectively undoes conventional Cartesian perspective, and ‘the primacy of vision.’2 Given that Shelton is working from historical texts in a public collection, this rewriting suggests a re-examination of the originals as cultural constructs.
Another site/work that is re-examined is Seacliff Mental Hospital (1883) after a watercolour by George O’Brien, depicting the original hospital buildings. What was once the largest building in New Zealand, now stands as nothing more than ‘a chaos of memories’.3 Famous as the scene of a fatal fire and once the home of writer Janet Frame, Seacliff was also the former home of murderer Lionel Terry, who shot dead an innocent elderly Chinese man named Joe Kum Yung, on Wellington’s Haining Street in 1905, at the height of panic around the ‘yellow peril’. Terry was sentenced to life imprisonment at Seacliff for his crime, where under the supervision of Sir Truby King he took up painting. His paintings now form part of the Hocken Collection. Shelton reverses what is shown in these works by photographing the annotated backs of Terry’s paintings. And, as with her landscapes, such reversals shift attention away from the visual, toward the narrative behind what is shown in the collection.
Much has been made of Ann Shelton’s role of tending to the gardens of history. Her photographs of poignant locations are peopleless, but marked by people—those whose stories have been neglected by the landscapers of the past and memory. All the same, it is Shelton’s mirroring couplets that make me think twice. I begin to wonder why she does it…
The repetition and reflection in works such as Wintering, after A Van der Velden study, Otira Gorge create delicate symmetrical patterns that seem to fold open from a central spine, like a Rorschach ink spot. The mirrored images cast attention on the geometric components of the image, momentarily lifting the image from its role as signifier.4 All this abstraction and patterning from a medium still so often perceived as a truthful transcriber of reality. It feels like a little scientific proof: the photographic process mirrors reality; but mirroring the photograph does not bring back reality, it just continues the simulacrum, ad infinitum. It is as if Shelton is demonstrating the effects of photography, exposing the artifice of her medium.
There is something antiquely beautiful about this symmetry imposed on the chaos of nature, the type of beauty adored by Neoclassical gardeners, and there can be no denying that Shelton’s images are beautiful. Still, the gap between the two mirrored photographs seems to create a sublimely destabilising vortex, inducing a feeling of vertigo.5 It is a space where emotion and imagination begin to work on perception and the subjectivity of perspective is heightened. Still, Shelton’s photographs could just be reflecting this mood, along with the subject matter, from the neighbouring Van der Velden that acts as its inspiration.
The whole exhibition is diptychs; it is almost like being in a hall of mirrors, everything reappears and repeats—before and after; back and front; side by side. The paintings that can be seen in Shelton’s ‘Artist Unknown’ series are installed en masse in an adjoining gallery space. Shelton’s doubling demands ‘look, now look again’, drawing out these authorless paintings to reappear again in public life. Then, Shelton continues to command second looks and rethinking through repetition with the ‘Back of Painting’ series which shows the reverse of paintings that are hanging right alongside. This twofold structure is a form that seems to enable Shelton to state her case twice over, as if to make up for past omissions.
Shelton’s doubling demonstrates the partial, artificial and subjective nature of photography and by extension all forms of documentation and record-keeping that build a collective memory. Repetition and reflection serve her purpose of working the never ending battle against the arbitrariness of the archive, although she is at the same time caught by its desire for completeness.6
1. In which the artist photographed Frederick Butler’s collection of 3,500 scrapbooks. See ‘A library to scale’, (2006) http://www.annshelton.com/library/01.shtml
2. Natalie Poland, ‘Out of the Shadows’, Once more with feeling,Hocken Collections, 2008, p.6.
3. Walter Benjamin, as cited by Natalie Poland ‘Out of the Shadows’, in Once more with feeling, Hocken Collections, 2008, p.12.
4. Pound, Francis, The reflecting archive, Rim Books, 2006, p.13.
5. Galbraith, Heather, ‘Document meets drama: Ann Shelton’s A kind of sleep’, Art New Zealand, Spring 2005, n.116, p.74.
6. Pound, ibid, p.13.