Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Pressure of Sunlight Falling

Fiona Pardington is a New Zealand photographer whose work I like. I know of her from two projects: one was a series of large colour photographs of museum store-rooms: stuffed birds, furniture, walls hung with wooden Maori objects - I remember long wooden poles - were they paddles? The efficiency and cleanliness with which they are stored is shown - harmony, a sense of permanence, soothing for the heart.

The later works I saw were part of an exhibition at the City Art Gallery. I attended an introductory evening. We sat on untrustworthy folding chairs, aluminium tubing and white plastic, rows and rows of us. In front, they were talking to us and showing us things. But on the white walls on either side, there hung four big portraits, two on our left and two on our right, FP's work. Their silent presence dominated the event.

The photographs were of live casts (plaster casts): one of a tattooed Maori man's head, and one the head of a Pacific Islands man - I think. (It's hard to remember exactly now that I've seen more in the book.) The photos show the front and the back of their head individually, in black and white. One of the heads was stained dark, photographed against a pale background. The other was pale, I think. The photos were as wide as a door, not as high. The eyes were shut, of course. I spent time looking at them.

They made me very curious. They were real people. I felt as if they might open their eyes and laugh out loud any minute. But the neck ends in a plinth: it wasn't a photo of a real person, the real person was at one remove from what had been photographed. I had to remind myself of this several times.

I saw a book about FP on display at the Central Library sometime later, and took it home. The title is Fiona Pardington: The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Kriselle Baker (Otago University Press, 2011). It includes the photographs and a collection of good articles about them. Fiona P found out as an adult that she is part Maori. One of the heads is of a person who is related to her - she could tell by the moko. I imagine the sense of something coming right when she met him, a sense of completion.  He was stored at the Musee du Quay Branly in Paris. I don't know if he is still there now. They repatriate the real heads; I don't know if they tried to get these back too.

The book includes many photos of casts of heads from a variety of Pacific nations, and they have the dreamy real-life quality I tried to describe above. Except for the photos of Dumont d'Urville's - the French scientist  who had the casts made and took them back to France- and the casts of his family, which are a dirty white on a grey background and look somehow pinched and tight. I couldn't get over the difference. D'Urville must have been a person beyond the norm, an exceptional man,  to carry out the sort of research he did, to convince people to go along with what must have been rather an uncomfortable procedure. That is not how he comes across in the cast. His children look young and innocent, as you'd expect. 

I read several of the articles, which was satisfying. (In particular David Elliot, the curator.) But the one that mattered most was  Kriselle's essay describing FP at work, the care, the immense trouble taken with the lighting...

I checked the photos again and realised that FP had not taken the photos of Dumont D'Urville and his family: they are labelled as coming from the Musee.

I suppose all artifacts are photographed for the record, and the photos of the casts of D'Urville and his children are equivalent to a photo from one of those booths in railway stations where you can get your photo taken in a few minutes.

It turns out that FP chose the title, from a description of what happens to objects in space...I hope I have got all of this right, I have already returned the book to the library and could not check everything. It is a wonderful book.