Thursday 30 July 2009

Julian Dashper (1960-2009). Rest in Peace.

More than 15 minutes in New Zealand… As New Zealand’s folk icon Rita Angus is about to launch at the gallery tomorrow tonight there is a palpable echo of a much younger artist whose life has ended today. It’s hard to think of a New Zealand artist whose often lacerating and wicked humour understood better the constraints and strengths of working within this culture if not the landscape as Rita may have addressed it.

A collector of art’s history in all its popular, glorious, mythical force, Julian understood how an artist today stands in conversation with the past, for better or worse. In his case, these reference points were often courageous and solicitous of humour and an energetic spirit. His often quoted collection of over 60 books on Donald Judd and asides to Jackson Pollock’s bravado and stardom belied a healthy boy like desire to get to know the Greats from their attitudes to form. Of course this easy intervention with the world’s heroes, sat alongside his regular slapstick attack and eulogy of New Zealand’s own stars – in perhaps the most memorable rendition The Big Bang Theory, he imagines the atomic force of Rita Angus, Ralph Hotere, Colin McCahon, Don Driver, Toss Woollaston.

On a personal note, for a younger student of art history I readily admit being confused when first greeted by his gutsy abstract expressions of the 1980s, with their easy wit in dealing with the recent past – transgressive and at once joyous. It was a relief to have an artist like Julian demonstrate a confident tongue-in-cheek reference point to our own often anxious history, while at the same time adopting a language and mobility which enabled him to converse with like-minded artists, gallerists and curators internationally. I don’t know if there’s a student of Auckland University of Technology who wasn’t affected by Julian’s spirit – and the admiration which a talented generation of younger artists have for him is really unique.

Last but not least, Julian was not at ease with the institutions of art, and rightly so, maintaining a distance which was energising. Distance becomes us, and, in 1992 he inserted an exhibition-as-advertisement in Artforum magazine. Artfrom New Zealand comically defied the politics and constraints of the one-way conversation, and marked out the possibilities of the self made guy. JD: “The trick is to stay ‘in the zone’ when you get the idea and run with it.”

I think his early painting Young Nick’s Head from 1987 is one of my favourite Julian Dashper’s these days. It’s a disruptive painting with assembled pieces of fabric and photo. It’s a construction of sorts, which takes pieces of history and interrupts them with fabric and photo – so you never quite get it sorted. Art repeats and undoes itself pleasantly, and yet as Francis Pound wrote poignantly ‘The museum wants the artist timeless’. Julian knew how to work around conventions. And so, with hope, he demonstrated that life is not a convention or a closed bracket.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Alfred Burton - the man who makes likenesses

Writing about Alfred Burton’s photographs in The Wonderland Album reminded me just how significant his work is for the history of New Zealand’s photography. In May and June 1885, he undertook a challenging journey through the King Country.

This challenging trip ended up in Wanganui, then one of New Zealand's biggest towns. It resulted in 230 photographs. From these, Burton selected 150 unforgettable images that he printed as a sequence entitled The Māori at Home. He wrote and published an accompanying record of his expedition into this Māori area, which had been off limits to Pakeha for decades. His expedition’s account - Through the King Country with a Camera: A Photographer’s Diary - was published in the Otago Daily Times and is our first coupling of text and photography. He travelled with the surveyor C E Rochfort (1832-93), who was then attempting to plan the river steamer route on the Whanganui River. That may be Rochfort seated in the detail above.

The tangata whenua of the Whanganui River named Burton He Tangata Whakaāhua (the man who makes likenesses). Travelling as he did by waka (canoe) there was no opportunity to either develop or reshoot his glass-plate negatives. Burton arrived at Rānana (London) during the afternoon of Friday 8 May, a few hours after exposing this photograph near Moutoa, an island that had been the site of a battle between the Hauhau and the Ngati Hau people of Hiruhārama (Jerusalem). When you realise that Burton was the first photographer to create a photo-essay of this region, it is obvious that these are amongst the most important early photographs of New Zealand Māori.

image credit:

Alfred Burton (1834 – 1914)
Our Canoe and Crew, Rānana, Whanganui River 1885
gelatin silver print
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 1999

Thursday 2 July 2009

Camera shenanigans

I have been receiving positive feedback about my research into vernacular photography. This is encouraging, as a decade ago I met with negative responses to my ongoing study of everyday photography.

Here are some more views taken by an itinerant Scots visitor to New Zealand in 1928. This gutsy snapshooter had a natural photographic ability and a quirky affection for personal adventure. She was insistent with her friends and she recorded them using a very directorial approach. The people that she assembled for her images all became performers for her photographic ‘event’.

Here is Hanging Rock Creek. Have you ever encountered a more hilarious way to sit in a tree with your mother and aunt? Notice that they smile but he does not. He is clearly not yet related to her but obviously there is a romantic interest from her perspective.

These two Diamond Harbour snapshots are terrific. The young man previously perched in the tree is again shown at the centre of the shot, but he still remains totally deadpan and smileless. What should we call his bathing costume because it is obviously 'pre-togs'. A colleague called his gear 'pre-ORCA', which is specific and meaningful but not useful as a period descriptor. Swimming costume? Bathers? Probably made of blue serge wool which, when wet, would have felt like wearing knitted slime. An Australian friend told me that 'bathers' is the most accurate terminology.

Maybe this recurring man is actually the photographer’s local boyfriend. Other photographs in the album show that she was really keen on him. Were guys actually called ‘boyfriends’ in 1928? His Mum is again at the right hand side with her sister steadfastly at her right. Is this photographer always telling her subjects where to stand?

She certainly is being bossy in this image but with what a hazing humour. The figures are laid out like a Banks Peninsula version of Édouard Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Look at how the woman cradles her head. It does not make any sense to ask why they are acting out these wacky poses because they are simply responding to what the photographer is requesting of them. Camera shenanigans.

An even more astonishing example of social buffoonery is the antics they get up to after lunch at Diamond Harbour when four of the picnic-ers go in for some rudimentary handstands. It puts playing up for the camera into perspective - make a fool of oneself and laugh along with the camera’s record. Such an amusing and self-deprecating touch to everyday photography is still charmingly uncommon. In 1928, it was positively rare.