Tuesday, 13 October 2009


On a recent internet-less stint in New Plymouth I made several visits to the central library to get connectivity hits via the free wireless provided by the Aotearoa People's Network Kaharoa.

When I was a kid, my mum used to take us to the library every Friday after school. Every Friday I'd max my library card out to its limit, filling the sports bag I'd take along, then going home and shuffling the books into tall anticipatory piles on top of the piano.

Visits to the Taranaki Museum were another regular, but less fondly recalled, aspect of my New Plymouth childhood. I can remember being absolutely terrified of the education person, who I remember - fairly or unfairly - as a total harpy.

Things have changed now, of course. Instead of the separate library and museum, New Plymouth has the integrated - and all all accounts hugely successful - Puke Ariki. On my visits to the library, I couldn't get over the roving groups of teenagers, and the number of people who clearly treat the cafe and quieter spaces as extension of their workplace.

I also went along to see Fixated: Photography through history at the museum. I have to admit to being put off by the heavily designed permanent exhibitions when Puke Ariki opened - a too faithful approximation of early Te Papa, and the sense that staff felt collection objects couldn't stand on their own, but required bucket-loads of exhibition furniture to make them interesting.

Fixated however is a different story. I think its major achievement is how well it reads on multiple levels. It presents two intertwined histories - the history of the European settlement of Taranaki and the growth and change of the province, and the history of photographic processes - and all without getting in the way of just looking at the photos as objects.

Curator Ruth Harvey says in the exhibition blurb

I chose the word 'fixated' because of the Taranaki community's huge interest in photography – people are 'fixated' with it. The community has had a long history with the medium – Taranaki subjects feature in some of the earliest photography known in New Zealand.

People certainly were fixated - like the library, the place was heaving with people of all ages when I visited (a week day in the school holidays).

The exhibition gently mixes in contemporary work with historical photos, whether it's Ben Cauchi with his old-fashioned processes, or Peter Peryer with his recent digital photography. While Bill Culbert's light work (a recent Govett-Brewster acquisition) worked in the show, and tested the limits, I couldn't quite figure out what the Elizabeth Thomson sculpture was doing there. Generally though, 'fine art' sits reasonably comfortably alongside personal, documentary, commercial and social history photography.

One of the most lovable aspects of the show is the evident care and thought that has gone into mounting negatives, photographic equipment, and other bits and pieces in the vitrines, with their ingenious little props, undercuts and lighting features. In general, the presentation was spot on, especially the inclusion of a caravan-like mobile studio, although I wasn't that keen on the label design (YMMV) and there's a bit of weirdity with the placement of the labels on a long wall of double-hung framed images.

I think what I really like about the show is that it carries itself lightly. You can take in as much of either of the histories as you like, or as little. There is a rare balance of objects and interpretation: you can read everything, or you can ignore all the didactic material. It closes on 26 October, and I thoroughly recommend you get along there if you can.

Images by Keryn Baker, from the Puke Ariki website.

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