I fell into a time-trap on Tuesday night.
There's no point anymore in being a photographer, at least in the sense of a photographer who attempts to distinguish themselves by producing a certain ‘type‘ or 'style' of photograph. The specialist-photographer today is like someone trying to chop down a forest of trees with a blunt axe: they'll eventually die of exhaustion - Giovanni Intra
Hipkins' photography has been a big part of my adult life. The one and only exhibition I've curated was a mega-effort when I was director of The Dowse; I took over the whole ground floor of the museum to present The Domain, a survey of 25 years of Gavin's work.
There are a few threads to my attachment to Gavin's work. There's a bit of imprinting going on here: his 2000 exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery of The Habitat coincided with my first year in Wellington, my first year in art history at Victoria, my first time being immersed in contemporary art. I guess fundamentally I approach visual art as a person who is in love with words ("Shouldn't you be doing English?", someone asked me, at a pivotal moment when I was losing faith in my art history thesis). Gavin's photography is, for me, hyper-verbal. It lends itself to thinking and talking. It is soaked in allusions. What Shane Cotton is to painting, Gavin is to photography, but Shane's been grappling with his Māooritanga while Gavin navigates his Pākehā-ness.
Second, there's Gavin's friendship with my late husband, William. William had written the 10-year survey of Gavin's work for Art New Zealand; in many ways, me curating this show in 2017, five years after his death, was me making the exhibition that he never got to do. I was laying some obligations to rest, and making a silent tribute. Curating with a ghost in mind.
Third, there's the way that in the 2010s I was engaging with photography through the career I'd developed in the web. Web 2.0 hit galleries and photo collections in some really splashy ways. The photo-sharing site Flickr had a special focus on cultural institution partnerships and collections (led by George Oates, who became a mate). Creative Commons surfaced for us. We had to lead a charge on letting people take photos in galleries and share them online (at the Dowse, for example, I rewrote our loan agreements to enable this).
And web philosophers - especially James Bridle - shaped my thinking. In 2013 I gave a talk on Ben Cauchi's work (a NZ photographer who has built a practice around very early photographic techniques, like tintypes) called Has the internet killed photography. That was a real thing we debated then: here's the list of references and projects I cited, a little time capsule of that moment.
The tsunami of photography in the 2010s was on my mind when I came to write my essay for the book about Gavin's work. As I started gathering references, I was struck by the tone of the first pieces about him, from the mid to late 1990s, by writers like Giovanni Intra and Justin Paton. These Gen-X curators, writing about a Gen-X artist, as the year 2000 bore down on them - there was this tone of enervation, of resigned exhaustion, of everything's fucked, yet still quite beautiful, and I'm just gonna lie back and take another drag.
So that's where I started my essay, which I dug out this week and decided to reshare here. It's an okay piece of writing, though it really needs the show or at least the illustrations to hold it up. I'm proud of a few turns of phrase in there, and a couple of very choice words (fillet, assay). But I'm proudest of all of the Reality Bites quote that I contrived the opening around, which made it all the way through to print.
GAVIN HIPKINS: VIEW FINDER
When Gavin Hipkins began exhibiting steadily in the late 1990s, five years or so out of art school, critics and curators - many of them his Gen X compatriots - consistently diagnosed a sense of end-of-millennium exhaustion in his works. As Giovanni Intra wrote about Hipkins in the catalogue for Signs of the Times, a 1997 exhibition of emerging artists:
There's no point anymore in being a photographer, at least in the sense of a photographer who attempts to distinguish themselves by producing a certain ‘type‘ or 'style' of photograph. The specialist-photographer today is like someone trying to chop down a forest of trees with a blunt axe: they'll eventually die of exhaustion.(1)
The photographer was doomed, Intra declared, because the more that photography proliferates, the less chance any individual image has of distinguishing itself from the mass. Two years later, curator Justin Paton suggested Hipkins' 'true subject' was 'the flood, the Niagara of photographs that cascades toward us daily.(2) The challenge for the artist 'working up against the dead-end of the Twentieth Century', as Blair French put it in 1999, was to find some kind of space in a world where every image was already over-saturated, over-determined, and worn out.
This narrative of exhaustion crests with Zerfall (1997-1998) the work Hipkins produced for every day, the 11th Biennale of Sydney. One of his signature 'fall' pieces, Zerfall is made up of 24 fluttering strips of machine prints, each frame filled with close-ups of domestic paraphernalia. The strips have a strobing, stuttering effect: objects are not centred in each frame, but often seem to fall through them, or are sliced up over several frames, or repeated without differentiation over a full length of paper. This apparently blasé approach flies in the face of modernist conventions: 'If the classic aesthetic project within modernist photography involved the creation and selection of single images encapsulating ideal form or decisive moment,' wrote French, 'then Zerfall attested to the debilitation of the claims of such singular images to authoritative record of historical experience.'(3)
The work's title comes from a term used by German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno to signify culture's dissipation and decay in the 20th century. What role then could photography play today, French asked:
Is it condemned solely to actions of cultural anaesthesia? Can it aspire beyond banal distraction, lifestyle promotion, or cultural nostalgia—those defence mechanisms against post-millennial inertia that have ingratiated themselves so successfully within contemporary art practice as 'critical strategies'?(4)
The sense of millennial foreboding expressed in these texts calls to mind the sentiments of Troy Dyer, the slacker antihero of generational touchstone Reality Bites, who resigns himself to the pointlessness of searching for meaning when life is 'just a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes. Abandoning the grand narrative, Dyer elects instead to narrow his concerns: 'I sit back and I smoke my Camel Straights and I ride my own melt.'(5)
But rather than capitulating in the face of the end of the millennium and the ubiquity of photography, Hipkins displayed, and continues to display, prodigious productivity. Intra may have described him as 'someone unfortunate enough to be struck dumb by photography' while Paton identified his uniqueness as lying in his 'willingness to go with the flow, to succumb to photography'; I would concur with French, who, writing about Hipkins' best-known work, The Homely (1997-2000) concluded:(6)
The Homely (and indeed each of its individual images) bespeaks an acknowledgment of the ultimate impossibility of totally encapsulating all the complexities and contradictions of our changing world within any single photograph. The quality of Hipkins' project is in his careful process of photographically recording fleeting encounters with the visible world, in his collecting and then his reconstituting these visual fragments over and over again in new configurations like some form of compelling but irresolvable puzzle.(7)
When we survey Hipkins' career to date, commonalities - in formal presentation, in subject matter, in conceptual approach - emerge and submerge over time, cross-pollinating throughout his work. His strategy of massing images, for example, might be used to dominate a gallery space at one time, and appear in the form of an analogue slide-show at another. His predilection for haberdashery-store notions like doilies and buttons might manifest as a fleeting glimpse or a heroic portrait. His enduring interest in the connections between colonisation and photography may be expressed through photographing a museum diorama, manipulating a digital scan of a 19th century bookplate, or lacing Google Earth footage into a film. In this way, Hipkins' work does not progress linearly, but rather moves in eddies, as he revisits and redeploys both his art-making tactics and his ever-growing artistic archive.
While still an undergraduate student, Hipkins made the remarkably farsighted decision to devote himself to not developing a signature style. Several factors combined to bring the young artist to this point. For one, he had come to see the career of painter Colin McCahon as a possible model, admiring his plurality of practice, the way the older artist had moved fluidly between formats while staying committed to core concerns.(8) For another, artistic borrowing was in the air: Hipkins was studying at Elam School of Fine Art alongside artists like Intra, Haruhiko Sameshima and Anna Sanderson, and later recalled that they were ‘playing with each others' works, borrowing each others' styles'.(9) As William McAloon observed in 2003, the effect of this borrowing was to 'void his work of a signature style, make it unrecognisable as his own.'(10) McAloon also noted the benefits of avoiding pigeon-holing:
By utilising a range of photographic practices, Hipkins was also circumventing a conventional career route that would have him build his reputation on the basis of one type of work before branching out. Moreover, by having a variety of styles at his disposal, he was able to present his work in a range of exhibition contexts. It's a strategy that has worked well, even if it has resulted in some confusion along the way. When a curator in America recently asked Hipkins which of the two very different works he had seen - The Next Cabin and The Mill (2001) - was the more representative of his practice, Hipkins' reply was, 'both, of course'.(11)
We can trace the mutable nature of Hipkins' practice by considering a selection of his earliest works, all represented in the survey exhibition The Domain: the Falls, The Vision, and The Field.
Hipkins produced his first 'falls' - uncut strips of film, shown pinned to the wall from the top, loosely rustling at the bottom - while still a student at Elam. He turned the camera on himself and his immediate surroundings, documenting domestic details: 'light bulbs, switches, cheese graters, cupcakes, cucumbers and other such scraps of eye-lint.' (12) Each 'fall' consists of a single 24-frame roll of film, shot in one act and printed without editing. The works have a performative aspect; what we see is what the artist was looking at, where his attention was drawn. 'They were literally "looking around",' Hipkins said in a 2003 interview.(13) When he embarked on this format he was living at Elam’s Fisher Lodge, in the 'wilderness' at Little Huia, 30 kilometres from Auckland city, feeling isolated and inwards-looking.(14)
The Falls were the first works that curators latched on to. Pieces from Hipkins' final-year BFA show at Elam were quickly incorporated by influential curator Gregory Burke into a 1992 group exhibition at the Wellington City Art Gallery; a three-metre Fall featuring a repeated image of the artist's foot was included by William McAloon in Station to Station: The Way of the Cross, 14 Contemporary Artists at Auckland Art Gallery in 1994. Initially, the falls were hung individually, or in small groupings, modest and unassuming; over time, they became larger and more cohesive. Hipkins began incorporating coloured blank frames and purpose-bought objects (dollar-shop tchotchkes, often soft and round), and imagery pilfered from art books, travel magazines and websites. With curatorial nudging, the Falls began to coalesce into wall-length sheets of imagery, culminating in Zerfall; the 95-piece The Stall (2000), produced while Hipkins was artist in residence at the Waikato Museum of Art and History; and the seven-work suite The Gulf (2000-2001), the final appearance of the 'fall’ format where screenshots from porn sites are intercut with scenic travel shots.
Writers who dissected these early works all agreed on their cinematic quality. The works had the appearance of strips of film hung out to dry; the same object often appears through several contiguous frames, waiting for the editorial eye to splice them into a properly realised form. Trained to seek out linear narrative, our gaze sweeps over the falls, but rather than finding a thread to follow gets snagged backwards or forwards or sideways.
If we jump forward in Hipkins' work, we see many of the components of the Falls take on new forms over time. The descending frames of the vertical strips are flicked sideways and become the frieze format of The Homely (1997-2000) and The Next Cabin (2000-2002). The decorative oddments come into focus in lush, large-scale works like The Oval (1998), a bobbly beige soap dish on a wood-veneer background, which won the inaugural Waikato Art Award, and The Shaman (Blue) (2006), perhaps the most preposterously beautiful of Hipkins' single images, a silkily tactile circlet of fur on a periwinkle backdrop. The reproductions from art books re-emerge during an artist's residency in New York, where Hipkins visited famous art museums and photographed paintings and sculptures, forming the basis of the series Tender Buttons (2006), where they are overlaid with pearlescent buttons sourced in New York's garment district. And of course, the cinematic quality becomes cinema. Hipkins began interspersing his photographs with video works in the late 1990s; the experimental films often riffed on his still photography motifs, such The Relay (1999), in which bath-bomb after bath-bomb dissolves in a tub of water. From 2010 Hipkins began making short, fragmentary narrative films; in 2014 he released his first feature-length film Erewhon, and today he works as frequently in film as he does still images.
Barbara Blake, an early writer on the Falls, commented on their beauty, 'glowing with colour and sometimes blurred into abstract shapes'. She continued, 'This would seem to be an accidental aesthetic, but one which Hipkins exploits, re-aestheticising conceptual photography.'(15) Blake paired her discussion of the Falls with an analysis of Westwards (1993), a contemporaneous body of work which show Hipkins taking a very different approach to the reworking of conceptual photography.
Hipkins had started reprinting found imagery while at art school: this is hardly surprising, given the postmodern zeitgeist and the pervasive influence of the Pictures Generation. He recalls knowing of the artists associated with this loose grouping - figures like Louise Lawler, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince - but not necessarily the bigger 'concept': a generation of artists, largely working with photography, who appropriated existing images from sources both high and low, and used this found imagery to fillet power, value and identity in a politically uncertain period of American history.(16) Nonetheless, ironic appropriation and gleeful reuse of the riches of mass media, advertising and previous art icons' work was the flavour of the moment.
In works like Westwards Hipkins curated kitschy decor posters into groupings that hinted at a unifying concept. (In 1994's The Secret we see a sly aggregation of clefts and phallic stand-ins: towering skyscrapers, a silhouetted couple holding hands before a sunset, a pouncing pink-gulleted black panther, and a Surrealist ocean liner sailing through a series of doorways). The images were selected from stockpiles of offset-prints manufactured in Switzerland in the late 1970s, which Hipkins found in a West Auckland bargain basement store, and then transported into the gallery space. The works were brought together in The Vision, Hipkins' first solo exhibition at a public gallery, curated by Athol McCredie at the Manawatu Art Gallery (now Te Manawa), one of the earliest institutions in New Zealand to promote photography as a serious art form. After several decades of photographers like Peter Peryer and Laurence Aberhart working to establish the medium's place in the art gallery, in walked Gavin Hipkins, apparently taking the piss.
It's easy to dismiss these works as juvenile. Certainly their overt tackiness seems at odds with Hipkins' oeuvre, which even at its roughest - printed on aged photo paper, or realised as newsprint banners - retains a distinctive elegance. Yet conceptually, with their seemingly careless attitude toward subject matter, these works tie to the de-heroising impulse of the Falls, and also to Hipkins' early-career outings as a curator, including his 1998 project Folklore: The New Zealanders, which drew its content from coffee-table photography books, drawing forth a 20th-century Pākehā narrative of New Zealand.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for revisiting these appropriation works is to provide context for three bodies of work, produced in close succession in the late 2000s. Empire (2007), Second Empire (2008) and Bibles Studies (New Testament) (2008) , caused confusion, even consternation, amongst Hipkins' followers. In thee works Hipkins turned away from the realist mode of photography and instead began scanning and manipulating line-drawn illustrations from a range of books (mid-20th century British Commonwealth and Empire annuals, sumptuous 1880s travel publications, a 1968 Italian illustrated collection of Bible stories for children). Onto these he digitally overlaid massively enlarged embroidered patches. Big (the largest measuring two metres), brash (one work is emblazoned with an all-caps EVIL; in another a depiction of the Annunciation is capped by the phrase 'Abandoned Youth'), and not even necessarily photographs as such (the Second Empire works are printed on stretched canvas) the three collections seemed aberrant unless you took the long view as the artist obviously did. In an article on the Second Empire series Hipkins himself observed a connection back to his art-school experiments:
I need to remind myself that this is not the first time my practice has turned to strategies of borrowing and coupling. [...] This is how we worked under the tyranny of the shadow of Roland Barthes' Death of the Author; in the distant wake of defining practices by Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine: for then it seemed (as today), how else to make images but by sourcing and reframing?(17)
Under this framework, these aberrant works become another evolution in Hipkins' thinking about image-making. This sourcing and reframing found further expression as Hipkins has moved into film-making; his 2016 short film New World, for example, collages text from an 1849 publication encouraging immigration to north-east Texas, lines drawings from American Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil (1878), an illustrated travel publication, solarised photographs from National Geographic and Penthouse, and drone-like footage of Texas sourced from Google Earth.
Hipkins' appropriation works were also an astute way for a new artist with few financial resources to cheaply yet effectively fill an entire gallery space. This kind of resourcefulness was characteristic of his first decade or so of regular exhibiting:: throughout the late 1990s you could see him in exhibitions such as Signs of the Times (City Gallery Wellington, 1997) and The Circuit (Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 1999) finding ways to take up a lot of space with small photographs, massing or otherwise arranging his materials into full-gallery installations.
An early and still powerful example of this strategy is seen in The Field (1994-1995). In January 1994 Hipkins relocated from Auckland to Wellington, working part-time as a dishwasher until eventually taking up a position as a photography technician in the School of Design at Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey University's College of Creative Arts). His official job was to reproduce images from books as slides for design lecturers, but it also gave him access to a dark room, free chemicals, and a stash of expired photo paper. Over the summer of 1994 he printed manically, making the pieces that would be assembled into The Field - 1,500 photograms, each made by exposing a sheet of photographic paper overlaid with a polystyrene ball. Pasted up side by side, row by row on a single wall at Auckland's Teststrip gallery, and then re-presented at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the work caught the imagination of writers and curators, who called on diverse references to explicate it, from star-struck sci-fi films to the utopian ideals of avant-garde photography.
The Field was also a wellspring for future works. Photograms have occurred over and over in Hipkins' practice. In one trajectory, the massing seen in The Field resolved into simpler, more clean-cut installations, like The Well (White) and The Well (Black) (1995) and The Ring (2000). The starry shimmer of The Field is concentrated in these works into a tauter, more rhythmical beat. In another line of inquiry, the fripperies sourced for the Falls and monumentalised in works like The Shaman (Blue) become a key element in New Age (2002 - ongoing) and The Sanctuary (2004-2006) where photographs of landscapes are overlaid by bright-white apparitions formed by double-exposures of doilies, chain necklaces, threaded sequins and ribbons.
The polystyrene balls of The Field are also called into service multiple times, most notably in The Colony (2000-2002), produced for the 25th Sao Paulo Biennial. Here Hipkins glued together balls of various sizes, painted them and photographed them against makeshift paper backdrops. The 100 framed images are then hung in a pattern that evokes a bar graph or cityscape, though not in a specified order. The retro-coloured balls (lots of orange, red, grey and beige) have little sense of scale, looking both like habitation domes in an alien landscapes and spores on a petri dish. Writing about The Colony, Hipkins noted:
In their shapeliness, these photographs of small models aspire to slot into the category of generic mounds, hybrid forms and nowhere colonies that are found under the scientist's microscope, the astronomer's telescope, or the captain's periscope. Anywhere, but always, like history, at the end of a lens.(18)
This painting of props and confusion of scale re-emerges in Hipkins' current series, the Block Paintings (2015-ongoing). Here, miniature wooden blocks are painted in a restricted yet rich palette of colours (cream, white, crimson, black, grey, azure blue), then photographed with a shallow depth of field, throwing the painted surfaces into high relief in large prints, where the technology of photography, the tactility of painting, and the physical presence of sculpture merge.
It is impossible, surveying the full expanse of Hipkins' work, not to notice the pervasiveness of circular forms. They are there in every format and at every scale: the round light-switches in the Falls, the spheres that give form to photograms like The Field and The Coil, the gravid bobbles of The Colony, the ghostly doilies in The Sanctuary, sheeny buttons in The Terrace, embroidered ovals in Empire and Second Empire, the painted semi-circles of the Block Paintings. Writers have hypothesised on the circle in many ways but one intriguing possibility emerges from Hipkins' own childhood. As an eight-year old, he nearly drowned in a motel swimming pool. He retains a visceral memory of seeing from beneath the surface of the water the circle of an inner-tube floating above him, dark against the sunlight. A subliminal memory, perhaps, that has directed his vision ever since?
For almost as long as Hipkins has been making art, the moniker 'tourist of photography' has been attached to him. Coined by Giovanni Intra, the phrase has a dual meaning, encapsulating both the importance travel holds for Hipkins' practice (he has made work in India, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, England, the United States, Canada, and numerous other locations) and the way he calls upon diverse aesthetics and nuances within the history of photography (architectural, modernist, commercial, pictorial, documentary).(19) The label also evokes the close connection between modern tourism and photography, which developed in tandem: the activity of the camera-toting tourist, the use of imagery to sell tourist destinations, the way we understand distant places by way of the images produced and disseminated of them. Hipkins has knowingly played on all these connotations in his work, and much has been written on this theme. Here, I am interested in how time travel, as much as geographical travel, is a structural aspect of his work.
Photographs, of course, always entail some element of time travel. The technology literally freezes light: today's digital photographs, stuffed full of metadata as well as graphical information, could be seen as time capsules. The ineluctable sense of the passage of time contained within photographs is what imbues them so often with melancholy.
2 Justin Paton, 'The Anatomy Lesson', in Gavin Hipkins: The Circuit, Dunedin: Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 1999, np.
3 Blair French, 'Gavin Hipkins: Scouring Modernity', in Gavin Hipkins: The Pack, Woolloomooloo, NSW: Artspace Visual Arts Centre, 1999, np.
4 Blair French, 'Gavin Hipkins and International Photo-Art' in Gavin Hipkins The Homely, Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2001, p. 38
5. Ibid, p. 40
6. Reality Bites (1994), Jersey Films, Universal Pictures. Written by Helen Childress, directed by Ben Stiller.
7. Conversation with the artist, February 2017
8. Blair French, 'Gavin Hipkins and International Photo-Art', p. 43
9. William McAloon, 'Model Worlds: A decade of work by Gavin Hipkins, Art New Zealand, no. 109, Summer 2003/04, p. 58
12. Justin Paton, op cit, np
13. William McAloon, op cit, pp. 59-60
14 Conversation with the artist, February 2017
15. Barbara Blake, 'Image Sampler: Recent Photographic Work by Gavin Hipkins', Art New Zealand, no. 71, Winter 1994, p. 59
16. Conversation with the artist,February 2017. The Pictures Generation was crystallised in the exhibition Pictures curated by Douglas Crimp at Artists Space in New York in 1977, and his essay 'Pictures', published in October in 1979.
17. Gavin Hipkins, 'Second Empire: Spots of Time', Scope (Art), no. 3, November 2008, p. 90
18. Gavin Hipkins, 'Notes on The Colony', in Gavin hipkins: The Colony, Auckland: Gus Fisher Gallery, 2002, np.
19. Intra, op cit, p. 24
20 Robert Leonard, 'The Guide', Art and Text, no. 65 (May-July 1999), p. 41
21 Virginia Were, 'Playing the Surrealist card', Art News New Zealand (Spring 2014), p.106