Fiona Pardington's Childish Things at Starkwhite, Auckland


Installation view, Fiona Pardington: Childish Things at Starkwhite, Auckland. August, 2015. 

With the opening of Fiona Pardington: A Beautiful Hesitation looming at City Gallery, I rushed to Auckland to see Pardington’s first exhibition at Starkwhite featuring a new body of work Childish Things. These photographs extract words, then sentences, and then entire pages from letters in the collection of the Canterbury Museum written by the children of Dr Alfred Charles Barker. Barker was an early Christchurch settler and photographer—he was the ship’s surgeon on the Charlotte Jane, the ghostly presence of which has appeared in an earlier Pardington photograph.

These are new photographs, but they also take you right back, most obviously into a colonial period where native birds were hunted for sport, and to childhood attempts to master language (as a child who struggled with the ‘i before e’ rule I particularly empathise with Arthur Llewellyn’s misspelt ‘Blive’).

They also transport you back through Pardington’s work, specifically her re-presentation of found texts that reveal private desires. These often feature words written by children wearily entering the world of adult emotions and responsibilities, and adults expressing child-like inadequacies and desires—both through the use or abuse of language. There is the photograph of a touching note written by Pardington's daughter Akura following the death of her cat, perversely named Tui (a metaphorical distant relative of the ‘tuuy’ that appears in one of the Barker letters). Then there are her photographs of amorous notes passed between lovers, or the graffiti on the side of a rural bridge rather coarsely celebrating the feel of another’s body. It’s often difficult to discern which form conveys these longings and emotions most emphatically—the hand written (or painted) texts or Pardington's hand-printed photographs of those texts.

Tui died 1995
Image courtesy of Starkwhite, Auckland

All of these pronouncements are riddled with mistakes which seem to carry an almost existential doubt. Akura's misspelling of December as 'Demeber', echoes those errors made by the Barker children well over a century before. Of course in the chronology of Pardington’s practice, Akura's note actually predates the Barker children’s letters by a couple of decades. Time warps and folds in on itself in all sorts of ways in Pardington’s work—she chases and channels the power of the photograph to arrest time. In fact, the Barker children seem to regularly misspell the words that motivate the very practice that returns them to the world in contemporary form in this exhibition: photography, belief, hope, affect(ionate), love. It’s as though these letters were written to Pardington.

Pardington is drawn to such exclamations and they are drawn to her. On seeing the exhibition, I was first reminded not of one of Pardington’s photographs, but of a note pressed into her hand by a girl after an artist’s talk. The note thanks Pardington for discussing ‘the beauty of the unknown’ and 'the Beautiful Hesitation’, and finishes with the reassurance that ‘I too, am quite shy’. Pardington treasures this note as an unexpected and profound exchange between strangers made through written language—a similar power to that Arthur Llewellyn seeks in those scrawled words written to his Uncle Matthias centuries ago.

Courtesy of the artist's Instagram

In a week’s time the beautiful hesitation comes to City Gallery Wellington. The exhibition, A Beautiful Hesitation (22 August - 22 November, 2015) includes a couple of works from the Childish Things series. The words they extract from these letters: ‘I Am’ and ‘Photography’ feel particularly appropriate. The entire series can be seen at Starkwhite until 19 September.

- Curator, Aaron Lister. City Gallery Wellington.