Virginia Were, ‘Gavin Hipkins’, Art News, Spring 2001.
Although Gavin Hipkins describes himself as a landscape photographer, you won’t see images of snow-capped mountains and rolling green hills in his work. His are social landscapes that are more likely to contain an urban punk or repressed Catholic sensibility than hills, trees, and flowers.
The Homely, a series of eighty colour photographs taken in Australia and New Zealand between 1997 and 2000, critiques our idea of nationhood in relationship to our “big brother”, Australia.
‘The photographs are like little ruptures or gaps’, he says. ‘They take on board our national icons—the silver fern, the kiwifruit—but they also ask what else is absent from the archive? What is missing from the story that we tell ourselves in our almost desperate search to define a sense of nationhood?’
One of the photographs in The Homely is of a shabby, fake carved gateway in Rotorua and another is of severed stone Aboriginal heads. And, if these images hint at the violence of forming a nation in both countries, then that’s probably what the artist meant.
Hipkins mines the mundane, taking a skew-whiff glance at suburban New Zealand so that what was once ‘homely’ now looks spooky and unsettling. Though his photographs have a dark, gothic sensibility running through them, he says he hopes they are in no way heroic, grandiose, or melodramatic.
He describes himself as a conceptual photographer whose work comments on the history of photography and its various genres. Of particular interest is tourist photography—those fat coffee table books that are found in every airport and whose images are used to market New Zealand as a tourist destination. Currently studying for a master’s degree in Vancouver, Hipkins’s next series is based in the Pacific Northwest of America. It looks at similar issues of post-colonial identity to The Homely and will be released in 2003 and 2004.
Sarah Catherall, ‘The Home Boy’, Sunday Star Times, 8 July 2001.
Gavin Hipkins was driving to a sports game in Timaru when he spotted a burning house beside the state highway.
The thirty-three-year-old photographer motioned to his friend to stop the Holden they were driving and shot the image on an instamatic camera he was carrying in his pocket.
The blurred photograph is now hanging on the walls at Wellington’s City Gallery, one of eighty images captured on Hipkins’s cheap camera over a four-year period. The Homely is the biggest photographic project the Wellington artist has undertaken and he dubs it a ‘post-colonial gothic novel’.
The former Massey University lecturer delves into childhood in Onehunga in the 1970s, exploring nationhood, historical folklore, and colonial links to the British Empire. The exhibition is part of a suite of shows of four New Zealand artists running at the gallery until October.
Photographs taken in Australia and New Zealand on his cheap camera are positioned side-by-side like an unfolding story—shots of objects in museums and war memorials, along with parts of paintings, window displays, and street features.
‘I carried my camera in my pocket and I’d pull it out in a bar or something. Serious photographers have a large-format camera but that slows you down. I wanted a sense of fluidity. Many of these’, he motions around the gallery, ‘were shot from a car window.’
His unique view of New Zealand identity includes individual snaps of an enclosed waterslide, a fast-food sign in Wellsford and a row of ‘timeline’ cookbooks. ‘I’m interested in New Zealandness. Overnight, the kiwifruit was colonised. We knew it as the Chinese gooseberry and it was renamed to be another icon about belonging that we could export.’
Hipkins does not criticise colonisation but points to the violence that can stem from it. In two images, the eyes on a Maori gateway in Rotorua are peeling off and an Aboriginal stone head in an Australian crime museum has been severed.
Some of the photographs, which sell for $1500 each, tell bizarre tales. A venetian blind has been hanging on the window of a Nelson house for twenty-five years. Look closely and you notice a small hole which was actually made by a bullet. ‘My friend was a toddler and his mother was shot at by a man across the road. The bullet went through the window and ended up in his grandfather’s shoe. The amazing thing is that venetian blind hasn’t changed in his grandmother’s house for all those years.’
The son of an atheist father and Catholic mother, Hipkins felt a tension between the two faiths when growing up. He watched The Exorcist and The Omen on a screen on the church hall wall.
‘The title of this show purposely starts with “The”. It’s like the horror films of the period I grew up in, which were all titled that way. The mood here is of gothicness but it’s not like the gothicism of The Piano, it’s sicker than that and there’s a level of grossness about it.’
Hipkins is one of New Zealand’s leading young photographers and is fast developing an international reputation. Currently based in Vancouver where he is studying photography, he was involved in a group exhibition at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and his work has hung at galleries in Italy, Berlin, the United Kingdom, and throughout Australia. The Elam School of Fine Arts graduate was chosen to study in London but was drawn to Vancouver because it too is a young city, with parallel histories about the search for identity and displacement of indigenous people.
There are no people on the walls and the works are more about space. That also partly reflects the lack of people in New Zealand. Since Hipkins has been home to open this show, he finds it strange to be in a city and hear the quietness around him.
‘There’s a sense of eeriness. Even our idea of a crowded city is different. But space is a luxury thing.’
His friend and mentor, Peter Peryer, is part of the Four Faces of New Zealand Art show and is one of the few photographers making a living from his art. Hipkins says internationally, photographers can command good prices for their work.
‘In New Zealand, there’s an attitude that anyone can take photographs. Why spend $1000 on a photograph when it’s just a piece of paper? But that attitude is just absurd.’
William McAloon, ‘Crossing the Gulf to Meet the Phantoms of National Character’, Sunday Star Times, 29 July 2001.
The Homely is a project Gavin Hipkins developed over several years, culminating—although not necessarily concluding—with its exhibition at City Gallery. Eighty prints hung in a single line around the gallery wall, it is an extraordinary and hugely engaging work. Taking its title from Sigmund Freud’s notion of the unheimlich—the uncanny, sometimes translated as the unhomely—it is, as Lara Strongman puts it nicely in the accompanying publication, ‘a work of profound cultural psychoanalysis, in which Hipkins has pictured the phantoms of national character’.
These phantoms take the form of images gathered in Australia and New Zealand, evoking a sense of both the familiar and the strange. Some are instantly recognisable, images we know from postcards as much as from holiday snaps, as Hipkins journeys through the landscape. Others are more private, seeming to have emerged from some lost family album, while others still are just downright odd, whether whimsically or darkly so.
The strip of images includes a lighthouse, a burning house viewed from the road, a snow mask from a museum display of early Antarctic exploration, trees in blossom and a bullet hole in some suburban venetian blinds. Together the images seem to imply an overarching narrative, but one that can’t quite be drawn out. Many of the photographs are utterly compelling. There is a decidedly gothic edge here, a sense that the pool of collective memory from which these images have emerged possesses a definite chill.
At Hamish McKay Gallery, Hipkins shows an entirely different body of work. The Gulf is a set of seven “falls”, a technique he has impressively made his own. These works are ordinary machine prints that haven’t been cut; that is, they are presented in free-hanging strips of the twenty-four or sometimes twenty-five images in a vertical row. Each of the seven works is made up of twenty such strips, so, by quick arithmetic, that’s over 3000 clicks of the shutter button.
The result is a dizzying array of images. Motifs move in and out of the individual strips and across the whole of each work, creating a kind of visual pulse within the overall grid. Where The Homely seeks out the singular, The Gulf seems to revel in the welter of visual information that surrounds us.
Many of the images appear to be already mediated—possibly captured from television and more likely the Internet. Indeed, it is the latter that provides each of the seven works with their subtitles (Redhead, Mature, Blonde, Asian, and so on), in reference to the amateur porn sites that some of the images come from. Contrasting with these are shots of utterly mundane objects—plastic bits and pieces, balloons, ribbons, fabric, and sometimes just what appears to be the colour of carpet or wall. You’re left with a sense of visual overload matched by a feeling of emotional emptiness.
What Hipkins might be suggesting in this combination of triviality and titillation is that a gulf exists between experience and its representation. As they proliferate and take in every aspect of human experience, the work seems to suggest, images risk becoming increasingly evacuated of meaning. Not that Hipkins casts himself into this void, or suffers any loss of faith in the possibility that images afford, as The Homely amply demonstrates.
Lloyd Jones, ‘Home Sweet, Sour Home,’ New Zealand Listener, 4 August 2001.
Dioramas were hugely popular at the turn of the nineteenth century. By dint of enclosed space and lavish imagery they achieved what we today would call total immersion in the ‘great sights of the world’. Such sights were likely to include anything from magnificent waterfalls, to glimpses inside the court of the Chinese Emperor, to great naval battles, or reimagined and recast epics such as the ransacking of Constantinople. Gavin Hipkins’s photographic show The Homely has taken the idea of the diorama and made it more focused and poignant by adding perspective—namely, his own—to a journey through upbringing and landscape.
The first impression at Wellington’s City Gallery, where the show is now on, is of a large strip of celluloid running the length of two walls. Each image is neatly chaptered, framed and nudging the other. Hipkins has chosen to call this journey a ‘novel’, a ‘post-colonial gothic novel’ no less. This risks playing loose with the notion of what a novel is, yet justifiably serves as provocative reference to the fiction-making behind these photographs and those icons he takes aim at.
The Homely gathers together the things or furnishings we as a nation think of as important, and those other sightlines that remind us of our place in the world. In all, the eighty images record a coming of age for Hipkins, and the nation.
The show is rich in colour and layered with ideas. The surfaces of the images are lush and at times painterly. The darkness hinted at by the promise of ‘gothic’ is not particularly evident or heavy-handed. More often Hipkins’s eye reveals a loving regard. The fraying wall-paper next to a door jamb with its markings charting the growth of a family of kids, as if so many lengths of timber, is cooked with warmth. Likewise, the food board of a Wellsford takeaway has never looked so cherished.
Many of the images are comical, such as the Plains scene of two stockcars, one in blue and gold paint, the other in black and red, parked on the boundary between Otago and Canterbury. Some sequences suggest by their grouping a lineage in form and colour, as seen in the plumage of an Australian bird, a kea, and the balaclava of an early polar explorer. The white belly of a trout, the white spume of Huka Falls, and the molecular white-and-blue forms of paving stone also make some claim for filial connection.
A number of Australian scenes are included. The timbered floor and cane furniture of an Australian interior follows on quite naturally from the display of woodblocks. One landscape quite naturally segues into the other. Elsewhere, a painted landscape occupies the background of a photographed foreground. A coiled snake is seen to writhe from the painted landscape into the photographed foreground. Long before the term ‘biosecurity’ was ever coined, let alone breached, the absence of snakes in New Zealand and their abundance in the Australian bush provided still more reason for trans-Tasman smugness.
As you would expect of so many images gathered under the promise of ‘novel’, there is also narrative here. The story begins with a few items of piety offloaded on the shore. A church cross fashioned out of rope; competing forces prefigured in whalebone white against a dark backdrop. The rope with its hint of future fraying. A coastal view from the Otago diorama, tall-masted ships, the hillsides with their memory of sea and coastal longing. Progress is recorded: a disintegrating Maori gateway straddles a decaying railway line. One or two story beats along we come to the model of the Maori village pored over by us primary-school ethnologists; the snub noses of military aircraft; and, into the postwar period, the lantern Hillary jaw, parks, and playgrounds.
Hipkins is also keen to suggest the sexual imagery of the landscape. Some of the sexual wisecracking is slightly undergrad, but, then, we are speaking of journey, and adolescence is one stop along the way. So, fair enough, you might argue, to include a vulva-shaped tear in a tree trunk; an upright rock; billiard-table pockets that, with a little persuasion, might look like a scrotum (the billiard cue casting its upright shadow against the painted-by-numbers woman); and so on.
Many of the images in their scrupulous colour regime remind one of a post-murder scene. The swept lawns of a park, the fringe of pine trees, the absence of people. Something has happened here or indeed may even be happening as we observe. Here, the gothic makes its presence felt. The lush and reassuring depth of colour of the venetian blind in a Nelson house recalls the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where the camera plunges into a suburban green lawn and another layer of barbarity. Now look closely at the venetian blind and you see the hole in the window made by a passing bullet.
The most disturbing images are the last three, each more menacing than the previous. Image one, with the formality of a police exhibit, displays some mechanical part, metallic grey, possibly a weapon. The next image is of an uninhabited polar-fleece coat. It seems to stand upright of its own accord, refuting any need to be possessed. In the last and most troubling image of the narrative, the lens glances off the decks of launches moored in the foreground to the vacant-looking homes on the hills of Picton. It is impossible to look at this photo and not think of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart. This is a dark place to end. By now, we’ve circled around the room to an area of the wall a few paces away from the starting point of the church cross. The founding moral forces have turned threadbare. It is a superb show, and among the best evidence that local photography is at last developing a brain.