By Ewen McDonald
(From Contemporary New Zealand Photographers, Mountain View Publishing, Auckland 2005)
Photographs have been described as ‘paper-thin evidence… fragments of truth’, and while they may be considered as images sealed upon delicate, light-sensitive surfaces, what is more important is that they are pictures capable of producing profound, resilient effects.1 As a process, photography freezes time, but to look at an image is to unlock the moment, bringing it into the present. As a particular form of evidence the photograph can appear to be a ‘faithful document’ but, equally, images can be notoriously fickle—subjects purposefully edited and framed, the selective process resulting in what can only be considered as a synthetic or simulated reality. And yet such ‘photographic moments’ impinge upon and infiltrate the everyday so pervasively that, in the end, it is difficult to determine what is truthful—the fleeting world or the illusion of life stilled in such a way that the encapsulations make it easier for us to make some sense of the world about us. That’s the ‘truth of the lie’: as distillations of experience and memory, photographs more often than not inform our tenuous links to reality. Put another way, as it is often said, ‘reality is out there just waiting to be processed’. Photography then, is a resuscitation of sorts, a bringing back to life: its fragility reinforces a strange, hypnotic kind of beauty within which we sometimes glimpse fragments of truth even though they may be paper-thin.
Truth, as in fidelity to circumstance, is made startlingly obvious in Neil Pardington’s photographic work. But there’s another kind of essential, elemental truth that emerges in the looking—the sense of the uncanny and its strange forms of recognition that reinforces a certain empathetic relationship with the subject, where each viewer may rediscover aspects of his/her own space and time. For Pardington, photographs act as metaphors. Through associative memory, traces of events and people somehow remain in the spaces represented— they evoke stories already told or suggest plots about to unfold. Space and emptiness therefore have a certain cinematic appeal as voids with narrative potential. Likewise, the compelling nature of a particular location—a psychiatric hospital for instance, where Pardington photographed a chair with kowhaiwhai patterns etched into its arm, the sign perhaps a cry for help—is one way of focusing the viewer’s attention on a detail that suggests so much more. In this sense the particular shifts to the general: it’s not so much a process of documenting a place in time as recognising within the particular something symbolic. As the artist has written:
While an appreciation of the importance of observation and metaphor underpin my current practice, of equal interest to me is the personal experience viewers bring to the act of looking. In simple terms, when making these images, I try to look past the obvious—the fact of what is in front of me—to how the image will fit into other lives and other stories. Part of the strength of these images is the way they tap into personal experiences, and this will be different for each viewer. This again reinforces the photograph’s ability to function as a symbol, rather than a mere representation of what is in front of the camera, or subsequently, the viewer.2
Often rooms are depicted as if film stills, devoid of people. Yet we know exactly what goes on within these places—they are institutional spaces with which many of us have personal, emotional and experiential affinity that, in turn, accounts for a certain pictorial tension. The large-scale seductive surfaces—the clarity of which is the result of the four-by-five format camera used—draw you into highly-ordered, often intensely detailed, sometimes formidable hospital rooms, creating a fine balance between voyeurism and a strange sense of active participation. Likewise the empty corridors and underground tunnels: here the eeriness of an endlessly receding space deep into the cores of buildings (metaphorically, like following a microscopic exploration down some vein or channel within the human body, or echoing the blinding whiteness and tunnel-vision one hears about with near-death experiences), becomes a mesmerising journey towards a focus—but it is a focus that is internalised rather than revealed. In other words, a sense of self-discovery is expected of the viewer and, in order to achieve this response, a certain sense of ‘emptiness’ has become a key element of Pardington’s practice. He makes ‘nothingness’ both poignant and meaningful: his photographic studies are less spatial depictions than experiential sites where viewers are enticed to imagine their own journey, places opened up for personal and philosophical speculation.
This is powerfully realised in ‘The Clinic/Te Whare o Rangiora’ series, an on-going project that began in 2003 to document a range of hospital rooms, corridors and other either forgotten or ‘out-of-bounds’ institutional spaces throughout New Zealand.3 With their almost perfect symmetry and even lighting, the images are frighteningly direct—the ‘full-frontal’ exposure epitomises the frankness and perfection we associate with hospital procedures. This is not the chaotic everyday, but these sanitised environments allude to the intensity and drama of emergencies, operations, autopsies, the blood and guts of ordinary life. Beyond the luscious, blemish-free images without shadows, ghosts are lurking—the fear and repulsion associated with accidents and disease. This compelling aspect, enhanced by the formal approach, makes human presence all the more palpable by its absence. Further, while each image is a totality unto itself, a self-contained study of a particular room, ‘The Clinic/Te Whare o Rangiora’ alludes to a much larger issue: institutionalised health and well-being.
By focusing on one of society’s most crucial institutions—the hospital and, by implication, health systems, anatomical research, the associated socio-political ramifications of administration and funding, the ideological, ethical and emotional connections we have developed over time to deal with our bodies and with the finality of death—the photographer casts himself in the role of social observer. As one reviewer has commented, it’s where ‘technology and corporality meet under the veil of the clinic and bureaucratic systems.’4 The investigation was inspired by Michel Foucault’s seminal book The Birth of the Clinic in which he investigates medical practice, especially the links between art and medicine.5 For the artist it was Foucault’s analysis of the ‘clinical gaze’ and, in particular, ‘the ability to view and understand the body, and subsequently disease through observation’ that captured his imagination because of the obvious parallels in art. But ultimately, the subject is the hospital as a place of life and death. As the artist writes:
…[while] an operating theatre is a stage for hope and recovery, the morgue can surely only deliver us to face death itself. Medicine and the arts have long been co-joined by their shared interest in the body. In the Renaissance cadavers provided physicians and artists with an understanding of human anatomy. Later the act of anatomical dissection became a subject itself in works such as Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632). And during the Age of Enlightenment the pace of experiment and discovery within medical science inspired elaborate publications illustrated with anatomical etchings and engravings. Today medical imaging has largely moved away from these traditions with the advances in radiology and other hi-tech imaging techniques. Medicine, however, still remains an inspiration for artists, writers and filmmakers. And the reason is simple really. It is a subject that engenders strong reactions and emotions, because whatever happens, it is about life and death, and we know the stakes could not be higher.6
Pardington is a narrator with an eye for detail whose images reveal the cultural and psychological implications of such institutions. While proclaiming a certain documentary objectivity, the intriguing aspect is the artist’s selectivity, the subjective response to each given location. In turn, the subtle shift from seduction to the revelation of an underlying, disturbing dimension, alerts us to the cold hard realities of any given situation, to the subjective nature of everyday life and the paradox of photography itself. Herein lies the crux of the ‘truth of the lie’: while the history of photography enlightens us about the mutability of the medium and the fact that photography is a response to living in the world—which, in turn, produces images that both simulate and challenge reality—it is the manipulation of meaning made possible through the photographic arts that has made a lasting impression.
With ‘The Clinic/Te Whare o Rangiora’ Pardington has adopted a systematic, investigative approach. The photographs of operating theatres, labs and slabs, the machinery of forensic science and anatomical dissection, are as clean and pure as the clinical environments they depict. Each space has been prepared (as if for a patient) for the photographer’s eye. As places frozen in time, they become specimens in bottles, a particular room or corridor in a particular hospital suspended and preserved the moment the shutter closed. But more than sterile spaces with a hint of another dimension or reality injected into them, the fact that such places are already symbolic is the focus. As well as exposing aspects of an entrenched institution, ‘The Clinic/Te Whare o Rangiora’ draws attention to the nature or truth of representation itself. The eye of the camera, as it simultaneously records and interprets the world, incorporates the actual as much as it includes imagined or constructed realities. With the operating theatre for instance, there is an obvious play on its theatrical dimension. While the room is composed in a very particular way—silent with no-one at work—it suggests a set-up or tableau, a stage set before the action begins.
This is typical of Pardington’s practice to date. All of his work plays on the fact that pictures have to be something more than their subject, something other than that depicted by the lens—they become spaces for projection and contemplation. In his hands, pictorial realisation ignites the senses, the images simultaneously pleasurable, compelling and disturbing—it’s a matter-of-fact doco-style imbued with symbolic overtones, where technical virtuosity merges with poetic intent to bring abandoned or desolate places back to life. And if at first these images seem to reflect that certain cool, detached gaze one can associate with much late twentieth-century photography—a systematic objectivity or critical analysis that attempts to convey the alienation of our contemporary condition—Pardington’s photographs equally relate to more conceptual practices whereby the ‘typical’ simultaneously is ‘the anonymous’, where ‘here’ is no place in particular but just a glimpse of a modern/post-modern human existence epitomised by bleak cities, deserted streets, office and apartment blocks, clean lines and hard surfaces. But there is more: Pardington’s works reveal how photography and digital processing are ways of conjuring realities. While their own ‘reality’ may only exist in the photographic moment, as ‘unreal’ or ‘distanced’ views of the ‘real’ world they purposefully broaden our ways of seeing and bring us face to face with humanity.
The scale of the images and the fact that they often comprise a photographic installation suggests that the artist is determined to explore what it is that can be experienced in a photograph. Despite the clarity of an all-embracing lens, it’s the sense of something deliberately left undisclosed that captivates. No longer dead rooms then, but evocative spaces that resonate beyond their frame. For writer Roland Barthes, photographs fascinate because of what they are about. But what is it, he asks, that the photograph transmits? By definition, he says, the scene itself, the literal reality: but of course, from object to its image, there is a reduction—in proportion, in perspective, in colour. Pointing out the obvious, Barthes emphasises that the image is not the reality but at least it is its perfect analogon—‘and it is just this analogical perfection which to common sense, defines the photograph.’ The focus then falls on the cultural implications of making and reading photographs and the fact that objects photographed are acknowledged inductors of associations of ideas. Composition thus determines a viewer’s response, can heighten a particular meaning. For Barthes the paradox of photography is that it makes an inert object into a language and transforms the ‘non-culture of a “mechanical” art into the most social of institutions.’7
The reality of the places selected by Pardington then, is precisely that which is not pictured but can be experienced or sensed. The absence of humans in these images captures the very essence of our precarious predicament—a paper-thin reality where remembering and forgetting equates with the blurring of life and death.
- W. Eugene Smith’s description of a photograph.
- Artist’s project notes, 2004.
- The first pair of images from The Clinic, Postmortem Room #1 (2003) and Operating Theatre #1 (2003), were commissioned for and exhibited as part of ‘Public/Private/Tumatanui/Tumataiti’: The 2nd Auckland Triennial, Auckland Art Gallery, March—May 2004.
- Stephen Naylor, ‘“Public/Private Tumatanui/Tumataiti”: The 2nd Auckland Triennial’, Art Monthly Australia #170 June 2004, p.16.
- Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, Routledge Classics, London 2003. The artist notes that for Foucault ‘the clinical
gaze is a gaze that burns things to their furthest truth’ while art theorist Craig Owens says of the Lacanian gaze: ‘The Lacanian gaze is punctual: it both punctuates (arrests, suspends) and punctures (pricks, wounds).’ The ‘Lacanian gaze’ and the ‘clinical gaze’ are both presented as a way of looking through, or into a subject to discover other meanings manifest in its form. See Craig Owens, ‘Posing’, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, eds Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, Jane Weinstock, University of California Press, Berkeley 1994.
- Artist’s project notes, 2004.
- Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard,
Hill & Wang, New York, 1985.