Review: Ann Shelton's Dark Matter
Ann Shelton’s retrospective exhibition Dark Matter prompts me to muse on the Ice Age word Bärenschliffe, which has been sounding through the Twittersphere recently.(1) Evoking perhaps Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), the word describes polished rock surfaces in caves that have been worn smooth by the passage of bears. At the level of touch, the surface of an unframed photograph would feel, one imagines, as smooth as cave walls soothed into soft by the slow, regular gait of bears. But although the caught-light surfaces of photographs may be smooth to the touch, they can bristle with what, however erroneously, certain cultures have labelled ‘darkness,’ to describe troubling, difficult or violent events. Dark Matter makes evident Shelton’s focus on troubling and violent events as diverse (yet interrelated) as: the loss of curative or ameliorative plant knowledge (including abortifacients),(2) and the women who were killed for their knowledge; the invasive panopticon of mental institutions and rehabilitation centres; the Nazi regime’s instrumentalisation of nature’s purity through the gifting of oak saplings to Olympic gold medallists at the 1938 Berlin Games; the death of anarchist and suicide bomber Neil Roberts who attempted to blow up the Wanganui Computer Centre in 1982,(3) and geographical locations where murder or violence, whether historical or fictional, took place.
This latter series of six photographs, titled Public Places (2001-2003), and jane says (2015-2016), Shelton’s most recent body of work on the curative and abortifacient properties of plants, rely on the viewer’s engagement with the individual titles of each work, and in the case of Public Places, on a degree of historical and cultural familiarity with the events, in order to accrue ‘darkness’. At the level of smooth photographic surface, Public Places, with its purposively bland title, presents a range of landscapes including an ostensibly scenic rock and mountain range vista, an eerily-scenic forest trail, then moves to the increasingly less picturesque depiction of an abandoned building, by way of a straggly forest with a gate barring access, a dilapidated beach hut, and a collection of headstones at a cemetery.
The straggly forest is indicative of the Florida locations in which Aileen Wuornos murdered her male victims, the abandoned buildings are the Seacliff Asylum, north of Dunedin (New Zealand), and the eerily-scenic forest trail is where Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme murdered Parker’s mother in the Port Hills, Christchurch (New Zealand) in 1954. The Parker-Hulme photograph’s full title is: Doublet (After Heavenly Creatures), Parker-Hulme crime scene, Port Hills, Christchurch, New Zealand. As a title it is a layered entity that encompasses the historical record, Peter Jackson’s successful filmic retelling (Heavenly Creatures, 1994), and the exact geographical location of the murder, as if allowing the possibility that the murder might linger, might be apprehensible some sixty-three years later (fifty-one years at the time the photograph was taken, sixty-three years in 2017).
Conceptually, the ‘Doublet’ of the title describes both the duo of Parker and Hulme and the mirror diptych format of this series, which is a recurring device in Shelton’s work. In the instance of Public Places, the mirror diptych runs along a horizontal axis so that the forest trail in Doublet appears in the foreground as a forked path veering in two divergent directions. By contrast once more from the street (2004), and in a forest (2005) share the mirror diptych format, but run along a vertical axis, so that the ‘Villas’ of the Lake Alice Hospital (psychiatric), Wanganui, and the ‘Seedlings’ (Hitler’s oaks) live and stretch into both the sky (‘right way’) and the earth beneath (‘upside down’). This doubling strategy enables Shelton to call into question the purported veracity of the singular photograph, and indeed of the photographer herself as a transmitter of unbiased truth.
In contrast to the large-scale diptychs of ‘picturesque’ landscapes seen in the series Public Places, the ‘flower arrangements’ of jane says are single photographs, yet share with the former, a sense of photography as an expanded field. This is evident, as with Public Places, in the productive dissonance between the apparently straightforward and beautiful image (a landscape, a flower arrangement), and the larger, ‘darker’ story revealed by the title. In the case of jane says, a stack of large takeaway sheets positioned in proximity to the series provides the viewer with a Benjaminian-style selection of excerpts on the loss of plant knowledge, abortifacients, and our particularly chaotic, ecological moment more generally. jane says is further activated by occasional in-gallery performances in which the entire text on the obverse of the takeaway sheet (The Physical Garden, 2016) is recited by artist Jordana Bragg.
The additional layers offered by the series jane says are evident in all nine titles of the presented works, in which the name of a flower, weed or herb is given its Latin taxonomical designation alongside the plant’s common name, and in another type of doubling, a ‘taxonomy’ of female ‘types’. These types generally fall into the historical (The Courtesan, Poroporo (Solanum sp.)), the fictional (The Mermaid, Wormwood (Artemisia sp.)), and the culturally constructed (The Hysteric, Fennel (Foeniculum sp.)). Rather than Michael Parekowhai’s series of flower arrangements (The consolation of philosophy: Piko nei te matenga, 2001) that represent European battle sites in which soldiers of the Māori Battalion remain buried, Shelton’s jane says registers women’s bodies as sites of contestation and violence. Despite, or in spite of the bright and colourful backdrops, and the beauty of each constructed flower arrangement, there lies a deeper history and its concomitant, lingering legacy.
Given the preponderance of formal and conceptual doubling throughout Shelton’s research-based practice, and this retrospective exhibition (astutely curated by Dr Zara Stanhope), it is unsurprising that the title Dark Matter refers not only to troubling and violent events, but to what a theoretical physicist using the same two words would describe as matter that has not been directly observed.(4) This titular doubling leverages Shelton’s practice of burrowing into the archive, undertaking research, and then either physically visiting architectural or geographic sites, or, in the case of jane says, creating a synecdochal artefact. She arrives in the after moment; after the walls of the cave have been worn smooth by bears. Amidst what Susan Sontag describes as “time’s relentless melt,” Shelton allows the bristling of dark events to pierce the smoothness of time. In such a way her work reanimates the archive by bringing out of the cave events that have been kneaded into obscurity. Over the course of the twenty-plus years covered in Dark Matter, Shelton has made a series of purposive photographic essays that seek to redress, reprise, reconstitute and reposition lives, particularly those ‘othered’ by society, that have been lived in the aftermath of historical and cultural oppression and violence.
(1) @Jamie_Woodward_ The Ice Age, Twitter, 13 March 2017.
(2) A plant or drug that causes abortion.
(3) The events of 1982 took place prior to the official reinstatement of ‘Whanganui’ as the town’s name in 2012.
(4) Calla Cofield, ‘New Animated Video Ponders the Mystery of Dark Matter’ http://www.space.com/36039-dark-matter-animated-video-janna-levin.html
(5) Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979), 15.
Robyn’s flight to Auckland was paid for by the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.