Love Never Faileth: The Shape of a Practice

Fiona Pardington has represented heitiki and heitiki have come to represent her. Mauria Mai, Tono Ano (2001) is a suite of seven photographs of Kāi Tahu heitiki from the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Pardington photographed the heitiki to liberate them from museological systems of classification and display, to return them ‘to the light’. The series initiates and links two key dimensions crucial for her subsequent work: the exploration of her Kāi Tahu whakapapa and the photographing of museum objects. These images have been celebrated as a major achievement, paradoxically becoming museum objects themselves. The series has played a central role in the ways her entire practice has been presented and valued, understood and misunderstood.[i] Mauria Mai, Tono Ano’s foundational status makes it an ideal starting point to consider the shape of Pardington’s practice.

Mauria Mai, Tono Ano has been promoted as a contemporary celebration of the power of taoka (the Kāi Tahu term for what is known in other Māori dialects as taonga). However, Pardington says it challenges positive assumptions or myths about Māori culture – that all carving is high quality, that all taoka exist in beautifully realised form.[ii] In selecting her subjects – or, as she puts it, letting them select her – Pardington ignored the most celebrated examples from the collection. She was drawn, instead, to those deemed inferior due to their poor quality pounamu, damage, or lack of provenance. Her photographs accord a power to these orphaned and broken examples, one that the museum denies them. They are recognised as living beings imbued with mauri, and as equals to those other heitiki celebrated as exemplary. Hero images have been made out of orphaned forms.

Commentators on Mauria Mai, Tono Ano seem determined to see the work as a research-driven, postcolonial inquiry that celebrates taoka and interrogates the museum. They rarely consider the wider body of work that the series sits within or the thematic cycles that churn through all of Pardington’s practice, which confound the assumed relationships between photography, taoka, and museums that Mauria Mai, Tono Ano is typically seen to celebrate. The discussion tends to stay within the safe confines of this small group of photographs or extends out only to explore Pardington’s other collection-based works that appear to operate on reparative terms, such as her photographic reanimations of extinct birds, feathers, and nests.

Pardington makes families of photographs. The seven heitiki in this series are part of a much larger family that includes photographs of other heitiki from other museum collections. There are the ‘wonky tikis’, including Pākehā artist Len Lye’s eroticised, primitivist version made of wood rather than pounamu. There is another heitiki burdened by its angular modernist form, and a ‘Fake Sad Hei Tiki’. Pardington has even photographed plastic souvenir tiki made for the tourist market, the type of appropriation to which her project is routinely and simplistically posed as a corrective. Alongside such ‘inauthentic’ heitiki sit even more problematic objects. There’s the strangely anthropomorphic pendant Taniwha (2002), whose ritualistic function is now lost to us, and a heitiki carved from human bone. Both come from the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum at Banks Peninsula. Their material, spiritual, and cultural complexities have kept these objects – and Pardington’s photographs of them – in the dark, away from the light granted to the more affirmative Mauria Mai, Tono Ano.

For Pardington, the museum is not just a site of colonial power and oppression, it is also one of awe and wonder. She vividly recalls childhood experiences of her grandmother leading her through the dimly lit halls of Auckland Museum, and being awestruck by Māori carvings and bandaged ‘Egyptian mummies’. These formative experiences allowed her to see the full range of forces, light and dark, alive in all objects and images. As a photographer, Pardington is impelled to chase these forces.

Mauria Mai, Tono Ano led her back to Auckland Museum, as did the later Ahua series (2010) of photographs of life casts made of Oceanic peoples during nineteenth-century French voyages of discovery to the Pacific. Following a lead that casts of Kāi Tahu tipuna were made during these voyages, Pardington started a global search which focused on collections in France, but these also returned her home. She discovered that seven plaster copies of these life casts were held in storage at Auckland Museum, and had been exchanged for a collection of objects that included thirty Māori skulls. Pardington’s photographs carry, rather than simply critique, such complexities.

The Ahua photographs breathe mana back into subjects once presented as the culturally exotic, genetically inferior other. Searching through French museum collections, she found and photographed these casts and others she had not anticipated finding. These included death casts of guillotined criminals, suicide victims lifted from the Seine, and syphilis sufferers whose ravaged faces had been preserved for science. Despite the initial horror of finding all these casts stored alongside one another, Pardington looked as sympathetically on these examples as on those of her own ancestors. To treat these subjects as less worthy would be another violation of their humanity and dignity. Empathy and compassion underpins Pardington’s engagement with all her subjects. In her essay in this book, Sue Best identifies ‘a consistent humanising force’ as defining Pardington’s photography.

Like the wonky tiki, Pardington’s photographs of these afflicted and deformed casts have been ignored or treated as asides to the more revelatory and culturally useful Oceanic subjects. It is difficult and uncomfortable to consider these subjects together – just as it was for Pardington to encounter and photograph them in those museum storerooms. Her photographs transfer this traumatic experience to the viewer and the culture. Pardington is drawn to murky, problematic cultural encounters, especially as they play out in our increasingly sanitised and regulated contemporary world. She pries open and makes images of incredible beauty out of the darker workings of history and culture. Her insistence that complexities cannot be smoothed over is political and aesthetic.

Pardington is a maker and unmaker of culture. Her work is both about and resistant to systems of classification, and to the ways the objects and experiences of the world are ordered and reordered through representation. She has consistently sought the same possibilities for her works that she proposes for the heitiki in Mauria Mai, Tono Ano. She refuses to let her photographs settle into a contained, easily navigable body of work, or to sit comfortably within the cultural frameworks that have tried to claim them. Her photography has always been open to the forces that connect material and immaterial realms, the past and the present. This insistence underpinned her early courting of chance elements in analogue printing, reaching beyond the mechanical to let in other presences. It also underpins her later daily ritual of salvaging objects washed onto the beach as ‘gifts of Tangaroa’ to use in her still lifes. Highly attuned to natural and supernatural forces, Pardington’s photographs have often resisted the arguments made for them as contemporary art.

Pardington studied photography at Elam School of Fine Arts in the early 1980s, a time when the medium was fully entering the art system, being exhibited and collected. Seduced by the possibilities of the dark room, Pardington’s classical aesthetic, romanticism, and hand-printing skills separated her from the prevailing documentary tradition that had formed around Photoforum guru, Elam lecturer John B. Turner. She used photography less to describe the material world than to venture into the immaterial and emotional one. She relished what Photoforum had rejected – the theatrical and romantic excesses of pictorialism, gravitating towards the examples of nineteenth-century photographers Frederick Holland Day and Julia Margaret Cameron.[iii] She also looked to the emotionally and erotically driven portraiture of New Zealand photographers Anne Noble and Peter Peryer.

Intensely personal and emotional, Pardington’s photography turned inwards. She took her family, friends, and immediate surroundings as subjects. The surfaces of her photographs functioned as sites of vulnerability and alchemical possibility; she subverted the lustrous beauty of her images by scratching or staining her negatives and prints. Secondhand wooden or lead frames and elaborate mounts featured collages of texts, colluding in the multiple readings that she insisted photographs should offer.[iv]

Pardington pinpoints her initial interest in photography to a childhood memory – hearing her grandmother Dorothy describe the camera’s ability to steal souls and manifest spirits.5 While Dorothy often appears as a portrait subject in Pardington’s works, she is never simply made a subject for the photograph; the process is made subject to her oracular powers. Heavy Penance (1992) was printed through a crepe scarf owned by Dorothy. The scarf was laid on the photographic paper and then projected onto, becoming a type of photogram. The hybrid, alchemical qualities of this photograph were also carried through the use of multiple toners: sepia, selenium and gold. It is as if Dorothy enters the photograph through the process itself – as another form of magic.[v]

Pardington’s photographs of this time were both anachronistic and contemporary, kitsch and cool. They violated the Photoforum tradition, which sought to validate unique qualities of the medium. This attracted the new critical perspectives of the late 1980s and 1990s that would bring Pardington’s work to prominence but also struggle to contain it.

Pardington’s post-Elam work was seen as feminist. Critics focused on her attempts to represent female desire through her treatment of male subjects, anchored by her much-quoted statement that ‘women should now reconstruct their experiences of the male body’.[vi] But Pardington’s photographs refused to offer the textbook subversion of ‘the male gaze’ that was claimed for them. Stuart McKenzie challenged feminist readings of photographs such as Saul (A Portrait of Joseph Makea in his Beekeeper’s Helmet) and Prize of Lilies: Portrait of Joseph Makea (both 1986). He pointed out that Pardington’s photographs are always ‘wounded’ and appeal to the pleasures of masochism by acknowledging female attraction to violent masculinity. The boxer in Prize of Lilies holds a bunch of flowers in his taped-up hands. The generic symbolism of lilies as representing purity and the Virgin is meshed with the more specific association of arum lilies, which indicate the coming of death. McKenzie argued, ‘If it is true that Pardington’s photos subvert stereotypical notions of gender, they do not do so in any stereotypical way.’ Rather than attempt to extract Pardington from a feminist discourse, McKenzie argued that her refusal to conform to the strict dictates of feminist theory must be understood as ‘the hotbed of her feminism.’[vii]

Thirty years later, these portraits remain key works in Pardington’s oeuvre, though readings have shifted to emphasise personal, biographical narratives. These photographs are now treated as portraits of Pardington’s partner Joseph. Rather than address general gender roles, they have now settled among the portraits Pardington made of her grandmother, daughter, brother, and friends at this time. Their overt roleplay seems less concerned with overturning the gaze, than as part of what Kriselle Baker’s essay in this book identifies as a wider strategy of ‘acting out’ that Pardington uses to bind photographer and subject. In these photographs, the personal and the political were never distinct. Their titles identify the sitter; his de facto relationship with the photographer was known to the original audience, albeit downplayed in early readings. This knowledge intensifies, rather than dissipates, the psychosexual exchange the portraits play out.

These portraits were also included in the exhibition Imposing Narratives: Beyond the Documentary in Recent New Zealand Photography (1989), curated by Gregory Burke, which attempted to map a generational shift centred on the emergence of postmodernism. Pardington was the youngest artist included in the exhibition. It attributed her work with a deconstructive impulse: to politically interrogate representation. However, just as McKenzie resisted feminist readings of Pardington’s work, Allan Smith insisted that her photographs were not limited to a deconstructive impulse. Instead, he read them as carriers of a ‘clotted subjectivity’. Arguing that their arcane forms, vulnerability, lyricism, and combination of the sacred and profane was antithetical to postmodernism, he instead located Pardington’s work in a darker romantic symbolist tradition, dating back to such artists as Gustav Klimt, Max Klinger and Gustave Moreau.[viii]

Through the 1990s, as the battles over the positioning of her work intensified, Pardington shed many elements that had been the basis of critical readings in the previous decade. She stopped using elaborate frames and matts with collaged text. Although she continued to use found text, it became located within the image rather than on the mount or the frame. For instance, her photographs from museum collections often include the object’s descriptive label. These labels hover indeterminately between referring to the object and the photograph of the object. Pardington continued to re-present found (often handwritten) texts that reveal private desires. There are photographs of a paean to the glories of a lover’s body spraypainted on the side of a rural bridge, and of a letter written to a dead cat by her young daughter Akura – a child’s first experience of death. A declaration of love scrawled on an automatic teller-issued banknote appears in one of the still lifes. The One Night of Love series (2001) is titled after a handwritten sign found in a Lee Miller photograph.

The handwriting of a long dead child is the focus of the series Childish Things (2015). Here, Pardington extracts and re-presents words and sentences from the letters of Arthur Llewellyn Barker, written in the 1850s or 1860s. His father, Charles Barker, was one of New Zealand’s first colonial photographers; indeed, as Ron Brownson explains in this book, he was the first New Zealand photographer to document his family and surroundings. Pardington’s photographs often invoke such familial ties, and seeks them out in the work of others. As the maker of many of the life casts she has photographed, French phrenologist Alexandre Pierre Marie Dumoutier could easily be a malign presence in Pardington’s work. But any lingering criticism of the pseudoscience he practised, or the racial theories he advanced, drop away when faced with Pardington’s instantly humanising photograph of the cast he made of his infant daughter Angelina soon after her death.

Just as Pardington continues to push the possibilities of found text, the black painted kauri frames of her recent still lifes extend her earlier use of framing devices to confuse the border between representation and reality. These frames are known colloquially as ‘the Goldie frames’, in reference to the New Zealand colonial painter of Māori portraits. Where the battered secondhand frames of her older work domesticised and undercut the material preciousness of the photograph, the Goldie frames impose a sense of grandeur and history, invoking old-world European painting traditions. They also draw attention to the way Goldie painted his native-wood frames black, and connect this act to the widespread practice of painting native timber floorboards of colonial villas in an effort to impose other values and associations on the local and the natural.

Pardington transforms the possibilities of the still-life genre by presenting salvaged objects layered with personal, cultural, and environmental meanings that are outside its tradition. She invokes the aesthetics and history of the still life in order to unravel it, embedding the genre within a larger history of cultural exchange and encounter, and insisting that the terms of this encounter are always subject to change.

Similar principles underpin Pardington’s use of found images in the 1990s. The series now known as One Night of Love emerged from a gift of proof sheets made in London in the 1950s or 1960s of female nudes destined for men’s magazines. The Medical Suite (1994) started as a search for sources of colour photography, satiated in the medical section of secondhand bookstores. Pardington’s formal interest in medical photography soon migrated to its content, or, rather, to the relationship between form and content as played out over broken and diseased bodies. With both projects, Pardington redirected her earlier investigations into sexuality and gender by re-photographing and re-presenting found images as her own. Giovanni Intra’s assertion that The Medical Suite represents medical photography ‘diverted from its clinical path’ can be extended to One Night of Love’s relationship to pornography.[ix]

Pardington continually set up relationships between these two bodies of work, suggesting that the seemingly discrete boundaries of art, pornography, and medicine serve to regulate the personal and collective experience of all bodies. The two series continually leaked into each other. The ambiguous expression of the woman undergoing a medical procedure in Heartsick (1994) reads as agony, ecstasy, or both. Although belonging to The Medical Suite, her submissive demeanour echoes that of many of the explicitly sexualised subjects of One Night of Love, who each deal with the process to which they are submitting themselves and their implied viewer.

Pardington often exhibited her found images alongside photographs made in the directorial mode. In Tainted Love, an exhibition at Auckland’s Sue Crockford Gallery in 1994, she presented The Medical Suite with a series of staged photographs seemingly parading the after-effects of various types of perverse sexual activities. These found and constructed images conflated the sexual and the pathological, pleasure and pain, cause and effect. This was the first time that Choker (1993) was shown. Itwould become one of Pardington’s most notorious photographs. It shows a woman’s neck wearing a disarming necklace of marks, which could be love bites or strangulation bruises – a possibility especially evident to those who could recall Pardington’s earlier interest in female masochism. This staged studio photograph could, in fact, belong to either of Pardington’s found-image series from this time.

Pox (1994) similarly straddles the line between Pardington’s found and constructed imagery. The arched, pockmarked torso could belong to The Medical Suite, yet the image is of Pardington’s daughter. Akura was suffering from chicken pox, an ailment that allowed Pardington to apply her newly acquired knowledge of the tropes of medical photography. The subject of Pox was not revealed at this time, and has only recently been made public with the consent of the now adult sitter. Pardington’s ethical need to maintain her daughter’s anonymity recalls medical photography’s turning of individuals into anonymous case studies, defined by their condition alone. Pardington went the other way with One Night of Love. She named the predominantly anonymous women in the photographs as part of a process of reclaiming and empowering them, liberating them from the pornographic context.[x] She would later apply this same approach, to different ends, with orphaned heitiki in Auckland Museum.

In the 1990s, Pardington’s photography was celebrated for its transgressive qualities, which extended beyond content to include all forms of presenting and making work. Heartsick (1994) wasoriginally exhibited as a small black-and-white silver-gelatin print in the clinical white frames of The Medical Suite. In 1997, it was drum-scanned and reprinted as a 6 x 4-metre, luridly coloured photomural for Dunedin Public Art Gallery. This re-presentation granted a new authority to the anonymous subject. In an interview with ‘Psychoanalyst Dr May Pang’, Pardington suggested that this work ‘might just be wanting to dominate doctors, giving them a taste of their own medicine, thinking they control truth about us, our minds and bodies, and what is appropriate’.[xi] The interview’s pitched battle around the entwined ethics of art and medicine, and artist and psychoanalyst, was itself staged. Pang’s questions were ghostwritten by art writer Gwynneth Porter.

Pardington took this transgressive mode of presentation out into the world with Practice Restraint, made for Artspace’s 1993 billboard project Changing Signs. Here, another image from an old medical journal – a patient in a swing designed to support an injured spine – was transformed into a bile-coloured public service announcement apparently celebrating the glories of bondage. She participated in Artspace’s 1994 ‘pornography exhibition’ 150 Ways of Loving, and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery’s 1996 fetishism exhibition Sharp and Shiny. This was all undertaken as part of the activities of a new generation of predominantly ex-Elam artists in Auckland, largely based around ‘alternative’ galleries Artspace and Teststrip.

In the 2001 exhibition The Contingencies of Vision, at Nelson’s Suter Art Gallery, Pardington and curator Peter Shand extended this mode of re-presenting found imagery to amplify the physical and psychological encounter with the photograph. A One Night of Love photograph was enlarged and displayed on the floor. Its subject, now christened Jenny, was presented to be looked down upon and walked over. In the same year, an outdoor banner featuring an enlarged photograph from the series was stolen on the eve of a solo exhibition at the Waikato Museum of Art and History. Despite a public appeal, the banner was never recovered. The motivations behind its disappearance remain a mystery, but are certainly bound up with the same issues of complicity, desire, ownership and control raised by the placement of the photograph on the floor.

These re-presentations were as much concerned with transgressing the boundaries of the medium as those of the subject. Pardington’s shift to digital photography in the early 2000s is part of this long drive to ever more complex forms of realisation that could alter the ways her photographs move through or pass beyond the material world. Rather than marking an overt break from her analogue mode, Pardington embraced the possibilities that the digital offered to her established ways of working. When called upon, Photoshop’s blurring, burning, and dodging tools have supplanted her earlier use of hand-printing and toning. Where she once relied on scanning to present her hand-printed images at mural or billboard size, her recent digital work is not only made to be displayed at an epic scale, it is orientated around the physical and conceptual possibilities that such scale brings. The still lifes envelop the viewer, pulling them into their interior world. Pardington’s use of gesso substrates for some of her still lifes represents another attempt to push at the material realisation of photography. The photographic image is printed onto a gesso surface that removes the need for a glass support, further blurring the relationship to painting as a medium and to the grand European still-life tradition.

Shaped by the possibilities and responsibilities that come when working with taoka and museums, Mauria Mai, Tono Ano played a significant role in Pardington’s transition from analogue to digital modes. She re-orientated her analogue processes and established relationship to objects around Māori concepts of representation which insist that heitiki are living beings. Using long exposures and measured bursts of light, Pardington revealed the light and energy which, from a Māori perspective, is held within the greenstone. Her hand-printing process took on a vital new importance, by emphasising that heitiki depend on bodily contact with the living – an experience that is denied through their reclassification as museum objects locked away behind glass or inside storage drawers. Her analogue photographs work to shift our comprehension of the heitiki, moving them from a physical to a virtual or spiritual plane of existence.

Here, Pardington was working explicitly as a Kāi Tahu artist with Kāi Tahu materials, and this series marks an overt shift to responding through culturally specific understandings of the powers held within objects. Yet Pardington was no stranger to these possibilities. Her practice was already centred on the personal, cultural, and symbolic modes of exchange that photography makes possible. The photographs of heitiki are, in this sense, part of the same family or cycle of work as those earlier portraits of Pardington’s own family members or the objects that represent them, and share that sense of intimate exchange between photographer and subject. Like the familial subjects of those early portraits, the heitiki seem to recognise Pardington as she recognises them.

Taniwha (1990) hovers between these two bodies of work. This diptych of a block of soap is another veiled portrait of Dorothy. For Pardington, the soap evokes the smell of her grandmother’s house, and so summons her presence. Photographing the soap provided another way to bridge that connection with the past and with the deceased. Pardington acknowledges the relationship between these two bodies of work in resting the heitiki on Dorothy’s faux-fur opera coat in Mauria Mai, Tono Ano. This coat serves as the backdrop for many of Pardington’s photographs. Dorothy is present in these photographs of heitiki, and in all of Pardington’s work.

These connections across series are not surprising considering the circumstances that led to Pardington making her whakapapa the focus of her investigations. In her early twenties, she discovered that the man who raised her was not her biological father and that her biological father was Māori. A family secret was revealed, relationships changed, and Pardington was left to work through this ruptured sense of personal and cultural identity. It took almost two decades to reconcile this understanding with her practice, a process she describes as ‘like Jacob struggling with the Angel’.[xii] The work she made over that period has never been considered in view of these traumatic shifts to her identity. While never directly addressed in her work, this struggle can perhaps be felt in the photographs of that time, such as those intimate portraits of family members – especially of her brother Neil, who undertook ‘the same cultural journey’, which at this time he claimed ‘drives his work’ in ‘oblique’ ways.[xiii]

Pardington’s distinctive take on feminism from the mid-1980s may also be filtered through this struggle. Commentators at that time constantly noted ‘the lack of visibility of Māori and Pacific Island women within the debates surrounding feminism, feminist theory and representation’.[xiv] Pardington’s photographs from that time held some of these alternative possibilities, and this potentially explains their ambivalent relationship to feminist discourse. Anne Kirker’s essay ‘Re-Orientating Feminism in Aotearoa’ presents Pardington as feminist, allied to artists Merylyn Tweedie, Margaret Dawson, Megan Jenkinson, Marie Shannon, and Christine Webster. Pardington’s work now seems to have less in common with their practices than with the novel Kirker proposes as a model for the bringing together of feminist and Māori perspectives absent from the visual arts – the bone people (1983) by Kāi Tahu/Scottish author Keri Hulme. Kirker’s description of Hulme’s magic realism could equally describe Pardington’s work of this time and beyond:

This highly innovative novel challenged writing in terms of the all persuasive male discourse. It deconstructed the binary thinking of Western-orientated culture, up-ended traditional gender stereotyping and resisted easy definitions of practically everything, including religion.[xv]

A key moment in Pardington’s embrace of what she would later describe as ‘the tension between photography and taoka Māori’[xvi] was the development of a supportive working relationship with Moana Tipa, Arts Development Facilitator with the Ngāi Tahu Development Corporation. This and subsequent relationships to specific people, sites and taoka provided the support for Pardington to start exploring this complex tension. Crucially, this process started when she was the Frances Hodgkins Fellow in Dunedin between 1996 and 1997. While Mauria Mai, Tono Ano is often identified as the first expression of her Kāi Tahu-related work, she claims Moko (1997) is the first photograph to directly acknowledge her whakapapa.She encountered this dark water stain suggestive of a moko kauae on a chalkboard at Otago Polytechnic. Hovering mysteriously between the visible and invisible worlds, this mark was taken by Pardington as a sign to proceed with the investigations she was feeling her way towards. Moko stands at the beginning of Pardington’s investigation of the forms that manifest Kāi Tahu presence, and led to her work with taoka both in and beyond museum collections.

The permission to proceed soon came from other quarters. Pardington was commissioned by Te Papa Tongarewa to photograph Kāi Tahu rock drawings in Canterbury. She describes her first encounter with these drawings as ‘formidable … for me as an artist it’s that kind of engagement with the minds of other creators that you can carry forward with you’.[xvii] Talking to Kāi Tahu magazine Te Karaka, Te Papa curator Megan Tamati-Quennell said that this commission was offered to ensure that these sites are protected ‘as part of our cultural heritage. … There’s a cultural aspect here and you can’t just use the forms out of context.’[xviii] Pardington would eventually chart both the sanctioned and unsanctioned use of these rock drawings. Her later still lifes often include tablecloths and collectible glasses destined for the tourist market that carry imagery appropriated from these caves. She fills these glasses with water collected from rivers and streams of importance to Kāi Tahu. This use of culturally inappropriate vessels as carriers of a vital cultural substance serves as a metaphor for Pardington’s use of photography, a medium with a historically complex relationship to Māori.

Pardington continued to explore the possibilities for photography to convey the new forms of knowledge and material she now had access to. She continued to push against any barriers she encountered. In 2004, Pardington was denied access to a river slip named after one of her ancestors. As a site where Kāi Tahu once gathered pounamu, the area was deemed too powerful to be photographed. She instead photographed the greenstone boulders at a nearby tributary – invoking a Pākehā tradition of landscape photography as a contextual response to a site she could not visit. Her photographs of shells once harvested by nomadic Kāi Tahu, and now part of an anthropological collection, questioned why the cultural investment in objects like heitiki is not extended to other forms of material culture.

This re-orientation of her practice did not end or even divert her other investigations. As the Frances Hodgkins Fellow she continued her found-image projects, mining the stack room of the Medical Library of the University for The Medical Suite, and started exhibiting One Night of Love. She also returned to the studio to make Proud Flesh (1997). These photographs subjected a clearly battered and bruised male model to the range of conventions normally reserved for the female nude in both art and pornography, which Pardington was working through differently and concurrently in One Night of Love.

In 2001, Pardington had a solo exhibition of One Night of Love at Waikato Museum of Art and History and made Mauria Mai, Tono Ano at Auckland Museum. Undertaken at the same time and exploring related questions, these are parallel investigations that blur into each other. Both projects are incantatory; Pardington recognises and speaks to and for subjects bound within ideological systems of restraint and oppression. Her re-presentations rip subjects from one context (museum, pornography) and relocates them within the context of contemporary art. When taken separately, these projects read either as a feminist artist taking on gendered power relations, or as a Kāi Tahu artist challenging western museological systems. When seen together, they become less investigative, more speculative and problematic, bringing together the forces of power and subjugation, the etic and emic, the sexual fetish and the primitive fetish. The complex questions that come out of this clash of subjects and materials have largely been downplayed. For the most part, these series have been treated as discrete, distinct bodies of work. The exhibition Slow Release: Recent Photography from New Zealand (2002), curated by Zara Stanhope, offered a rare opportunity to see the two series exhibited together. Stanhope’s focus on subjective modes of contemporary photography allowed this connection to be made. Stanhope’s essay in this book extends this line of enquiry by exploring Pardington’s insistence that her photographs ‘embody feeling as politics’.

Each project is premised on ethical issues around access and responsibilities to its subjects. Pardington sat on the One Night of Love source material for years before using it, working through her obligations to these women who, potentially, could be re-exploited through this process. She stepped equally cautiously into her use of taoka, and only proceeded after complex negotiations with various hapu, iwi, and museum professionals. The question of whether she had the right to make, exhibit, and sell images of taoka as her own in a contemporary art context has been regularly raised.[xix]

The answer has been provided by the culture. Pardington’s museum-collection work has been widely collected and exhibited, especially as contemporary Māori art. It has featured prominently in pan-Māori exhibitions such as Purangiaho: Seeing Clearly (2001) and Te Hei Tiki (2005), both staged at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, and Kai Tāhu-focused exhibitions such as Te Puāwai o Ngāi Tahu: Twelve contemporary Ngāi Tahu Artists (2003) and Haumi e! Hui e! Taiki e! (2005), both held in Christchurch. In its continued efforts to acknowledge the iwi’s status as mana whenua, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu has regularly emphasised the Kāi Tahu dimensions of Pardington’s practice. The Gallery’s collection exhibition Brought to Light (2009) was titled after Pardington’s suite of heitiki – the first objects encountered. The exhibition also included two photographs of life casts of Kāi Tahu rangatira Takatahara and Piurakifrom the Ahua series purchased by the Gallery. These photographs were displayed alongside paintings of Kāi Tahu subjects by Charles F. Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer. According to art historian Roger Blackley, Pardington’s photographs ‘fully achieved the status of ancestral icons’.[xx] Pardington’s heitiki are now endorsed representatives of contemporary culture in Aotearoa. The New Zealand Government gifted a suite of heitiki photographs to the newly opened Musée du Quai Branly in 2005. Pardington would follow this act of cultural diplomacy with her own, developing a close working relationship with that museum. As Peter Shand’s essay in this book explores, Pardington has leveraged this relationship to gain access to and unsettle the collections of a number of French museums in a conceptual reverse of those nineteenth-century voyages to the Pacific to amass new specimens.

Unlike the exhibitions and writing of the 1990s, these exhibitions downplayed subversive elements of Pardington’s practice in order to present it as part of the wider flourishing of contemporary Māori art. Her direct engagement with Kāi Tahu taoka, embrace of personal whakapapa, and criticism of embedded colonial museum practices were used to represent what Peter Brunt has termed the ‘call to order’ and return to tradition that underpinned exhibitions of contemporary Māori art over this period.[xxi] There was no place for the provocative combinations of form and content that Pardington was making at this time. Exceptions can be found in the biennales both home and abroad that broke from localised readings and political imperatives. German-based British curator David Elliott has included Pardington in two international biennales with broad umbrella themes of ‘Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art’ and ‘Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’, both of which stressed the affirmative power of art in a troubled world. Elliott has been central in encouraging Pardington to move into installation, something she claims is resisted in New Zealand.

Public/Private, Tuamatanui/Tumataiti: The Second Auckland Triennial, curated by Ngahiraka Mason and Ewen McDonald in 2003, provided a context for Pardington to push against this conservative presentation of her work on Māori terms. She exhibited photographs, video, and sound works – the latter featuring a spoken-word performance treating both a sex scene from Ulysses and a Kāi Tahu waiata concerning the healing of the blind as found texts. This clash of subjects was furthered through the documentation of Pardington having her back tattooed with a poem written by Tuhoe musician Rangitunoa Black in the lead-up to the triennial. Key supporters were given expanded roles in this project as witnesses or collaborators. Neil Pardington set Black’s words in the Parihaka font he had designed, which scrambles historical sources to invoke complex cultural encounters. Photographers Haru Sameshima and Mark Adams documented the event. (Decades earlier, Sameshima assisted Pardington’s shift to the medium and large-format analogue photography that ushered in her museum-collection work, represented in this presentation through the Te Horo/To Be Shattered photographs of bird specimens.) Peter Shand’s eyewitness account of this experience is reprinted in the archival section of this book.

With its combination of photography, video, sound, and performance, this presentation connected Pardington’s concern with the body as a site of encounter (in this case the body of the artist, as represented by others) with Kāi Tahu forms and values. It meshed individual and collective forms of agency, high and popular culture, and the found and the made into a complex hybrid of forms and experiences.

As Pardington has continued to explore the ways in which different world views and modes of understanding can combine or clash in the photograph, a sense of differentiation has eroded between the widely perceived two main phases of her practice. Recent bodies of work have especially brought these interests together. The velvety black backgrounds of her still lifes provide an imaginative stage in which objects encounter one another and the viewer. This black is both Freudian (the imagined interior of the womb) and Māori (the Te Po of Māori cosmology – a space of life, sex, birth, death) and is invoked both in earnest and with irony.

The seven female subjects of the Wahine Patere, Wahine Panekeneke photographs (2013) move through a similar mythic space. Depicted upside down with their eyes closed, they are submerged in the world of lucid dreaming that Pardington’s photographs have always proposed for their viewers. The women are surrounded by the symbols of place and culture that Pardington collects and arranges in her still lifes: rimurapa, pounamu and the mysterious ihumoana. One of the women is Pardington’s now-adult daughter Akura. Her long, flowing hair, which intertwines with the rimurapa and floats eerily on the surface of the image, is both the same as and entirely different from the single blond lock presented decades earlier as an object trove in Akura’s First Haircut (1993). The distinctive blond hue – allied with the light skin that Akura shares with the other subjects – here represents a different state of being. It no longer symbolises childhood innocence, and rather conveys a specific form of cultural experience and knowledge. These portraits of Kāi Tahu women are orientated around the shared, mixed cultural inheritance that binds them with each other and with the photographer, and to the physical and spiritual worlds they move through. Those binds are symbolised through the entwining of hair and rimurapa as a thread that connects the living with the ancestors, and these subjects with their culture.

Wahine Patere, Wahine Panekeneke’s reorientation of western traditions of portraiture through kaitahutaka (Kāi Tahu cultural understandings and teachings) brings together that line of enquiry that dates back at least to the water-stained blackboard of Moko. It also binds this understanding with Pardington’s other long-term question concerning the representation of the female body. Here, she returns the female body to the centre of her work, overturning decades of ignoring it as a colonised subject that could only be approached through the re-presentation of found imagery already at large in the world. The women of Wahine Patere, Wahine Panekeneke are connected to Pardington in entirely different ways from her earlier ‘found’ female subjects. This encounter has also changed how Pardington works. These photographs were made on location, with the subjects lying on the very gold, dark sands of the South Island beaches where their Kāi Tahu ancestors sought food and shelter. This location is not simply the subject of her work or the place from where she sources the objects in her still lifes. Pardington here opens her process and her being (as well as that of her subjects) to these sites, and to the histories and powers they carry. Kāi Tahu academic Hana O’Reagan responds to these possibilities in her essay in this book. She claims that this work ‘speaks to me of strength and identity and the connection between our women and water. It speaks to me of home – Moeraki’.

Wahine Patere, Wahine Panekeneke answers the calls that Pardington has made to herself, her subjects, her medium, and her cultures over the last thirty years. These threshold images hover between modes of existence and culture, past and future. Yet they are far from a full stop. They have opened a rich conceptual terrain from which bodies of work such as Childish Things and the expansive diptychs of bird wings have emerged to offer ever new revisions of what are now classic, but never static, Pardington themes.

Published in Fiona Pardington: A Beautiful Hesitation, (Wellington: Victoria University Press and Baker+Douglas Publishing, 2016) 10-22.

[i] This series has come to represent a body of work even larger than the artist’s. David Eggleton titled his survey of contemporary New Zealand photography after the series, and one of the images adorns its cover. See David Eggleton, Into the Light: A History of New Zealand Photography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2006).


[iii] Pardington wrote a research paper on Frederick Holland Day for John B. Turner’s Nineteenth Century Photography class at Elam School of Fine Arts in 1983. She has recently photographed Julia Margaret Cameron’s letters for a forthcoming series.

[iv] Writer Elizabeth Knox was twice commissioned by galleries to write on Pardington’s photographs incorporating text and collage. Her essay ‘Sex of Metals: The Art of Transmutation’ (1990) is reprinted in the archive section of this book.

[v] Jeremy Olds, ‘The dark art of Fiona Pardington’, Sunday Magazine (2 August 2015): 28.

[vi] Fiona Pardington, quoted in Montana Lindauer: The Art Award (Auckland: Auckland Society of Arts, 1989), 24.

[vii] Stuart McKenzie, ‘All Cut Up and Thrilled to Bits’, in Fiona Pardington: Rising to the Blow (Epernay: Moet et Chandon, 1992), 19. This essay is reprinted in the archive section of this book.

[viii] Allan Smith, ‘‘Romanticist and Symbolist Tendencies in Recent New Zealand Photography’’, Art New Zealand 64 (1992): 83.

[ix] Giovanni Intra, ‘A Case History: Tainted Love’, in Fiona Pardington: Tainted Love (Auckland: Sue Crockford Gallery, 1994), np. This essay is reprinted in the archive section of this book.

[x] Kyla McFarlane’s essay included in the archive section of this book addresses Pardington’s act of renaming these women as part of the staging of the exhibition One Night of Love at the Waikato Museum of Art and History (2001).

[xi] ‘Psyched Art: Dunedin psychoanalyst Dr May Pang talks with artist Fiona Pardington about her peculiar obsessions’, Pavement, no. 21 (February–March 1997): 52. This interview is reprinted in the archive section of this book.


[xiii] Moana Tipa, ‘Oblique & Compelling Ngai Tahu Art’, Te Karaka (2002), 35.

[xiv] Christina Barton and Deborah Lawler-Dormer, ‘Unruly practices’, in Alter/Image: Feminism and Representation in Contemporary New Zealand Art (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 1993), 8.

[xv] Anne Kirker, ‘Re-orientating Feminism in Aotearoa’, Artlink 14, no.1 (1994): 65.

[xvi] Fiona Pardington, ‘Towards a kaupapa of ancestral power and talk’ (The University of Auckland, 2013), 9.

[xvii] Sally Blundell, ‘Drawing inspiration’, Te Karaka (Spring 2008): 39.

[xviii] Ibid. Megan Tamati-Quennell is a key supporter of Fiona Pardington’s work, and appears as a subject in the Erewhon series. Her 2004 essay ‘Poetic and Sublime: Fiona Pardington’s Te Horo/To Be Shattered’is included in the archive section.

[xix] Nick Venter, ‘There for all to see’, The Dominion Post (16 September 2006): 8

[xx] Roger Blackley, ‘The Mystery of Matoua Tawai: Fiona Pardington at the Govett-Brewster’, Art New Zealand, no. 139 (Spring 2011): 61. This essay is reprinted in the archive section of this book.

[xxi] Peter Brunt, ‘Since “CHOICE!”: Exhibiting the ‘New Māori Art’, in On Display: New Essays in Cultural Studies, ed. Lydia Weavers and Anna Smith (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004), 235.