• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Fiona Pardington: The Pressure of Sunlight Falling review

Photographer Fiona Pardington’s The Pressure of Sunlight Falling is a mid-career masterpiece.

Fiona Pardington (Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, Kati Waewae and Scots) is an exceptional photographer whose career has successfully found an aesthetic turangawaewae in the pae between international art and Maori tikanga over many years, with plenty of gas still in the tank. Maybe it’s a Kai Tahu thing. Her interpretation of mana whenua has always been sensitive and novel, particularly investing mauri (life force) in museum taonga through minimalist modernist aesthetics and never once falling into the easy trap of overcooked ethno-kitsch. Her work has always conferred to me an understanding that the feminist gaze and mana wahine, although very different things, are not ­mutually exclusive.

The Pressure of Sunlight Falling is the logical progression of a career fascinated with the macabre, medical paraphernalia, Francophilia and Maori identity, and stems from a serendipitous discovery. This is a mid-career masterpiece. Mid-career can mean whatever you want it to mean – it is a sort of guesstimate based arbitrarily on the artist’s age and time spent on the job. Experience, however, matters in art as elsewhere.

When the French explorer Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville made his voyage of the Pacific between 1837 and 1840, he took with him that particularly 19th-century variety of pseudoscientist, a phrenologist: Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier. It would be Dumoutier’s job to make live head casts of the Noble Savages encountered, in part out of ethnological interest, and also to judge their character from the bumps on their heads. Even when L’Astrolabe sailed into Toulon in 1840, the year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, it was for French scholars the equivalent of the Apollo astronauts returning with moon rocks. Unsurprisingly, in Anglophone Australasia, the D’Urville mission tends to get overlooked in favour of the early voyages by Captain Cook.

Dumoutier took with him 51 skulls and the same number of casts. These have since found their way to Auckland Museum, the Musée Flaubert d’Histoire de la Médecine in Rouen and Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Extraordinarily, particularly because of the enormous tapu of the head in Polynesian culture, these casts include some of Maori, including some of Pardington’s tipuna. This sent Pardington on her own voyage of discovery, resulting in exhibitions at Two Rooms in Auckland, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth and, from September 10 to January 22, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, as well as this beautiful book (designed by brother Neil, an amazing photographer in his own right). Otago University Press is not particularly known for its art books, but long may it continue to produce them if they are all going to look this good.

Pardington reappropriates these busts – plaster moko mokai, really – from basement collections of busts of the mentally ill and freakishly deformed, and reinvests their mana by highlighting their neoclassical dignity and beauty through immaculate lighting and composition. This is also a deeply personal project for Pardington – concrete images of her more or less pre-photography ancestors. These are not merely exotic curiosities from an arbitrary intersection of history and geography; this is part of her whakapapa. That must be acknowledged and respected a priori to appreciate all the book has to offer. One cannot help but think of the torturous diplomatic convolutions required to have real moko mokai repatriated to Aotearoa from French museums; the French take their imperial history – sic transit gloria mundi – very seriously.

As a suite, the images are further enhanced by illuminating and erudite essays brimful of information every New Zealander should have. These range in theme from an overview of Pardington’s career to date, to D’Urville and Dumoutier, to the purpose of such casts, to the relevant intricacies of Maori culture. Particularly outstanding is Anne Salmond’s tour de force essay on the head in Pasifika cultures. The inclusion of a dramatis personae further emphasises the operatic breadth of the dramatic story behind these busts. This is a remarkable way of documenting history. More, please.

FIONA PARDINGTON: THE PRESSURE OF SUNLIGHT FALLING, edited by Kriselle Baker and Elizabeth Rankin (Otago, in association with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Two Rooms, $120).

Andrew Paul Wood is a Christchurch art writer.