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The puzzling and playful photography of Patrick Pound

Patrick Pound.

Kiwi artist Patrick Pound returns with a new photographic exhibition, the result of a 30-year hoarding habit and a playful attitude towards art institutions.

Photographic images, wrote Susan Sontag, are not statements about the world “so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire”.

New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based artist Patrick Pound is in the acquisition business. For nearly three decades he has collected these miniatures of reality: objects, prints, cuttings and, most commonly, photographs. Thousands of photographs, spilling across his house, two storage units, some “very tolerant dealer galleries” and a crammed studio.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“It’s … tricky,” he says over the phone with a laugh. “My storage problem is much worse than if I was making paintings – I couldn’t paint as fast as I can shop.”

But within this apparent excess of objects and images is a planned and perfectly executed acquisition strategy, a process, he says, of mapping the world as a result of collecting, of “thinking out loud through things”. Each of these thousands of things – Pound uses the word “things” a lot – is categorised into groupings, or “museums”, based on an often cryptic theme that encompasses the poetic and prosaic, the exceptional and the ordinary. His “museum of falling”, for example, includes a photograph of someone falling over, a photograph of a waterfall, a photograph of two people falling in love and a pencil sharpener of the Twin Towers. In last year’s The Great Exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, he included in his “museum of there-not-there” the sole of an abandoned shoe, a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness, a Jacobite glass with the 270-year-old breath of its maker suspended in its stem – Pound frequently includes artefacts borrowed from the host museum or gallery – and a map of the contested lands of Palestine.

He has a “white museum”, a “space museum”, a “museum of holes”. He has collections of photographs of people reading, of people listening to music, of people in tears. He has a collection of photographs marked by the photographer’s thumb, another of photographs showing the photographer’s shadow.

Pounds' Lamps.

“That is one of my biggest collections,” he says. “I’ve been collecting them for years. I’m interested in this idea of the photographer being present but absent.”

His 2012 Gallery of Air exhibition included an Air India​ Salvador Dalí ashtray, an asthma inhaler and a John Constable cloud study. “I’m not taking the p out of the painting,” he says. “I’m saying, look how air can be treated, from Rachel Whiteread’s cast of the inside of her hot water bottle to Constable’s cloud. You get this idea moving through the things – it is light and poetic and very accessible. Everyone gets it, which I like.”

His new exhibition On Reflection, opening at City Gallery Wellington this month, plays on the idea of mirroring and doubling. Thousands of Pound’s collected photographs and more than 80 items from the Te Papa collection will unfold into an exhibition-wide visual palindrome or Rorschach test, including photographs of wind blowing from the left, of wind blowing from the right, of people pointing this way, of people pointing that, of hundreds of people talking on the phone.

The result is a bizarre echo chamber, a funny, perplexing and strangely poetic plethora of bought and borrowed objects and images corralled into the “constraint” of a single connecting idea that may appear banal in comparison with institutional acquisition policies. Nevertheless, it provides a valid window into who we are, where we have been and how we remember; as if, in the very act of accumulation, we find meaning. 

Pairs and the double.

In his collection of people photographed from behind, for example, “you get a little history of photography, everything from perversion to sweetness. I like the way, if you set a constraint, the whole world sneaks in.”

It is, he agrees, something of a folly, such as Jorge Luis Borge’s cartographers in On Exactitude in Science, who create a one-to-one scale map of Empire. “But I like the idea of the world being a puzzle and each of these things being pieces of it. If only I could find and reassemble all the pieces in a coherent order, we may solve the puzzle – okay, it’s a complete folly.”

Reshuffled into patterns of shared experience, these pieces, bought, borrowed or found, nevertheless speak of memory and desire, human error and human aspiration. “They speak to photography and redundancy and the vastness of the world and intimate nature writ large,” Pound says. “Tragicomic real life and the darkness of things that happen – as Henry James said, ‘clumsy Life again at her stupid work’.”

Pound has been exploring the visual possibilities of this “clumsy Life” since the late 1980s, when he was drawn to the serendipitous juxtapositions and repetitions in the daily newspaper hurled at his house each morning. He started cutting out images – real estate photographs of vacant land, tiny details of apartments, people with their arms outstretched: actors, politicians, Christ figures and bicycle riders at finish lines. “I liked the idea of them all holding hands when I cut them out and pinned them on the wall.”
Detail from Patrick Pound’s Damaged.

He used these images to inform his work, applying them to collages, paintings and films. Then they became the work itself. “I realised I didn’t need to make it, I needed to show it and put it together. So I moved (my collecting) to become: how can that thing hold an idea it wasn’t meant to hold?”

That search is now dominated by the internet, that vast “unhinged album”, he says, where objects and images float free of the contextual anchors of time, place and meaning. Today, he spends hours – “I wouldn’t want to tell you how many hours” – trawling through online trading sites and search engines, relying on Google Translate to open up his searches to other cultures, following the rabbit holes of recommendations that follow each purchase.

“I use the search engine as a poetic device. The genius of the internet is that it shows us things it thinks we’d like, based on something we have already seen or something similar, and I love it when it gets it wrong. The Markov chains and logic gates and those Boolean tricks and techniques – I use them all to find things.”

He rarely interferes with these works. His job is to collect, categorise and display, leaving the items to do the talking in conversation with images and objects borrowed from museums in a strange, some would say unholy, alliance of the vernacular and the collectible, the lowbrow and the high.

But, similar to the anonymous family photographs, he argues, an artefact in a museum has already been taken out of its original context. Take that Jacobean wine goblet. “In a museum it will never hold wine again. The one thing it was meant to do, it will never do again, so it becomes a sign of itself. Its job changes to being an exemplary object, the best of its type or typical of that time or culture.”

Detail from Patrick Pound’s Damaged.

In being relocated into one of Pound’s “museums of things”, these borrowed works are given a kind of busman’s holiday, a temporary sabbatical, he says, from their assigned roles in the museum. Although their original meaning remains intact, he gives them something else to say.

“I am instrumentalising these things, I am getting them to do a different job but they still maintain their own integrity. They are being given a new purpose but they usually hold their own as well. A Donald Judd, even amongst my clutter, still has its cool elegance. If I use a Rita Angus or Colin McCahon, it will survive whatever I do.”

It is then left to viewers to test their wits against the often obscure logic that connects these disparate objects together, to figure out how each of these thousands of items fits into the general theme.

Some, he says, will laugh. Others find a certain melancholy in these long sequences of wanted and unwanted things. Why melancholy? “I never quite worked it out. I think it is that deceased-estate feel of things that are just past their use-by date. Whether they are from deceased estates, or from junk shops or museums, there is something about things that is deeply personal.”

But isn’t it also a little … obsessive? As New Zealand art historian Geoffrey Batchen writes, “If this is a way of imposing order, it is one that verges on disorder. The calm rationality of the museum, that depository charged with protecting our cultural heritage from loss or damage, has been invaded by a manic archiving of photographic debris, an archiving apparently without limits or coherent rationale.”

All collections are a bit maniacal, agrees Pound. “The hoarding thing, the collecting mania – my wife argues what I have done is segue a pathology into an art practice, but I argue that’s not the case. I have a rule – I don’t buy unless it will end up in my work.”

PATRICK POUND: ON REFLECTION, City Gallery Wellington, August 11-November 4.

This article was first published in the August 18, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.