The crucible of the return

In late 2004 Ann Shelton exhibited a series of large-format photographs of the uniform buildings of the now abandoned Lake Alice mental hospital. Each of the ten images, which bear many of the hallmarks of Shelton’s work to date, are taken from the road, and doubled, or, more correctly, inverted, forming a mirror image below. The reflection formed was at once watery, raising the possibility of drowning in a lost lake or the sea of dreams; and empathetic, evoking the way mirroring another’s body language can promote a feeling of kinship and affection. Yet these works had a violent aspect also, a veritable molecular reversal being wrought on the subject by the inversion and by perspective generally.

There are further apparent contradictions in evidence, both claustrophobic and elating: the way that the expanded field of contemporary art discourse is implied by the scale of the works, yet the frame bears on the image like the enclosing device of architecture in horror films; furthermore, even though there is the spectre of infamous institutional horror, cruelty and dehumanization, there is also a lament for the loss of this country’s convalescent culture. As a result of this oscillation, the truth effect of these photographs is violated; and, as a function of their doubling, their status as mere images in underscored, and disbelief royally un-suspended. Certainty veritably escapes via a subterranean stream, just as all hemispherical polarities collapse at the equator.

It seems worthwhile to point out that the only conversation I remember having at the opening of “Once more from the road” was with a sociologist about the difference between art and sociology where we skirted around issues of aestheticised detachment and care. But our differences aside, both these discourses are mercifully friendly towards hermeneutic methodologies, to attending to human experience, and in recent years have been orbiting closer together. Or perhaps a better spatial metaphor might involve the field of contemporary art discourse expanding towards “the real”, the traditional domain of the sociologist and the mimetic artist – something which perhaps accounts for the ascension of photography in contemporary practice.

However, this return to the real, as Hal Foster put it, is coloured by a complication, and a distrust of ocularity. Contemporarily, suspiciously, eyes are no mere receivers of light, just as the mind is no mirror despite centuries of philosophy aiming to achieve this sort of glassiness. Furthermore, there are convincing arguments for the idea that there is a close relationship between vision and language 1 ; and, given the seismic effect post-structuralism has had on the conception of the self, this makes the apparently simple operation where x takes a photograph of y no such thing.

Shelton, since she began working as a photo-journalist in the late 1980s, has been exploring the conventions of documentary photography and what they might mean. When she apparently asks “What is it to approach a surface?” she denies viewers the certainty that is desired as comforter, as simplifier in exchange for other more complex spheres that discomfort and seduce. Viz. the ambiguous relation to reality in the first major series Shelton presented, Redeye (1997), a large series of photographs of friends and associates that she took post-art school. The protagonists have scattered to the four winds, and, correspondingly, the series lead to an experiment with large-format photographs with no people in them – the distanced aerial super-Auckland works such as K hole (2000); or the empty, cheap, anticipating interiors-cum-sets of apartments, massage parlours and limousines of the same year, e.g. Abigail’s Party (2000).

From 2001-2002 Shelton undertook postgraduate study in Vancouver, Canada. The first body of work shown on return from this period of ferment was ‘Erewhon’ (2003), named for the utopian novel by Samuel Butler. (Erewhon is an anagram, and almost reversal, of the word nowhere, an interesting word in terms of photographic discourse given the mysterious, oft-quoted phrase, drawn out like a ghost story, “There is no view from nowhere”…) The snap-shot photography of this series represent fragments of low-rent street life – architectural details, signage, interior cameos – and if people appear in them it is only by way of disembodied limbs. There is a sense of place developed by the accumulation of apparently carefully paired images, but no tangible specificity.

Shelton then developed a body of work that evinced a spectacular formal mirroring experiment that referenced both photography’s stereoscopic past and its digital present. “Public places” (2001-3), is a group of walk-in sized doubled photographs of landscapes where infamous events took place, give or take a few fictional removes. All of the stories involve female protagonists and each is a story that is widely known either via the popular press, the cinema, or the Chinese whispering of televisually-assisted hear-say. Of the six serial images, three depict the sites of famous homicides, eg. the path where Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme beat Parker’s mother to death with a brick in a stocking after having afternoon tea at the Sign of the Takahe. (If you look closely, the almost obscene detail of the photographs lets us see how mountain bikers have torn a track right through the scene.)

Shelton also travelled to Florida where she photographed the lonely spot where Aileen Wuornos – the woman who became known as America’s first female serial killer – killed her first “victim”. Then in Southland she located the unmarked grave of Minnie Deans, the famed “child murderer”. (The use of inverted commas here is to indicate that these judgments are based on many uncertainties, and doubly questionable if one was to take mitigating circumstances into account – social violence, trauma, betrayal, poverty and mental illness as causative factors, for example. Indeed, it seems a cruel twist of fate (retrospective empathy?) that two of these cases were adapted to blockbuster films – Heavenly Creatures and Monster respectively – and it does not take much effort to imagine a Deans biopic with an acceptably attractive female lead acting out the role of “baby farmer” [cut].

The other three works in this series depict sites relating to works of fiction – the rocks from the climax of the Australian mystery film and porn-without-the-porn cult classic Picnic at Hanging Rock in which a group of young wandering women disappear, consumed, in the bush; cells at the Seacliff mental hospital that featured in Janet Frame’s writings and life-story; and the black bach Moeraki retreat from Kerry Hulme’s The Bone People – a novel that might be seen to explore the co-existence of love and domestic violence, and self-reinvention. Each of these works has an uncertain relationship with actual events – Frame’s and Hulme’s work shimmers between autobiography and fiction (truth-as-hallucination perhaps) and Picnic at Hanging Rock, similarly, was rumoured to be based on a true story.

Here, the violence of terms such as “deviant” and “delinquent” or “criminal” brush up against the severing classifications “documentary” and “fiction”. These works might channel trauma as subject matter, but they also do so in mode and form. In terms of modus operandi, the way that they delve back into the past (journalism after the story has gone cold) these quasi-forensic investigations could be seen to speak of Freud’s idea that an event is only registered as traumatic only through a later event that recodes it retroactively, in deferred actions 2 . Those that experience trauma often find themselves returning to situations similar to that which caused the initial implosion – perhaps aiming for comprehension, or to draw in something to replace the void left by the erasing event.

Formally, female transgression’s reputation as pathological is mirrored in the form of these works if one, like Shelton, is mindful of the way pathology is traditionally thought of as reversal. She has explained that the “flipping” of the images is a critique of monocentric vision, the splitting of singularity into fragments, forked paths, splinters. Monocular (as allegory of the monocultural) truth is thus disrupted, the twin standing as the harbinger of post-modern multiplicity. Indeed, she says, the long-term basis of the critique of photography is in its singularity of view, moment, inscription. This flipping is also a potent expression of a more general aesthetic dis-ease.

It has been observed of contemporary art, that a shift has occurred from thinking of reality as an effect of representation to the real itself as a thing of trauma 3 . Indeed, the flipping of the images seems to add to the disquieting sensation of living with mere surfaces, with existential uncertainty, the erosion of easy binaries, the energising collapse of the self into the other, that mark what has been described as the wasteland of contemporary subjectivity. Visuality in the high capitalist era (what comes next – higher capitalism?) is irrevocably weirded out by spectacle and surveillance. The flipping could also be seen as resembling the first domino tip of the anxiety attacks that plague the PTSD sufferer.

Mimesis is also a symptom, or to de-pathologise things, a method of the traumatised contemporary subject, a common defense against shock. But, by creating a symmetry with mirroring, Shelton generates another apparently contradictory effect, that of an unfolding, halting comfort. Mirrors can provide consolation in times of difficulty or negation because they can confirm, or, rather, affirm one’s existence. Likewise, Shelton creates a circuit, and the scene is no longer unrequited – the trauma is attended, witnessed, remembered by another. Strangely, the supposed violence of the gaze is somehow palliative too. And the images have an abstract Krays-esque aspect too – back-to-back, the twin images could be seen as paranoid, covering each other.

In 2004, continuing this line of flight, she produced a body of work in New Plymouth in which crime appears again, but via the work of another registrar. One image depicts a small section of the vast collection of newspaper clippings gathered by Fredrick A. Butler, specifically the “crime” section, each volume a recycled second-hand hard-back book painstakingly covered in wallpaper. She also hunted out sites used in the filming of Vigil, a film emblematic of the Gothic concept of the return for “A kind of sleep” (2005). In it, Taranaki figures as one of Aotearoa’s peninsula hinterlands, and is doubled, more abstractly than ever; an Rorschach-like effect echoed in Lover’s Leap (2005). Urban myth has it that this Otago Peninsula site is a place of suicide, but Shelton has it as a skeletal hip-bone replete with aching voids, or even a taniwha.

These phantastic works, like the Lake Alice photographs, could be seen as characteristic of her output as a whole and of the reversals and inversions she has affected in her investigation of the truth of the documentary – a genre in which very little is what it first seems. Indeed, in a typically chimeric move, Shelton described her recent images as Cimmerian scenes (the Cimmerii, a fabulous people, said to have lived, in very ancient times, in profound and perpetual darkness) whilst reflexively knowing full well that absolute darkness is needed on the inside of the camera for such (negative and positive) documentary operations to take place.

Following this line of thought, figured through, it appears that the darkness, nowhere-ness and alterity figured in her oeuvre are not solely negative. As any fan of New Zealand scenic photography knows, Lake Mathieson’s secret is that dark, peaty waters reflect better. Darkness and the trauma of the real stand as potent generative forces, just as the night does in dreams; and mirrors have long played an ancient role in sorcery, if one can be allowed such a return to female business of an ancient and powerful sort. As a body of work it seems to imply that dominant social forces cannot control all that they create 4  – there is always an excess, something indomitable in the crowd that the multiple presents. Indeed, female trouble, and returns to its sites and documents, are central to Shelton’s work as if, in them, we see the crucible of the return and of a disruptive alterity in action.

  1. Martin Jay, Downcast eyes, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993, p9.
  2. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996, p146.
  3. Ibid, p146.
  4. Ibid, p212.