Through the eye of a needle

For the last half of 2005 Paul Johns undertook the Tylee Cottage Residency in Wanganui. Johns, with his characteristic taking-of-time (a great, even defining, attribute for a photographer), ended up staying at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River on and off for about a third of his time. There he took a number of photographs, some formal landscapes, which, in combination with tableaux produced back in his Christchurch studio, constituted two simultaneous shows at the Sargeant and the McNamara Galleries.

Johns has indicated that neither the landscape or studio-produced photographs are “about Jerusalem”. The relationship between the works and the site are more along the lines of it being a good place to make decisions in about what to do next; an affective Spartan place to work, Jerusalem being, historically and effectively, a site of kenosis, or emptying out, and Johns appearing to favour the pared-back (the void being where worlds begin).

It seems that Johns went there for practical rather than any historical or religious pilgrimage-type reasons. The site was identified as a generative one rather than primarily a subject to treat. Even when its “portrait” as incidental environment was taken, the images seem examples of landscape as empty sets; unscripted places; haunted rather than sensible. This implies that there is a use of photography here that resists the medium’s often classificatory function.

Jerusalem is a quandary to visit, surely, for anyone who is an outsider, or for anyone who performs techniques with documentary potentials such as photography. I would have thought places like this want to be left alone. As a place it is, however, doubtlessly attractive to those who can sense magical machines for living in.

For those unfamiliar with its history, Jerusalem is perhaps most commonly known for three main things:

  1. The pa, once the largest kainga on the river and known as a place for korero, now consists, in terms of structures, of a cluster of houses and an undecorated wharepuni (all the carvers were taken by force to Rotorua during the land wars), a canoe shed and another meeting house referred to sometimes as the university.

  2. There is a Catholic mission there that is still in vestiginal operation. The mission came to what became known as Jerusalem/Hiruharama in 1854, and Suzanne Aubert founded the congregation of the Sisters of Compassion there in 1892. According to the Sisters, they have always been there on the invitation of the people of Jerusalem, and are dependant on the goodwill of the locals. 1 

In terms of architecture, a church was built that after being destroyed by fire was rebuilt in 1888. There is also a convent building built that for many years operated as a girls’ home. With the nuns’ new-ish Lockwood home, these are the only church buildings there. The pa and the church buildings share a small plateau just above the river on its north bank on the dirt road half-way between the junction with the main road to Wanganui to the south and Raetihi to the north. Behind the plateau a low hill rises that is covered in regenerating scrub.

  1. James K Baxter set up a convalescent community there in the late 60s that ran until 1974. Just to the west of the convent building in a paddock is the cottage once occupied by the poet courtesy of the convent. It was here that he decided to found a community at Jerusalem that provided a place for people from the city to come to and “get better”. It was the local Maori Tribal Committee that gave him use of more houses that made the community possible, this experiment in the palliative potential of poverty, both material and verbal. Said he, “Words set in order are mental possessions.” 2 

Other than those that I have described, there are no other dwellings at Jerusalem. Tourists must leave the main road and come up what looks like the convent drive to gain access. It is possible to stay in the old convent, as some do, usually coming for retreat, but most people stop only briefly, gawk about, keep to themselves, and drive off, lifting dust.

Unlike the marae at Koroniti, down the river, Hiruharama does not exude openness. Apparently, people wanting to visit the church would stop at the bottom of the road and ask someone from the pa how to get up to the church would often be told to wait a couple of minutes and the elevator will come down to fetch them. People staying in the convent are encouraged to not walk down the path to the private dwellings and the ‘upper marae’. There is no commune museum, or visitor centre.

As a place, Jerusalem seems resolutely resistant to anthropological gaze. It is almost like the place might roll you up in a rug and pour you back down the hill if you had no good reason for being there. There has been, however, an historian resident at the mission from the University of Canterbury working on a history of the commune. It seems like it would be difficult to approach this place as a documentary maker – some communities wish to remain anonymous.

So what was it like for Paul Johns to approach Jerusalem as an environment, rather than a subject? (Even in that word one can see the potentially empirical/empire-building function of art making in the service of production of knowledge and power.) Paul is neither an ex-hippy, a Catholic, even a Christian, or Maori; and how unfashionable and unsuitable to indulge in religious or cultural tourism. Any kind of tourism for that matter.

But there is something about Johns’ practice that short-circuits the supposed shame of this inside-outside relation. It isn’t that he made slow friends with ladies and gents, secular and non- alike, and became somewhat of a fixture (the nuns ended up calling the room he stayed in “Paul’s room”). There is something in his work that suggests that he would not shrink from the label of tourist – and not because he did not connect with the place warmly.

In the word ’tourist’ there seems to be a sense of perpetual separation from that which is being experienced, and that this is part of the human method, perception being a secondary operation in terms of eye to nerves to brain registration. This abyss does seem to be more acutely experienced by suburban individuals from neo-liberal neighbourhoods. It is no wonder that alterations to conditions and to the conditioned self are so keenly sought.

Johns may be drawn to transformative practices, but he does not like to change things he encounters, even by inscribing them. He may take documentary-looking photographs, but he does not identify as a documentary-maker. He has no intention to expose, to over-determine, to disturb the spiderwebs so-to-speak. Perhaps this is why he has developed photographic fictions in recent years – to provide a way of enacting change without imposing it.

It could be said, looking at his oeuvre, with its looping lines of enquiry, that Johns has an abiding interest in transformational practices; a fascination with the ways in which people are drawn to “changing what you have been given”, to “transitional stages / changing what we know is real to another reality”. This can be seen in the references his work has, over the years, made to orgone accumulators, the trans-gender community, the attributes of theatre, to architectural “ways through”, to schematic-experimental methodologies…

Peter Ireland picked up on this tendency when he wrote about Johns’ 2002 body of work, A Perfect Childhood, in terms of an overarching interest in the “politics of self identity: its formation, adult memory of it, and the powerful role of photography in the construction of both.” He went on to insightfully, poetically offer that “In these images the act of photographing was not a process of generating memories but became a metaphor for memory itself, where the very tripod doubled as a theodolite measuring the horizontals and verticals of being in time.” 3 

These photographs feature two rabbit-masked gentleman characters out in the arid bunny-infested high-country farmland on the Canterbury side of the Southern Alps. These works bear direct relation to the photographs he took following his residency in Wanganui in which the rabbit mask again appears, but in conjunction with strange plywood sandwich board-type walking-signage arrangements.

While staying in Jerusalem itself Johns took many photographs, some “work”, others “snaps”. In the latter we see fragments of the days spent with nuns and friends made from the pa; evidence of his awareness that ideas often come from casual conversations. These were not shown. If there is a tension between the “art” landscape photographs and the “snaps” – the former being far more open, perhaps by virtue of no reference being made to people or buildings – there is even more tension generated between the Jerusalem work and the “produced” studio tableaux.

In many of these, figures stand as supports for plywood cut-out shapes in the presentation of a strange range of characters. The aesthetic is almost that of frontier-town pantomime, and the motifs in some are schematic Maori carving faces, and in others, more like punctuation; these are categories that also seem to merge. Faces traced from who-knows-where, probably from second, third or how many removes from anything real, seem to morph into the generic language-shapes like speech-bubbles or full-stops. Tongues, too, seem to become the tails of commas.

The props are minimal, some figures sporting newspaper hats, another standing by a section of wall-framing with louvre windows, yet another by two doors hinged together and facing open improbably upwards. A pair wearing plywood circular masks with ascii-like facial features pass a half-G between themselves. Even the rabbit mask turns up again, but this time in combination with a Rococo theatre costume, as if an escapee from a masquerade. Many of the props and architectural details he initially thought of including have been eliminated at the last minute as “too dominating”.

These sit next to, but discordantly with, the open landscape photographs of Jerusalem that comprise the rest of this work. Not really a series, the works might form a body, but the relationship between the types of work is not spelled out or formalised into groupings. It is tempting to think of the landscape works as being more “specific” than the fabricated or contrived studio shots, but perhaps this is too easy an assumption – landscape itself was once usefully described by Kathy Acker as “without propaganda or obsession”. 4 

Acker’s writing sometimes resembles the kind of writing done following sleep or day-time drift. The characters and action need to be quickly captured as they are fugitive, and being perpetually replaced by other scenes, other events. Here, the sign, as one might semiotically say, is out-of-control, delirious. So too, in Johns tableaux – here characters and settings materialise then dissipate to be displaced by another scenario, another costume change, a new configuration of props, old and new…

They work best viewed as an amorphous, open series, a means-without-ends process, becomings. They have a glorious itinerancy as a string of eternal moments – perhaps in this way they are akin to cubist treatments of subjects? For this reason, namely the shifting ground his work presents, its lack of concrete specificity and readable symbolism, Johns’ latest work has an awkward relationship to writing. It gently advises that language can over-determine; and that, being a soft tool, language’s value lies outside of its ability to provide definite understandings, rather in the generation of shifting senses of significance.

At the risk of giving too much away, some of the plywood tableaux he worked up in his Christchurch studio are more specific than one might think, some relating figuratively to particular places. For example, the speech-bubble shape and “nil design” were taken from a detail of a painted wharenui at Pungarehu Marae. But in the reception of them, any geographical specificity dissolves into non-specificity even if the background is supplied – it is as though Johns is trying to imagine how they would be seen by the most emptied visitor imaginable.

Where shapes were derived from designs he came across “up the river”, he says he is “not treating them religiously”; and surely the strange trippy cartoon versions he has come up with have ended up looking as crazed, inappropriate, insensible, and as superficially graphic as anything one might dream. There is the suggestion that it is right not to make a big deal out of the symbols he has used. Take the gesture of the newspaper hats – one, for example, points to a photograph of the old pope and speaks in a language of orientalist origami. Here, the metaphors of cultural mysticism are royally mixed with no claim to truth or compliance with the symbol’s perceived job to provide clear sense.

In both the landscapes and the tableaux there is an odd conflation of specificity and the opposite – there is a wobbling here between what are normally thought of as poles. Perhaps, he seems to offer, “treating something religiously” is not such a long way from hallucination? “High” stylisation? Georges Bataille had something very interesting to say on the matter of the religious impulse: “Today it is art that inherits, before our very eyes, the delirious role and character of the religious. Today it is art that gnaws at and transforms us.” 5 

Perhaps it is this expanded idea of the religious, or, rather, the generative power of delirium, that might draw an artist to make work in Jerusalem. For those of an expansive thinking-nature, the word ‘God’ might pertain to a far more general Schreber-style connectedness with powerful universal forces responsive to invocation. Perhaps it is a sense of the change-ful delirium that Bataille spoke of that is what resonates so strongly at this point on the river?

Johns’ transfigurative tendencies could be seen as an aspect of embracing a sense of self that’s edges are permeable; a self that needs constant invigoration, destruction even. It is for this reason that I particularly enjoy Johns’ “snap” of the youngest nun at Jerusalem, Alisi, tending a raging bonfire. It reminds me of the way a friend said, “I burned down my house” as a way of explaining some renewing changes he had made in his life. I wonder if being a nun require constant destruction of the ego in pursuit of one-ness with the universe?

Looking in from the outside, it is as if the artist spent the residency wondering lightly if he should be doing something big, then thinking that probably there is nothing big to be made of it; wondering eternally if he had been too whimsical in an area of bigger and better things. I wonder if there is not a valuable and persistent otherworldly lightness in Johns’ approach that is like a machine, with cogs grinding mighty slow, producing the whakaiti, or becoming-small, that so occupied Baxter.

Maybe it is this neglect of developing anything monumental is what constitutes the strongest transformational aspects of both parts of this new body of Johns’ work. There is a stripped-back-ness, an emptying out, in operation in the photographs not just formally but conceptually: Johns stays very close to the original experience of the landscape as eternally obsession-less, passive, and also to the delirium of theatrical (and touristic) improvisation.

This restraint, this discretion (allowed by being in-discrete, as in cultivating porous edges, rather than saying too much) manifests in his photographic practice as not making too much of things in terms of meaning; not implying captions, in other words. One step further, his approach as a photographer might even be to de-classify, in direct contrast to the strong tendency of photography to impose order or generate knowledge.

One effect of his tableaux is that of an absurd taxonomy representing the frantic activities of the constantly mutating, self-healing contemporary subject in accelerated times. The landscapes sit next to them like the elderly – hardly changing, river-slow, advocating an adherence to an emptying out that could be called delinquent in the sweetest sense of the word. Together they could be seen to suggest an experiment in how one might, with less, pass through the eye of the needle of materiality and meaning.

  2. James K. Baxter, The Jerusalem Daybook, Price Milburn, Wellington, 1971, p17.
  3. Peter Ireland, ‘A Perfect Childhood, a suite of photographs by Paul Johns’, in New Zealand Journal of Photography, no. 47, Winter 2002, p5.
  4. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School, Picador, London, 1984, p266.
  5. Quoted in Wall, Thomas Carl, Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot, and Agamben, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1999, p31.