Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs (Melbourne and Wellington: Monash University Museum of Art and City Gallery Wellington, 2016).
Late last century, my pals and I gorged ourselves on post-colonialism. It was our thing. We loved that hand-on-heart, heart-on-sleeve identity art. We chewed on it in our sleep. It made us feel culpable, and yet we couldn’t get enough. We cited Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak. We critiqued orientalism and Eurocentrism. We loved those Others (always capitalised) for their authenticity, and we radiated guilt over how we’d framed them in the past. We were suspicious of those who claimed to speak of them or for them, but also of those who failed to mention them. But then, at the dawn of a new century, one of our own, Pakeha New Zealander Francis Upritchard, entered the fray.1
Upritchard had relocated to London in 1998. I saw her Traveller’s Collection there when it debuted at Kate MacGarry in 2003 and was bamboozled. Upritchard had repurposed an old three-tier work table as a sarcophagus-cum-curio-cupboard. In it, tarttowed a pint-sized mummy, canopic jars, ceramic monkey heads with real teeth, Maori-looking artefacts (carved from human bones, someone imagined), and other mysterious, talismanic knick-knacks. These treasures seemed organised precisely and they looked good together, but they were also all wrong. The mummy was a fantasy—a ‘Scooby-Doo mummy’, the artist said. On closer inspection, the canopic jars were repurposed West German ceramics, to which the artist had added matching animal-head lids, painting them to blend in with the bases. And the faux-Maori items were displayed in velvet-lined boxes for no apparent reason. And what were they doing there, alongside a mummy, when ancient Egyptian culture and Maori culture are separated by 16,000 kilometres and many millennia?
Traveller’s Collection looked like something some unknowing but imaginative kids had created on a wet Sunday (children, of course, being another brand of Other). Upritchard was scrambling the ancient Egyptian and the Maori as if post-colonialism had never happened and everything was peachy. How could she have got a kaumatua (Maori elder) to sign off on this? And who was the ‘traveller’ referred to in the title? Was it the mummy, making this collection their stuff—everything they needed to take into the afterlife? Or was the traveller someone else entirely, making the mummy an object in their collection and perhaps explaining the work’s Wunderkammer randomness?
Egypt has long captivated the West, but Egyptomania spiked after the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922. It’s not a problem to turn old Egypt into style—who cares? It was aeons ago and living Egyptians hardly feel any personal connection to their super-ancient ancestors. It’s thousands of years out of copyright—fair game.2 But Maori stuff is another matter and Upritchard knew it. As a Pakeha New Zealander, it was provocative and presumptuous for her to conflate Egyptian stuff, so long debased, with Maori taonga (treasures), connected to living people—her ex-neighbours—and of profound concern to them. Was she being knowingly offensive? Was the problem her politics or her lack of them? Was she able to make such works only from the distance of London, having put oceans between herself and the local cultural-appropriation debate?3
Upritchard went on to produce numerous faux-Maori objects, but her examples would have looked wrong alongside the real things. The artist later confessed that she had been inspired by seeing wonky tiki in London’s Wellcome Collection. Back in the day, these had been made by European sailors, working from partial impressions and faulty memories, who subjected the tiki to a visual version of that incidental translation and generational decay that, in less enlightened times, we called ‘Chinese Whispers’. Was Upritchard presuming to refer to Maori objects (as they were) or to an existing tradition of Pakeha knock-offs?
For anyone versed in New Zealand art, it was hard not to read Upritchard’s faux-Maori objects in relation to Dick Frizzell’s Tiki show at Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery in 1992. In it, he had rendered tiki in various modern-art styles. The work was confusing and provocative because it suggested both Pakeha appropriations of Maori images and post-contact Maori art. But, there was a huge difference. Frizzell’s show was knowing—designed to offend. He wanted to bring down sensitive Maori and pious modernists in one fell swoop. Upritchard’s work came with no such argument—its polemic lay in not having one. That left us wondering.
Around this time, Upritchard also made sculptures of severed heads. Some she presented on display stands, others as is. In the New Zealand context, these heads recalled Maori preserved, tattooed heads (toi moko). Before the Pakeha, Maori had preserved heads, but, after, they became a commodity to trade for muskets, enabling Maori to kill one another more effectively. Slaves were tattooed and harvested to feed the grisly new art market. In recent times, Maori complicity in the trade has been downplayed and toi moko now symbolise evil colonialism. All agree, it is imperative to get them off display in museums and to repatriate them to relevant iwi (tribes).
But are Upritchard’s heads even like toi moko? Isn’t that jumping to conclusions? They are fair skinned and not a bit tattooed—Pakeha heads, perhaps. There’s even a campy, hipster quality to some of them, with their dapper moustaches. Was Upritchard trying to make toi moko but got it wrong, like those sailors of yore with their tiki variants? Or, was she prompting us Pakeha to imagine our own heads as objets d’art in a table-turning gesture? Or, might these heads hail from another time entirely, some other colonial misadventure—or the Terror? Upritchard’s intentions were unclear: all possibilities remained in play.4
Museums are in the business of framing cultures of distant times and places, rather than the here and now, so our thinking about museums and our thinking about the Other are intertwined. In the past, museums have happily colonised Others’ values with their own. But, today, enlightened museums counter past sins, going out of their way to empower the Other, to employ their categories and values. New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington, Te Papa—‘our place’—was built on this noble principle, placing Maori in charge of their taonga. These days, old museums seem quaint, even laughable. The usual example is Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. It groups artefacts according to their forms and uses, rather than their cultural origin, overlaying its own master narrative. When its approach became disreputable, that museum became a source of information on the framing culture as much as on the cultures framed.5 Paradoxically, the old museum has itself became Other—a portal to a bewildering value system, its own.
Upritchard references old-fangled museology. Channelling her inner savage, she has created fanciful faux-primitive artefacts. She has repurposed pool cues, tennis rackets, golf clubs and cricket bats as totemic fetishes, adding animal heads. She has fashioned necklaces from cigarette butts, as if misunderstanding these discarded remainders as possessing talismanic power. For Jealous Saboteurs (2003), she transformed old hockey sticks into crocodiles, splitting the sticks to make mouths and adding eyes and teeth made from golf tees and cut-up knitting needles. The sticks are shown on wire cradles, mimicking museum displays. How are we to read them? As the creative output of innocent children, playfully turning their hockey sticks into fantasy primitive objects?6 (Tessa Laird called them ‘sacred sticks for private-school girls’.7) Or, should we read them as if they were primitives’ appropriations of the colonial culture, mixing it with their own, attributing to it a totemic character?8 And, perhaps there is some insight in equating colonial sport with crocodiles.
We are now used to artists interrogating the museum. In 1992, Fred Wilson exemplified this with his show Mining the Museum, where he augmented the displays of the Maryland Historical Society to highlight its suppression of black history. Into a cabinet-making display, he added a whipping post. By contrast, Upritchard prefers to indulge in a reverie of exoticism—one fixated as much on a quaint museum culture as on the Other cultures it once presumed to frame. For her, a better precedent would be Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1985 show Lost Magic Kingdoms at the British Museum’s Museum of Mankind. Inspired by Pitt Rivers Museum, the senior pop artist created fanciful installations incorporating ‘leftover’ artefacts: Eskimo ivories, Aboriginal bark paintings, a reaping knife, a Peruvian pottery trumpet, an elephant mask from Cameroon, rawhide playing cards, a camel saddle, and, apparently, ‘some Maori household gods’.
Although Upritchard has little time for institutional critique, her works have been curated—perhaps perversely—into several shows that indulged in it. Jealous Saboteurs featured in Pasifika Styles at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2006. Curated by Rosanna Raymond and Amiria Salmond, the show saw contemporary Maori and Pacific Island artists placing their works into conversation with its ethnographic collections—reclaiming the museum, as it were. Upritchard—the Pakeha appropriator—blended in. Also, in 2008, one of Upritchard’s cigarette necklaces featured in Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art at London’s Barbican Art Gallery. Curated by Francesco Manacorda and Lydia Yee, the show offered a view of contemporary art from the perspective of an imagined Martian anthropologist. But that necklace was an odd inclusion, as it looked less like a Western art object than a cargo cultist’s one, itself already misreading things Western—mistaking cigarette butts for gems. Cargo cultists and Martian anthropologists can get it wrong.
She started with the cultural Other, but Upritchard went on to explore other forms of Otherness. She made sculptures of monkeys and sloths from old fur coats sourced from charity stores. Animals are our Others too, being like us but not. We see ourselves in them and distinguish ourselves from them. We are more likely to identify with those we share qualities with, linking ourselves to monkeys, say, rather than snakes. (Upritchard has also done snakes.) Identifying with animals makes some sense (we share most of our DNA with our fellow primates and can know much about ourselves by studying them), but we can also wilfully project our own ideas and feelings onto animals (anthropomorphising them). Disney has made an industry of it. While we attribute human insights and emotions to animals, their gaze remains enigmatic. We can’t know what’s going on in their heads.
Upritchard’s choice of monkeys and sloths is telling. They are not only exotic as animals, they are exotic among animals. Mostly, we see them in zoos and on the Discovery Channel. They live in Other places, where Other people have a more direct relationship with them, incorporating these animals into their own distinct cultural systems. They are doubly Othered; they are our Other’s Other.
More or less life-size, Upritchard’s monkeys and sloths suggest living animals and taxidermied ones. The monkeys typically sit, sometimes alone, sometimes in couples, looking thoughtful. Some sloths stretch out, impossibly attenuated, perhaps wanting to have their tummies stroked, asking us to connect, as if the gallery has become a petting zoo. Or, are they dead, and unable to protect their underbellies? Some are trapped in vitrines. Upritchard plays on the way sloths are like us. They are named after a human characteristic—a deadly sin, in fact. Her sloths’ hands and feet are made from elegant women’s gloves and they wear Karl Fritsch rings, inviting us to relate to their humanity. However, they also have inscrutable, blank, dead, alien eyes.
Upritchard’s monkeys and sloths mess with the culture/ nature divide. Animals may have been killed to make stylish coats, but she transforms now end-of-life coats back into animals in some perverse restoration. And, by perching her wise-looking monkeys on exotic carpets, suggesting the status they may hold in Other cultures, Upritchard frustrates our desire to preserve some distinction between culture and nature, us and them, self and Other.
Some of us think the grass is greener on the Other’s side. In the 1960s and 1970s, hippies expressed their contempt for the toxic here and now by adopting the manners of Other people from less materialistic cultures and/or happier times. They pretended to be Other people. Turning their backs on the rat race, they dropped out, many defecting to the country. In New Zealand, Taranaki was one place they went. Upritchard was born there, in its regional centre, New Plymouth. She remembers it nostalgically and fancifully as ‘a hippie town [where] everyone makes pottery. They’ve got their own sheep, do their own yarn, and grow their own vegetables.’9 Returning home, for a residency at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, she created Rainwob I (2007), a faux-pastoral idyll.
Rainwob I featured an ensemble of small, handmade sculptures —mostly figures. The figures—some one-coloured, others rainbow- hued—included a centaur, a dreamer, and a masturbating sheriff. Upritchard described such subjects as ‘stoner crap hippie dudes’.10 There was also Zippy House, a dwelling (part flying saucer, part clam shell, recalling Matti Suuronen’s iconic 1960s Futuro House); a bit of frazzled dead tree, also rainbow coloured; and a trio of lamps, with face-shaped ceramic shades with glowing slit eyes. All these items were installed on an expansive white modernist plinth, a landscape—a plateau. Into one end, Upritchard built in a seat, draped with a grey squab and old sheepskin rugs. It was odd: if you sat in the seat, you became part of the sculpture, but couldn’t see it, looking out instead on an empty wall—as blank as the expansive white plinth itself.
With Upritchard’s scene, it was hard to establish a timeframe. ‘Is she from 73BC or 1973?’, wrote Justin Paton, of one figure.11 Indeed, Upritchard famously based her figures on both fifteenth-century wooden sculptures of Morris dancers by Erasmus Grasser and photos of revellers at a Glastonbury festival. Her figures could be sages or mythic beings from ancient times or hippies and revellers from recent times—or even from the future, when the world begins again. Then or now, here or there, us or them?
But there was another level of ambiguity, of mixed messaging: where does the real world (the scale and world of the viewer) end and the represented one (the scale and world of the art) begin? Were we to see the figures as individuals, as self-contained works that just happened to be sitting on that plinth (making it incidental) or as an installation where the plinth is a landscape or scenario that the figures share (making the spaces between them part of it)? It was a hard question to answer. On the one hand, the figures were more or less the same scale. On the other, the Zippy House seemed too small for the figures to occupy and the implied scale of the tree fragment wasn’t clear. And what about the three actual-size lamps? Were we to read them as part of the world of the figures or as part of the world of the viewer, the real world? Perhaps they were there to illuminate the figures—not that they did. And what of the sheepskin seating? It implied that we might engage in the scenario, be in the same world as the figures. Or, with our back to the action, did it?
Plinths under sculptures are like frames around paintings, insulating the depicted world from the real world, from us. They simplify matters—border control. Upritchard doesn’t like plinths. In Rainwob I, she frustrated plinth logic by turning the plinth into a piece of furniture—a seat for the viewer. She added a further twist with Save Yourself, her project for the 2009 Venice Biennale. It elaborated on Rainwob territory, with figures suggesting sages, hippies, and dancers.12 But, instead of presenting them on a white plinth, she used three large bespoke tables, in different styles and colours. While they functioned like plinths, the tables carried associations of real-world uses, being like dinner tables, work tables, and reading tables. Upritchard’s plinth-tables belonged partly to the scale/world of her figures and partly to the scale/world of the viewer, drawing attention to the threshold between the real and the represented.13
In addition, there was the venue. Save Yourself was installed in three rooms in the Palazzo Mangilli Valmarana, a neo-Palladian villa with opulent furnishings that had seen better days. It was classy or vulgar, depending on your taste. In the Venice Biennale, artists often show in such old interiors—they have few options. Sometimes their projects address those spaces, sometimes the spaces are beside the point—viewers need to quickly sort out which is which. But Upritchard’s show kept both possibilities in play. Although they were in very different styles, Upritchard’s tables echoed the proportions of the Palazzo’s tarnished mirrors. Some of the figures faced the mirrors, as if posing in them, suggesting that the mirrors and the room might exist for them as well—but did that imply the room now or in its heyday? Were we supposed to see the figures on the tables as the works, the figures and the tables as the works (with us standing outside), or the figures, the tables, and the rooms as the work (with us sandwiched in between, somehow). Later, the project was re-presented in a single mirror-free white-cube space at Te Papa, to utterly different effect, only adding to the confusion as to what Upritchard might have meant in the first place.
Following Venice, the interplay between Upritchard’s figures and objects, the furniture, the exhibition space, and the viewer would become even more convoluted and tricky. In her In die Höhle, at Vienna’s Secession in 2010, sculptures were presented on made, found, and adapted items of furniture (a table, a sideboard, wardrobes, seats, etc.), all set in conversation and counterpoint with the space itself. The Secession building is also laden with history, and features, among other things, Gustav Klimt’s famous Beethoven Frieze (1902), whose golden aesthetic and obscure mythic subjects (elegant, naked gorgons and a winged gorilla) chimed, perhaps communed, with Upritchard’s own figures. But to what end? Connections without conclusions.
In recent years, Upritchard has been making larger single figures. They are bigger than dolls or puppets, but not life size, not our size. Increased scale permits greater detail in expression and gesture—the figures are more affective. They suggest, more or less, different ethnicities, roles, and characters: harlequins and crusaders, pilgrims and tourists, jockeys and monks, yogis and hippies, wise men and nincompoops. Some figures are naked, some clothed; some naturalistically coloured, others fauvist. Clothes and colour schemes suggest roles, but the codes are Greek to us. The figures strike curious, plaintive, melancholy poses, with eyes blank, closed, or averted. There’s no consistent register and nothing feels definitive.
In earlier times, Upritchard presented figures grouped together on plinths and on items of furniture, but the new figures are displayed as individuals on steel stands designed by her husband, Italian furniture designer Martino Gamper. The stands match but are different heights, perhaps implying something; for instance the rank of their subjects in relation to one another and to us. Now, we walk among the figures. It’s as though we are now on the plinth or tabletop with them, and yet they are still separated from us, insulated, each raised up on its own tabletop. On the one hand, they are individuals on individual tabletops; on the other hand, they are all collectively separate from us, on matching tabletops, implicated in a separate system. Air gapped yet linked. It’s the same question as before, phrased differently.
I can’t help but think that Upritchard’s interest in Otherness is a New Zealand thing. On the one hand, she has left the country behind, becoming an international artist. On the other, she returns here to work and show, and knowledge of her origins informs the reception of her work. In New Zealand, we aren’t allowed to forget our Otherness—we are identified with distance and we identify with distance. Our place is not only remote, it is also the site of an actual cultural Otherness—Maori culture. Plus, now, in the wake of the Lord of the Rings films, it is also the site of a fictional Otherness—Middle-Earth.14 (Paradoxically, European tourists come here to get in touch with their own cultural origins: our elsewhere becoming their elsewhen. The long-haul flight as time machine.)
Upritchard’s work is generally seen as gloriously apolitical, but she calls it ‘slippery politics’. As right-thinking post-colonialists, we may be concerned about the presumptions of a dominant culture that happily frames the Other in its own terms, for its own purposes—that takes advantage. But Upritchard’s work is not this. In it, different aspects and dimensions of Otherness are sandwiched and scrambled, making it hard to know whether we should look at her works as if they were representations of the Other, the Other’s own representations, or something else again. In 2009, curator Heather Galbraith was spot on when she observed that in Upritchard’s work ‘there is no dominant culture’.15 We are cast adrift in Otherness, with no way home.
- Pakeha are non-Maori New Zealanders.
- Although those who bought into the idea of Tut’s Curse betrayed a guilty-conscience anxiety that perhaps the dead themselves had taken offence.
- She later observed: ‘Leaving really helped me get away from just making art about New Zealand. Then again, it let me make art about New Zealand as well, because there were a lot of things that [in New Zealand] you couldn’t really touch, like the shrunken heads.’ Quoted in Philip Matthews, ‘Scary but Funny’, The Press, 30 January 2008.
- Interestingly, Frances Larson reports: ‘Europeans in New Zealand were sometimes killed so that their heads could be tattooed and then sold back to their own unsuspecting countrymen. There are stories of the very same trading agents who had been sent from Australia to scout out the best heads being murdered so that their heads could be preserved and traded back again as “Maori Warriors”.’ Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (London: Granta Books, 2014), 27.
- This was deftly expressed in the title of the museum-studies anthology Exhibiting Cultures, where ‘exhibiting’ could be a verb or an adjective, a reference to the cultures being exhibited or those doing the exhibiting. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine (eds.), Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).
- There is more to be said about Upritchard’s relation to children as Other. When she started making her Egyptian and Maori faux-artefacts, she was teaching them art. Megan Dunn reports: ‘She … got her class to draw hieroglyphic scrolls from memory. Upritchard loved the pictures because they were “all fucked up and wrong but really right as well”.’ (‘Mummy Dearest’, Pavement, February–March 2003: 54.) One could imagine that Upritchard’s works were made for children or by them. Seeing her works together in Jealous Saboteurs reminded one viewer of a children’s encyclopedia: first there was the universe with the planets, then the landscape took shape, then came dinosaurs, monkeys, and sloths, then people, the Egyptians, the Maori, etcetera.
- Tessa Laird, ‘Dr. Deans, I Presume’, New Zealand Listener, 4 November 2006: 44.
- They could be seen as analogous to Papuans worshiping airplane effigies and wearing Kellogg’s cereal boxes as hats. On the one hand, such strange things make us think that the Other has the wrong idea of us. On the other hand, perhaps they got it right, discovering something true about our relationship to these matters. A photo of a man wearing a Kellogg’s cereal box was reproduced in Thomas McEvilley’s tipping-point critique of MOMA’s Primitivism show (‘Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief’, Artforum, November 1984: 59). An airplane effigy appeared in the shockumentary, Mondo Cane (1962), a pioneering example of tabloid anthropology.
- Quoted in Coline Milliard, ‘Hippie Happening’, Modern Painters, September 2011: 55.
- Quoted in Philip Matthews, ‘Scary but Funny’, The Press, 30 January 2008.
- Justin Paton, ‘Mixed Feelings: Francis Upritchard’s 1970s Show’, Art and Australia, vol. 46, no. 1, Spring 2008, 96.
- Upritchard famously said: ‘I want to create a visionary landscape, which refers to the hallucinatory works of the medieval painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, and simultaneously draws on the utopian rhetoric of post-1960s counterculture, high-modernist futurism and the warped dreams of survivalists, millenarians and social exiles.’
- Again, there were found lamps with ceramic shades fashioned by the artist. It wasn’t clear whether they belonged to the scale of the real world of the viewer or to the scale of the depicted world of the figures.
- Wellington Airport has a sign, ‘Middle of Middle-Earth’. And you can now visit Hobbiton. It’s fictional and real, ancient and new.
- Heather Galbraith, ‘Psychic Pushing’, Francis Upritchard: Save Yourself (New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2009), 27.