Art and Text, no. 65, 1999.
Gavin Hipkins is a photo-tourist. Literally, pilgrimages play a major role in his work, and, metaphorically, he is a tourist of photography itself, of the spaces defined by its histories, its modes, manners, and mechanics.1 Hipkins is on a grail quest, hankering after some truth, some sublime, but always arriving late on the scene, discovering evidence, clues, engaging in cultural and art-historical forensics rather than basking in affect. While he tracks down the ideal, something unpleasant dogs his search.
Tourists prefer sites of preordained or readymade significance, places known by reputation. Hipkins’s 1997 show The Blue Light—named after the 1932 proto-fascist movie starring Leni Riefenstahl—developed out of a research trip to Germany. This package odyssey took him to the Pergamon Altar in Berlin, to Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, to Munich’s 1972 Olympic Stadium, to Dresden’s German Hygiene Museum, and finally home, to Napier, New Zealand, the city that arose from earthquake rubble in art-deco style. While Riefenstahl’s film was romantic and moving, Hipkins’s show was not: it was bitsy. It included images gathered along the way, shot and presented in diverse styles—odd fragments divorced in time, space, and content. There was a still from Fantasia (1940), some architectural details, closeups of light fittings, and a blurry shot of a tooth resembling a hermit’s cavern in the mountains. We were left to join the dots, as though these images were less works than findings, clues that might shed some light on something. Detective work was required to piece together the story Hipkins was seeking, or perhaps the story of his seeking.
A sense of belatedness nags Hipkins’s work, which is routinely obscure, affectless. In 1997, Hipkins visited Chandigarh in Northern India. Le Corbusier’s ‘radiant city’, built in the 1950s, contains many of the architect’s celebrated buildings, but also his kitschy Monument of the Open Hand. Located alongside a sunken amphitheater, the giant, idealised hand slowly rotates to suggest ‘the direction of the wind (that is, the state of affairs)’. The judges and lawyers of Chandigarh once identified the monstrous disembodied hand as a representation of the Law, but, at the time of Hipkins’s visit, the Hand’s ‘Trench of Contemplation’ had been co-opted by kids as a makeshift cricket pitch, reflecting instead the fate of modernism’s lofty ideals. Hipkins’s The Trench (1997–8) is a slide show containing eighty images of the ominous Hand double-exposed with roses from Chandigarh’s rose garden. The hand rotates as the roses pass from yellow to orange to red … The scale of projection is intimate, bringing the Hand down to hand-size, just as that rosy overlay undermines its pomp and authority, its faith in the State.
Hipkins says the use of double exposure in The Trench echoes not only cheesy effects found in Indian commercial photography but also special-effects sequences from the old children’s TV series The Tomorrow People. Hipkins courts this kind of ambiguity. He homes in on suggestive retro styles or motifs we can’t locate in just one place, things that belong at once to different value systems, moments, discourses—or between them. Many of his works—The Track (1995–7), for instance—recall brands of early modernism, when an efficient, dynamic aesthetic was linked both with utopian social movements and with totalitarianism. This imposing work, some three metres high, is made from a tiny image, an unassuming closeup of some brown plasticine. Strips of machine prints of this snap are stacked horizontally. The work catches us in a web of slight references. It resembles an aerial view of an athletics cinder track, as one might find in a sports stadium. (Those who know Hipkins’s The Blue Light may be reminded of Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia; the Fantasia still it incorporated recalled Albert Speer’s dome of light from Olympia’s finale.) It also looks like lengths of slot car track. The mechanics of the photographic process is likewise suggested: the softness of the plasticine is like photographic film waiting to receive the imprint of reality, a negative image. And the strips of prints, pinned through their tiny sprocket holes, make an analogy to the strips of film that run through the track of a still or movie camera. The strips also recall the backgrounds Eadweard Muybridge used for his protocinematic studies of animal locomotion.
In her essay ‘The Im/Pulse to See’, Rosalind Krauss observes that a pulsing, an agitation, a dissolving of the visual, marks certain early modernist art.2 She links it to the popular fascination with the flickering of protocinematic toys. The pleasure we take in the zoetrope, she argues, is dependent on recognising both the vitality of its effect and the artifice of its generation—the mechanism. Hipkins is no stranger to artificial life. For The Tunnel (1995–7), he alternated at random hundreds of brown snaps and yellow snaps of a ball in two meandering lines at head height and crotch height. Talking to eyes and testicles, The Tunnel was intended as an agitating erotic trench to channel our gaze, but to nowhere. It was a self-conscious instance of ‘round’ phallocentrism.
Pulsing has a long history in Hipkins’s work. It’s there in the Falls (1992–), a series Hipkins started at art school. Shown individually or in groups, each Fall is a vertical strip of machine prints that presents the content of a single roll of film—suggesting a session of almost identical shots of a subject from more or less the same angle, like a ‘shot’ of film footage. In Hipkins’s most recent collection of Falls, Zerfall (1997–8), shown at last year’s Sydney Biennale, the subjects are circular and hail from the kitchen and the bathroom, sites of eating and excreting, the ends of another tunnel. The effect is once enticing, static, hallucinatory, banal, vibratory, and inhumane.
Marxists have criticised dynamic product photography as the ultimate expression of commodity fetishism. Bringing the inanimate to life, it imbues commodities with a mystic vitality apparently independent of and superior to the lives that brought them into being. Hipkins’s images work somewhat similarly. But, while Krauss characterises early modern pulsing as a virile throb, Hipkins’s retro-pulsing is more a sterile jiggle, an already spent eroticism. Pointedly, ‘Zerfall’ is a German word meaning cultural dissipation, decay. Hipkins relishes exhaustion, the residue of vitality. Another photographic work, Zerfall: Wellington, 1 March 1996 (1996), freezes exploding fireworks, arresting their spectacle at the moment of fulfillment and expenditure.
In discussing Hipkins’s work, one can’t avoid mentioning the sublime, a worn-out idea that has done its dash. In The Field (1994–5), a thousand or so photograms of balls are massed and marshaled, papering the wall to create a starry cosmos or a cosmic computer screen. This work suggests a hollow, weary, denatured sublime—the sublime as a trope that can be routinely summoned, restaged, wheeled out, to satisfy the masses. When he showed The Field at Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1996, Hipkins hung his small diptych, The Field Rats (1996), on the opposing wall, presenting a nasty tangle of plastic rats, their glowing eyes mimicking the lights of The Field. While the big work on its own might suggest shadows cast by a galaxy of ideal forms, read in association with the rats The Field became monstrous—glowing feral eyes lurking deep in the gloom of Plato’s cave. The sublime staring back. The romantic dream transformed into vermin.
Using grand, gravid, portentous titles like The Dam, The Well, The Drop, and The Movement, Hipkins offers his works as authoritative and thuggish. He says his titles may be heroic (suggesting mammoth engineering projects and mighty public works) but they are also pulp, recalling the corny language of horror-movie tides (The Howling, The Thing, The Hidden, The Omen, The Shining), where the definite article enhances the sense of some generic menace—something original, archetypal. An underlying uneasiness is always there in Hipkins’s work. It is the unease we feel when we get too close to the absolutism of utopias, when we realise the modernist project of creating the ideal city may not be far removed from the fascist’s project of creating the ideal extermination camp. Both lose the individual within the mass, the social machine, the big picture. In this way, Hipkins’s beautiful, bleak abstractions belong to the neo-gothic, with Le Corbusier’s severed but animated Hand serving as their fleurs du mal.
[IMAGE: Gavin Hipkins The Trench 1997–8]
- Giovanni Intra, ‘Photogenic’, Signs of the Times (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 1997), 24–5.
- Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 51–75.