MARK AMERY inhales the cool atmosphere of Laurence Aberhart’s overwhelming 30 year photography retrospective, currently exhibiting at City Gallery Wellington.

Midway Beach, Gisborne, June 13, 1986

ONE FRIEND described the City Gallery retrospective of Laurence Aberhart’s photography over 30 years of practise as like being in a morgue. Another described the framed prints as like little floating clouds. I like both descriptions.

It makes me think of Aberhart the photographer as mortician. In his darkroom, washing up the details with his chemicals. His old 8 by 10 inch, stationary view camera his dispassionate instrument (clean, calm and composing), clarifying the world in a balance of geometric forms (those of the modernist painter). Stabilising it in black and white, rich dark shadows and brilliant light. Churches, memorials, even a public outdoor shower are given a gravitas. All that remains of an empty, disused Australian car yard lot in one print are three signs marked ‘Torana’, ‘Holden’ and ‘Monaro’. They can’t help but echo the crosses at Calvary.

He is the cool outsider, moving independently of the communities that usually inhabit the spaces he photographs. From the outside buildings are often shuttered, left to speak plainly for themselves. From the inside churches and lodges are empty of congregation, allowed to resonate, objects left to tell their own stories. The camera soaks up detail but doesn’t attempt to own its stories – it stares back at you. It believes in looking not participating, and that’s as troubling in its perspective as it is true of many Pakeha’s relationship to this country’s history and culture.

Yet Aberhart’s images can also be full of life. As the banal is made profound in his work, so to is the sacred bought back into human touch. You could fill a gallery with Aberhart’s animation of objects and spaces. The way that he gives voice to the vacant and the absent; the way visual absurdities and ambiguities in his photographs tickle history back into life.

As co-curator Justin Paton recalls, Susan Sontag once wrote that “the camera converts the whole world into a cemetery.” A cemetery is quite a different thing to a morgue. In the morgue the body is present and it’s the spirit that has left the building. In Aberhart’s images it’s as if he returns to the early camera’s use as a spiritcatcher. It is all about the manifestation of memory. Like the standing stones and memorials he photographs his images speak quietly but they are the compression of many collected voices.

When Aberhart photographs an interior it can be as if he is opening it up to breathe. There may be something cool and crisp in the execution but the textures are rich and have body, as if the image is full of the warm breath of a space. In this way in an Aberhart photograph the air rises and takes shape – as full and vaporous as a cloud.

In truth Aberhart’s oeuvre is far more varied than the steadiness of his camera view. An old scullery in a lodge can seem like a museum exhibit, but equally he can make the stuffed and tagged owls in the national museum talk. It is in these contradictions – light and dark, detachment and care, the cool and warm (check out this strangeness in the images of his own children for example) – that are to be found these photographs’ mystery.

Nature Morte (silence), Savage Club, Wanganui, February 20, 1986

The ambiguities and contradictions are played out overtly in the photograph ‘Nature Morte (Silence)’ – plate one in the handsome book that accompanies this exhibition. A stage curtain is drawn, the eyes of a carved figure are cut out of frame and its legs rooted, yet its mouth with tongue wails and arms expressively hold in a pain. To the left a plaque reading ‘silence’ has been placed over another piece of carving, yet below it stands a homemade speaker. History might seem as if its being forcefully, offensively silenced, yet Aberhart brings it back to life by articulating the strange cultural juxtapositions and rich textures it has left behind. This exhibition is peppered with images that have such powerful complexity.

So why then like my friend did I also feel like there was a chill in the air? Well, firstly there is that antiseptic air of the large public gallery space, with those big white walls and the hum of the air conditioner. It doesn’t encourage the intimate read the scale and detail Aberhart’s images encourage. Taking this amount of work in is far easier with the book in an armchair, engaging with one print at a time.

It’s also simply too much of a good thing – like a morgue for the sheer monotonous size of the exhibition, bodies laid out still, silent and evenly in rows. Addressing the curatorial tension between art (the persuasive image) and documentary (ensuring the exhibition represents fully each of the photographer’s different collected series, from churches to lodges) has been avoided in favour of just doing both. It is as if with two curators (Gregory O’Brien of City Gallery and Paton of Dunedin Public Art Gallery) we get twice the exhibition, rather than a more rigorous editing down to a less exhaustive but more persuasive exhibition.

The arrangement of this exhibition encourages a scanning of images that works against more prolonged engagement. Clearly Aberhart insists on only exhibiting original prints of a uniform small size, and over the exhibition you may find yourself longing for some change of format. Two limited edition albums in a vitrine provide a too rare break from the intense activity on the walls.

Yet just because Aberhart’s works are small doesn’t make them any less powerful when engaged with closely. As Aberhart’s images take time to take and seem to suspend past and present, elevating what is captured out of time, they reward time spent soaking them up. Here the images themselves need more room to breathe.

Laurence Aberhart, City Gallery Wellington until July 29.

See also:
» Aberhart: The Last Of His Kind?