Neil Pardington: Unlocking the Vault - Art Collector

Issue 52, April - June 2010

Neil Pardington’s work hands us the key to the hidden spaces, nooks and crannies of our public museums. But as John Hurrell discovers, his is an unexpectedly moral call to voyeurism.

It’s a safe guess that most readers of Australian Art Collector will be regular users of their local museums, long being familiar with their display halls and certain favourite items that they like to visit on repeated occasions. However the non-exhibiting areas of such institutions, the large hidden regions devoted to storage, sorting and repair will perhaps remain a mystery. These often bunker-like spaces that the regular employees of such institutions spend long hours inhabiting will be totally foreign.

Wellington-based Neil Pardington is known as an accomplished designer, filmmaker and photographer, who, since he graduated from Elam in the early 1980s, has become known in circles far beyond those of camera obsessives. This is because of various projects he has made recording the unpeopled interiors of operating theatres or hospital morgues (in the series The Clinic) and more recently, storage rooms of the aforementioned museums (The Vault). A meticulous documenter who will often use digital methods to meld images taken from different angles, he has persuaded the guardians of many of Aotearoa New Zealand’s collection facilities and registration offices to allow him access.

From such visits he has made over 65 lambda (or LED) C-prints, and when displayed in municipal venues these have generated considerable public interest: partially because they are elegantly composed and surprisingly varied in terms of their institutional sources and specialities, but also because even museum professionals are nosey about their colleagues’ workspaces, and the general public even more so.

The Vault has many varieties of subject: hand carved or motorised weapons; dry taxidermy specimens; specimens in jars of fluid; taonga (Maori treasures); European historic and contemporary art; wooden filing card cupboards; huge metal storage racks on rails; jumbled heaps of mannequins; flat stacked cans of film; sterile lino floors and concrete walls; tapa cloths wrapped in tyvek (a strong but lightweight synthetic packing material).

Because his family is linked to several Maori communities (Ki Tahu, Kati Mamoe, and Kati Waewae, Pardington is particularly interested in recording the storage of taonga within Aotearoa’s museums. Generating wider interest in these treasures has been a salient feature of his New Zealand shows so far. However to get a fresh viewpoint for an Australian audience he has asked Tony Stephens of GRANTPIRRIE to make an independent selection for the gallery’s upcoming exhibition, specifically for the two differently sized spaces within the gallery. The result is that for the larger gallery space at GRANTPIRRIE, animals will dominate, for the smaller one, mannequins.

Understandably then, many of these 15 photographs, particularly those of specimens, exude a forlorn sense of waste: the corpses of variously aged albatrosses lying on shelves flat on their backs in the most un-seabird-like of positions; or jars of crammed in but delicate deer foetuses with pale grey translucent skin. Yet many other photographs give the impression these creatures are far from dead and in fact, conversing amongst themselves. A group of rabbits – one white – seem engaged in serious chatter, and have not been arranged by the artist but documented exactly as found – but with the camera aimed slightly below their necklines, looking up, so we are drawn in as if observers of an intimate bunny cabal.

In another, from Canterbury Museum, a group of determined polar bears, wildebeest, grizzly bears and bison seem to be charging down a red walled corridor, with a wolf and an oddly contorted hare snapping at their flanks – this commotion in spite their being in light crates or on differently coloured supporting bases.

Even more intriguing are the five shots of groups of abandoned mannequins used normally to display period clothing. In some they congregate in draughty corners, headless or without torsos and wrapped in transparent bubble wrap or flimsy tyvek. In others they are unclad but painted in splotches of odd garish colours that are normally hidden by clothing. One image, taken at the National Army Museum, shows a balding unshaven Caucasian male, with gaffer-taped knees and clasped hands sprayed black, looking over the bald head of an armless woman rising out of the floor to contemplate a supine form covered with a white sheet. For a mannequin he seems surprisingly puzzled, if not a little amused.

Many of these works for Sydney generate unexpected dream-like narratives that will cause you to either laugh out loud or shiver, or be simply depressed that creatures once existing in plenitude are now rapidly disappearing. Pardington has created an unusually fascinating body of work that is slow to pall – a shrewd mix of pathos and objectivity combined.

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