Showing New Zealand artist Ann Shelton’s interrogation of the purpose and possibilities of photography as it crosses the construction of the self and social narratives, Ann Shelton: Dark Matter evidences how her work has created a singular trajectory for contemporary photography.
In the exhibition and accompanying book the notion of “dark matter”—a real material of substance which remains out of sight—is a metaphor for the research behind Shelton’s photography and the histories it touches. This concept forms a way to consider key bodies of Shelton’s practice. In the 1990s extended series of images including Redeye (1995–97) engaged with contemporary status of documentary social photography and the portrait while presenting the intimate, personal milieu of the photographer and the performance of diverse identities in Auckland, New Zealand in that moment.
Works from the late 1990s, such as K Hole (1999) and Abigail’s Party (1999) turn from surveilling people to place, from the personal to social and cultural narratives, historical as well as contemporary. These narratives become heightened, and the truth nature of the photograph tenuous, through formal strategies and a sense of absence in subsequent series, for example room room (2008) and once more from the street (2004) taken at decommissioned institutions.
The well-known images that comprise Public Places (2001–03) signal how Shelton’s work has explored subjects from film and literature to reflect social codes and knowledge structures that relate to constructions of gender and outsiders who transgress societal norms.
More recently, Shelton’s work has also recorded a number of distinctive local archives, as in a “library to scale” (2006), a major series depicting the idiosyncratic library and homemade books of Frederick B Butler at life size. In this work and in a forest (2005–ongoing) massed images connote the role of photography as an archival tool—a source, often unreliable, of knowledge.
The meaning of Shelton’s photography is amplified by the strategies of doubling, mirroring and grouping which bring psychological and symbolic meanings, referring, for example, to sight or its opposite, blindness, or gaps in knowledge. Increasingly the works are the result of lengthy research. A new series of work, “jane says,” references the historic legacy of women’s use of plants for fertility and birth control and knowledge that has been excluded from Western medicine through photographs of plants arranged after the style of Japanese Ikebana. Both imported species (thistle, fennel or ginger) and local species (poroporo) evoke the anxiety lurking within our societal attitudes and behaviours. Shelton’s work has mobilised photography to bring to light overlooked narratives and complicate established histories in concert with an investigation of the ontology of the photographic image.
Ann Shelton: Dark Matter is curated by Auckland Art Gallery’s Principal Curator and Head of Programmes Dr Zara Stanhope. The exhibition and its associated visitor programme signals Auckland Art Gallery’s dedicated research into artistic practice and encouragement of dialogue around art and ideas.
AAG continues the institution’s important role in publishing as a practice and as record of research with the book Ann Shelton: Dark Matter. Heavily illustrated and presenting significant research into the artist’s practice, the 300-page full colour book includes: reproductions of key bodies of work; facsimile excerpts of Shelton’s past publications and artist books that are a key part of her practice; an interview with Cassandra Barnett and newly commissioned essays by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Ulrich Bauer, Donna West Brett, Dorita Hannah and John Di Stefano, and Dr Zara Stanhope. Design by Duncan Munro.
the physical garden
Performances that accompany the work “jane says” on November 26, February 26, March 12, April 1 and 16
This air is material: The work of Ann Shelton
A documentary by Becky Nunes on November 26 and April 16.
K Road in the ’90s—Making it up: identity and photography
A panel discussion March 22.
For full programme see www.aucklandartgallery.com.