Otatara | Hawkes Bay Museum 1999
“Each time we enter a new place, we become one of the ingredients of an existing hybridity, which is really what all ‘local’ places consist of. By entering that hybrid, we change it” Lucy Lippard 1997
The old idea that the landscape photographer captured the spirit of a place no longer holds. Instead, what the photograph offers is an enfolding of the site, the photographer and the histories that have produced both. The viewer will move through the images, locating each within a place that is already prepared for them as the viewer in turn brings her or his understanding to the images. Recognition and a transformation of prior perceptions will in turn enfold those images in the viewer’s understanding. In this instance, the viewer’s engagement will produce experiences that merge data and sensory experience, as the works tilt and tease with depths and surfaces that mirror, reflect and conceal. Metaphors of proximity and distance, intimacy and estrangement are produced in a strategy that is only apparently minimalist.
In this set of images Adrienne Martyn has moved through Otatara, framing specific interactions in a series of observations that refuse to present a pictorial whole, but work with the gridded format of the survey photo-graph. The viewer may imagine missing pieces, or may instead use the selected phenomena as indicators of the salient characteristics of the site. Martyn’s strategy implies that this mapping cannot remain within that site, but will move away from it in all directions - above, below and laterally, or diagonally, observing lateral slices through the intersections of sky, land and water. Consistently, these slices focus elements that imply the passage of time and movement across - water washing pebbles, reflections of cloud and light, the weathering of palisades. We are reminded that the sort of territorialisation that is represented by the grid is likely to fall heir to a similarly contingent deterritorialisation. The presence of elements which share both ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ characteristics suggests that we can rely on neither aspect to remain constant.
Martyn’s three decades of work encompass not only several categories of photography - documentary, landscape, product, portrait and abstract - but also film and painting. Throughout, she has maintained a concern with two elements: a very formal geometric structure and an intensely observed accuracy of detail in found situations. As we can see in the works here, information has presented that would normally only be encountered by the sensitivity of the fingertip. This intimacy of engagement was present from her earliest works, which explored such visual and tactile references as the texture of leaves and gravel on a small secret path, or the slash of light in a broken fence. Her 1982 exhibition Surfaces explored this process explicitly. In the mid-1980s a similar approach to portraiture resulted in the production of what has become known as the uncanny, that sense of the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange, like secret boxes in the wardrobe. The amount of detail seemed almost forensic while the consequent sensation of closeness was countered by the elegance of the formal construction, and the quality of distanced attention conveyed by the subjects’ poses and expressions. Her paintings offered a similar problematic: minimal compositions countered by written texts that suggested emotional immediacy, or severe surfaces slashed by razor. In Martyn’s earlier work, then, formal structure and intimacy of detail or information were consistently resolved in an unstable interaction that made looking at the work at times a disquieting experience. Looking at these images in no way mimicked everyday visual experience. Instead they offered a hallucinatory sense of possession, a surplus of information, held at arm’s length by the rigours of geometric structure.
In the past few years Martyn has spent some time in Australia printing large colour images taken by survey cameras located in aeroplanes, to be used as documentation of the land’s use. While these works are not in colour, and are not clear records of a site’s potential for sale and distribution, they do record traces of occupation and enclosure. The site is one of particular importance for the tangata whenua, who have endorsed this project, and it is not an empty site. Freshly cut palisade stakes insist on engagement. In contrast, clouds, water and the more subtle effects of weathering, suggest that duration, possession and the intense knowledges of the senses co-exist in an unstable balance, as wooden forms, dissolving into the ground, cup negative space.
The philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can never step into the same river twice.” In this collection changes in scale locate the traveller’s eye, passing across, observing in detail and recording specific detail. At the same time the tools of formalist abstraction engage with a matrix of intimacy and distance and desire, suggesting that the very idea of possession is an impossibility.
Lucy Lippard,“The Lure of the Local”, (1997) MIT Press, Harvard, p.6