Monday, October 20, 2008

A different kind of tension

This blogeur today is too hungover to post anything new. So here is my review, from Craccum, of the new book by Peter Peryer.

Peter Peryer is a New Zealand photographer who photographs things. Here, for example is a sequence of photographs about a third of the way through the book:
26. Donkey, Legoland, 1997
27. Bulls, 2006
28. Punakaiki, 1997
29. Owl, 2003
30. Sand Shark, 1991
To explain, the donkey is life-size and made from Lego bricks. The bulls are of indeterminate size; they are six plastic toys. Punakaiki is represented by a rock formation of dense horizontal layers; again its size is indeterminate. The owl on the facing page appears to be real; the pattern of its feathers is similar to the rock formation. Although in nature there is a fish called a sand shark, this one is a shark made of sand, on a beach.

There are many more photographs of things in this book. Some are named directly: 8. Apple Tree, 2004; 9. Aerial, 2005. Others are named obliquely: 51. Trinity, 2007 shows three single-engined aircraft flying in line, against the sky; 72. MOTAT, 2005, shows a display of models of seven World War II single-engined aircraft, against a painted sky; the nylon cords which hold them up are visible, as is the painterliness of the cloudscape.

Some of these things are not like the others. Some are very large, others very small, but others still are difficult to judge, size-wise. Such are the facing pictures of 32. Yellow Eyed Penquin (Enderby Island) 1989 and 33. Macraes Flat 2007. Penguins are perfect for this kind of ambiguity of scale: they all look alike but come in a variety of sizes. Peryer's Yellow Eyed Penguin might be very small or very large or somewhere in between; it is difficult to tell and Peryer does not give us any other objects to help us. Macraes Flat is similar. It shows two dumper trucks climbing up a road on what seems to be the wall of a quarry. But it is difficult to decide whether the quarry is real or not. Those could be monster trucks or they could be a child's toys.The last plate in the book 80. Home, 1991 is at first sight a house but, at second, a model village house.

Things are difficult. Not in themselves; these are mostly commonplace objects, both man-made and biological. They become difficult when a photographer photographs them and puts them in a book such as this one. One cannot help but look for clues. Some of these photographs of things seem to have been put next to one another because of some resemblance, or at least some sort of visual assonance, such as 52. Roots, 2005 and 53. Headless Chicken, 1995, where the exposed roots of tree stumps and the scrawny flesh of a plucked chicken seem to suggest each other. Others things seem to have no relation to anything else. 44. Porcupine Fish, 2007 is what it says on the label. Facing it is 45. Major, Minor, 2006, which could be any one of a number of things: a form of seaweed, some kind of vegetable, a decorative something-or-other.

Then there are other things, only a few of them scattered throughout the book, which are quite straightforward, literal even, such as 48. Waterfall, 2002. These are puzzling, more so than the peculiar things. They are the the stock images of art photography, which is a business that Peryer otherwise seems to want to avoid. One finds oneself trying to decode these images, to find some reason they might be here in this book. Some of his photographs do not look like his photographs, or even the work of a professional photographer: 18. Stairs Oamaru, 2007 shows a staircase with a livid floral carpet and ceiling of inexplicable shape with a violent floral wallpaper. Several of the images like 19.Conus, 2007 are out-of-focus; or rather, they are not focused precisely; others like 55 Barbed Wire, Kansas USA, 2000 are patterns as much as they are representations.

Clearly, Peryer is not an everyday photographer. He is not of the Craig Potten school of enhanced tourist pictures, nor is he a nature photographer of the introspective gnarled-tree-stump-on-a-beach variety (although 58. Inlet, 2003 does show a tree-stump on a beach). He is not a photographer of Kiwiana, either, although many of the things he photographs are unique to New Zealand. More importantly, he is also unlike the photographers who defined New Zealandness in their work, the likes of Ans Westra and Robin Morrison. They photographed place and people to show the peculiarity and particularity of New Zealand. Peryer hardly photographs people at all, although many of his images suggest human forms and many of his forms are the work of humans.

The absence of people in this book does strange things to the viewer. Looking at 5. Kereru, 2006, one cannot help but think that the bird on the telephone wire is looking back. Over the page, 6. Skull, 2001 shows a skull of some mammal which looks very human, until one realises that humans do not have teeth like that.Peryer is a bit like Charles Fearnley, who is largely forgotten but who photographed details and patterns with intensity.

So what is it all about? I think it is about the substance of things, their being, their thingyness. There is in these photographs a lot of texture, a lot that is tactile. They are flat multiple reproductions contained in a book but still most of them give a sense of how the objects they depict might feel.

To help reveal the puzzle of these pictures (if any puzzle has been intended, which is by no means certain) Peryer has written a memoir and Peter Simpson, who teaches English at Auckland University but has appropriated for himself the role of Art Historian, provides an essay, with footnotes. I have not read either, but will do so at some time. For the time being, the pictures seem to be enough, without words to help.



Robyn said...

Without seeing the photos, that description makes it sound like someone's Flickr stream in book form.

Paul said...

Look at the book and get back to me.