The Auckland Festival of Photography is in full swing. Photography is thought of as fixing a time and place but the effect of some shows is to suggest mutability and change.
Two Rooms Gallery is home to a strange and compelling record of the encounter between Europe and the Pacific as recorded in life-casts preserved in museums in France and New Zealand.
Photography intervenes in the person of Fiona Pardington. She has taken the casts, skilfully lit and slightly over life-size, and managed, for all their simplicity and plain, dark backgrounds, to suggest layers of meaning related to history, philosophic thought, exploration and attitudes to race. It is a fascinating documentary collection. Because her work has always had an element of the gothic and bizarre, the overall effect is haunting and almost macabre.
The French explorer Dumont d'Urville was in the Pacific and on the New Zealand coast soon after Cook. The exhibition begins with a life-cast of his head from the Flaubert Museum in Rouen. On his expedition he was accompanied by Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier, an expert in taking plaster casts and a student of the pseudo-science of phrenology, which made deductions about personality from the study of individual skulls. A cast of Dumoutier's head brackets the exhibition with d'Urville.
In between are casts of men from the Solomon Islands, Timor, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and New Zealand. They are all attributes of the 18th-century desire to categorise cultures new to them.
For us they have a startling immediacy. They are not hollow-cheeked like a death mask but retain the full characteristics of distinct individuals.
Most striking of all are the three photographs of the life-cast of Matua Tawai from a northern tribe which capture his full-face moko in all its intricate detail, the back of his head with museum identification and a truly noble profile. This is one of several times the casts are taken full-face and in profile, which adds to their character and dignity.
This investigation and the artistic recording of these subjects elevates them to the status of the sculptured heads of ancient Romans and has given them equal historical importance, albeit rather grimly.
Upstairs at Two Rooms, also by Pardington, is an associated group of heads all marked with areas of emotion and knowledge assigned by phrenology. These are touching in their faded labelling that pinpoints such areas as "The Love of Life" and the delicate sepia tones given to the female heads.
At nearby Whitespace is a wonderful record by Gil Hanly as art in Auckland grew from frontier art to the present crowded scene. Without self-conscious artistry they record many lively exhibition openings. A gallery of individual artists shows them in uninhibited, casual moments.
This lively show is coupled, in the second room of the gallery, with a contrasting exhibition of work by Rebecca Swan where the sphere of the world takes on various surfaces which can bubble sinisterly or suggest yielding to time and the moment.
Orexart is hosting an exhibition titled Clearing by Ellie Smith. Her speciality is black and white photographs taken in pine forests in which she captures all their brittle, dry, twiggy rawness. She also records the destructiveness of logging.
The best of these photographs have a special edge when they relate the present to the past. This is done splendidly in Clearing, Whangarei Heads, where tall pine trees surround a trig station. To perform its function in mapping, the marker needed to be clearly visible. The visibility is long gone. Now the station is hidden in the middle of trees that have grown as it, and its uses, decayed.
Similarly, Pioneer Settlers Church shows the old, neatly designed building across the road from an untidy stack of logs and the forlorn stumps of the recent felling. Other works make their point of rough clearance of timber more obviously but less effectively. In Burnt Pines, Rotorua, the site looks awful but without more context we cannot judge the process. Not every tree cut down is a sin.
There is a jump from the intertwined complexity of trees to the elegance of simplicity in the work of Roberta Thornley, whose show Tomorrow is at the Tim Melville Gallery. She photographs young people, elegant, stylish, beautiful young people at the moment when their eyes suggest a bruising encounter with some hurtful reality.
The males are handsome to the point of decadence. They could play a part in a new film or opera of Death in Venice. Particularly exquisite is the profile portrait Sean II. The women, Haley and Celeste, are less ideally beautiful but have presence and character though they have surely seen tears in the heart of things. It makes for a small, unified, but eloquent exhibition.
In complete contrast is the sheer oddity of Every Fish I Ever Caught by Darren Glass at the Anna Miles Gallery. He is famous for inventing new places to put a home-made pin-hole camera. His cameras, and he has made dozens of them, have been hidden in frisbees, pies and even rolled down hills.
A couple of years ago he made a camera to hold an exceptionally long roll of large colour film. With it he planned to record every fish he ever caught. In the event he recorded only "keepers" - fish that could be eaten.
The effect of his odd camera is that it makes a sharp record of everything from foreground to distant landscape. The effect of the pin-hole is to make the subject appear to be under a dark arch. The fish placed directly in front of it are distorted so the eyes and snout loom large. This confrontational quality often humanises the fish. They look so sad and lost out of their watery world that some evoke real pity. Others are just dead fish, albeit in one case with the lovely fan of the fins of a gurnard. This lottery of the quality of the image is as random as the catch of any fishing exhibition.
AT THE GALLERIES
What: Ahua: A Beautiful Hesitation, by Fiona Pardington
Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to July 3
TJ says: Life-casts made by a phrenologist who accompanied Dumont d'Urville's expedition to the Pacific and New Zealand expertly photographed along with heads used as demonstration of this 18th-century preoccupation.
What: One of My Worlds, by Gil Hanly; Dying to Know, by Rebecca Swan
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to June 26
TJ says: A remarkable documentation of artists and personalities in the art scene over many years and a carefully staged group of photographs that ask big questions of life and death.
What: Clearing, by Ellie Smith
Where and when: Orexart, Upper Khartoum Place, to June 19
TJ says: Pine forests are the principal study in these bright, clear images which effectively contrast then and now.
What: Tomorrow, by Roberta Thornley
Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 2 Kitchener St, to July 3
TJ says: Exceptionally elegant portraits of beautiful young people just at the moment when they perceive trouble in their world.
What: All the Fish I Ever Caught, by Darren Glass
Where and when: Anna Miles Gallery, 47 High St, Suite 4J, to June 21
TJ says: Darren Glass makes his own cameras and with one of his creations captures fish, the shore and the sky and in the process strikes a touching note of pathos.