For Gavin Hipkins, New Zealand's past can be quaint and also a little spooky. In the first works from his series The Village, huge canvases - all resembling the deserted scenes of a gothic western film - portray a disused waterwheel in Christchurch, the steam-train Kingston Flyer looming out of the landscape, and steam rising by an old gate in Rotorua.

Juxtaposed with each of these is a smaller image and a coloured background - robber's masks with the train, a horseshoe with the waterwheel, and a Bible alongside the gate.

"At an allegorical level, the scene from Rotorua acts as some sort of gate between heaven and hell," Hipkins says. "The steam is some sort of representation of hell and those sorts of iconographies.

"The elements are quite flippant to some extent. With the train robbers, and the idea of blackness and a tunnel, they work because they are red and black and because there is some sort of connection there."

Hipkins, a finalist in the inaugural Walters Award and who represented New Zealand at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 2002, has frequently been referred to as a "photo tourist" for the way he collects images of the history of different places while utilising varying aspects of photographic history and technique.

He is also fond of the phrase "image sampler", the title of a 1994 article about him in Art New Zealand magazine.

The first thing to strike people in this exhibition will be the enormous scale of three works, which have been printed on to 3m by 6m vinyl billboard skins.

"The idea for using them in the gallery emerged out of a project I did in the South Island at a place called Macrae's Heritage and Art Park," Hipkins says. "This was the second commission. My work was titled The Mine and that was a series of nine billboards that roam across this landscape."

Hipkins suspects his move into such a large format could also be the result of experiencing the use of scale while completing his master's degree in Canada.

"I did my master's in Vancouver a couple of years ago and I was exposed to large-scale photographic works, notably by people such as Jeff Wall and Ken Lum. They were pivotal figures in terms of photography through the 80s and 90s, which is part of why I went to study there."

Although Hipkins has been teaching Photoshop for several years to students at Massey University School of Fine Arts in Wellington, this is his first foray into digital imaging.

The works in The Village series were taken on a medium-format Hasselblad camera - or on a 35mm for smaller images - then scanned and altered on the computer and output on the skins.

"An important element about going digital is that you can work with these wonderful blocks of colour, which start to have an equal balance in terms of the imagery.

"I guess that's where it starts to play with the idea of the billboard as a space for advertising. We expect a logo or brand to be on the commercial billboard, but instead we get this blank colour block or some sort of oblique title icon."

The smaller images on each canvas have been distorted and squashed, giving them an eerie cinematic feel.

"I wanted to play with some sense of haunting or to exaggerate a gothic kind of feel, but almost play with an idea of time-mapping or memory, so the elements weren't sitting entirely comfortably.

"Often you get that sort of effect in horror films, like extra wide-angle effects or some sort of distortion taking place."

The influence of cinema is also evident in Hipkins' use of the definite article in his titles, a practice employed in previous works like The Homely, The Port and The Colony. This continues a tradition found in horror films like The Howling, The Shining and The Exorcist.

"There is something implicitly ominous in the title The Village," Hipkins says, "although the phrase also acknowledges a folksy quaintness to the way New Zealand often presents its history.

"The Village itself was also meant to reference the idea of a heritage park a la Motat or Whakarewarewa - tourist or leisure destinations which are, literally, composed spaces."

Although these first works from what will be a larger series are in a gallery, Hipkins doesn't see them remaining in such confined environs.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful to see eight or nine of them around the city, especially with the reference to the title of The Village, which is how we all feel about the smallness of New Zealand?

"That has also been ticking around in my head. I live in Wellington, which is a village. You can't walk down the street without being stopped, or stopping others, four or five times in a stretch."


* What: The Village, by Gavin Hipkins

* Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, to Mar 12