Voyage Through Time | Hocken Gallery 1991
Voyage Through Time may be read as a series of meditations on art, and on art and women. It includes only one explicit portrait, that of Doris Lusk standing before one of her own works which she had painted on the wall of Martyn's Christchurch studio on condition that it was painted out after the photograph was taken. The image hangs between two which were taken in the Louvre in Paris: the Winged Victory, which depicts the Nika of Samothrace' trapped and almost obliterated in a lightwell; and a plaster ceiling panel in the Louvre obscurely depicting a woman artist surrounded by heavy plaster decoration and busy frescoes. Lusk's curtained arch is a veil and the juxtaposition of the three images suggests that the question of women and art involves a problem, a difficulty of vision, something hidden or unacknowledged. This is a theme that dominates the exhibition.
The lightwells and domes of the Louvre are the historical progenitors of Martyn's favourite setting, the stairwell of the old Excelsior Hotel in Dunedin, and most of the rest of this exhibition is set there. It has many functions, physical and symbolic - the space as much a character as the people, and often more dominant. Her treatment of its soft plaster surfaces establishes the meditative mood of these images; earlier Martyn might have recorded them in trompe Voeil focus creating an acute awareness of the state of place and skin at one point in time. Now she has moved more explicitly into metaphor and fantasy and it is not the tactile experience of surfaces that Martyn requires but visual patterns created by texture, the staircase itself and the metal skylight. This urban interior appears to have no practical function and no inhabitants.
Martyn plays with different aspects of this space. The bright bannister snakes down, bisecting it, taking a malevolent role. The doll-like figure is defeated by it; the naked woman issues a challenge but the building wraps itself around her. It has explicitly sexual characteristics in Birth, and in 'Surface', a found image made from a reversed shadow on the plaster. The space seems fonder of men than of women - how gently it treats the figure in 'Voyage'. Women are conversely dwarfed by it unless they transcend it as in 'Through Time'.
In a different setting 'Ascension' again presents the imposition of form over character, the tombstone rising above the woman who colludes in her own death.
Vessel of past European glory, interior and with no outside view, the Excelsior defines the behaviour of Martyn's women, dwarfing and oppressing them. In works like 'Surface', in which form is dissolved in reflective light, she seems to suggest that only when the structure imposed by the past is similarly dissolved will a strong female presence in art be possible.
Nika of Samothrace also known as the Winged Victory, ca 200-290 B.C 8' marble, the Louvre, Paris
Through Time | Artspace 1990
The stage for the drama of Martyn’s photographs is a stairwell, a particular architectural space found in the Hotel Excelsior in Dunedin.
It consists of a curved staircase with a single balustrade at the bottom and an open floor area which has a directly even natural light cast from the cupola above.
Martyn uses it as a metaphorical space for a transfiguration of the body. That instantaneous moment when life is terminated is symbolically conveyed by placing a figure at the bottom of the stairs.
Martyn has been so theatrical, so explicitly metaphysical. Certain elements of the staircase are punctuated by light. The rest recede very quickly into total darkness, a pure and incredibly dense black which continues out into the frames.
The action thus takes place within a void, with nowhere to go but up. Yet any sense of resurrection over death is displaced. The experience itself is ultimately one with this void into which the central figures, which appear in each photograph, would seem poised to collapse.
The room where all but one of the photographs are hung is darkened in a mausoleum-like atmosphere, with one streak of light coming in from the entrance door. The light is cast on to one of three works placed together - representing death, the moment of transition and final transfiguration.
It is the latter which is bathed in light, a portrait of a man whose saintly appearance is achieved by a burned-out background, giving a “halo-glow” around his head. A complex light/dark interplay of the face, his pre-Raphaelite good looks, and downcast head evoke feminine, uniting sexual opposites in transcendence.
The middle photograph has the stairwell motif again with a figure at the bottom costumed, as in another work, as an aristocrat of the French Revolution awaiting the guillotine.
The third photograph, in shade, is of a woman in modern dress in a cemetery. This early work portends later developments to the completely staged photography. Here there were the same formal concerns: vertical composition, symmetry, control of light to manipulate surface and depth, the centrality of the main figure, and a woman strongly confrontational.
This exhibition will come as a surprise to anyone who knows Martyn’s previous work in portraiture, extending as she does more fully narrative possibilities of photography.
New Zealand Herald 4 April 1990
Mystery, Mortality and Transience | Art New Zealand 1989-90
The ten works in Adrienne Martyn’s new portfolio represent a major thematic shift from the psychological portraits which have dominated her work in the nineteen-eighties. People still figure in the photographs, but her current concern is to use the photographic subject as the actor in a deliberately constructed narrative fiction. In keeping with a narrative tradition, Martyn has now adopted new formats—the diptych, the triptych and the polytych. Impressed by large photographs and paintings seen in New York last year, and conscious of having to compete for attention in an image-saturated world, she has also made her prints larger. The biggest work, 'Birth', is over two metres long and is made up of four individual sheets.
In 1982 Martyn exhibited a portfolio of architectural details and she returns to architecture in the current work. Her interest in 1982 was with the exterior surface: now it is with interiors, not only physical, but also mental—that is the constituents of experience which are sensations, perceptions, emotions and ideas. Entitled 'Absence: Presence' the ten new works have developed from a 1987 image in the 'Artists’ Portraits' portfolio commissioned by the National Art Gallery. Listed as cat. no. 33 'Untitled 1987' in the survey exhibition mounted by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery last year, this image, a portrait of the photographer Janet Bayly, is illustrated on the cover of the survey catalogue. It stood apart from the others, distinguished by its use of symbols to represent a fictional narrative on the theme of life and death.
The 'Absence: Presence' portfolio is a vision of what has been, or what might be. It is primarily a vision of the passage of time, and it is a particularly powerful and effective one because it strikes a chord which reverberates from the very nature of photographs themselves. Susan Sontag claims that photographs are inherently melancholy and that this comes from their ‘irrefutable pathos as a message of time past’. She adds, ‘The effectiveness of photography’s statement of loss depends on its steadily enlarging the familiar iconography of mystery, mortality and transience’.1
That iconography, in Martyn’s recent work, is built up around the decaying interior of the once elegant and now disused Excelsior Hotel in Dunedin. A notable architectural feature of the building is its stairwell which Martyn documented for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust last year. Martyn knew the building and has over the last decade regularly used it as a setting for portraits. But her experience of it was altered on that occasion by the fact that its tenants had recently left and she felt she could sense their ghosts in its emptiness. She saw in the building not its faded elegance, but its condition of decay and described it as ‘sad and empty, and ... I felt like I was walking around a corpse’.2 A few weeks before that she’d had her first personal experience of death. She says, ‘Death was very much on my mind—concepts about life in death and death in life’.3 The building gave her the means to express those ideas.
Stairs or steps are a symbol common to many different cultures and are used to express ideas about ascension, gradation and transition. The Excelsior stairwell presented itself to Martyn as a stage on which to present ideas of life and death—it was a setting in which to explore not only the ravages of life, but also the possibilities of life. By setting her photographs on the inside of a building, and not on the outside, she makes the point that her concern is with the inner life—the imaginary life—rather than the everyday one.
The first image reflects this transition and mirrors Martyn’s shift from the descriptive to the narrative over the last three years. 'Ascension' is a triptych and the central panel shows a woman crouching, her head thrown back, her hands flying to her throat. She is placed in front of a gravestone. The two side panels show the Excelsior stairwell. The orderly march of its steps and the gently flowing curve of its bannister contain and complement the mysterious ecstasy (or agony?) at its centre. The image suggests the descent into death (from the cross?) by the stairwell at left, through the agony of death and the ecstasy of resurrection to the ascension (to heaven?), by the rising stair at right. The two images of the stairwell serve as a reminder that the same object is at once descendant and ascendant. Martyn has used this inherent ambiguity to striking effect.
The spiral form of the stairwell is suggestive of the principle of organic life. The quietly powerful poignancy of the polyptych 'Birth' lies in its symbolic use of the stairwell to represent simultaneously life—because of its spiral form —and the transience of life, conveyed by the descending steps which suggest a passage from one plane to another.
In other images Martyn makes use of different architectural features, including the lantern at the top of the light well and the decorative ceiling panels. 'Presence' is another triptych which expresses transience—this time through its fleeting immediacy. In the centre a woman’s face floats pale out of a very dark background. Her lips are forming a half smile and her eyes compel the audience’s attention by their reserved intensity. They are striving to be here, now. She is flanked by photographs of the ceiling panels. They are seen from below and resemble two elaborately moulded picture frames with blank panels in place of the pictures. The image’s potency arises from the tension between the powerful presence of its central subject and its equally emphatic absences in the side panels. By highlighting the ruinous disrepair of the peeling plaster walls of the light well which frame the image of the face in 'Exile', Martyn draws attention to the scarred, haunting face itself. Details in the side panels include the bars of the stair balustrade, wire netting over the glass dome at the top, and a single naked light bulb—all of which suggest imprisonment. Life in this case is decay and imprisonment, an approximation to death.
'Execution' is a powerfully direct image of ravage. The central figure is a woman whose face is plastered white to resemble a death mask. Her eyes are black holes and a narrow black ribbon is drawn tight around her white neck.
Her arms are pinned to her sides and she wears a low cut dress of eighteenth century style. She is the ghastly apparition of a victim and the stairwells in the side panels now take on the sinister aspect of the steps up the hangman’s scaffold. It is a shocking image, the more so for having mingled with its elements of torture and imminent death, an expression of malevolent lasciviousness on the face of the victim which is reminiscent of Hans Bellmer’s doll.4
The juxtapositions of appearance and disappearance in the triptychs are disturbing and the shifts of scale are a potential threat to the cohesion of the overall images. But through careful manipulation of tone and composition— in 'Execution' for example, by lightening the darker area at the top of the sides of the walls framing the stairwell panels—Martyn achieves a visual recession which successfully projects the central panel. In this way the viewer is encouraged to step back to view the drama of the image as a whole, yet at the same time is invited to step closer to inspect its rich (and beautifully rendered) surface detail.
The dramatic effect of these images is further enhanced by their display in a low light environment which aims to achieve the effect of a spotlit performance in a darkened theatre. As a source of these works Martyn cites the imposingly staged human dramas painted by the eighteenth century French artist David.5 To exploit more fully this theatrical effect one hopes she’ll look again to David and that future images will be larger.
Helen Ennis writes of Australia that a feature of photographic practice there in the nineteen-eighties has been the development of images which make ‘no pretence of being “real” or “true”. They are self-conscious constructions in terms of the subject matter, and its presentation’.6 With this recent work Martyn can now be seen to have joined this company of photographers, which in New Zealand includes artists like Christine Webster. And in this context her new work most resembles the serial images presented by Australian Bill Henson in the early to mid-’eighties.
Adrienne Martyn’s shift from the descriptive to the narrative is a significant achievement, and represents some of the best work she’s done yet. Her photographs employ drama, technique and symbolism to speak of Sontag’s mystery, mortality and transience—qualities which photographs themselves epitomise. The results are hauntingly beautiful images which succeed artistically because the illusions she creates resonate with a rich suggestiveness strong enough to compel conviction.
Susan Sontag, On Photography, Allen Lane, London 1989, p.67.
Letter from Adrienne Martyn to Helen Telford, 10 August 1989. Dunedin Public Art Gallery Archive II 37/1, Martyn.
Letter from Adrienne Martyn to Helen Telford, 11 September 1989. DPAG Archive II 37/1, Martyn.
Peter Webb, The Erotic Arts. Seeker and Warburg, London, 1975, p.367.
Letter from Adrienne Martyn to Helen Telford. See footnote 3 above.
Helen Ennis, in Shades of Light Photography and Australia 1839-1988 by Gael Newton. William Collins, Sydney, in association with the Australian National Gallery, Canberra 1988, p.154.