Fiona Pardington, one of Aotearoa’s foremost photographic artists, interrogates the space between the living and the dead in her occult-informed new series Midnight at the Crossroads
WORDS | ADRIAN HATWELL
You may bury my body down by the highway side
I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone
You may bury my body down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can take the Greyhound bus and ride
— Robert Johnson, Me and the Devil Blues
There is a time between what once was and what comes next; a period of transformation, between ending
and beginning. It might be a profound experience, such as the threshold between childhood and adulthood, or simply in-between places, like elevators or airport lobbies. Scholars have coined the term ‘liminal space’ to describe these instances, and for most people they are confusing, discomforting experiences to be minimized or avoided.
Not for artist Fiona Pardington, though. She seeks out the liminal spaces, probing the barrier between the before and after through her artistic practice.
In the past, she has done this by examining historical objects, such as heitiki and taonga kept in museums, transforming objects of the past through impeccable still-life photography. The work has garnered much acclaim and established Fiona as one of Aotearoa’s most prominent art photographers. Her latest project, Midnight at the Crossroads, continues along the trajectory of her previous work, seeking to probe the ultimate liminal space: the veil between life and death.
“The theme of the exhibition is, you could say, occult space,” she explains. “The crossroads is a liminal territory where the veil is thin; it’s used for hoodoo, voodoo, witchcraft — you name it … It’s a territory where darkness and light meet; where the living and the dead meet.”
The title of the show is a reference to the story of the influential American blues musician Robert Johnson. Folk legend has it that the bluesman waited at a deserted crossroads in the Mississippi Delta for nights on end, until a dark figure materialized, tuned Johnson’s guitar, and disappeared. After that, the musician could play blues guitar like nobody else. His early death at 27 caused many to wonder if the encounter had been a deal with the devil.
Fiona isn’t looking to sell her soul to Satan (though, she tells us that she’s had her share of supernatural experiences) but is instead revisiting old photographs that she has collected during her travels — vintage press photos and tintype images — and connecting with the unknown, deceased subjects.
“It is really hard to work with found photography, because they are already so perfect and so powerful in themselves,” she says. “Especially ones that are very historic, they’ve lost their connection to the people who had them. Once they are jettisoned out of living memory and out of the context they were generated within, their powers change. They become very latent.
“So how do you grab that fragile, fleeting energy and repurpose it?”
It is a question that Fiona has carried with her for years as she has built up her collection of forgotten imagery, purchased at markets around the world and through that most global of flea markets, eBay.
“I’ve got pictures of disasters and beautiful negatives by unknown photographers, images of what the French call jolie laide, which is the beautiful ugly people. If you go to French flea markets, all the beautiful
ones have been picked through and taken, and they cost a lot of money. So I go through all the unusual people that others have left behind.”
It was on one of her jaunts through the digital stalls of eBay that Fiona finally stumbled on the unlikely objects that would help her call forth the energy within her collection of images; the waste of century old marble production machines. The hand-made machines would manipulate molten glass, spinning and freezing it into a spherical shape. The globules and curls of beautiful colours produced as leftovers are called glass cullets.
“For me, they are very evocative shapes; very modernistic. They’re open in the sense they can be used in different contexts. There’s a certain materiality there,” she says.
Although old press photos and glass refuse might not seem to have a great deal in common, Fiona appreciates the great technical ability both the photographers and the marble-machine workers needed to operate their respective apparatuses. The photographers of past eras had to wrangle huge glass lenses, bulbs, and photography plates to catch the fleeting scenes they were after. So, too, did the marble makers have to expertly control their machines to capture the flow of molten glass and produce their perfect spheres.
So it was that the artist came to draw these artefacts, forgotten by time, together to agitate the barrier separating what was from what would be.
“The cullet represents entities and energies and the ideas I’ve picked up from my reading and listening to different types of death mediums and psychics, and hoodoos and voodoo priests, and all sorts,” Pardington says. “I read very widely for my material. I do a lot of study, and it has been a personal interest since I was a kid.” Combining the cullets with the photos, which she then re-photographs, represents yet another crossroad the artist is engaging with: the image and the object; the two dimensional and the three dimensional. The colourful cullets collide with the monochromatic photos, birthing something new within the subjects now that their biographical details have been lost.
“When they dissociate with living memory, they suddenly become something completely different. They are the ‘other’. They are the dead. They are people that have passed away.”
But here, as in much of Fiona’s other work, death is not the end. Photography brings what is past to the present, and moves it into the future. In that way, the art is something of a liminal space itself, capturing what was and containing the potential of what comes next.
“An image of you might potentially live past your life, and they kind of float off into the universe and do their own thing,” the photographer says. “That’s what I’m dealing with.”