Model Worlds
A Decade of Work by Gavin Hipkins


Appropriately enough for someone frequently described as a tourist of photography, Gavin Hipkins bought his first camera at an Auckland Airport duty free store at age sixteen, en route to Los Angeles. The tourist metaphor, first coined by Giovanni Intra, is a good one for explaining Hipkins' use of diverse photographic styles.(1) His works have ranged from the skewed pictorialism of The Homely (1997-2000) and The Next Cabin (2000-2), to the high-end advertising aesthetic of images such as The Oval (1998), as well as large-scale, multi-unit works like The Colony (2000-2). In photograms including The Field (1994-5) and, more recently, The Port (2000), Hipkins draws on the experimental approaches of the 1920s avant-garde, while he has also produced his own innovations in an impressive body of works he describes as 'falls' - strips of uncut prints pinned to the walls in rows, including Zerfall (1997-8), exhibited in the 1998 Biennale of Sydney. Video, installation, and projections have also figured in Hipkins' repertoire, to which can also be added his work as a curator, critic and historian of photography. As much as a stylistic tourist of photography (albeit one who travels within clearly defined routes), Hipkins has also been a tourist in the more literal sense - not of the camera, but like every other tourist, with a camera. Travel has been both the cause and effect of his work. Hipkins has photographed throughout New Zealand and in various parts of Australia, as well as locations as diverse as the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada, Munich, Nuremberg, Berlin and Chandigarh, while in the past decade he has exhibited in cities including Turin, Berlin, Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sao Paulo and Sydney.

GAVIN HIPKINS The Field 1994-95
Silver gelatin prints, installed dimensions variable
Installation at Teststrip, Auckland 1995

Hipkins' adoption of a range of different, even contradictory, photographic styles can be understood in several ways. The decision to not confine himself to a single mode of practice was made while at Elam School of Fine Arts in the early.1990s. Studying alongside artists including Ham Sameshima and Giovanni Intra (who was then completing his Masters degree), Hipkins recalls that, 'we were all playing with each others' works, borrowing each others' styles'.(2) The effect of this borrowing was to void his work of a signature style, make it unrecognisable as his own. By utilising a range of photographic practices, Hipkins was also circumventing a conventional career route that would have him build his reputation on the basis of one type of work before branching out. Moreover, by having a variety of styles at his disposal, he was able to present his work in a range of exhibition contexts. It's a strategy that has worked well, even if it has resulted in some confusion along the way. When a curator in America recently asked Hipkins which of the two very different works he had seen - The Next Cabin and The Mill (2001) - was the more representative of his practice, Hipkins's reply was, 'both, of course'.

GAVIN HIPKINS Zerfall 1997-98
24 C-type prints, installed dimensions variable
Installation at Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington 1999

For all its formal diversity, on an aesthetic level Hipkins' work does possess a certain unity. Whatever its format, his work is unashamedly good-looking. Even at its rawest - for instance, The Habitat (1999-2000), a series depicting the 'rough poetry' of New Zealand universities' brutalist architecture, that was printed without refinement on expired photographic paper - it is still stylishly raw.(3) Some have viewed this stylishnesss with a measure of distaste. Writing about The Habitat, one critic found herself unable to locate 'anything other than a perfectly vague aestheticism'.(4) Hipkins, however, sees his aestheticism as keyed to photography's inherent seductiveness. It's a seduction that defines our everyday consumption of the medium, whether in advertising, editorial or fashion images.

Beneath their seductive surfaces, a thematic unity also emerges in Hipkins' photographs. In many senses, his work can be seen as an ongoing investigation of ideas central to modernity. The camera, as a product of technological advancement and tool of mass communication, is itself intricately bound up with modernity, while the idea of the nation - the subject of both The Homely and The Next Cabin - is similarly contiguous with it. Notions of wilderness and tourism-the backdrop for those two bodies of work-are fundamental to the modern understanding of nature. The devices of ordering, classification and systemisation that Hipkins utilises in various works have their origins in the Enlightenment, while the commodities he deploys in his images are emblems of a capitalist system that was initiated at the same moment. Hipkins' interest in utopian ideas and totalitarian imagery-the one being the antinomy of the other-deals in both the dream and nightmare of modernity. His engagement with the history of photography - pictorialist, factographic, conceptual - is a reckoning with what Jeff Wall has described as the auto-critique that the medium had to undergo in order for it to become a legitimate form within artistic modernism.(5)

GAVIN HIPKINS Zerfall - detail 1997-98
24 C-type prints, installed dimensions variable

None of this is to suggest that Hipkins yearns for a modernist past, but nor is it to say that he views modernism with ironic nostalgia. As he told Tessa Laird in 2002, 'nostalgia prevails in a lot of contemporary art and fashion to the point of complete and utter nausea. This is a dull variety of retro, the mandatory celebration of an idea of a failed utopia. Under this ubiquitous light, my own work has certainly contributed to this glib phenomenon. Yet on the other hand, the call to arms and something new is blindly futuristic and attempts to negate historical moments. . . . To negotiate our way out of this endgame, I think we need to work with both, or between these models'.(6)

It is in this sense - 'both, of course' - that the range of Hipkins' practice becomes fully intelligible. In understanding that range, a number of his works of the past decade can be seen to be crucial. The first of these is The Field, a piece consisting of 1,500 photograms that was first exhibited at Auckland's Teststrip artist-run space, and later at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Each image is the unique result of exposing photographic paper - on which was placed a single polystyrene ball - to light, and the prints are pinned directly to the wall in a grid formation. As Rosalind Krauss has noted of this archetypal modernist form, 'the grid declares the space of modernist art to be at once autonomous and autotelic'.(7) The grid, that is to say, is a model of modernist vision. The black and white circles, dots, haloes of The Field dance and shimmer before our eyes, forming an analogue version of a digital starry night. This stellar expanse might suggest the sublime, but it's an ambiguous version of it. While at a distance The Field dissolves into cosmic imagery-'My God, it's full of stars' (8) - up close, its ocular effect becomes entirely different. The circles seem to become eyes: the sublime looks back. Other photograms, including The Movement (1997-98) and The Port are essentially compartmentalised versions of The Field. They further challenge modernist opticality, meeting its claims of autonomy with a flickering pulse and a hypnotic visual beat. Such an optical effect, says Yve-Alain Bois, 'punctuates the disembodied self-closure of pure visuality and incites an interruption of the carnal'.(9)

C-type print, 800 x 1000 mm.

Hipkins began the 'falls', another major body of works, while still a student at Elam. As Blair French has argued, modernist photography 'involved the creation and selection of single images encapsulating ideal form and the decisive moment'.(10) The 'falls' exchange this for contingency and expansiveness. The 'falls' are phenomenological in nature - 'they were literally 'looking around', says Hipkins. This performance of viewing is a virtuoso one, as each strip of each 'fall' is one roll of film - frames one through 24-shot in one act, and realised without editing.

At first, Hipkins used the 'falls' to document his daily environment, making close-up images of the objects around him. Later, he began incorporating 'blanks' - colours, textures, extreme close-ups of nothing - as well as acquiring objects specifically to set before the camera. Culminating in Zerfall - the term is one Theodor Adorno used to describe cultural exhaustion or decay - these works are a combination of self-portrait and still-life. It was out of this interest in photographing cheap store-bought objects that images like The Oval emerged. Objects that in the 'falls' would be spread over several frames are given monumental form in these works. Cropped, horizon-less, and sharply delineated - Hipkins happily professes a liking for Irving Penn's images for Clinique - for all their aestheticism, these images are strangely unsettling. In more recent 'falls' - and like most of his formats, it's one that Hipkins uses only intermittently - he has incorporated re-photography into the process. The subtitles of the individual works that make up The Gulf (2001) - Blonde, Redhead, Ebony - reveal the sources of his imagery in internet porn sites. Screenshots of women are aligned with nominally associated images: the Blondes, for example, were given a Nordic background of alpine scenery. As much as the absurdity of such classifications, Hipkins's recent 'falls' point to the camera's complicity in this process, one that might be seen as a further symptom of Zerfall.

GAVIN HIPKINS New Age: Huia (Grass) detail 1992-2003
Unique silver gelatin print, 508 x 610 mm.
(Private collection, Auckland)

Despite their apparent non-linearity, the 'falls' have a cinematic quality about them. They look like strips of film, hung up to dry, as if to suggest that they are awaiting editing, something that might give them the narrative seamlessness they otherwise withhold. Cinema has a larger role in Hipkins' work, too, one that provides another of its unifying qualities. The Dam, The Block, The Trench - Hipkins' titles have a portentous air about them, but they also echo horror and science fiction films - The Thing, The Omen, The Ring. As Robert Leonard notes, 'the definite article enhances the sense of some generic menace, something originary, archetypal. An underlying uneasiness is always there in Hipkins's work'.(11)

GAVIN HIPKINS The Colony 2000-2002
100 framed C-type prints, each 340 x 510 mm, installed dimensions variable
Installation at the Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University, Wellington 2003

That uneasiness was realised on a monumental scale in The Colony, the work Hipkins exhibited at the 25th Sao Paulo Bienial. A hundred individual photographs arranged as a bar chart or cityscape, the images were of 'hand-painted polystyrene models. . . crudely glued together and documented on makeshift paper backdrops'.(12) For all this fragility and tentativeness, The Colony presents a model world. It's a vision of what the future used to look like, suggesting cities of geodesic domes, like those of the counter-cultural community of Drop City, founded in Arizona in 1965, as well as the post-apocalyptic structures and off-world encampments of classic science fiction movies.(13) Given that it was the decade in which the idealism of modernity attained its greatest heights and reached its deepest troughs, it seems no accident that the associations that The Colony conjures are rooted in the 1960s. At the same time, The Colony might be smaller than either its epic scale or the big ideas it implies. The globular forms of the models look like spores of disease viewed under a microscope.

GAVIN HIPKINS The Next Cabin - detail 2000-2002
40 framed C-type prints, each 400 x 600 mm.
Installation at the Oliver Art Center, Oakland California 2002

Hipkins once described photography itself as a virus, proliferating out of control.(14) Millions of new images are released each day, adding to the millions already out there. As much as Hipkins has studied that virus, testing its various strains on himself by adopting different styles, as curator he has also charted specific aspects of photography's epidemiology. In 1997 he curated The Unhomely, an exhibition drawn from the photographic archives of the Alexander Turnbull Library. This was followed in 1998 by another curatorial foray, Folklore: The New Zealanders. The Turnbull exhibition allowed Hipkins to search through what he described as' a national family album' (15) and in doing so ask, 'what has been hidden, what has been repressed, what shouldn't have come out?' It was a search, that is to say, for the Freudian unheimlich - sometimes translated as the unhomely, but more commonly known as the uncanny. Folklore: The New Zealanders, first shown at Artspace, Auckland, continued that quest. Drawing on the pictorial vocabulary of countless coffee table books, beginning with Brian Brake and Maurice Shadbolt's New Zealand: Gift of the Sea (1963) and J. D. McDonald's The New Zealanders in Colour (1965), Hipkins's exhibition asked what is-or was-the New' Zealand they depicted.

GAVIN HIPKINS The Next Cabin: Vancouver (Figurehead) 2000
C-type print, 600 x 400mm.

Important shows in their own right, the two exhibitions also constituted the research for what many consider to be Hipkins' most significant work to date: The Homely. Shot over four years in New Zealand and Australia, it continued that interrogation of ideas of nationhood, as Hipkins describes it, 'in the turbulent wake of British Imperialism'. Who is 'we'? The Homely was asking. Where is the nation? What are its comforting, connective mythologies? The 80 photographs that make up The Homely, wrote Peter Brunt, '[call] out to that imagined community called the nation, at the same time as they seek to make the ideological nature of that calling visible'.(16)

12 silver gelatin prints, each 760 x 1000 mm.
Installation at Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland 2003

Described by Hipkins as' a post-colonial gothic novel', The Homely played with various myths of national identity. The notion of New Zealand as a physically and psychologically dark landscape, popularised by Sam Neill's Cinema of Unease, was thus mixed with the ideals of 'clean, green, beautiful New Zealand', and the 'New Zealanders at work and play' of those earlier photo-essays. The revisionism of the work - Hipkins' search for what was absent from earlier photographic models of national identity - was, however, ambivalent. Rather than seeking to correct those absences, The Homely deliberately heightened them, concerning itself with the activity of repression rather than its subject.

GAVIN HIPKINS The Homely: Christchurch (Black Hood) 2000
C-type print, 600 x 400mm.

Arranged as a frieze, the complete presentation of The Homely recalls the filmstrip nature of the 'falls'. Its narrative sense, however, is even less certain. The images seem to relate, but the connections between them are left to the spectator to formulate: Rope - Landscape - Model - Harbour, run the subtitles of the first set of images; Toy - Black hood - Boats, the last. The skewed pictorialism of The Homely - the photographs were taken at tourist sites, and friends' houses, on tramping holidays and in museums, or, in the best tradition of his forebears, shot from the road - mixes the personal with the public. They are familiar and yet strange: the very definition of the uncanny. Importantly, The Homely debuted in 2000 at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in Connie Butler's exhibition Flight Patterns, one of numerous opportunities Hipkins has had to see his work in an international context. The work received its first complete airing in New Zealand 2001, by which time Hipkins had again left the country to undertake postgraduate study at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. Wanting 'one sustainable, heavyweight project' while he was resident in North America, Hipkins settled on The Next Cabin, effectively a companion work to The Homely. A portrait of the Pacific Northwest seen through the media filter of television shows like Beachcombers and Twin Peaks, The Next Cabin drew unlikely conceptual inspiration from the crackpot politics of a movement known as the Republic of Cascadia.(17) United in their love for the great outdoors and its associated healthy pursuits, as well as their distrust of big cities and big government, the Cascadians advocate a sovereign nation stretching from Southern British Colombia to Northern California. The Next Cabin then, is founded on another debased, yet still potent, myth, that of the Frontier.

GAVIN HIPKINS The Homely: Sydney (Harbour) 1999
C-type print, 400 x 600mm

This reckoning with myths and models continues in Hipkins' recent work. If his subject has thus far been an interrogation of the history of ideas - nation, vision, modernity - he now has his own history to contend with. It is this that lies behind his most recent series of works, New Age. The works overlay photograms of beads' - rosary or anal,' he says, - with romantic images of Auckland's West Coast and other personally significant landscapes. Just as they mix the sacred and profane, mysticism and nature, these photographs for the first time combine Hipkins' different modes of working. More than this, for the New Age, Hipkins riffled through his own archive, bringing out landscapes that were shot more than a decade ago but seldom printed. 'The works have that sense of pioneering discovery,' he says. 'In the New Age, the landscape is already occupied by a presence-an abstract presence, a ghost, call it what you will.'

GAVIN HIPKINS The Homely: Christchurch (Mask) 1998
C-type print, 400 x 600mm

1. Giovanni Intra 'Photogenic', in Signs of the Times: Sampling New Directions in New Zealand Art, City Gallery, Wellington 1997, pp. 24-25
2. Gavin Hipkins in conversation with the author, 25 August 2003. All quotes from the artist are from this conversation, unless otherwise stated.
3. The phrase 'rough poetry' belongs to British architectural critics Peter and Alison Smithson. See Paul Walker, 'Rough Poetry' in Gavin Hipkins: The Habitat, Artspace and Adam Gallery, Auckland and Wellington 2000.
4. Anna Miles, 'Auckland: Gavin Hipkins: Artspace', Artforum vol. 37 no. 10 (Summer 2000), p. 196.
5. see Jeff Wall, 'Marks of indifference: aspects of photography in, or as, conceptual art' in Veronica's Revenge: Contemporary Perspectives on Photography, edited by Elizabeth Janus, Scalo, Zurich 1998, pp. 73-90.
6. Tessa Laird, 'Gavin Hipkins', Pavement no. 52 (April/May 2002), p.l02.
7. Rosalind Krauss, 'Grids', October no. 9 (Summer 1979), reprinted in Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass 1986, p. 10. Hipkins recalls that Krauss's later book, The Optical Unconscious (MIT Press, Cambridge 1993), was key reading at this time.
8. Astronaut Dave Bowman's last words before he meets the monolith in David Hyams' 1983 film 2010: Odyssey Two.
9. Yve-Alain Bois, 'The Use Value of 'Formless"', in Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind Krauss, Formless: a User's Guide, Zone Books, New York, 1997, p. 32.
10. Blair French, "The Big Picture: Gavin Hipkins and International Photo Art' , in Gavin Hipkins: The Homely, City Gallery, Wellington 2001, p. 38.
11. Robert Leonard, The Guide', Art/Text no. 65 (May-July 1999), p.42.
12. Gavin Hipkins, 'Notes on The Colony' in Gavin Hipkins: The Colony, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland 2002, np.
13. Drop City is mentioned by Charles Jencks in his Architecture 2000: Predictions and Methods, Praeger, New York 1971, which Hipkins cites in the above catalogue note. Films such as Logan's Run (Michael Anderson,. 1976) and Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972) make use of geodesic domes as dystopian symbols.
14. A description recorded by Giovanni Intra in 'Photogrenic'.
15. The Unhomely (Wellington: National Library Gallery, 1997), np.
16. Peter Brunt, 'Home Time', in The Homely, p. 23.
17. See, for example,

Originally published in Art New Zealand 109 Summer 2003-04