• Fiona Pardington

“Man passes through forests of symbols” – Baudelaire

“Everything that exists is merely a symbol” – Goethe

Tarota is the newest body of still lives from Dr Fiona Pardington MNZM, Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, (Ngāi Tahu, Kati Mamoe and Ngāti Kahungunu). The Tarot deck can be traced back to the fifteenth century, but the complex symbols and archetypes that define the meaning of each card have origins that disappear into the mists of antiquity. Each photograph in Tarota contains its own unique language of symbols like a tarot card. Some can, with a little effort, can be guessed at. Others are private and known only to the artist herself, relating to family, friends, lovers, each item as charged with memory as Proust’s madeleine. The “Proustian moment” is when a particular interaction with a sensory experience vividly conjures up a certain experience, time or a place from the unconscious mind. The mystery that Pardington evokes in these images what makes them so enchanting. The narrow field of view, distance from the subject, and long lens flattens, intensifies, and compresses the mise-en-scène. Details seem isolated, but really this is just the way each image explores relations in scale.

A degree of post-production refinement and enhancement is applied with sensitive and minimal digital intervention. The initial concept for these still lives, or after lives, comes from the paintings of the Bolognese modernist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), noted for the intense psychological space and muted palette of his repetitive still life studies of mundane bottles and crockery. Morandi’s still lives are sometimes compared to the surreal and atmospheric cityscapes in the metaphysical paintings of another Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), and in a similar sense Pardington is a metaphysical photographer.

“Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est? What shall I love if not the enigma?” – Giorgio de Chirico.

There is also, perhaps, a hint of French still life painter Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) in these photographs as well, particularly the neutral, vague, and ambivalent monochromatic backgrounds so very like those behind Fantin-Latour’s vivid floral displays. Pardington carefully selects items that for often obscure reasons represent people and places in her life. Looking at them you can sense a syntax and network of allusions that remain just out of reach of the uninitiated.

It begins with a table as the stage for mobilising desire and performing taste, a place for interaction between problems and ideas. Although as Karl Marx declared in 1867 of the role of tables in commodity fetishism, the table:

“…not only stands with its feet on the ground, but in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”

A scant two years later, proto-surrealist poet Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Lucien Ducasse) proclaimed the radical new beauty of, “the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella”.

Still life unifies the complex into a whole and makes the trivial desirable. It forces the objects within it to interact with each other and find their own logic and lingua franca. The still life can be many things – the captured and preserved moment of the ephemeral reminding us that only art lasts forever, memento mori – remember you too will die. Death intrudes in the form of Pardington’s skull-shaped gear shift handle and emptied vessels. Still life plays to our avariciousness and acquisitiveness with its peculiar glamour. It is a display of our treasures and the intense theatricality of the everyday. There is even an element of eroticism in the phallic bottles and pudendal silk roses.

These are coded representations of whakapapa in the sense of the cosmic GPS by which Pardingon aligns her identity by the stars, by the earth, by whanau spiritual and human. Time becomes a frozen circle, near and far contract, the sense of space swells with condensed emotion and magic through metaphor and allusion. Much of the aesthetic, the attenuated verticality and visual distortion in Tarota comes from the suite’s unannounced muse, the British occultist and artist Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956). Spare’s art nouveau, symbolist influence, and sinuous line help inform the composition and the emblematic drawings Pardington puts on some of bottles and other objects after she has coated them in paint. The paint helps unify the tonal qualities of the composition and enhances contrasts and shadows. The drawing is an innovation expanding on Pardington’s practice. This developed out of a period of illness that restricted Pardington’s ability to work with her camera and lights and acted as a form of therapy aiding recovery.

Other items among the assortment are unaltered, taken from the artist’s voluminous collection of objets trouvés and natural curiosities, gathered over the years. There is an incredible freedom here, to create to make juxtapositions that are congruous and incongruous, to shatter and subvert art-historical tradition, and to distort reality itself. Spare was also the originator of a form of sigil-based chaos magic by which the practitioner can distil their desires down into a symbol to be empowered by the unconscious mind. Pardington alludes to this as being analogous to the artistic creative process. Spare has become an important stalking horse in Pardington’s practice, and she even visited his grave at St Mary’s Church, Ilford in the UK one bleak northern winter. Spare also created his own tarot deck, though it was never put into production. This seventy-nine-card, hand-painted set of cards, created around 1906, was only discovered in 2013 in the collection of The Magic Circle Museum in London.

The power of the tarot is that it is interpretive. Its meanings respond to how the reader understands the symbolism of the cards and that itself is reflexive, responding to mood, fear, and desire. The purpose of tarot was never to predict the future, but to unravel and reveal the present or psychoanalyse the self on the path to transcendence.

Pardington’s Tarota works operate in a very similar way. They are deliberately open-ended to allow the viewer the opportunity to make their own readings and project their own fantasies. This is a reparative gesture as the artist sacrifices a lot of her intent and agency to invite the viewer into an intimate conversation my means of the photographic image.

Within them all potentials and possibilities lie.

Andrew Paul Wood, September 2021

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  • Auckland 1010
  • East Hasting
  • Te Mata-a-Māui Hawke’s Bay