Out of all Proportion: Gavin Hipkins in ‘Collecting Contemporary’

‘The shaman (blue)’, 2006, by Gavin Hipkins, colour photograph, type C print. Purchased 2007. Te Papa.

When I first saw Gavin Hipkin’s The shaman (blue), currently on display in Collecting Contemporary on Level 5, it was as a digital image emailed by his dealer. I was struck by the ambiguity of the photograph. The stunning, pale blue background is almost featureless, and like the blue or green-screen used to create special effects in the movie industry, disembodies the object placed before it. The background equally recalls those used in advertising photography that remove objects from the mundane world of the messy, everyday into the realm of the hyper-real, where objects are groomed to look more luscious and attractive than they ever appear in reality. Indeed, the word shaman (a person regarded as able to access and intercede in the world of spirits) suggests a fetish, an object of worship. From there it is a further short hop of association to the advertising industry’s transformation of products into fetishes of consumer worship and desire.

There is a tradition in photography, going back to modernist work of the 1920s (and not unconnected with advertising imagery), of drawing out what American photographer Edward Weston described as the ‘quintessence, of the thing itself’. In his semi-mystical approach, Weston sought to extract the object-ness of things. Hipkins has no such deference to the particular object, but confuses our sense of it, producing an image that is both unsettling and perhaps even threatening. Besides removing context, one of the ways he does this is by enlarging the object out of all proportion. When I finally saw The shaman in the flesh, on the wall of a corporate office, I was stunned by its size of over a metre square. It felt like Hipkins had wound the volume right up, amplifying the subject many times over to make it seem like it had iconic significance, even though what is actually depicted is unclear.

This is not the only time Hipkins has worked this way. The oval also enlarges an everyday object into something strange and ambiguous. In The terrace, Hipkins has made ordinary buttons into mysterious objects that seem to float over landscapes. And in The colony he made his own objects and again played with scale, leaving the viewer to wonder whether they are looking at something microscopic or giant size.

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