It seems fitting that for my last post for this wonderful website that I come full circle and write about the same gallery I wrote about in my first post. City Gallery in Wellington is a long-time favourite of mine, and it has been a join having fashion as an entry point for looking at art exhibitions. The latest exhibition that drew me in has many parallels to the first that drew me in: they are both by pre-eminent, female, New Zealand artists, and they have both lured me into worlds of their own creation. These were worlds of unease where what they had created was achingly familiar but just out of reach, and they were worlds that were grounded by the tactility of the clothing featured throughout.
Francis Upritchard is an ex-pat Kiwi and long-time London resident. Many of her works are imbued with a sense of humour that is able to offset some of the aforementioned unease. Having been enticed by billboards around the city, I entered the room expecting to be confronted by behemoths and was delighted to find that the figures were all approximately less than a metre tall. Their comparatively diminutive stature meant that it was easy to get close and inspect them, which is where the real gold lies. Before I get to the materials, a word on the figures themselves. The bodies for these figures are lifelike but only insomuch as they could be construed as human. There are however, minor clues that all may not be what it seems when you examine how stretched and strained they all seem.
Some of the figures have what my husband and I referred to as ‘head flaps’ where, unlike other figures who had hair (like a Barbie doll) or sculpted hair (like a Ken doll), they instead had helmets made of the same modelling material as their bodies. The figures all had similar mouths, frozen in a sort of pathetic supplication, many without teeth. These aspects of the figures all help to codify an otherworldly feel, and the clothing was what I found to be their grounding element. I have read elsewhere that some people interpret the figures as being cult-like in their appearance, that they can imagine them living in communities with others who are just like them, and I guess that the clothing used is one way in which that interpretation is reached. I don’t see that. For some of the figures, including my favourite which is shown below, the clothing chosen to dress them reiterated the heaviness borne in their body language. The figure below, its face partly obscured by long, unkempt hair, has a slight hunch and submitting hand and wears a heavy knit scarf around her shoulders. It (feels strange to ascribe a gender to these figures when their societal codes may differ to ours) wears a full-length black dress, further compounding this heaviness. However, and this I found to be a wink from the artist, the shawl is fastened by a beautiful pin in the shape of an elephant. The pin seemed to me to be a precious token for either the figure or the creator.
There were winks elsewhere in the exhibition where it felt like the artist managed to tap into a nostalgic harkening back to my school days. When I was 10 my class made papier mâché puppets which we then had to clothe with scraps of material. We used this material to fashion miniature outfits for our puppets which inevitably looked like mini versions of adult clothes. We were, by extension, manifesting our own environments. I feel there is an element of that going on with the way in which Upritchard clothes her figures; that she repurposes garments from human wardrobes to clothe these figures in a way that is realistic, until you look a little closer and see how they hang strangely or are worn differently to how we might wear them. I’m not sure whether the clothing ever belonged to her but given her propensity for using found items, I can assume that they once belonged to someone. It is a loving act to dress something, especially if it is in something that you used to own, to be able to give over something that once kept you warm or was once your favourite t-shirt. It is also selfless, and to be able to create a whole other world in which these figures can exist whilst wearing your clothes is something else entirely.
A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.