Courtenay Place Light boxes; The Film Archive
June 19-Dec 19; July 19-Aug 1 | Reviewed by Thomasin Sleigh

IT IS HARD not to be attracted to Marie Shannon’s photographs currently installed in the light boxes on Courtenay Place, Wellington. A collection of affectionate notes left by Shannon, her partner and their son to each other, these messages have a touching intimacy incongruous with their large, public presentation.

Whilst Shannon’s works sit thoughtfully in the context of busy Courtenay Place, as quiet meditations amongst the visual hustle and bustle, they don’t really engage with the obvious parameters imposed by the light boxes. The light boxes are big frames, larger than life size, and cause the pedestrian to weave in between them and physically negotiate their presence on the sidewalk. Much of the art that has thus far been presented in them has been old work, not specifically created for the site. Shannon’s exhibition is the second of two show coordinated by the City Gallery Wellington, and this suite of works are dated from 2005. I’m waiting for an artist to make work specifically for this site, work which doesn’t ignore the specific physical parameters of the dominant metal frames but references them in useful and interesting ways.

This is not so much to critique Shannon’s photographs, which speak quietly to the passer by with their honest, domestic simplicity. Some of them are pared down to the plainest language, and simply read ‘I L J’. A lot is said with very little. The recurrence of the message throughout the series also references the temporal repetition of daily existence, and the significance in small gestures.

SIMILARLY sparse, but redolent in meaning is Rachel Shearer’s current installation, Hold Still, at The Film Archive. Shearer is a sound and visual artist who was invited to put together an installation employing amateur movies shot by New Zealand women in the 1930s. Shearer has composed a soft and ghostly soundtrack to accompany the ominous images of these early filmmakers, and subtly edited the films to isolate surreal moments and searching tracking shots.

The early 20th century New Zealand depicted by these three women is a strange and spartan land. Even the family household, supposedly a space of comfort and familiarity, is represented by camera woman Ethel Garden in her film Paritai Drive of 1937, as dark and menacing. The camera dwells on the empty rooms of the house with a gothic fascination and a young girl, in a Turn of the Screw-esque moment, spitefully prods a small suit of armor.

The barren hills of Central Otago are examined through the inquisitive lens of another early film enthusiast, Lucy Mills. Her gentle panning shots suggest an ambiguous relationship with the countryside; unpopulated and barren, the camera functions as an instrument of ownership – a way to make this place knowable.

Ultimately though, Shearer’s installation and eerie soundtrack seems to suggests that this project of understanding was a failure. Exhibited in the present day, and of course with a fair amount of editorial intervention from Shearer, the fleeting images of these films are surreal and fragmented. Like many hokey home videos which have been removed from their familial origin, the subjects in these snippets of film are rendered strangely lifeless and their actions confusing to the viewer. Hold Still dwells on the contingency of film, and intimates the camera is not a redemptive device, but one which renders the world obscure and dreamlike. This is a potent and interesting claim to make from within The Film Archive, an institution which markets film as a way to determine who we are and where we come from.