In 18th- and 19th-century Europe, during the alleged Age of Enlightenment, telling someone that he needed to have his head examined in no way carried the contemporary connotation of "be a good boy and take your Thorazine." Back in pre-photography times, having your head examined was the height of scientific engagement, since the pseudo-science of phrenology was the rage. Phrenology is the woo-woo, now thoroughly discredited "science" of determining human personality traits, mental capabilities, and general intangible characteristics (including criminal proclivities and racial inferiority) by mapping the lumps, bumps, and sumps of the human skull.
One earns a real appreciation for the part phrenology played in the history of the Western world, as well as the development of anthropology, after seeing "Ahua: A Beautiful Hesitation," the exhibition at Lisa Sette Gallery of oversize inkjet prints created by noted New Zealand artist photographer Fiona Pardington. For subject matter, Pardington — half Maori, half Scottish — photographed, against pristine backdrops, 18th-century life casts of human heads collected mostly by Pierre-Marie Dumoutier (1791-1871) and now languishing in the dusty storage areas of Paris' Musée de l'Homme. Dumoutier was the shipboard phrenologist during an expedition to various Pacific islands led by French explorer and naval officer Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville between 1837 and 1840. (As an aside, Dumont d'Urville was the astute gent who, during earlier travels through the Greek archipelago, stumbled upon the Venus de Milo and convinced the French it was important enough to acquire.)
From its inception, phrenology was used to create ugly racial stereotypes. Its adherents claimed that skull formation and facial bone structure determined the position of a particular race on the evolutionary scale. Thus, in Victorian England, the Irish were deemed highly inferior, a justification for their persecution by the British. This sensibility spread throughout English colonies as well; it was especially pernicious in South Africa and India. Most recently, Nazi scientists adopted phrenological and craniometric theories to champion Aryan supremacy and to whitewash grisly experimentation on human subjects during World War II.
Pardington's subjects still display the handmade markings of would-be scientists mapping out the locations of various characteristics dwelling within their perpetually petrified sitters. Just how Dumoutier managed to talk South Sea Islanders into having their heads cast in plaster is, in and of itself, a major mystery. But, significantly, the hands-down standout in "Ahua" happens to be gigantic images of major Maori chieftain Matua Tawai's unmapped life cast taken frontally, sideways, and from behind. Eyes closed, Matua Tawai's head cast, which at some point was painted black, is adorned with moko, highly distinctive ritual tattoos and scarification, facial decoration that in the world of New Zealand's indigenous Maori denoted the bearer's gender, history, status and power. He is someone who would have been well known to Pardington's ancestors.
You'll never see his quietly powerful likeness, eerily imbued with a life force that radiates from the surface of Pardington's prints, reproduced anywhere else. And that's a good enough reason in itself to see this show, as gallery owner Lisa Sette is not allowed to replicate any of these images in any way. "We cannot reproduce them in our newsletter or invitation or on the website," she says. "The Maori people don't think of time as we do, i.e. linear — past, present and future. The photograph of the life cast of their ancestor is essentially a present image to them. It contains [the] spirit of a known person, if you will."
Because of the inherent sacredness of Matua Tawai's life cast, which, in Maori culture, also necessarily resides in any photographic representation of the cast, any collector who acquires the prints is required to sign an agreement that forbids resale of the photograph for 10 years. Despite, or maybe because of, the unique restrictions on the artwork, Sette feels that it's a privilege to be able to exhibit the images and to live with them in the gallery on a daily basis.
Through Matua Tawai especially, Pardington wordlessly teaches us about the immortality of the spirit and the mortality of the physical body. In a strange way, her work also touches upon varying concepts of beauty and belonging. A recent trend in the United States and Europe involves replicating elaborate ancient Maori tattoos with images like those on the face of Mike Tyson and often-painful body modifications, including scarification, which involves carving designs into skin, and ear gauges. More than anything, such appropriation graphically reflects a post-modern longing to return to the order and preordained rites of passage in pre-industrial cultures, where one's place, importance, and attractiveness in society could be easily discerned in a glance. Pardington's polished photographs undeniably embody an old Maori expression, which, in translation, says, "Our faces are the living graves of our ancestors who have departed into the night."