In 2009, the Christchurch Art Gallery held an exhibition of large format photographs by Neil Pardington called The Vault that revealed the storage spaces of New Zealand museums, galleries and archives that are usually closed to the public. Meticulously composed and with obvious regard to aesthetics as well as content, Pardington’s images move beyond mere documentary. Some of the processes behind the images and how this project came about, can been seen in a floor-talk filmed at the Christchurch Art Gallery. One point of particular interest is that the artist didn’t stage the photos, but simply portrayed his subject matter as he found it.
Therefore it was extremely intriguing to find The Vault exhibited at the Otago Museum in a very literal way. Pardington’s pictures of these strange out-of-the-way spaces were combined with selections from the museum’s own vaults and shown in a gallery environment. Initially, I was wary of this approach, but actually it was fascinating to see objects from the photographs presented on the gallery walls. A portion of the Polynesian spear collection, complete with cloth bindings securing them to storage racks and jars of preserved specimens from the wetroom, were some of the items displayed that could be directly related to the photographs.
Although Pardington always envisaged that The Vault would be suited for exhibition in both museums and art galleries, the Otago Museum almost reversed what was happening in the initial Christchurch Art Gallery hang. There, the photographs provided a kind of window into spaces the public was restricted from entering and Pardington had provided this access via his camera lens. At the Otago exhibition the storage space was brought out to meet the public and the exhibition morphed from an artistic show, through to a kind of educational experience of what happens behind the scenes at a museum. Fortunately, the order of the photographs has been maintained so that the narrative integrity between the images was not disrupted or largely intruded upon by the museum exhibits. The resulting amalgam was surprisingly successful. And the success of this exhibition format is largely due to the strength of Pardington’s remarkable work in this series.
Pardington, an artist, designer and filmmaker based in Wellington, is a master of this kind of objective and deceptively cool work. Other recent series have also focused on inaccessible spaces such as The Clinic (2003-5) and Rehutai (2005). The Vault will continue touring in 2011, visiting Wellington and Rotorua.
Image: Wet Room #3, Neil Pardington, Otago Museum, 2008, Lambda/c-print
Pauline Dawson is an essayist, blogger and arts writer from Dunedin. She has written essays for several art catalogues, and her creative non-fiction work had been published in JAAM literary journal.