Weekly, I encounter thousands of camera-generated images; many are not memorable enough to be looked at again. So, when I sighted Russ Flatt’s Perceiving Identity at the Elam School of Fine Arts I recognized photographs people would remember for they delight in sharing a reimagined memory.
After his end-of-year presentation at Elam I learnt of two viewer’s belief that Russ makes ‘documentary photographs’. They thought he chances upon content and then articulates a direct record of reality. In fact, in Perceiving Identity, the opposite occurs, all the images are photo-constructions motivated by Russ Flatt’s early years.
Perceiving Identity was first shown publicly at the Mangere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku. The photo-installation disquieted me. When pinned up at The University of Auckland School of Fine Arts, this photo-project looked more casual, less informal, perhaps more personal than it appears at Mangere.
At the Arts Centre, it remains the same artwork I saw at Elam but it is more publicly casual, more publicly informal and more publicly personal. This enhanced transformation from a private to public domain gives Perceiving Identity a heart for the life of others. The artwork is, in fact, altered by its public locality. Such contextual metamorphosis is a measure for the public success of personal visions.
The reconstruction of Perceiving Identity through its placement in another context is similar to how an autobiographical play publicly operates. Its reception enters the realm of theatre by releasing a subjective vision into the public world. Further, the methodology of the installation of Perceiving Identity at Mangere Arts Centre transmutes the artwork into a camera-generated tableau. It now intentionally echoes the presentation of photographs and paintings seen and experienced on the walls of tribal Wharenui.
Portraits of ancestors gathered together are something that one encounters at Marae. People are there remembered. They are respected by their portraits being placed on public view. The contextual echo of a Marae display that Russ Flatt employs delivers a greater wallop at Mangere than I expected. By taking what first appears relaxed and intimate into a public space transforms their perception. I last encountered portraits so warmly displayed publicly at Ngahiraka Mason’s Purangiaho - Seeing Clearly exhibition in 2001. I sense that Perceiving Identity may well become known for foregrounding, again, a Māori iteration of memory’s respect.
The difference between Perceiving Identity and marae presentation of portraits is that it is not cherished ancestors who are being remembered and recreated here but living people, actual events from the artist’s own life. Perceiving Identity focuses on the presence of Māori identity in order to visually affirm ethnicity. The artist’s Māori ethnicity is similarly paralleled with the varied ethnicities of the participants that Russ has invited to participate in this project.
Seeing the public’s reaction to Perceiving Identity on opening night made me research Walter Benjamin’s Archive for further perspectives towards Russ Flatt’s artwork. Benjamin’s Archive places fragments of memory together and confirms how disparate ideas and images collide becoming even more potent and proactive. In parallel, Gertrude Stein proved how tactical remembrance can become when memory and recall crisscross. Stein’s recall plies recovered memory and rotates the past into the present. She looks, as does Russ, forward to the past in order to recognize the present.
Russ Flatt’s Perceiving Identity conceptually operates in a manner mirroring Gertrude Stein’s belief that ‘everybody is contemporary with his period’. He associates images with the reconstruction of his memory and relates recollection with a personal re-fabrication of his history. Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded is Gertrude Stein’s poem on the perplexity of recovered memory. Her memoir begins:
In the one hundred small places of myself my youth,
And myself in if it is the use of passion,
In this in it and in the nights alone…
The 21 images in Perceiving Identity are a serial self-portrait where others are invited to reflect, perform, reincarnate and articulate moments from the artist’s childhood. The photographs respect the honest sentiment inherent to cherishing the past but eviscerate nostalgia in preferring a direct recall. Russ’ images intertwine past and present like carefully planned weaving. Difficult times are also recalled here, including memories where the reminiscence verges on self-revelation.
In particular, consider the black and white portraits of young adult males. They are seen as if the occasion of their portrait making is a confrontation with their gender being observed. Such pictures are like open secrets waiting to be shared. They hark back to moments of self-recognition where the artist’s character imbues the portrait’s sitter. Such portraits mirror the tradition of mug shots but reveal much more subcutaneous personality.
Perceiving Identity is displayed without fuss - they are pinned to the wall – this manner of display supports the artist’s warm regard for family and friends. It suggests what we are seeing is temporary and will be removed from public view. It is never easy to get large-scale images working together visually with equal weight, especially when they are variously sized and contain diverse content. Yet, such relaxed groupings invite us to compare and contrast rather than to blend and harmonize content. The overall mood is one of interconnected people who share memories.
We read Perceiving Identity as a whole, as we do a story. The images reimagine childhood; while not being not period images they show time in the process of being remembered. The sense of growing up is palpable; it is remade by a performance of its own re-enactment.
Perceiving Identity asserts the artist’s identity as Māori. It attests to his gender perspective as a gay man. It confirms this in the ways he remembers and in the ways with which he looks. The artist is an experienced photographer with years of professional practice and his expertise shows. He has substantive skills in collaborating with children and adults. Looking at this work I can see instantly that it is created by a man who lives and works as a gay person, domiciled in Auckland Tāmaki Makaurau. Russ Flatt’s sequence of images is entirely inseparable from him being Māori and from him being recognized as a male who is Māori. This artwork project addresses his self-perception of identity and its ineluctable bond with his own ethnicity.
Perceiving Identity is a staged sequence of fabricated images illustrating moments within the artist’s younger life. Every image contributes to this compelling self-narrative. I recall reading when a child Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir titled Speak Memory. Nabokov’s remembrance was forensic in its detail and ranged over his Russian childhood. Like that autobiography, Russ Flatt’s photographs testify to how we may imaginatively recover our past. Nabokov invoked memory as an impetus to self-recognition. He wanted memory to be a perpetual stimulus remaking his life history and giving emotional amplitude to the present. Recalling childhood makes us reposition what may be fact, what may be fiction and what may be mis-remembered.
From the outset of his photo-project, Russ Flatt framed up the question - How do we perceive identity? He was not thinking generally, he was thinking personally. He was querying our perception of who he is and how his current art practice is concerned with identity. The artist uses memory as fuel to initiate this large-scale photo-installation. He makes photography investigate how identity is perceived and how it represents itself. He wants us to grasp that each image is based on life experience as a recreation of the past. In this sense, his memory storyboards his thinking.
Perceiving Identity is a photo-tableau with images placed on the gallery’s wall in an asymmetric checkerboard. It is as if some photo-album retrieved from some decades ago is enlarged into a multi-part photomural. Everything appears to come from the past. While we realize that all the images are recent they seem dated. It is a truism that the past shapes who we are. Perceiving Identity is a fictive and filmic documentary made out of stills that recreate the artist’s past years using a visual ‘look’ that is perceived as period.
In 2012 Russ initiated the beginnings of Perceiving Identity with a sequence of portraits of a young boy whose skin colour changes in a sequence of images. In Mum, why is my skin brown a boy’s ethnicity morphs from white to brown. By considering identity shifts the artist ranges over ethnicity, gender and sexuality; and considers them as constituents to who one is seen as, and how one is viewed.
Auckland’s current culture reflects the diversity of its people. The Auckland Plan states “Auckland is the most ethnically diverse region in New Zealand, with more than 180 different ethnicities….” Such complex heritages reinforce ideas about how identity and ethnicity intertwine. With the demographic changes of the last three generations it is unsurprising that artists working across all media and artistic practices now attest to Auckland’s dynamic population.
By turning Perceiving Identity into a staged project of self-discovery Russ Flatt seeks to reflect his identity. Nabokov said in Speak Memory “One is always at home in one's past.” Russ invites us to encounter his youth not as it was lived and recorded in past family pictures but seen via new images. Russ mixes up types of photography and his images are the opposite of candid photography. These are not snapshots one might see in family albums. Instead, they seem like images assembled during the 1970s. While mirroring a past narrative they further utilize an historicised manner of photo-representation. The rendered ‘past’ looks like the ‘real’ past.
Perceiving Identity reveals perception and identity as a complex interweaving; when brought together they become proactive and reactive to how we express who we are. By making his tableau relevant, Russ Flatt shows us not only who he is and who he was, he further reveals the reality we are all sharing in.
SENIOR CURATOR, NZ & PACIFIC ART, AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TA ̄ MAKI
1 I believe one of the first public Gallery exhibitions to reflect the tradition related to the presentation of portraits of people within Wharenui was Ngahiraka Mason’s exhibition Purangiaho – Seeing Clearly at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Ta ̄maki from 15 September 2001 to 25 November 2001.
2 Gertrude Stein, How Writing is Written, in How Writing is Written – Volume II of the Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein, Black Arrow Press, Los Angeles, 1974, p151.
3 Gertrude Stein, Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded, in Look at Me Now and Here I Am, Penguin Books, London, 1990, p274.
4 The artist confirms this fact. Communication from Russ Flat, 3 April 2014.
5 See: http://theplan.theaucklandplan.govt.nz/aucklands-people/
6 See: http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2540547-speak-memory