I often describe myself as a ‘Sculptographer’; a ‘post-conceptual photographer’. A mediator between genres & dimensions, between you, the other and I. I suppose I am an altogether different collagist, maybe a collagist of difference. My primary source is National Geographic, a pseudo-scientific magazine, a coffee table Carle Andre gone mad. It is a magazine of which 6 billion exist and 23 million are added every month. Washed up in second-hand stores and the digital pages of Trade Me these treasures contain fantastic stories of lost civilisations & exotic butterflies that smell like orchids once dead. My supply would seem to have no limit. Indeed it is this limitlessness that I fold in on it self as I make art.
Like an unlicensed eye surgeon ever so carefully, I cut along an edge of possibilities. The scalpel locates & dislocates, creating from this body of knowledge a poetic space, individualised and liberated from the frozen stillness of those pages. Fragments totalling in the thousands, slip between sheets of here and there. Seeded in fields of imagination, a dark flower opens in the compassionate space of you my viewer [the infinite propels itself into the mundane]. Here, a reluctant artwork unravels its untold story.
Peter Madden, 2008.
SLEIGHT OF HAND
by Sarah Farrar
Peter Madden’s ‘Escape From Orchid City’
A touch of the hand and this burning would, on the instant, beautifully reverse itself …. Out of the chars and ashes, out of the dust and coals, like golden salamanders, the odd years, the green years, might leap; roses sweeten the air, white hair turn Irish-black, wrinkles vanish; all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits into hats, all and everything returning to fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before beginning. A touch of the hand might do it, the merest touch of a hand.
“Unbelievable.” Eckels breathed, the light of the Machine on his thin face. “A real Time Machine.”
Proved path and can only kill the one specified animal, which is marked with red paint. The consequences for not following these rules are heavy fines, because, as the Safari Guide explains: ‘A Time Machine is a finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species.’
Peter Madden’s artist project ‘Escape from Orchid City’ has a number of parallels with Bradbury’s story. Madden invites us to consider a world that is both close and familiar, and frighteningly foreign and distant. His source material is the textbook, the social science magazine (National Geographic is a favourite), the encyclopedia, the museum display. Madden’s installations collapse history, bringing together the general and the specific, the cosmic and the minute, to create a kind of endless present. In one collage work we see cut out shapes of dolphins leaping from the ocean and in their negative space we are shown a glimpse of the galaxy. I can’t help thinking of Marcel Duchamp: ‘One day in the near future, the whole galaxy of objects will become readymades.’
Nothing says ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ quite like a mounted animal head. The essential decorative element in any hunters’ lodge, pub or men’s club, the trophy head is a ubiquitous symbol of the triumph of man over nature. On my first meeting with Peter Madden, we sat at a table beneath a mounted deer head. This seemed fortuitous at first, then I realised that Peter had probably chosen to meet there deliberately. He claimed it was an impressive animal; twelve pointed antlers are rare. ‘Escape from Orchid City’ includes several mounted animal heads, both fictional and real.
Returning to Bradbury’s story, a crucial aspect was that the hunters aren’t allowed to take any trophy of their kill back to the present. Instead, the Safari Guide offers to take a photograph of them with their spoils. ‘Escape from Orchid City’ incorporates a community of taxidermied huia—a New Zealand bird that was famously wiped out in the early twentieth century. Madden is interested in the story of the huia, whose demise was rapidly hastened by the desire of museums around the world to own specimens of this rare bird. Madden posits the theory that, had photography been more widely accessible in early twentieth century New Zealand, the huia may have stood a better chance at survival.
National Geographic magazines have been described as presenting a kind of ‘imperialist nostalgia, that is, mourning the passing of what we ourselves have destroyed.’ Madden is drawn to the contextually loaded history of this magazine: ‘National Geographic is a product of white American culture and can be seen really as a smokescreen on the truth’, he says. In her article ‘The Living Dead’, writer Tessa Laird discusses Madden’s use ofNational Geographic magazines in relation to criticism of the magazine’s editorial focus over the years. She notes: ‘Power, as exemplified by National Geographic is revealed to be seething with Dionysian disorder beneath a well-kempt veneer of paragraphs, captions, and white space…’. While she comments that ‘Appropriation of appropriation does not necessarily equal liberation’, she feels confident that ‘Madden has partially solved a difficult equation by making it more difficult’.
The butterfly effect
In Bradbury’s story the hunt doesn’t go exactly to plan and Eckels, alarmed at seeing an actual T Rex, strays from the path in his rush to reach the safety of the Time Machine, leaving the others to slay the beast. When he and the others return to the present, he discovers a crushed butterfly in the thread of his shoe’s sole. It is ‘very beautiful and very dead’. Although the death of this one butterfly is tragic in itself, its consequences in relation to the story are more far-reaching and deadly—it has changed the course of history and the present is irrevocably altered.
Peter Madden has frequently chosen to incorporate butterflies into his collage assemblages—from simple, understated works such as Butterfly rule (2004), Escape into Order (2003) and Leave (2004) through to his more opulent and elaborate constructions where butterflies swarm amongst flowers, birds and skulls.
Butterflies are a symbol of fragility and the transience of life. In nature morte (also known as still life) paintings of the seventeenth century, butterflies and flies are shown alighting on full blooms and over-ripe fruit as in Jan Davidz De Heem’s painting Still Life with Lobster (late 1640s). Still life painting traditionally ranked fairly low on the hierarchy of painting genres, well behind history or landscape painting. While these other genres were perceived as edifying, still lifes were seen astrivial, bourgeois and decadent. A subset of the still life genre is thevanitas painting, which consisted of objects carefully selected for their symbolic value: a skull, an hourglass, rotting fruit, flies, a candle—all referencing the passing of time and imminent death.
A city of the dead
There is a definite death instinct throughout Madden’s work—take for example Necropolous (2004), Death(2006) and his numerous skull paintings. His use of skulls, in particular, recalls the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead where people gather together to celebrate the passing of their loved ones and the skull symbolises both death and rebirth. This festival takes its origins from the Aztec belief that life on earth is merely a dream and that in death one truly awakes to reality. For his work White skull on world (2006), Madden chose to locate a skull over the Americas, with its spine replaced by South America. Madden’s miniature skull work Deathresembles Mexican Day of the Dead dolls, as well as Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco’s Black Kites (1997)—a sculpted human head whose contours are traced in a graphite chequerboard pattern. Madden’s Death skull has a little knob at the top to potentially raise the cranium and expose the interior which, if it’s anything like the earlier Golden Skull (2005), might contain brain matter comprised of rose quartz and beeswax.
The Midas touch
Peter Madden has talked about seeing an exhibition of Aztec artefacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which it seemed an entire room was full of gold, every surface gleamed. In Madden’s work, you often come across gilded objects: a bike seat, a bat, an axe and a skull are but a few examples of objects which have met with the Midas touch. I’m sure that Madden is aware of the Greek myth of King Midas, who apart from being an avid rose gardener, is famous for having the (mis)fortune of everything he touched turning to gold. Golden surfaces have an allure about them, they identify something as precious and lasting. The golden vitrine in Madden’s installation is a gleaming, shimmering container—the ultimate treasure box.
Madden’s project can be compared to that of other artists who have sought to draw upon museological traditions. Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers’ project, Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Department (1968-72), was a fictitious museum; Joseph Beuys’ Block Beuys and Palazzo Regale (1985) are other important precursors. In the Palazzo Regale project, Beuys gilded museum cases (although he left the glass untouched) and placed framed rectangular gilded panels on the surrounding walls.
A local precedent is the exhibition ‘The Oriental Room’ which was exhibited for a short time at the Auckland Museum in 1996. Madden’s gold encrusted vitrine case would have sat easily in that show. A pertinent comparison from that project is Yuk King Tan’s work Showbusiness (1996) which shares Madden’s interest in the theatricality of museum displays and the power of presentation. Showbusiness was a museum case lined in reflective black plastic sheeting which, when its Hollywood-style lights flashed intermittently, revealed an abyss of infinite mirror patterns.
Escape from Orchid City
I’m intrigued by Peter Madden’s obsession with orchids and floral details. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised after reading that orchids, like gold, ‘have an irresistible appeal once one has come into contact with them’ and that ‘many are worthy of, and receive, our unlimited adoration.’ Orchids are notoriously difficult to grow and there seems to be something perverse in the plethora of orchid varieties on display in Madden’s Escape from Orchid City (2006). They symbolise perfection, which suggests Orchid City is a beautiful but highly artificial place—a place you may well want to escape from.
This work brings to mind Yvonne Todd’s photographs of roses—for example Chlora 2001—which are deliberately too perfect, too engineered and too contrived in their presentation. I suspect that Madden took great delight when he recently extracted Todd’s roses from their backgrounds and replaced these images with a sketchy drawing of a rose and a mass of skulls with red paint as part of his recent artist project at the Auckland Art Gallery.
A sound of thunder
At the end of Bradbury’s story, Eckels must pay the price for straying in the past and accidentally killing the golden butterfly. He pleads to the world: ‘Can’t we take it back, can’t we make it alive again? Can’t we start over?’. All that’s heard is a sound of thunder.
In ‘Escape from Orchid City’, Madden presents history as an archive to trawl through at will, although perhaps not without some trepidation. Through his careful cuts, his dissection, the line between fact and fiction is blurred; objects become released from their explanations, and meaning becomes a matter of free association and interpretation. ‘In my work,’ he says, ‘I’m cutting into a body of knowledge, poetically releasing the images.’ Tessa Laird has written that Madden steals back ‘the frozen moments that the Geographic has locked in time…’ Through his works, Madden allows us the opportunity to go back, to explore these ‘frozen moments’—what he might call ‘time crystals’—and consider an alternate future.
by Sue Gardiner
Meet me in the poetry section, was my first instruction from Auckland artist Peter Madden when I phoned to arrange a visit to his studio, which is near a local bookshop.
At least that way, if either of us is late, he added, we'll have something wonderful to read.
The connection with poetry and books was an auspicious start to the visit as Madden totally immerses himself in the photographic images contained in books, magazines, encyclopedias and other literary sources.
Using photography as his starting point, he cuts, slices, assembles and constructs fantastical cutout paper worlds with magical proportions. These worlds exist beyond the boundaries of rational thought and seek to question assumed notions of truth. They are, as the artist explains, places that have been created without the restriction of geography. Titles, place names, maps and boundaries don?t exist and these worlds allow us to consider new possibilities for interaction? poetically, politically, philosophically.
The major work, The Unbuilt Realm of Indeterminopolis, for example, is constructed around the idea of a body/a city/ a universe looking in on itself as if peering through the inner workings of a camera. Based on a tabletop construction the images and objects, created in spiraling mayhem, have a force of their own but reflect a universal hierarchy. The shanty towns, cemeteries, swamps and bogs are at the darkened base level and the architecture of wealth and success, however threatened it may be, is sitting high on top. Using cutout paper images Madden effortlessly moves from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional to create an awe-inspiring space that is both timeless and nameless, familiar and unfamiliar, structured and unstructured.
In Madden's work, books and the bodies of knowledge they contain are transformed. A humble rose encyclopedia, for example, is used firstly as a source of beautiful, romantic pictures of glowing blooms, which are then intricately incorporated into three-dimensional sculptural forms. But that is not all. The original book then becomes an object of strange beauty when the carefully cutout, leftover pages, which remain intact in the book's spine, form a maze of layered holes, gaps and mysterious overlapping images. The result is a visually rich body of material that has an immediate impact on our vision of the world.
The first surprise when I visited Peter Madden's studio was that, instead of unruly mounds of cut and wasted paper, I found the meticulously cutout books and magazines preserved so they could be used in future work.
The second surprise was that there is no computer in this studio. Madden doesn't like the technology. Even researching on the internet seems like wasted, numbing time to him. Instead he loves spending time in libraries, second-hand book shops and researching topics such as natural history, ecology, geography and the wonders of the universe.
In his work based on flies, for example, he painted deadly looking skulls on the backs of real blowflies. This led him into a body of knowledge about the native fly, the impact of introduced house flies and the way in which flies and their maggots are being used in modern medicine. Equally, he used images of butterflies to create beautiful butterfly clusters that cling to walls, chairs, books and table tops. These works led him into a contemplation of death and its relationship with photography and time.
I'm not a photographer standing on the edge of the world, he says. Instead, like a nomad scanning a world of images, he plunges into a study of photographs taken by others.
In my work, I'm cutting into a body of knowledge, poetically releasing the images, he says. It's no wonder that his favourite source of images for many years has been National Geographic magazines. The photographs in National Geographic are the most important part, he says. It has been shown that 50 percent of subscribers only read the captions and look at the pictures.
He enjoys buying a 40-year-old National Geographic for 50 cents in a junkshop and becoming the new custodian of the knowledge contained within. National Geographic is a product of a white American culture and can be seen really as a smokescreen on the truth.
The magazine has been accused of editorial propagandizing and political bias and Madden finds it interesting to study the geographical shifts reflected in the magazine over time. By using photographs from the real world to create the fictional worlds he delights in, Madden turns towards the fantastic and can imaginatively include illusions, dreams, nightmares, madnesses, histories, economies, games and invented secret societies. The invented 2002 Interior Affairs Department of Shadows, for which he made membership badges, was created to reassess major discoveries in history and the impact they've had. The Department contained the 'Working Group for the Promotion of Becoming Monstrous' and an enterprise titled 'Fiscal Adventures', which presented the 'Nano Card' credit for people with no time to spend.
Madden shares this fascination with fictional worlds with one of his favourite authors, Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. In 1940 Borges published Tl'n, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a tale about the discovery of a supposed country in Asia Minor called Uqbar. The description of this world and its surrounding planets becomes, in Borgesmind, the true utopia, a 'no place', a supreme fiction. Within it people yield to the enchantment of an orderly, man-made universe of the mind, which has come to supplant the divinely incomprehensible reality we know.
Madden has created a world like this in his work. In his secret and possibly idealist worlds there is a marriage between danger, romanticism, strangeness, reason and sentiment. In much of his work with images of flora and fauna the fear of catastrophe is always delicately balanced by beauty.
MY OWN PRIVATE IDEALOGUE
Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces is pleased to present a new exhibition My Own Private Idealogue. This exhibition combines the work of three artists, Joanna Langford, Peter Madden and Rohan Wealleans. Each of these artists employs a highly subjective language to describe personal mythologies, fictional histories and symbolic landscapes.
Whilst these artists employ distinct materials and methods, they are connected through their impulse to appropriate objects, artefacts and historical accounts in a highly personal manner. In their sculptural installations, the often-everyday materials used are imbued with new identities, and become implicated in vast mythological environments.
Peter Madden employs collage to distil meaning from found images, lifting creatures and scenes from National Geographic magazine and reassembling them in vast accumulations and installations. Madden instils his cut-outs with an energy that is all their own – employing the language of connotation to give movement, meaning and combustion to his dislocated creatures as they inhabit their ideographic landscapes.
Joanna Langford’s vast impossible landscapes often feature small wooden ladders and buildings that traverse billowing plastic bag mountain ranges, catering to the needs of a civilization known only to the artist.
The totems, tools and props that populate Rohan Wealleans’ work seem to have been created to cultivate a primal landscape of protrusions and intrusions, constructed from layers of paint, teeth and shark’s jaws that take on Indiana Joneseque tribalism.
Conceptually My Own Private Idealogue fleshes out the relationship between psychoanalysis and post colonialism, examining the extent to which these three artists are responding to our contemporary de-colonised position, in which symbols and histories are readily detachable, and identities and mythologies are personalised as much as they are polemic.
This exhibition features a major selection of work from across Wealleans’ and Madden’s careers and invites the viewer to contemplate the spectrum of their practice, as well as featuring a large-scale, site-specific installation by Joanna Langford.
My Own Private Idealogue will occupy both gallery spaces at GCAS, with the gallery space activated by a collaborative architectural component that will mimic and highlight the unique interplay between these artists’ innovative expressions of their personal, interior worlds.