Lake | Waikato Museum 2001

Eyes Wide Shut

Adrienne Martyn's exhibition 'Lake' refers to Taupo, Taupo as it once was, rather than the present geographical waterform most of us know well. The show references the volcanic history of the central North Island, where a massive eruption two thousand years ago created a crater that became a holder of water.

This huge bowl, a vessel, now happens to overflow at Tapuaeharuru Bay in its North East corner, and form the Waikato. If we can look out from the window besides the ramp leading down from Te Winika (just up from Adrienne's exhibition), we can see the broad expanse of water running past the Waikato Museum of Art and History.

Martyn's exhibition is austere with its use of severe formalism and symmetry, both in the individual works and in their groupings. Her forty-two images are presented in nine groups, some of which suggest an indented geological formation. Sometimes she organises the heights of the horizon lines in her photographic prints so the level is lower in the center and higher on the outside. Sometimes it is horizonlike bands of reflected light from the sky that she manipulates.

Apart from this geometry of balanced descending and ascending horizon levels within the compositions, Martyn's groups of images play with ambiguity to poetically tease out the viewer's imagination in other ways. Usually, when examining these prints, one wonders if it is receding water, sky, distant landforms, or clouds that is reflecting the light one is contemplating. Invariably it is water.

All the photographs were taken from one site overlooking a fixed vista of water and located in a reserve in Whakaipo Bay near the outlet for Mapara Stream. However the vista was only a starting point, for from it she made a variety of exposures, manipulating shutter speeds and focal lengths to generate varied degrees of acuity for the horizon, and different blurred renderings of the water surface. In others where the water surface is crisply detailed, she has dodged out the landforms behind the lake, creating the suggestion of an enormous, infinitely receding ocean.

The result is a suite of images where her treatments within the camera of the exceptionally fine-grained film have resulted in a sequence of poetic or imaginary recreations of dramas from Taupo's geological history. Ubiquitously present are smoky wisps that can allude to fog or mist over the present lake, or to the remnants of noxious smoke lingering from the earlier eruption. Possibly they could be taken for traces of viscous lava slowly sliding out of the then much smaller crater, or aerial views of the dying ashes from a once fiery conflagration.

Perhaps these imaginative interpretative leaps mean that Martyn has made herself a sort of Rorschach test where there is no structure to determine meaning, but where she can fantasise about the origins of the "subject-matter?" In a sense, these images may not be about Taupo at all but about exploring the potential of film in a new way — where what occurs beyond the lens doesn't matter. It is still significant — the camera's lens cap still has to come off — but what is positioned in front of the shutter can be over-rated. The interior of the camera's black box becomes a metaphor for Martyn's own fertile mental leaps. Taupo's formation becomes an excuse for a playful narrative that allows chance discoveries [like unpredictable tonal mergings occurring with reduced shutter speeds], to be incorporated and folded in upon itself.

In these images it is as if Martyn has retreated from looking out at the world and turned inwards, perhaps making vision inconsequential. Some earlier projects featuring water revealed the artist's preoccupation with the depiction of light on choppy waveforms, delineated with crystalline precision. 'Lake' however tends to avoid a sharpened focus and dense details of lapping troughs and crests. Instead smudgy and smeared shapes dominate, as if the water were being viewed through bleary (perhaps tearful) squinting eyes that can only (just) perceive blurred forms. The exposures even take on the look of paintings, aided by their large size. They have a quality akin to that of soft squishy oil paint rubbed over with an old rag, or canvas soaked in acrylic washes applied with a squeegee. Such a painterly haze defies the conventions of most photographic practices where clarity and highly defined edges are greatly valued. Despite this, these are obviously still photographs. They might reference painting such as that by Mark Rothko or Gerhard Richter and others, but they could never be confused with it.

Oddly although the film itself is grain-free, the rendered sea has mischievously provided a replacement horizontal grain for these exposures. This substitute order, the consequence of the forces of wind and gravity on a liquid mass, creates the illusion of a blurred eye turning rapidly sideways. There is a dominant pervading direction in the images, a combing of patterned fuzzy streaks, a raking of soft parallel bands.

This grain participates in a contradictory tension between the seductive appeal of the painterly smears and the aspects that are anti-vision. The severe geometry and incomprehensible murkiness deliberately thwart an easy narrative. Lake's horizontal streaks beckon the viewer closer to reassure her or him of the parallel ground they are standing on, but they also irritate, frustrate and repulse. While mysterious and comforting, they are also infuriatingly disorienting, teases that affect the legs and the eye.

Lake's images have a scale that reinforces this paradox, for if they were more diminutive and not the scale of moderately sized canvases, that would make them so intimate they could not repel. The balance of opposing tendencies would be lost.

Such a checked tension echoes the consequences of Martyn's interest in Taupo's geological history, her allusions to the past. Like lingering ghosts that never leave a bloody site but become detected later as unexpected ectoplasmic fields in family snaps, sufficient traces of the past are detectable within her manipulated images to be enjoyed by imaginative viewers. Of course, such evocative invocations are usually contradicted by what we see of the present world beyond the camera, and as very tough photographs — with or without painting references or geological narratives — they withhold information and they puzzle. Despite this, we can look over the artist's shoulder and through her lens to apply our own mental processes to these walled objects, and enjoy.

John Hurrell