Where the wild things are

Neil Pardington’s exhibition The Vault explores those parts of museums that usually remain unseen

Neil Pardington’s exhibition The Vault explores those parts of museums that usually remain unseen

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In my day job I have the great privilege to wander the back alleys and storage bays of New Zealand’s public museums. These perambulations throw up all sorts of fascinating objects and curious juxtapositions.

Museum exhibitions wrestle chronology and logic into shape through the judicious placement of display and narrative, but freed from the careful eye of the curator, artwork and object, replete with associated meanings, collide like on like—or the bizarre on strange.

Neil Pardington is a chaser of the inanimate object, the chance encounter and the fantastic, which the viewing public never gets to see in the tidier, more considered ‘front of house’ experience as mediated by our museums.

‘Back of house’, all bets are off. Pardington’s uncanny eye finds images that, while clearly located on planet Earth, sometimes feel they could be from a parallel universe.

He has been quoted saying that he is looking for “a kind of strangeness” in his photographs. It is easy imagine the artist stalking his inanimate prey, quietly muttering “Eureka” when he chances upon scenes such as that depicted in Large Mammal Storage Bay #1, Canterbury Museum. A bison, polar and brown bears and the odd wolf appear to be migrating towards some unseen destination while in fact they are static in a corner of the now-closed Robert McDougall Gallery—still resplendent in the once de rigueur burgundy gallery livery from its final art exhibition.

Pardington revels in the discoveries he makes. Among the orderly stacks of film canisters seen in Film Archive #4, The New Zealand Film Archive is the dismembered front end of a yellow mini last seen causing mayhem in classic Kiwi movie Goodbye Pork Pie.

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Film Archive #4, The New Zealand Film Archive

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Large Mammal Storage Bay #1, Canterbury Museum

The artist is something of a Renaissance man. In his day job as creative director of Wellington’s Base Two Design, Pardington spends plenty of time in and around galleries as a specialist exhibition and publications designer. The idea for this ongoing body of work came to him while working on the Icons Nga Taonga publication for Te Papa in 2003. At every turn, he recounts, he ‘saw’ a photograph.

He has been “kicking around the back of museums for 20 years”, so his eye for the wry, unusual, surreal and poetic has been a long time in the making, and his quest has taken him into the labyrinthine depths of museums throughout the country.

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Mannequin Store #4, National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

Many of the images he unearths have mournful tones, depicting taxidermied racks of now-extinct species or neatly coiled snake specimens embalmed in jars of formaldehyde. Others have moments of offbeat humour, as seen in Mannequin Store #4, National Army Museum Te Mata Toa. If the crazed trooper in the foreground repaired with duct tape doesn’t tickle your funny bone, how about the butt-naked figure at the back right who appears to be pissing in the corner?

These chance museum encounters recorded by Pardington are brain-teasers; coded messages whose meaning will always remain elusive. At the heart of their visual sensibility is a curate’s egg of chance, death, cultural significance and the talismanic power of the objects that we as a society have decided to maintain, house and observe. These objet trouvé have finished their journey and are now stored awaiting a further audience with their human captors.

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