Inside the magical world of celebrated NZ artist Fiona Pardington

I was pretending I was 14 years old when in fact I'm 55…," says bruised photographer Fiona Pardington, ruefully considering the preceding day's events, which included a lost parrot and the Piha Volunteer Fire Brigade. She recently moved to a house high on the hill overlooking Lion Rock and the black iron-sand beach at Piha, on the west coast of the North Island. 

Pardington is the first New Zealand artist to be knighted in France. The French government has made her a Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the French Order of Arts and Letters) for her photographic work and research in the collections held in museums in Paris, Rouen and Nice. 

She is also a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.  

In 2015, a retrospective exhibition, A Beautiful Hesitation, featuring more than 100 photographs taken over 30 years, opened in Wellington before travelling to Auckland and Christchurch.

Fiona Pardington is the first New Zealand artist to be knighted in France.

Fiona Pardington is the first New Zealand artist to be knighted in France.

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Today however, Pardington is recovering from a rescue.

She had woken early to take her dogs down to the beach, when she went looking for Tommy, a bright green orange-beaked eclectus – one of the three parrots who share her home. Rescued from caged neglect, Tommy doesn't usually fly. She assumed the blustery wind had somehow blown him down off the balcony and into the trees.

A bit of "bush-bashing" across a stream revealed her parrot peeking through the nikau, prompting Pardington to climb up a karaka.

"Anyway, I managed to slip," she says. "I got my leg wedged in this V-shape between branches and every time the wind blew they squeezed tighter together…" Trapped, Pardington began phoning around and eventually reached a friend, investigative reporter Melanie Reid, whose ex-husband is a member of the fire brigade. In the meantime, her parrot started calling out to her.

Fiona Pardington with one of her three parrots, on the set of a Ngai Tau artist web series episode about her career.
Meek Zuiderwyk

Fiona Pardington with one of her three parrots, on the set of a Ngai Tau artist web series episode about her career.

"Tommy started calling me a 'good girl'. Even he was a bit concerned and my dog, Freud, had managed to wriggle out of his harness to find me.

"I was so ashamed when I heard the sirens going because I knew they were for me… Freud showed them where I was. He went up and met the truck and took them down to where I was in the tree which I thought was pretty impressive. They got me out in no time which was great. So then I said: 'Can you save my bird?' I sounded like a crazy bird lady, which is probably true…"

Crazy bird lady or not, Pardington is one of New Zealand's most celebrated photographers. 

Her images are a startling exploration of beauty and mortality: life casts of Maori heads made early in the 19th century, a roadkill hawk hung in glorious splendour like a Dutch still-life, wilting flowers in their moments of decline, and the stuffed and skinned specimens of extinct species. 

She has haunted museums in New Zealand and France to photograph hei tiki, plaster casts of guillotined heads, and a skull supposed to be that of the Marquis De Sade. 

In May 2010, Pardington's Ake Ake Huia, a gelatin silver print of a photograph of the feathers of the extinct huia sold at Auckland's Art & Auction for $30,386, breaking the record for the sale of a single New Zealand photograph. Later the same night, her series of images of hei tiki from the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum on Banks Peninsular, The Quai Branly Suite of Nine Hei Tiki, sold for $64,278. 

Pardington's recent work, Nabokov's Blues: The Charmed Circle, is on show at Auckland's Starkwhite gallery. It features huge images of iridescent butterfly wing-scales in breathtakingly vivid colour, peacock-blues and gold-dust yellows. They are juxtaposed with close-ups of hand-written collector's notes or veiled butterfly corpses leaking 70-year-old internal fluids through torn glassine bags. 

They are all butterflies collected by Vladimir Nabokov, the wealthy Russian aristocrat who went into a moneyless exile in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution. Best known as a writer, Nabokov was also a life-long butterfly collector, or lepidopterist, subsequently living in the US and Switzerland. He would become internationally famous as the author of the "scandalous" novel Lolita in 1955.

"I was quite a precocious reader and my mother encouraged me to read – even when we lived in a beach community she'd drive us into the Auckland Library every week," says Pardington. "So that's what got me into it, Lolita, and hearing about the scandals. I thought: 'Oh I'd better read it.'

"Then I suppose, like everyone else, I became enamoured by the profound effects that his language had on me."

Since the mid-1990s, Fiona Pardington’s career has exploded.
Chris Skelton

Since the mid-1990s, Fiona Pardington’s career has exploded.

She quotes Professor Brian Boyd, Auckland University's world-acclaimed expert on Nabokov who said that the writer was "like a man with a thousand eyes all open at the same time".

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Nabokov lost his personal collections of butterflies, first in his exile from Russia, then when he fled Europe at the onset of World War II. Pardington visited his specimens, now held in libraries in New York and Lausanne in Switzerland.

"The butterflies must be his own," she wrote, describing how she chose what to photograph, "their thorax crushed by the fingers that held the pen with which he wrote. Butterflies taken, like relics. One degree of separation. Love and death fold together."

The project was funded by Creative New Zealand. Pardington travelled with Mark Smith, a young American whose focus-stacking computer program enabled her to obtain hundreds of macro photographs of the butterfly wings and then merge them to appear as a single image.

Along with butterflies and their scales, Pardington obtained images of handwritten phrases and scientific diagrams, creating a portrait of a Nabokov and his obsessions. "Death is there in anything beautiful," she says. "It is the immediate flip-side. Behind the beautiful maiden's face is her skull… To be beautiful, means to die and to become not-beautiful. They are so intimately tied up."

Pardington was born in Devonport on Auckland's North Shore. She is of Scottish (Clan Cameron of Erracht) and Ngai Tahu, Kati Mamoe and Ngati Kahungunu heritage. Her brother is Neil Pardington, the award-winning designer and photographer. Their father was a painter-decorator, a signwriter, and later a commercial long-line fisherman. Their mother worked at the TAB and did the books for a garage.|

However, hers was a family of secrets. When she was 10, her grandmother told the children that, unknown to them, their mother had remarried and the man they thought of as their father had adopted the children and given them his name. She has described the discovery to writer Jeremy Olds. "Grandma told us. Grandma wasn't supposed to, but she did. We were sitting in the kitchen in Morrinsville, my stepfather was crying. We were all shocked."

She has said, too, that she understands her mother's decision. It would later lead to her own fascination with the tensions between personal and cultural identity and the effects of real and invented histories on an individual. 

Pardington attended Elam, The University of Auckland's School of Fine Art. Then she began a relationship with Joe Makea, a handsome Rarotongan, who became the father of Pardington's daughter, Akura. 

His presence is inescapable in Pardington's photographs from the 1980s. In one, Makea is muscled, smoothly bare-chested, and carrying lilies with his boxer's bandaged fists. In another, he stands in brooding profile wearing a beekeeper's helmet. They are significant photographs in her career.

Pardington was born in Devonport on Auckland's North Shore. She is of Scottish (Clan Cameron of Erracht) and Ngai Tahu, ...
Chris Skelton

Pardington was born in Devonport on Auckland's North Shore. She is of Scottish (Clan Cameron of Erracht) and Ngai Tahu, Kati Mamoe and Ngati Kahungunu heritage.

But Makea died suddenly in 1993. He'd suffered from undiagnosed scarlet fever as a child and an operation had been necessary to replace his heart valves. However, he did not stop his exercise regime after the surgery and died on his press bench.

It had been a turbulent relationship. "I had to leave him first because he would have killed me," Pardington says. "I loved him but he had terrible problems once you'd got a drink in him. So I just had really difficult…" she pauses, "…really bad relationships, a couple of them… Everything has been really tough. So my birds are easy compared to some of the things I've been doing in my life.

"I've had to do most things myself," she adds, changing mood, "which is why I'm so good at water-blasting."

Since the mid-1990s, Pardington's career has exploded. She has travelled to France and been granted unparalleled access to sensitive collections. Her list of artist's residencies and awards is lengthy.

She has used discarded soft-core black and white erotica from the 1950s for her One Night of Love series. Old medical photographs have been resituated, rephotographed, and renamed. 

The Quai Branly Suite features nine images of hei tiki, disconcertingly mingling both real and fake, set in monochrome implacability and composed melancholy.

"When I was young I didn't have the mana or the connections to get to do what I wanted. I also didn't have the money, so I had to work in the backyard, to make things up, or to save up for film, or paper before I could print it. I had to work with what I had.

"Then I slowly managed to get into museums. Some people hated what I did because, from an animistic point of view, there are great problems dealing with taonga (in Maori culture) such as hei tiki where people don't distinguish between an image of a taonga and a taonga itself…"

More recently, her still-life works have opened up a new sensory richness with their dense colours and formal composition. They feature a curious array of objects from dead seagulls to perfume bottle stoppers, cartridge cases and scarlet ribbons. Like the Dutch paintings they are modelled upon, they preserve the moving processes of life in a static instant.

"I'd be a vampire in a second if it gave me longer to do art," she laughs.

Pardington's photographic arrangements animate energy and external forces. At times, her work has resemblances to Haitian Vodou, as she gathers discarded objects and imbues them with significance.

Downstairs in her new Piha house is a big room she will use for her new studio, filled with collected materials which may form part of future projects. 

At the moment, she is fascinated by the boldly coloured glass drippings left over from the manufacture of children's marbles in the early 20th century. They are like star-stuff or solidified candy. 

She has a large collection.

"Aren't they beautiful? I just love the ones with half-formed marbles in them."

There are also cloth roses she has purchased at street markets and pages on which Victorian children once practiced their alphabets in copperplate handwriting. She collects old negatives of car crashes and house fires. "It is also this thing of witnessing a life… Look at this gentleman. Look how he tied up his collar because he hasn't got buttons, and the way he's holding his hands. We are looking at him. These photographs are important because they are ways of getting back in time.

"I have a nose for finding things that have been hidden in plain sight or overlooked," she says. "There are a lot of things we have to see in our society and it is the artist's job to gift it back to society, to open the window so that everyone can see it." 

Fiona Pardington's 'Nabokov's Blues: The Charmed Circle' is on show at Starkwhite, 510 K Rd in Auckland until July 23. Pardington's work forms part of a group show 'Occulture' at the Wellington City Art Gallery from August 12 to November 19.

Video courtesy of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Te Māngai Pāho. Watch the full video here.

 - Stuff


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