Mystery, Mortality and Transience

New Work by Adrienne Martin


The ten works in Adrienne Martyn's new portfolio represent a major thematic shift from the psychological portraits which have dominated her work in the 1980s. People still figure in the photographs, but her current concern is to use the photographic subject as the actor in a deliberately constructed narrative fiction. In keeping with a narrative tradition, Martyn has now adopted new formats—the diptych, the triptych and the polytych. Impressed by large photographs and paintings seen in New York last year, and conscious of having to compete for attention in an image-saturated world, she has also made her prints larger. The biggest work, Birth, is over two metres long and is made up of four individual sheets.

Adrienne Martyn Exile 1985-1988, Gelatin silver print, 610 x 1530 mm.

In 1982 Martyn exhibited a portfolio of architectural details and she returns to architecture in the current work. Her interest in 1982 was with the exterior surface: now it is with interiors, not only physical, but also mental—that is the constituents of experience which are sensations, perceptions, emotions and ideas. Titled Absence: Presence the ten new works have developed from a 1987 image in the Artists' Portraits portfolio commissioned by the National Art Gallery. Listed as cat. no. 33 Untitled 1987 in the survey exhibition mounted by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery last year, this image, a portrait of the photographer Janet Bayly, is llustrated on the cover of the survey catalogue. It stood apart from the others, distinguished by its use of symbols to represent a fictional narrative on the theme of life and death.

Adrienne Martyn Ascension 1987-1989, Gelatin silver print, 510 x 1530 mm.

The Absence: Presence portfolio is a vision of what has been, or what might be. It is primarily a vision of the passage of time and it is a particularly powerful and effective one because it strikes a chord which reverberates from the very nature of photographs themselves. Susan Sontag claims that photographs are inherently melancholy and that this comes from their 'irrefutable pathos as a message of time past'. She adds, 'The effectiveness of photography’s statement of loss depends on its steadily enlarging the familiar iconography of mystery, mortality and transience.(1)

That iconography, in Martyn's recent work, is built up around the decaying interior of the once elegant and now disused Excelsior Hotel in Dunedin. A notable architectural feature of the building is its stairwell which Martyn documented for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust last year. Martyn knew the building and has over the last decade regularly used it as a setting for portraits. But her experience of it was altered on that occasion by the fact that its tenants had recently left and she felt she could sense their ghosts in its emptiness. She saw in the building not its faded elegance, but its condition of decay and described it as 'sad and empty, and . . . I felt like I was walking around a corpse'.(2) A few weeks before that she'd had her first personal experience of death. She says, 'Death was very much on my mind—concepts about life in death and death in life'.(3) The building gave her the means to express those ideas.

Stairs or steps are a symbol common to many different cultures and are used to express ideas about ascension, gradation and transition. The Excelsior stairwell presented itself to Martyn as a stage on which to present ideas of life and death—it was a setting in which to explore not only the ravages of life, but also the possibilities of life. By setting her photographs on the inside of a building, and not on the outside, she makes the point that her concern is with the inner life—the imaginary life—rather than the everyday one.

The first image reflects this transition and mirrors Martyn's shift from the descriptive to the narrative over the last three years. Ascension is a triptych and the central panel shows a woman crouching, her head thrown back, her hands flying to her throat. She is placed in front of a gravestone. The two side panels show the Excelsior stairwell. The orderly march of its steps and the gently flowing curve of its bannister contain and complement the mysterious ecstasy (or agony?) at its centre. The image suggests the descent into death (from the cross?) by the stairwell at left, through the agony of death and the ecstasy of resurrection to the ascension (to heaven?), by the rising stair at right. The two images of the stairwell serve as a reminder that the same object is at once descendant and ascendant. Martyn has used this inherent ambiguity to striking effect.

Adrienne Martyn Birth 1989, Gelatin silver print, 510 x 2040 mm.

The spiral form of the stairwell is suggestive of the principle of organic life. The quietly powerful poignancy of the polytych Birth lies in its symbolic use of the stairwell to represent simultaneously life—because of its spiral form—and the transience of life, conveyed by the descending steps which suggest a passage from one plane to another.

In other images Martyn makes use of different architectural features, including the lantern at the top of the light well and the decorative ceiling panels. Presence is another triptych which expresses transience—this time through its fleeting immediacy. In the centre a woman’s face floats pale out of a very dark background. Her lips are forming a half smile and her eyes compel the audience's attention by their reserved intensity. They are striving to be here, now. She is flanked by photographs of the ceiling panels. They are seen from below and resemble two elaborately moulded picture frames with blank panels in place of the pictures. The image's potency arises from the tension between the powerful presence of its central subject and its equally emphatic absences in the side panels. By highlighting the ruinous disrepair of the peeling plaster walls of the light well which frame the image of the face in Exile, Martyn draws attention to the scarred, haunting face itself. Details in the side panels include the bars of the stair balustrade, wire netting over the glass dome at the top, and a single naked light bulb— all of which suggest imprisonment. Life in this case is decay and imprisonment, an approximation to death.

Execution is a powerfully direct image of ravage. The central figure is a woman whose face is plastered white to resemble a death mask. Her eyes are black holes and a narrow black ribbon is drawn tight around her white neck. Her arms are pinned to her sides and she wears a low cut dress of eighteenth-century style. She is the ghastly apparition of a victim and the stairwells in the side panels now take on the sinister aspect of the steps up the hangman's scaffold. It is a shocking image, the more so for having mingled with its elements of torture and imminent death, an expression of malevolent lasciviousness on the face of the victim which is reminiscent of Hans Bellmer's doll.(4)

Adrienne Martyn Execution 1988-1989, Gelatin silver print, 510 x 2040 mm.

The juxtapositions of appearance and disappearance in the triptychs are disturbing and the shifts of scale are a potential threat to the cohesion of the overall images. But through careful manipulation of tone and composition—in Execution for example, by lightening the darker area at the top of the sides of the walls framing the stairwell panels—Martyn achieves a visual recession which successfully projects the central panel. In this way the viewer is encouraged to step back to view the drama of the image as a whole, yet at the same time is invited to step closer to inspect its rich (and beautifully rendered) surface detail.

The dramatic effect of these images is further enhanced by their display in a low light environment which aims to achieve the effect of a spotlit performance in a darkened theatre. As a source of these works Martyn cites the imposingly staged human dramas painted by the eighteenth century French artist David.(5) To exploit more fully this theatrical effect one hopes she will look again to David and that future images will be larger.

Helen Ennis writes of Australia that a feature of photographic practice there in the 1980s has been the development of images which make 'no pretence of being "real" or "true". They are self-conscious constructions in terms of the subject matter, and its presentation'.(6) With this recent work Martyn can now be seen to have joined this company of photographers, which in New Zealand includes artists like Christine Webster. And in this context her new work most resembles the serial images presented by Australian Bill Henson in the early to mid-1980s.

Adrienne Martyn's shift from the descriptive to the narrative is a significant achievement, and represents some of the best work she has done yet. Her photographs employ drama, technique and symbolism to speak of Sontag’s mystery, mortality and transience—qualities which photographs themselves epitomise. The results are hauntingly beautiful images which succeed artistically because the illusions she creates resonate with a rich suggestiveness strong enough to compel conviction.

1. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Allen Lane, London 1989, p. 67.
2. Letter from Adrienne Martyn to Helen Telford, 10 August 1989, Dunedin Public Art Gallery Archive II 37/1, Martyn.
3. Letter from Adrienne Martyn to Helen Telford, 11 September 1989, DPAG Archive II 37/1, Martyn.
4. Peter Webb, The Erotic Arts, Secker and Warburg, London, 1975, p. 367.
5. Letter from Adrienne Martyn to Helen Telford. See footnote 3 above.
6. Helen Ennis, in Shades of Light Photography and Australia 1839-1988 by Gael Newton. William Collins, Sydney, in association with the Australian National Gallery, Canberra 1988, p. 154.