Fiona Pardington's The Pressure of Sunlight Falling is a series of photographs that depict life casts made by medical scientist and phrenologist Pierre Dumoutier during one of French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville's South Pacific voyages from 1837-1840.It's rare to find images of 19th century people from anywhere in the world that are as 'photorealistic' as this. The casts were made in the belief that humanity could be explained and categorised according to head shape, but now those pretensions have been stripped away. Instead of a set of scientific data we see individual people memorialised by the casting process. It is very moving.
When I got talking with the lady at the front desk of the museum, she was very interested in the process itself, what the casts were like today as physical objects. I didn't feel quite the same way she did. I noticed one of the casts was crumbling a bit and one had a definite seam as if it hadn't been finished completely. The casts were coloured (or left uncoloured) for the most part in a way that was more, errr... black and white literally than naturalistic, but which people recognise as being a nod in the direction of naturalism. The tattoos on the Maori show up as indentations but then someone decided to draw a fine black line in the bottom of the identation which looks nothing like a real tattoo. For the most part, I was more interested in looking through the artifice to the meaning. Sometimes the process of making the casts contributes to that. All the people had their eyes closed for the mould-making and it gives them a very spiritual, meditative appearance. The cast making process (and the photography) also tends to equalise people. It removes most of the signals that indicate social context. Not entirely, because the cast labels tell us one man was a slave and I am pretty sure that the tatoos of at least one of the Maori indicate high status. In the exhibition, slaves, high status Maoris and European scientists get the same treatment and are reduced to basic humanity. It's curious, because part of the process of cast making also involved getting people to agree to be cast, and in the 19th century, I doubt the terms and understanding of the agreement were the same for slaves, Maori chiefs and the captains of European ships. For most of them the casts were made as part of a cultural practice that was not theirs, and which was being used to demonstrate their supposed inferiority.
On the wall of the exhibition is a poem by Ariana Tikao that I really liked. In English, it starts:
What were you thinkingIt's a shame I can't reproduce it all because it said how I felt how about the images better than I could. It was even better in Maori (the sound patterns worked better) and I had fun deciphering the meaning from the translation. I think this must be the same Ariana Tikao. I like her music as much as her poems.
Behind timeBeyond the husk