Photoforum: Review of Chris Corson-Scott, ‘Evanescent Monuments’
One doesn’t have to look farther than Instagram or Pinterest to know that deserted or decayed buildings are hugely popular photographic genres. The observation is not intended to undermine the impact of Corson-Scott’s works, large-scale and beautifully coloured, but to remind us of our willingness to look and ultimately to see as the photographer directs. Locally too, Corson-Scott’s images come after decades of photographs that have used abandoned structures, usually rural, to mark passing architectural typologies – colonial churches, wool sheds and baches.
On first viewing Evanescent Monuments, it is Winter, Powerhouse at the Old Escarpment Mine, Denniston Plateau, that provides the ‘gotcha’ moment – surely nostalgia pure and simple. Then you realise slowly this is not a little bach but the point of power generation for one of the country’s largest mining schemes – and you are being asked to consider that every impact of that mega-extraction project originated here. The little shed, much loved by both architecture and photography in New Zealand, becomes something much more problematic.
Here nostalgia for old buildings flicks in and out of a critical questioning consciousness. Corson-Scott’s photographs are considered in such a way as to understand both sides of heritage coin – beauty and environmental devastation: in the end they ask what our real heritage in this place might be? What was once cutting edge technology, the pride of every businessman, is now at the point of dissolving back – into something they never were and into a landscape that will never be what it once was. In Manager’s Office, Waipaoa Freezing Works, Outside Gisborne, Corson-Scott signals the ultimate dual futilities – the corporate obsession with management and a concentration on meat – two points of global dystopia.
In contrast to the sudden violence of Christchurch earthquakes that were and still are common photographic fare, this is the slow burn. Viewers are left unsure that Corson-Scott believes in the environmental terra nullius or perhaps it’s just that he’s no disciple of environmental delusionism? It’s more complex than that. These aren’t images of outrage. It’s not simple territory. As Chris Holdaway writes in the accompanying publication, ‘O Temuka, you could almost make me fond of the engines of colonial ecocide.’ (1) There is often an air in these photographs, as of film stills, part of a larger moving and mechanical process, which are at the same time, dark and poetic and ominously still. Corson-Scott uses scale to give very real presence to his gracefully still images and they’re high impact, hard to ignore. This is a dangerous nostalgia; there is nothing the viewer can do to rescue the situation. There is no real comfort to be found.
Viewing these works at Parlour Projects in Hastings is to see them in the heart of a wealthy provincial service town. The commerce of this place has little use for nostalgia and even less time for environmentalism. That there have been more ups than downs in recent decades might mean the landscape of Hawke’s Bay is less obviously littered this way, but contemporary Hawke’s Bay, cocooned as it is in wealth, should not be exempt from the focus of Corson-Scott’s camera.
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins is a freelance writer and critic. He was previously director MTG Hawke’s Bay. His last book was Beach Life (2016). Peter Wells is a well known writer and film maker. His most recent book is Dear Oliver (2018). Both live in Napier and Auckland. For the full article please click here.