Conor Clarke lives and works between Auckland and Berlin, and traces of her dual existence are evident in much of her photographic practice. She talks to Lily Hacking about her work.
As Clarke moves between the distinct landscapes of New Zealand and Germany, she documents the impact of industrialisation and human intervention upon the natural environment, creating images that oscillate between an astonishing beauty and an acute sense of unease.
Clarke grew up in Clarks Beach in south Auckland in the 1980s, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland in 2005, before leaving New Zealand and eventually settling in Berlin. The unique history and distinctive landscape of this once divided, highly industrialised city is a strong influence in her work, and is a visible presence in many of her photographs.
An emerging curiosity in Berlin’s industrial history is evident in Clarke’s early series Viewing Stations Around Rummelsberger Bucht (2010). Set against the backdrop of a former factory and industrial area, Clarke employs traditional techniques to construct an image, playing out the tension between the picturesque qualities of this scene and its subject. The viewer looks out through a clearing across a body of water. In the darkened foregrounds of these images people are engaged in leisurely pursuits. Behind them, across the water, a pair of tall towers and a collection of factory buildings stand prominently in brilliant sunlight.
In 2014 Clarke travelled through Germany with a list of pre-planned locations in mind. In Pursuit of the Object, at a Proper Distance (2014) is a series of beautiful photographs of ethereal cloud-like forms billowing from industrial chimneys or smokestacks. In Clarke’s words they are ‘a series of isolated encounters between the by-product of industry and nature, between steam and cloud, land and sky.’ While the photographs conjure recollections of Constable’s cloud studies, unlike those depicted in the nineteenth-century paintings, these clouds are man-made. This realisation undercuts the beauty of these images, relocating them in a realm Clarke likes to describe as ‘deliciously scary.’ These photographs are a record of an unconventional road trip, tracing Clarke’s movements through the landscape as she pursues her chosen subject, albeit at a proper distance.
Other works emerge from engagement with Clarke’s immediate surroundings. As she walks or cycles through the familiar streets of her neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, she documents everyday sites and subjects. ‘I am indebted to the work of Bernd and Hiller Becher, the German photographer-duo who dedicated their practice to creating typologies of functional architecture,’ says Clarke. ‘I always used to think I had to travel in order to find that which is worthy of photographic documentation. But what happens when you exoticise the objects and places that you encounter on a daily basis? That’s what excites me at the moment.’
Clarke was recently awarded Best Series at the Renaissance Photography Awards in London for Scenic Potential (2015), in which she transformed muddy Berlin building sites into monumental landscapes. One could be forgiven for thinking that these images depict some remote part of New Zealand. It’s as if we are looking at two places at once; one landscape transposed onto another. Here, in these miraculous mountain ranges made from small mounds of dirt and rubble, Aotearoa and Deutschland are present simultaneously in the imagination.
While on an Auckland Council artist residency at Waitawa Regional Park, Clarke worked exclusively with analogue photography and set up a small darkroom in a disused bunk-room in the small bach that was her temporary home. She learned about the particular history of the area and documented the marks it had left on the landscape in a series of black and white images permeated with a sense of desolation and disquiet. At Waitawa she saw evidence of early Māori occupation in the traces of terraces and defensive ditches of Pawhetau Pa, one of Auckland’s most significant pa sites. She saw the damage left behind from a hole blown, many years ago, through the pa to provide access between the wharf and a nearby explosives factory. And looking out across the water, from the north-facing slopes of the park, she saw Kāramuramu Island, home to one of the longest-running quarries in the Auckland region and known for its rare, reddish-brown mudstone.
Clark found herself particularly interested in the gorse plant that covered the surrounding hills in full yellow bloom, releasing a scent she describes as ‘a kind of rich, sort of sweet coconut.’ She read about the history of gardening in New Zealand, and the nineteenth-century introduction of the now notoriously noxious weed. In one image taken during this time, we see a hand holding up a cutting of the prickly plant; its thorny leaves and delicate blooms transformed here into a beautiful bouquet. When they carried those first gorse seedlings to New Zealand, no doubt those early colonial settlers had hoped that by bringing with them something from home, they might make this new and unfamiliar land a little more familiar. But this addition to the environment had unforeseen consequences. The gorse plant took a liking to its new home, and now covers five percent of the country‘s arable land.
Ground Water Mirror is a continuing current series looking at our relationship with the natural environment, and water in particular. Made up of photographs taken in Germany and New Zealand, Clarke says ‘the project is a response to urban living, about the western notion of human domination over water and the way this has changed our relationship to it since the industrial revolution.’ Amidst photographs of waterfalls and whirlpools, there are traces of the human body — a hand holds an icecream cone topped with blue icecream, a bare and bloodied thigh is revealed beneath the folds of a striped beach towel. In a text she wrote about the series, Clarke makes reference to environmental historian William Cronon, who writes: ‘As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.’ (William Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995). Living in Berlin, far from the sea, has no doubt contributed to Clarke’s fascination with water as both subject and as potential site of refuge. ‘My studio is around seven kilometres from home and my favourite route leads me twice across the river Spree and once around the Rummelsburg bay (a main reason why I chose the studio location). Berlin’s high water table means there is no shortage of canals, rivers and lakes, which is so important when living in a landlocked city.’
This month Clarke returns home to take up the Tylee residency. She’ll spend five months in Whanganui as artist-in-residence, supported by Whanganui District Council and the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. Here she plans new work that is likely to become part of the Ground Water Mirror series, this time looking at the Whanganui River.
First published in ArtZone #71