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Seductive images and a lament for a dying world

Dazzling technology and blind destruction of nature are addressed in Joyce Campbell’s art.

Dan Poynton talks to the artist, teacher, and Capital Photographer of the Year judge her about her work.

Joyce Campbell, Lophius II 2003-2011 fujiflex crystal archive photograph 900 x 1115 mm edition of 7

You’ll probably be seduced by Joyce Campbell’s evocative naturescapes but be careful you don’t end up somewhere you’d rather just turn away from. Under the otherworldly romanticism lies an angry lament for a dying world raped by technocapitalism. An urgent plea to a race reaching for the stars while forgetting to care for the world under its very feet.

Joyce’s work is unapologetically, though often secretly, imbued with eco-activism and social politics. The way she sees art “that’s part of its job,she declares, defiantly cutting through the now omnipresent dehumanising veil of Zoom. “We’re addicted to images and they’re very seductive. And if you produce non-seductive images all good luck to you in having any kind of conversation in this day and age. You start only talking to the art world.”

Her work includes contemporary media such as large-format photography, video and soundscape, but often hallucinogenically bent by long-neglected techniques like daguerreotype and ambrotype. This juxtaposes the era of 19th-century colonial imperialism with our present one of climate change and the fourth industrial revolution. She sees a chilling similarity in their dazzlingly technological pioneerism coupled with blind destruction of nature and indigenous ways of life.

“Daguerreotype was arguably the first true photographic technology. Talk about a romantic technology, with its liquidy spiritualist potential! You look at a daguerreotype and it transports the viewer immediately to a particular period.” To Joyce this is a time of the colonial “invasions” of Aotearoa and Antarctica, where she had an artist residency in 2006. And this is reflected in the decimation of both Antarctica and Te Ao Tūroa (Natural World) of Te Ao Māori. “A lot of my work points directly to the mid-19th century and the rampant colonial moment and the pivot around modernity and all its technological shifts, because we’re going through another one and it’s an object lesson in the perils of our current moment.”

Joyce Campbell, exhibition view of "The Reef", image courtesy of Two Rooms

These dark upheavals haunt Joyce’s daguerreotypes of Antarctica even as their epic beauty lulls you back to the world of Caspar David Friedrich and the 19th-century Romantics. “I’m really interested in what you can and cannot see in all sorts of ways – going to Antarctica and not being able to ‘see’ climate change obviously because it’s scaled outside of our bodies, although less and less so, terrifyingly.” She despairs at its destruction due to the human addiction to technological progress. “The monumentality of standing in front of a glacier, seeing this massive crumbling edifice in front of you. And then the modern fantasy that we might be able to make this right with our gadgets.”

Apart from its evocative imagery, Joyce had her own vaguely pioneering reason for using the 1830s technology of daguerreotype. “I wanted to do a form of photography that had never been made in Antarctica. By the time they got there it was a completely redundant technology.” But this avowed “feminist artist” is repelled by “all the guys with the beards and the flags, going out there to carve up the land. It was a narrative completely closed off to women, anybody of colour and almost everybody in the world that was not a part of that heroic colonial narrative.”

Joyce has seen the effects of environmental degradation and colonialism around Los Angeles, where she studied and worked for a decade, and in the Wairoa area, where she grew up on a farm.

Joyce Campbell, Portrait by Sanne Van Ginkel

Respect for the environment was instilled in her early by her grandmother, a “wild lady” who was “quite a pioneer in eco-farming, a true 19th-century character.” She was also a model of uncompromising feminism. “She was apparently the first woman to independently purchase land on the East Coast. She was able to break into a completely male-dominated scene.”

Her grandma was “very embedded in the Māori community”, and Joyce has built on those relationships, working for the past decade in the Ruakaturi Valley with kaumātua Richard Niania of Ngāti Kōhatu hapū (Ngāti Kahungunu), spawning the collaborative project Te Taniwha. It honours the hapū’s history and surrounding Te Ao Tūroa through the wairua of their revered taniwha Hinekōrako. Richard is the kaitiaki (guardian) of the sacred kōrero (stories) associated with Hinekōrako and of manuscripts of legendary religious leader Te Kooti. His great-great-grandfather guided Te Kooti’s “Whakarau” as they passed through the area into Te Urewera, miraculously defeating and eluding the pursuing colonial army.

Te Taniwha integrates the kōrero with Joyce’s imagery. The mysterious yet strangely immediate daguerreotypes and ambrotypes once again seduce you into a state of nature-awe, but under this beauty lurks the spectre of ongoing post-colonial disruption of the ancient ecology.

This work infuses her recent twin exhibitions recently at Auckland’s Two Rooms and Te Uru, which spring from her On the Last Afternoon, shown at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery last year alongside Richard and Joyce’s Te Taniwha: The Manuscript of Ārikirangi. This featured the Hinekōrako kōrero and the first public showing of the Te Kooti manuscripts, long cared for by Richard’s whānau.

Joyce Campbell, "Taniwha V" from the Te Taniwha series, 2010, silver gelatin photograph

The “technocapitalist” destruction of Earth’s ecology continues to loom large in Joyce’s work, though she thinks getting out of this “capitalist frenzy” may ironically need more technology. “The people who got us in this shit are gonna have to hook us out again.”

This – and now the covid crisis – make Joyce worry about our young people. At Elam, where she is an associate professor, her students are “stressed to the max” as they face an uncertain future and struggle to simply survive. “It’s been a horrible year to be a teacher in fine arts. It’s fundamentally tactile social work. It was hard to reach out to them, to bring them close, to look after them.” She sees a whole generation of “incredibly sophisticated people emerging as everything teeters and falls.”

There’s no sign Joyce is teetering, though, and she insists “we all have a part to play” in saving our desecrated planet. “I cannot stop working. None of us can stop working because then we’re done, and I’ve got babies,” she says, smiling for a moment. “We’ve all got babies. We need to face the full trauma of our situation.”

First published ArtZone #85

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