For those familiar with Laurence Aberhart’s work, the current show on at Brett McDowell on Dowling Street doesn’t feel “new” — in multiple senses of the word. And it’s not just because Aberhart refuses the digital through his use of a large-format camera. Planted among some familiar works of Aberhart’s from the 1980s are more recent works of his from 2013. Like the dates of the works, the intersection and collision of themes, especially between the new and old works, at first feels mismatched. However, after taking time to consider each photo and then the exhibition together, an emotional connection to some sort of national identity and collective memory begins to gradually fill the viewer in the quiet space of the gallery. It takes time to grasp the passing of time.
Initially drawn to the exhibition because of the constant reminders around town of another ANZAC Day approaching (now passed), and with Aberhart’s photos of war memorials throughout New Zealand in mind, I sought out the exhibition for how it might remind me of war. However, only a few photos out of the ten on display directly feature memorials. One photo that did so was of a gravestone in a cemetery that depicted an angel looking at the ground, with one hand against her face and the other holding a wreath by her side. She leans, or gently braces herself, against a gravestone that reads: “In loving memory of William, beloved son of Hugh Mackenzie, of Walter Peak Station, who lost his life in a snow slip in sight of his home … 1906, aged 21 years and 3 months.” Below this message is another, which dedicates the memorial to Lieutenant Walter Mackenzie who was killed in action on Gallipoli, 9 August 1915.
Here stands evidence of two members of one family gone in just nine years of each other; deaths that predece the following three years of mass loss for New Zealand, during which over 18,000 men were killed in Gallipoli — a staggering number that meant almost every New Zealander had someone close to them killed or wounded.
The loss captured in Aberhart’s photos of memorials is echoed in a more general sense throughout the varied subjects depicted in the show. There are no people in these photos, only the objects, houses, moments they have left behind, however recently. One photo depicts a hedge with “I love Lois” sculpted onto its surface in the small Otago settlement called Warrington. Another, now famous, photo captures the solitary remaining standing part of an old bridge surrounded by water — the solid grey of cement — in Alexandra. A particularly ominous photo portrays a rock face with the words “after death” and “judgment” painted onto its surface; in the background from one edge of the photo to the other looms a snow-topped mountain range.
Aberhart has been taking photos for over forty years, with a body of work that contributes to how we view ourselves and our country; in this sense, his photos have a timeless value. While Aberhart’s images collect parts of New Zealand’s past, they also resound with different types of grief, including the grief that occurs through the act of remembering and then acknowledging how all things, including you yourself, disappear.
Aberhart describes himself as an “eclectic collector of cultural debris, as it washes up, and before it disappears.” In these photos, that often spoken call to remembrance, “lest we forget”, suddenly feels true of not just a war but of even small parts of our collective past: lest we forget love once felt, lest we forget the bones of a structure that once carried us across the river.