Emma Fitts installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Melanie Roger Gallery. Photo: John Collie. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Touching Sight: Conor Clarke, Emma Fitts, Oliver Perkins

Christchurch Art Gallery

Te Puna o Waiwhetū

31 October 2020–

21 February 2021

In his 1993 film Blue, Derek Jarman asks, 'if I lose my sight, will my vision be halved?' At first the line seems mournful, an elegy for a sense departing, the loss of one’s own existence: to see is to be seen. But the promise of a half is that it is always exactly equal to its counterpart—that although Jarman’s eyes are failing, they are not the only faculty of vision. There are other ways of seeing and knowing that transcend anatomy. This place of affect what was I thought I was entering with Touching Sight at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetū, a meditation on the strange gossamer-like knowledge that inhabits the dark parts under our tongues and eyelids.


The full title of the exhibition at hand is Touching Sight: Conor Clarke, Emma Fitts, Oliver Perkins, so from the beginning it is made clear that this exhibition comprises three artists who are necessarily distinct. The layout emphasises this, pulling the viewer through three bodies of work. This organisation initially seemed alienating— asserting a divide between each room and thus also, artist. Yet, with the gradual unfurling that sometimes only time offers, this arrangement feels more and more like a movement inward, toward that uncanny way of knowing promised by the exhibition’s premise. Instead of being isolated, the works of Perkins, Fitts and Clarke offer an opportunity for shifting through different registers and sounding out new vocabularies.


Touching Sight opens with Oliver Perkins, who primarily works with canvas and paint. Here, the compositions are a hybrid of painting and sculpture, or perhaps, a dissection of the bones of what a painting can be. The canvases have been turned inside-out, sliced or split, or stretched back into themselves. In some, Perkins has dispersed with the canvas altogether, stripping it back to an arrangement of rods suspended on the gallery wall. As such, these works are produced through manoeuvring canvas rather than paint, unsettling the expected hierarchy of surfaces. In Untitled (2018), an incision has been made on the right-hand side of a small, near-square canvas painted in a simple blue, and a smaller green monochrome canvas has been slipped neatly inside. The green canvas pulls the lip of the blue taut and firm so that its own contour usurps the slightly larger frame outside beyond it.


Oliver Perkins installation view. Courtesy of the artist, Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch, and Michael Lett,

Auckland. Photo: John Collie. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Because first impressions are often wrong, I made too much of the slice the first time that I viewed this work. I made it into a work about Spatialism and violence, and the horror and history of cutting something open. In restricting what a sensorial painting might be to aesthetic terms, the way that a mode of art-making that is concerned with the formal can behave as an imagined architecture was forgotten. Perkins’ works reach for a boundary of what painting is, and so they intimate a kind of knowledge-as-portal. These are windows that renew the relationship between internal and external in a way that is unmoored from what occurs outside of the gallery space. I am also reminded of the power of formal exploration to create a physical structure on which to locate other, more phenomenological concerns. As Eileen Myles writes, 'you just pick up things and hang them on the grid all the while singing your broken heart out'. And because, for me, Perkins' twisted canvases have come to be semiotic devices, or something strange and similar to an abacus, Untitled (2018) is a green-lipped mussel suctioning in and out at the foot of a chalk-white cliff.


The next section of the exhibition consists of Emma Fitts’ large-scale textile works. These are open and bright, made from panels of coloured fabric and sewn together as layered forms. The baggy drapery of Fitts’ works mimic the way the thin pages of a reference book hang off its spine as big leaves of skin. As Abby Cunnane noted for Bulletin 202, there is something of the body labouring that is present in these works, mimicking the relationship between the weaver and the backstrap loom.


Emma Fitts installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Melanie Roger Gallery. Photo: John Collie. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Fitts has also produced a series of works that reference the exquisite bias-cut designs of the inimitable and fabulous Madeleine Vionnet. They hang in a row in varying hues, a brigade of forms that insist on their presence. In the shallows, Fitts’ contribution to Touching Sight addresses the undervalued history of textile and craft practices. However, the strength of these textile compositions is in their ability to use obscurity and inbetweenness as a mode of production. The work emerges from draping, layering and folding, and so, like Perkins, Fitts’ work negotiates that passage across and through tactile surfaces.


The final room of the exhibition is a darkened space for Conor Clarke’s photographs. Each image is made from a memory, of a blind or low vision person retelling a moment of landscape: a scrunched and tissuey bloom in a garden, the pelting and vertical force of a dark waterfall. Clarke’s photographs work backward from these descriptions, producing an image that challenges the camera’s image-making function. The camera is a collaborative tool that is secondary to the visual information offered by recollection. The photograph becomes supplementary, rather than authoritative.

Clarke’s photographs are printed on heavy duty vinyl, and the words that were the starting point for each image are embossed in Braille on top. The words are also broadcasted through the gallery space in a circuitous loop, so that you can stand in front of an image and rub your fingers over the Braille and the vinyl and hear a voice reciting what you are looking at and feeling all at the same time. This materiality transforms each photograph into an object can be more intimately encountered than the usually distant surface of a conventional photograph allows.


Conor Clarke installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Two Rooms Gallery. Photo: John Collie. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Darkness registers information at rest, dormant and pensive. This quiet environment enables Clarke’s images to be activated by the intersection of sight, touch, and sound— what can be learned when given the room for sounding out feeling? In doing so, the mechanics of the images dissolve and usher forward the affective experience of the work. It is the slippery palette that the mind registers the collective senses as that are most important in understanding our perception of the world. With Clarke’s photographs, it feels like we have travelled all the way inward through Touching Sight, to a place where translation is not only a linguistic thing, but a tuning-in that can occur across time, cells, forms, lines, edges.

All images have been sourced from Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū under the Copyright Act 1994 Section 43 (1) for the purposes of this review only.