Gavin Hipkins

The Habitat, 1999–2000, Gavin Hipkins’s latest photographic installation, was promoted as a political project, a kind of finely tuned savoring of the loss of modernist idealism. Hipkins has been accurately described as “a tourist of photography,” and in this exhibition his grasp of genre and tonal fluctuation is as astute as ever. He borrows the language of modernist architectural photography, perfected by stylists like Julius Shulman, and toys with it, turning out image after tightly cropped image so spellbound by representational method that they’re incapable of comprehending architectural form. If his constant cropping indicates an attempt to hunt down the political, what he finds is the impossibility of locating anything other than a perfectly vague aestheticism.

Brutalist buildings, “The People’s Architecture,” were erected on New Zealand university campuses in the ’60s for a generation of students whose tuition costs were met by the welfare state. Today students are compelled to borrow heavily from the same state to pay rapidly rising fees. But in picturing such architecture here, Hipkins majestically sweeps away consciousness of anything other than aesthetic pleasure. Hipkins quotes Reyner Banham’s definition of New Brutalism as an attempt to “make the whole conception of the building plain and comprehensible. No mystery, no romanticism, no obscurities about function or circulation.” He then proceeds to disprove it, discovering shadows, quiet alcoves, sensual textures, and a catalogue of blurry objects that are additional, stuck-on, and haphazard. One of the two photographic friezes that make up the exhibition, each consisting of thirty-six black-and-white images, chronicles the softening of these buildings by vegetation.

But despite their wealth of precise observation, these photographs could have been taken with eyes closed. Bordering on the clumsy, out-of-focus close-up, each print feels as if it were composed by running a hand over the surface. This is a sensualist’s compilation, a kind of tactile campus for the blind. And to further extend his manipulation of the subject, Hipkins turns his composite campus into a mammoth figure/ground relation. He plays with the logo-like simplicity of tile murals, relief sculptures, and super-graphics and picks out the decorative potential of elevator buttons, light switches, and fans. He makes the Brutal so pretty that architecture becomes mere scaffolding for ornamentation. All this he renders in the kind of iffy print technique that detractors have derided as “high school.”

There are paradoxes in the sensualist’s vision. The names of the universities featured in the photographs (Waikato University, Hamilton, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, etc.) are neatly stamped down the right edge of every print. Despite such precision of documentation, it is possible to have spent a number of years on one of these campuses and not recognize it in these photos. The Habitat searches for particular places within a mode of institutional building that was imported to New Zealand from abroad. The hopelessness of this labor is revealed by the reduction of the particular to the form of an inscription no more substantial than a library book stamp.

Hipkins is no naïf. His darkroom method, like heroin chic, appreciates the stance of models who don’t care to be looked at. He is aroused by modernist idealism in the same way that fashion magazines are beguiled by Miuccia Prada’s Communist past. Yet Hipkins is not so much infected by Wallpaper-style infatuation with modernist form as observant of it. By scrutinizing a group of late-modern buildings in New Zealand, he exposes the longing and blindness implicit in the contemporary recycling of the modern. Hipkins has built his own imaginary university.

Anna Miles