The need or pathology to collect, to arrange, to make sense of, is a fundamental thematic concern underpinning Meighan Ellis’ work. Additionally, she visually represents what she terms her “scopic drive,” or interest in scopophilia: the “pleasure and curiosity in looking.” Ellis, as a collector of photographs, objects and rocks, transforms her subject matter into relics, through connections to their historical and traditional past.
Ellis’ multi-disciplinary art practice, which encompasses moving image, photography, sculpture and writing, is called upon to reflect on these concerns. In 1999 she made a photographic portrait of her beloved, which became the inaugural photograph of the series Sitters (1999-2009). After a period of his absence, Ellis, her own words, began “indulging in a quest of locating male beauties.” She goes further: “The compulsion to seek and embark on a collection of ‘others’ was to perhaps satisfy a ‘cure’ for this absence, left behind in both my life and within my archive.” The Sitters in this collection of photographs are anonymous; the viewer can draw only from the background and clothing they wear as means of identification. The figures are gently posed returning our gaze.
Sitters, importantly, challenges notions of masculinity and allows room for men to be beautiful and vulnerable. The portraits are not sexualised, though they are conceived of Ellis’ compulsion in picturing men. She asks us to consider whether traditional notions of beauty might be ubiquitous. Informed by this, and the relationship between the female as an enactor of longing and the photograph as the placeholder of an absent lover, Ellis writes: “There is an almost fetishistic pleasure and admiration for the daguerreotype that originated in the era of [women’s] melancholy, and romance, which still exists, as the desire to possess a ‘replica’ and unique object … was as urgent as what the photograph depicted.”
In 2009 Ellis made her collection of ‘male beauties’ public, developing the work with moving image. The decision to use video reveals the “limitless potential in how the present moment can be re-presented and re-ordered through an expanded duration.” behold, be still (2009) portrays cameo-like apertures on a blank, black background; an arrangement of three sitters, which do not include Ellis’ beloved in their line up as a way of reframing the work as an objective and universal study, sit and fidget for a duration not dissimilar to the length of time required to expose a daguerreotype.
Unlike the still photographs, the moving images are disarming and even, at times, uncomfortable to watch. The gaze of the viewer is not simply returned, rather it matches our gaze as the subject looks back. The complexity of these moving portraits, which reveal the characters and traits of the sitters, transcends the flat plane of their projection.
During this time Ellis created a parallel photographic series titled Sites (2005-2014). Seeking out areas of quiet or neglect, she engages the transformative power of her photographer’s eye to attribute beauty to places where perhaps there isn’t any or, rather, where it’s been overlooked. Like Sitters, which Sites is often paired with, Ellis seeks to redefine what might be considered beautiful. She is not explicit about the way she expects her audience to view her work and this crucial distance allows us to project our own experiences onto it, creating fragmented, fictitious narratives as the concepts underlying the artwork before us are integrated with our individual ways of understanding the world.
These juxtapositions are seen throughout Ellis’ practice and most recently, in her exhibition Specimens (Sanderson Contemporary, 2017). The etymology of ‘specimens’ derives from the Latin verb specere ‘to look.’ Continuing the investigation of her scopic drive, Ellis presents geological objects and references to the body alongside male beauties, softened by pastel hues. The work comprising Specimens displays a sample of an updated taxonomy of masculine ‘types’ and collected objects via the photographic portrait and the still-life. Ellis speaks of locating their shared indexical traits – similar to the lepidopterist or petrologist who collects, observes and archives species. Abby Cunnane emphasises this significant element of Ellis’ work in the essay Popular Fiction: An Exercise in Self Improvement writing, “through their theatrical presentation; minimally active, they gain the power of subjectivity, of their own stories.”
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote: “all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” For the many things this metaphor relates to, it correlates literally to the process of photography and especially to the concepts Ellis engages within her work. By “negotiating the conventions of viewing and testing the limits of desire,” she has asserted an active role and space for women and developed a new framework for the consumption of imagery that challenges traditional conversations and expectations between author and audience. Ultimately, Ellis’ work is about gesture; the gestures of collecting, making and recording to the extent this is a common language for unifying each of the disciplines she employs in her practice.
Essay by Christine McFeteridge
BORN: 1974, Manawatu
EDUCATION: Master of Fine Arts (1st Class Hons. with Distinction), CoCA, Massey University, Wellington; Bachelor of Design (Hons), Victoria University, Wellington
AWARDS/DISTINCTIONS: Head-On International Portrait Prize - Finalist, Museum of Sydney, Australia (2017); Postgraduate Research Scholarship, CoCA, Wellington (2008); Time Based Media Award, CoCA, Massey University, Wellington (2008)
PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: Empire of Dirt, Objectspace, Auckland (2015); Relic New Ceramics, The Keep, Auckland (2015, 2014); New Work, Ferrari Salon, Fuzzy Vibes, Auckland (2014); Preview | Sites, Visual Culture Gallery, Wellington (2014); New Ceramics, Visual Culture Gallery, Wellington (2014); Field Work, Great South Road Project, Toi Tu, Auckland (2014); Yugen (short film in collaboration with Lela Jacobs), The Keep, Auckland (2013); The Sitter, Toi Tu, Auckland Festival of Photography (2013); Morphogenesis, Pearce Gallery, Auckland (2013); Riders on the Storm (short film in collaboration with Lela Jacobs), The Silo, Auckland (2013); The Sitter, Toi Tu, Auckland Festival of Photography Auckland (2012); The Golden Snood, Occasionalist Series, Artspace, Auckland, NZ (2012); Modern Love, Offprint Festival, Paris (2011); For Japan, HotShoe Gallery, London (2011); The Absent, Video Projection, White Night, Auckland Arts Festival, Auckland (2011); Beauty, Beauty Look At You: An Archive of Curiosity, Pecha Kucha, Shed 10, Auckland (2010), Downstage Theatre, Wellington (2009); The Surrogates, video projections, Digital Fringe Festival, Melbourne (2009); The Relentless Eye, Helen Day Art Center, Vermont (2009); Popular Fictions, video installation, The Engine Room Gallery, Wellington (2009); Behold, Be Still - Outlines of Solace and Surrogacy, Vent Gallery, Wellington (2009); The Sitters, video projections, Digital Fringe Festival, Melbourne (2008); Here’s What’s Left, Tokyo & Wellington (2004); Active Eye, National Survey of Contemporary New Zealand Photographers (2000); Text + Image - Narrating with Photographs, Wellington Public Hospital, Wellington (1999); The Photography of Care - Visualising a Practice, Wellington Public Hospital, Wellington (1999); Hospice, photographic essay, Archive of Contemporary Culture, National Archives, Wellington (1999); Baggage, Bats Theatre, Wellington (1998)
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: Empire of Dirt, New Writing on Ceramics, Objectspace, Auckland, 2015; ‘Beauty, Beauty Look At You,’ essay in Tracing New/Media/Feminisms, Spring 2013: Vol. 9, No. 1; Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus, edited by Stephanie Tripp and Pat Badani, The University of Florida, 2013; ‘An Atmosphere of Stillness,’ in conversation with Frontier Magazine, Issue 2, 2013; ‘Beautiful Tensions’ by David Herkt, Art New Zealand, Winter 2013; ‘Sites | Sitters,’ Light Journeys, Australia, 2012; ‘Optimism,’ F-Stop Magazine Issue 50, 2011