Words Francis McWhannell
Independent curator Balamohan Shingade (formerly assistant director of Auckland University of Technology’s ST PAUL St Gallery) has put together a solo presentation of photographs by Chervelle Athena showing kauri in Trounson Kauri Park and Waipoua Forest. These trees, like those in other areas, are under threat from Phytophthora agathidicida, or ‘kauri dieback’, which is spread by humans tramping through bush areas, both for fitness and — ironically — in order to admire the trees themselves. Athena hopes that the photographs will encourage the cultivation of ‘a deeper reflective connection between humans and plants’, so that efforts to protect kauri, such as the rāhui placed upon the Waitākere forests by Te Kawerau ā Maki, will be supported with enthusiasm. There is a sense that Athena is extending on notions of the photographic image not as a discrete representation but as something vitally connected, an embodiment of the lifeforce of its subject.
Shingade’s booth design enhances the mood of respectful, even reverent, engagement with the natural world. He has created an entirely bespoke environment, a sort of sanctuary based on the buildings of Indian architectural practice Studio Mumbai, which resist sharp demarcations of interior and exterior, human and non-human space. (I’m also reminded of Waitākere houses from the twentieth century designed to embrace the outside world.) In a witty gesture, Athena’s photographs are seen on the walls of the pavilion and through the expansive windows. Warm light — seemingly dappled by the exterior trees and the timber window elements — falls across a concrete floor. Although digital, the space is attuned to, or keyed by, the natural environment, doubly different to the art fair booth one might ordinarily encounter.
The effect is powerful. Athena and Shingade summon the viewer to find the method for reverence most appropriate to the circumstances. If actually visiting a location entails the risk of causing serious damage, then it might be that engaging with photographs, renders, a fantasy space is not merely worthy but necessary. A related idea is implicit in May Fair Online as a whole. In times of crisis, whether created by a phytophthora or a virus or something else altogether, alternative ways of doing things must be found. The exciting prospect is that such alternatives might have enduring relevance, not because they replace the old ways (we’ll still want to see unctuous paintings and smell damp foliage), but because they offer a worthwhile extension. May Fair’s brilliance lies in both adding something different and appealing, and helping us to value more keenly material that we’ve long taken for granted.