The Back Story: Ann Shelton
Ann Shelton is a leading New Zealand photographer whose work has been widely acclaimed and is held in public and private collections in New Zealand and overseas. Her new work, i am an old phenomenon, is at Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery as part of a group exhibition, she could lie on her back and sink, until 26 August.
Tell us about your work and what you are researching at the moment?
I have a long held interest in the history of floral art and its gendered resonances, having worked with plants ever since my mum entered me in flower arranging competitions at horticulture shows in Te Tihi o Maru [Timaru], as a child. My images, which feature plants, re-assemble fragments of old knowledge and invoke the persecution of wise women, witches and wortcunners who kept this knowledge safe, but whose understanding of plants and their connection with reproduction represented a threat to capitalism and Christianity. The consequences of the attempted erasure of this plant-based belief system continues to be profound; knowledge of the healing and spiritual effects of plants has been replaced with an emphasis on how they look. This separation means we primarily see plants as commodities. This body of work asks that we reconsider our lost understanding, and examine how it is related to the continuing persecution of women, their gender roles and physical bodies.
Tell us about the significance of scale in your work.
I want to reference the body through the scale of my work. I often hang my artworks at tummy height; plants are powerful and have potent actions in the body, and the stomach is one hub of all this. We also need to be careful of plants, and some of those included in my work are poisonous. All the plant sculptures photographed are constructed by me. I made the works for the Gus Fisher show at a scale that feels human, but they are also positioned on stands at varying heights to reference levitating or being grounded.
Has exhibiting in New York been a stimulating experience? How has it shifted your thinking?
Having representation in New York with Denny Gallery has been transformational. It has been super-exciting as I love working with the team there and really admire the way they work. I guess it really expanded my outlook. I left my associate professor role at Massey’s Whiti o Rehua to focus full time on my own work in 2019, and it’s been incredible to be working in this singular way again. I have my first institutional solo exhibition at Alice Austen House, in the US next year. We are doing a book to go with the show, which also presents some of the research behind the work.
If you could have dinner with a photographer from any time, who would it be?
That’s hard, because there are a lot of women on that list. I’d love to have dinner with the “mother of photography” Julia Margaret Cameron. I would love to meet all her female relatives, many of whom featured in her photographs as various famous Greek mythological figures draped in silk and velvet, and to talk about photographic politics and feminisms with her in her garden (which was also her studio). I’d tell her about how far we have come on the one hand and how little has changed on the other, and how her work is so important.