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Art photographer’s journey from Berlin to Christchurch

Ground Water Mirror, on display in the Ilam gallery at the University of Canterbury (UC) School of Fine Arts until 19 July, features work by UC’s new photography lecturer Conor Clarke.

Clarke returns to Aotearoa New Zealand after 10 years of working in Berlin.

“I travelled there spontaneously to visit a friend from art school, and ended up staying for 10 years,” she says.

“Berlin is sticky like that, and at that time, it was really affordable. The photography-art-social scene over there is pretty overwhelming. I found I had to be quite disciplined in terms of what I chose to see or do in order to make time for my own practice.”

Originally from Auckland, Clarke sees some parallels between Berlin and her newly adopted city.

“Berlin is a city that is permanently under construction. Cranes and shifting earth and lots of potential. Post-quake Christchurch has something of that feeling about it too, but in a different way, of course.”

Of Ngāi Tahu, Scottish and Welsh descent, Clarke is interested in attitudes towards nature that evolved during the Romantic era and continue to dominate western ideology, creating a false divide between nature and people. The exhibition features a series of photographs shot on medium-format analogue film with a Mamiya RZ67 that contribute to a wider project involving video and sound.

“I’m interested in learned cultural associations and definitions that mediate our experience of the real, physical world, and why this is problematic in times of climate crisis in its positioning of nature in opposition to ourselves,” she says.

The exhibition is part of a body of work called Ground Water Mirror that originated in Berlin “over a conversation about the flavour of blue ice cream”, and evolved during a five-month residency in Whanganui.

“I tried to avoid applying any preconceived concept or rigid visual aesthetic as I have in the past, especially in my approach to Whanganui. The result is a seemingly scattered array of subjects, but with motifs that repeat throughout including mountain peaks, waterfalls, waterbodies, black sand and chains – all highly valued typologies in nature, except the latter, a reference to the surveyor’s chain.

“I draw similarities between contemplation of the natural world as a solution to urban life, as well as its evaluation as a natural resource. The project is essentially about the concept of nature and the act of looking at it.”

Clarke starts at UC ready for Semester 2 of 2019 and is most looking forward to “being able to talk about photography all day!”

Ground Water Mirror exhibition by Conor Clarke runs until 19 July at Ilam Gallery, School of Fine Arts, Ilam campus, University of Canterbury, Christchurch.

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