Denny Dimin Gallery is pleased to announce Ann Shelton’s third solo exhibition with the gallery, i am an old phenomenon open from November 4 to Dec 22, 2022. Shelton is recognized as one of New Zealand’s leading photographic artists and will have her first institutional solo exhibition in the United States in 2024.
For more than a decade, Ann Shelton has explored the micro, marginal, bleak and traumatic counter-histories of plants through her photographic and performance-based art work. Linking gender politics and the climate crisis in a critical moment, i am an old phenomenon bears even greater significance as she reinvestigates lost knowledge pertaining to plants and their relationship to female ontology through the figure of the witch.
Her previous exhibition jane says looked at plants with abortifacient and/or fertility-controlling properties – key knowledge also controversially once held by witches. Within this latest body of work, i am an old phenomenon, Shelton concentrates on the witch as a lynchpin who was historically, literally excised, along with her traditional plant knowledge, and with whom the reconstruction of “woman” in the West begins. As Silvia Frederichi tells us, “…The witch-hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power… Out of this defeat a new model of femininity emerged: the ideal woman and wife— passive, obedient, thrifty, of few words, always busy at work, and chaste.”1 Critically the witch is now experiencing a renaissance. She embodies a pivotal place again in our contemporary landscape: linking us to the planet, to ecology and synergetic ways of living. Seeing the witch through this lens allows us to retroactively make connections between the evolution of science and industry, the persecution of witches and women and the disastrous and consequential deterioration of nature and the environment.2 This collection of images begins to re-assemble the information set forth by women who were persecuted for their understanding of nature and plants, especially those with a connection to the female body and reproduction.
Ann Shelton marries strong conceptual threads with sumptuous and visually absorbing photographic vignettes. Each of the single plant images depicting berries, stems, flowers or roots are placed on rich brown, forest green or deep night sky blue tones, directly referencing the earth, soil, clay, forest, and sky, motioning us back toward this connection. The symbolism of these works with their strong contemporary relevance also reaches back into the history of modern medicine to the Middle Ages where this knowledge began to be removed from women.
Three approaches anchor the work; the aerial, the earthbound and the submerged. The works depicting suspended plants denote images of flight associated with witches and wise women as well as the vulnerability of the female body. On certain days or nights she anoints a staff and rides, 2022, which depicts the plant Brugmansia, becomes a visual metaphor of the witches broomstick with its horizontally positioned stem and bell-like flower earth prone. This plant, also known as Angel’s Trumpet, contains tropane alkaloids which come from the nightshade family. These chemicals are known to have hallucinogenic properties which, when taken incorrectly, can be highly toxic and poisonous. To have innate knowledge of the plant and its properties made those women who understood them both fearful and dangerous. Records state that certain wise women would use flowers containing similar chemicals to grease their brooms and then rub the broom on to their labia, thereby absorbing the hallucinogens most efficiently and giving life to the pervasive imagined specter of the flying witch – weaving together fact and fiction. The pertinence of this imagery comes at a point of rupture for women who are literally and successively becoming alienated from their own authorial bodies.
Shelton’s second approach looks to the strong horizon line alluding to the witches bench or earths floor, dictating the formal structure, marking the distinction between land, sea and sky with a visual hierarchy that insinuates a true geopolitical and symbolic power structure within nature and female empowerment. The bench lays out the working place of knowledge and action demanding a line to be drawn from one era to the next and connecting literally in some works with the dirt, fungi and stone or forest floor. In the tones, palettes and accentuated still-lives, Shelton knowingly calls to mind some of the more macabre and brooding paintings found in the Northern Renaissance period which coincides with the time where persecution of witches in Europe reached a critical point and the spread of fear and authoritarianism against wise women moved towards North America.
The final approach shows the suspension of plants in water. Depicted in various forms of decay. They have a literal reference of witches’ brews, tinctures and teas as well as a submerged pedagogy of plant lore and the physical drowning of witches. Shelton describes them as “like wading deep below the surface of a swamp, or contemplating the watery grave of a witch. They are emblematic of underworlds, debased knowledge and rotting order and decay.”
The relevance of this exhibition at a time of subjugation of the female body politic is beautifully and poetically navigated by Shelton who, through her timeless imagery and extensive research, advocates a new frontier for inclusive feminisms by championing this ancient knowledge that has been fragmented, suppressed and partially lost.
Ann Shelton (b. 1967, Aotearoa New Zealand) received her MFA from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. She lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, New Zealand. Her most recent museum survey, Dark Matter, curated by Zara Stanhope (Director, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Ngāmotu New Plymouth, Aotearoa New Zealand), was hosted by Auckland Art Gallery Toi oTāmaki in 2016 and toured to Christchurch Art Gallery TePuna o Waiwhetū in 2017. Shelton’s work has been the subject of numerous international exhibitions, in addition to being included in Images Recalled, Germany’s largest photographic biennale. Shelton’s practice has been extensively written about and reviewed in publications including Artforum, Hyperallergic, Journal of New Zealand, Pacific Studies, artnet news, The Art Newspaper, the Evergreen Review and more. Her works are included in public and private collections throughout Aotearoa New Zealandand and the United States. She is an Honorary Research Fellow in Photography at Whiti o Rehua, Schoolof Art Massey University. Her latest award winning artist book mother lode was published in 2020 by Bad News Books, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.
Warning. Plants are powerful and have fascinating histories, part of which the artist is exploring here. But many of them are toxic, deadly and poisonous. The images in this series are artworks and do not constitute medical advice.
In reference to Silvia Federici’s reading of Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, 1980.
1 Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2004) p. 102-103.
2 In reference to Silvia Federici’s reading of Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, 1980.