Summer Reading Series 2018 #2: Gray Nicol's Voodoo Dog

Detail, Voodoo Dog (2009) Gray Nicol

“I very much wanted to make this an intimate situation where we can ignore any distractions and get a little closer. It’s so confusing sometimes. So much is happening or has happened. I feel the need to clear the air. Get it all off my chest. Show you all who I really am. Communication is such a problem, you know?”
- from Getting to Know You (1977) Gray Nicol

In Voodoo Dog (2009) the camera carefully, lovingly roves over the surface of a sculpture of a dog, made from discarded machine parts. The camera seems to be telling us that each part holds stories and, consequently a power. As Gray Nicol talks the camera is like another limb of his body, tracing memory like a dancer.

There’s a three-way intimacy about the storytelling in Gray Nicol’s videos: between him, the surface of things and us. We are in his mirror.

In Shave, a work Nicol made at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland in 1977 the camera is literally set behind a mirror. Nicol shaves his face of hair and then proceeds to draw it back on - onto the glass between us.

Still from Shave (1977) Gray Nicol

In another early video, Getting to Know You (1977), the camera is uncomfortably close to Nicol’s curled-up body. Trapped in a box, it’s almost as if he is in the chamber of the camera. Nicol goes about the cramped, ungainly and comic task of shifting around to show and talk us through body features he’s embarrassed about. Locating a skin blemish that materialised during a stressful period sees him confide in us about his marriage break-up.

Bodies tell stories. Things can leave their mark on you when you get too close. Surfaces and the physical material of things do matter. We rub up against them as holders of memories.

Nicol also relates stories in his films with the personal informality of a barstool confession. Such a whimsical, confidential familiarity of tone is funny and touching, but also troubling. If you get to close to something it may just damage you, or you it.

In an era that has left figurative sculpture up on a pedestal, Nicol moves it down and back into life. Nicol’s care with the physical craft of different media may be partly explained by what he did in a 30-year gap in his exhibition history - between performing Duck Calling at the Mildura Sculpture Triennial in Australia in 1978, and 2008 when Mark Williams got Nicol to restage his Mildura performance and rescreened his early work at the New Zealand Film Archive.

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Duck Calling (1978) Gray Nicol

After spending eight years as a carver on Orakei Marae in Auckland, Nicol moved to England where he worked on the restoration of 18th Century interiors. In an age when art is now often mediated by digital media, in New Zealand we easily overlook the power of the sculpted surface in European tradition, next to that of Māori whakairo.

Four new Nicol video works were exhibited at the Film Archive in 2009. Like Voodoo Dog these works feature sculpture created by Nicol. Sculpture is animated by performance, video and sound. Nicol tests out the space between the physical and digital.

We touch sculpture mainly with our eyes, not our hands. Nicol’s sculptures are repositories for personal memory, just as carved figures have been for a public historically. It is as if with the brush of camera, sound and voice Nicol is waking memories, gently washing surfaces to bring the past into the present.

Nicol’s work is like the poetic form of the elegy. It reaches out for contact with something that has been lost by reflecting on its representation - be that a photograph, a sculpture, a sound or a memory. Inevitably, as Nicol muses obliquely in the video, something is always missing.

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Voodoo Dog (2009) Gray Nicol

Missing things are made visible in Voodoo Dog by the absence of limbs. One of the world’s most famous figures the Venus de Milo is also missing one, and more beautiful for it. It presents a mystery and suggests a story. It allows the viewer to complete it.

There are gaps in every aspect of Voodoo Dog to allow the viewer to bring life to it - questions for us to answer. It’s a jigsaw puzzle where there’s always a piece missing. We are left unsure how much is fact, how much fiction. Like that stranger on a bar stool, Nicol may be pulling our leg. The real dog story could be the reverse: his three-legged dog the inspiration for his own three-legged sculpture.

Nicol muses that he should learn from his experience with his friend’s sculpture of the dog. Making figures can, like voodoo, have implications in real life. The Irish Celts cast curses with the aid of a dog. Until the Renaissance dogs were commonly ascribed powers that put them above humans. Since then they have predominantly come to represent loyalty and fidelity. One of the most famous in art accompanies another nude, Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

The power of art to affect change is asserted. Slowly turning the figures over in his head by way of the camera (the joints of the mannequin visible) Nicol is like Geppetto the puppetmaker playing with his own shadowy desires and fears.

Still from Voodoo Dog (2009) Gray Nicol

Decades on from Getting to Know You Nicol is still interested in communication as “such a problem”. How he might most effectively explore the complexity of our experience of the world with a confluence of different media. In four minutes Voodoo Dog incorporates photography, film, spoken word, sound, performance, sculpture and shadow puppetry.

Like his post-object art educated contemporary Phil Dadson, Nicol is a true intermedia artist. As with our physical perception of the world no one media has the upper hand. Like the metal dog, and the man with camera and dog made out of off-cuts in the film’s title sequence, different components are fused together.

It might seem odd that Nicol moved from video and performance into carving and building restoration. Yet it was thinking beyond the object that liberated these art students from their prescribed modernist goggles. It loosened them up to follow their own wider interests and play with a variety of media and different historical fields of practise.

In Voodoo Dog Nicol’s dog is represented through no less than four different media. Stylistically the project is a series of filmed, standalone works of art. The world is represented as a playful and far from singular, homogenous experience.

With documents of memory swimming together, Nicol’s art is a very true, personal form of documentary. True in that it admits its solubility.

“Art doesn’t capture a moment in time, like a snapshot or a document,” I wrote in a Dominion Post review about Nicol’s 2009 exhibition. “It’s about the fluidity of time, the sensations surrounding the memory of moments; the sense of life flowing from the past through the present and into the future.”

Nicol says of a friend in 2009’s Remember Snow: “When I try to remember how you looked, the image is not solid. It’s hard to pin down, the uncertain shifting impression of hair, arm, hands and features.” In photographs that friend’s face was obscured, and in the film Nicol says he has to make up an image, seeing “moments and fragments” not sure if its “memory or imagination”. He videos a gently bobbing sculpture of what he thought he looked like.

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Remember Snow (2009) Gray Nicol

In Voodoo Dog another friend is captured in a series of photographs. Yet even here Nicol demonstrates how fluid what the camera captures is. Just as the lost limb of the metal dog impacted on Nicol’s real life dog, the speed of the camera’s shutter tricks us into seeing his friend’s limb disappear. Like a ghost the friend materialises and dematerialises.

Further, Nicol stitches into the sequence a sculpted model, so that it becomes difficult to work out which is which. In a later sequence the joints of the mannequin-like model appear and disappear, as if Nicol’s camera is rubbing the sculpture in and out of life. Fact and fiction shift and blur.

Nicol explores our moving sensory engagement with the magic and mystery of the world. Video allows him to experiment with how we collect fragments of our remembered world together – seeing, feeling, thinking and hearing – to form a personal whole. Video allows Nicol to make “an intimate situation where we can ignore any distractions and get a little closer”.

- Mark Amery

This text was originally commissioned for The Artists' Cinema (2011), a screening programme and publication curated by Mark Williams with the support of Creative New Zealand.