"...the mix-up of history, mischief and meaning is a potent mixture" -Art News New Zealand, Summer 2003, Sue Gardiner
Francis Upritchard is a New Zealand born artist living in London. She has exhibited extensively in Aotearoa New Zealand, Europe and America since graduating from Canterbury University's Ilam School of Fine Arts in 1997. In 2006 Francis Uprichard was the winner of the Walters Prize, often refered to as the New Zealand equivalent of the Tate Prize, Tate Britain.
In 2007-08 Francis Upritchard took up a three month residency at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery resulting in the exhibition rainwob I before participating in a residency at Artspace Sydney where she presented rainwob II. These exhibitions continue to explore Uprichard's fascination with the dislocated; a mix of history retrieved, reworked and reinvested with new meaning. The result is prophetic in its confusion and misunderstanding; the ancient mixes it up with the future, this is evolution gone wild.
Upritchard has maintained a regular exhibiting profile in New Zealand, and returns regularly to make new work. In addition to co-running The Bart Wells Institute, a gallery she co-founded with Luke Gottelier, Upritchard has curated a number of group exhibitions in London and New Zealand. The artist's book Human Problems, with text by Hari Kunzru was published by Kate MacGarry and Veenman Publishers in 2006.
art, writing: francis upritchard (2004) Hari Kunzru
Useful Magic: Francis Upritchard in the Attic
The attic occupies a special place in the western cultural imagination. It is a site invariably linked with history and the unconscious, a clutter of half-forgotten objects behind a locked door whose meanings often slide into the register of gothic horror. It is where Mr Rochester hides his mad wife. It is where the bad mother of the Virginia Andrews potboilers locks up her children. The image of the attic as storehouse for repressed secrets is cheerfully countered by daytime TV, which offers it up as a repository of hidden wealth. 'Cash in the Attic' [BBC1] and countless similar formats offer the promise that your unsorted junk might have antiquarian interest, or better still, resale potential.
A recent series of works by Francis Upritchard uses materials recovered from this domestic oubliette and its high-street off-shoot, the charity shop. Old sports equipment - hockey sticks, golf clubs, tennis and squash racquets, have acquired animal attributes. Brightly-coloured jackal, dog and monkey heads and snouts are grafted onto or growing out of tatty handles, the rackets de-stringed and sawn off so that they become horned sticks, the sporting relics of grandma's schooldays metamorphosed into something totemic and strange. These are objects which might be used in European animist rituals, for invoking and controlling the white man's neglected ancestral spirits - Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Fred Perry, generations of dead boys playing up and playing the game...
This is the artist as something more than a 'snapper-up of unconsidered trifles', an arranger or codifier of detritus in the manner of Tomoko Takahashi or Sarah Sze. Upritchard is performing a renewal, a re-energisation of the objects she converts. The legacy of generations of participation in consumerism is an attic-full of junk. Less often than in pre-consumer society are individual objects preserved and handed down, yet energies (libidinal, affective) are still invested in them, even if this investment is temporary, readily transferred to the next item, with its higher performance or greater fashion cachet. With their connotations of victory, physical prowess and social approbation these discarded sticks and bats and rackets are faint, etiolated descendents of the net and the hunting spear. As such there is a trace of ritual power in them, a trace Upritchard wishes to amplify.
Curios, nick-nacks, mementoes and trophies are, in Upritchard's art, the bearers of the last remnants of a magical relationship with the world of things. In Traveller's Collection (2003) a mummy is presented with 'grave goods' including tourist trinkets from around the world. Another mummy (Save Yourself 2003) has taken a packet of B&H Gold cigarettes into the afterlife. Clues to the exact nature of this relationship, and to the function of the objects she makes (which is emphatically not that of 'sculpture' as it has been usually understood in the twentieth century) can be gleaned from the names she has given to the sports pieces: Power Over Others (unreasonable) … For Exams and Court Cases … For Sexual Impotency … Protection From Jealous Enemies and Any Type of Bad Blockage … Health (Long Sickness Which You Don't Know Why?)... These are phrases taken from flyers distributed in London by African astrologers. In the world-view expressed by these entrepreunerial seers, human life is a negotation between the living, the dead and various other elemental and spiritual powers. In particular, individual affairs are frequently affected by the magical forces of one's enemies, by bad luck incurred through the transgression of various rules and customs, and by curses which emanate as an involuntary result of jealousy and anger. In such a system, the proximate causes of things are always secondary to their ultimate magical causes. You may fall over and break your leg because there was a crack in the pavement, but the question remains as to why the crack opened up, and what (or who) guided you to take that particular route to work.
So these are objects with a purpose. They are intended to have influence, to protect, to wield power. Their African cultural register is only one of a number Upritchard has deployed in recent years, the most important of which has been that of the Maori and Pacific islanders, a daring move for a 'pakeha' white New Zealander. A recurrent concern of Upritchard's engagement with Maori art (as well as her use of ancient Egyptian motifs, the Royal Family and European astrology) has been her construction of ritual objects to negotiate the boundaries between life and death. The presence of ancestors in the daily life of a traditional Maori community is in direct contradiction to the ahistorical and atomised subjectivity generated by contemporary capitalism. The marae is, in a sense, the opposite to the attic. Instead of being shoved upstairs, memory is present in every aspect of its architecture, the meeting house and dining hall which lie at its heart literally being the bodies of notable ancestors, roof beam as backbone and so on. Communication with the dead is regular, ordinary. Importantly for Upritchard, it is not frightening, unlike the pakeha world where death provokes sensations of gothic horror.
Fear is never far away in Upritchard's work, and her art can in some ways be seen as a form of bargaining, a contract with inhuman and terrifying otherness: "Death and Life-in-Death have diced for the ship's crew, and she (the latter) winneth Francis Upritchard." However, fear is always mixed with the comic and the absurd. Her mummies are small and slightly wretched creatures which lie stiffly on gallery floors and tables, moaning and quivering. For much of 2002 and 2003, she scoured the attics and fleamarkets of Germany for sixties and seventies hand-glazed pots and vases, which were converted into canopic urns, animal-headed vessels used by the Egyptians to store the preserved organs of mummified corpses. Always, mythologies are diverted from their grand contexts to form part of her personal symbolic language, more meanings she can weave together into a wry and witchy web of defenses against horror.