Dancers, Francis Upritchard, 2009

New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Wellington: Te Papa Press).


Are these dancers holy fools and if so what does that make us? Francis Upritchard first exhibited Dancers as part of her pavilion, Save Yourself, at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. Three tables of handmade figures, including Dancers, were presented in three opulent rooms of the Palazzo Mangilli Valmarana. Each table was built to match the width and height of the burnished mirror in its exhibition room.

At Venice, Yellow Dancer held his purple shawl over his shoulders and gazed at his own reflection in the mirror like Yoda. Subsequently, in a short video for Tate Britain, Upritchard referred to her sculptures as ‘holy fools’ and ‘bereft of meaning.’ This makes the allure of Yellow Dancer and his kin more beguiling. The time-stamp of Dancers is indeterminate. Their wizened faces resemble Bog People, preserved in peat and dredged up from the past. Upritchard’s influences range from Erasmus Grasser’s fifteenth-century wooden sculptures of Morris dancers to photographs of hippies at the Glastonbury Festival in 1971. Her figures are made from modelling material sculpted over wire frames, then painted in Day-Glo colours evoking the psychedelia of the modern music festival. Perched on a cushion, the stout Psychic Pushing is smurf-blue, while the unusual cap of Eel Dancer is oddly reminiscent of a medieval wimple.

Upritchard first became well-known for mining the history of museology by re-categorising objects past and present and scrambling art and craft. She turned cigarette butts into necklaces, recycled fur coats into monkeys and sloths and carved hockey sticks into Nile crocodiles. Cultures collided in exotic and problematic new artifacts like her sculptures of shrivelled Pakeha heads’ provoking associations with the nineteenth-century trade of preserved Maori heads (toi moko). Then in 2006 she turned her attention to figurative sculpture inspired by 1960s hippie counterculture.

Her Dancers are grouped together like a community but don’t interact with one another; instead, they are placed around the perimeter of the table to be inspected by the viewer. Curator Robert Leonard writes: ‘Where does the real world (the scale and world of the viewer) end and the represented one (the scale and world of the art) begin?’ (1) Each nude dancer looks either Zen-like or vacant, depending on your own worldview. Poised beside artisan hand-blown glass lights, Upritchard’s ‘holy fools’ are suspended somewhere between heaven and hell: here and now.

  1. Robert Leonard, ‘Adrift in Otherness’, Jealous Saboteurs, Monash University Museum of Art and City Gallery Wellington, 2016, p. 139.