Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs (Melbourne and Wellington: Monash University Museum of Art and City Gallery Wellington, 2016)
In 2003, I was at a party in the East End sitting on a couch next to Francis Upritchard. I was wearing a crop top and Francis was stroking my stomach.
“Isn’t it unbelievable that we’re all going to die?”, she said.
“Yes.” My tender underbelly was exposed. I felt unraveled, like her mummy quivering on the floor of the Institute of Contemporary Arts at the Beck’s Futures award, only I was less well prepared for the afterlife. I didn’t even smoke cigarettes.
Upritchard had already become part of the fabric of the London art scene. She’d set up the Bart Wells Institute in 2002 with the painter Luke Gottelier and I’d recently interviewed her for Pavement, a New Zealand lifestyle magazine.
“Don’t make it too heavy”, Luke told me as I arrived to do the interview. Francis and I had sat upstairs at a wooden table in the warehouse eating fried parsnips. Francis had made the parsnips. She had also made a series of severed Pakeha heads, which sat on the table like paperweights. “I wanted to do some portraiture”, she said.
The heads recalled real-life specimens from New Zealand’s dark colonial history. In the nineteenth century, a trade in preserved tattooed Maori heads (now called ‘toi moko’) was established.
Nearby, faux-Maori artifacts fashioned from polymer plastic lay inside blue velvety cases as though poached from a macabre antique-shop display. I gazed at the spindly tiki and combs, then at a small flat sculpture of Great Britain, with four racing wheels attached to its base.
“How would you describe your work?”, I asked.
“I like the idea that some aliens came down to earth and took things away but everything got mixed up on the way back.”[i]
At the time, I felt neither here nor there about Upritchard’s wistful renditions of Maori taonga. It was still too close to home. But Egypt, now there was a souvenir! At the British Museum, the mummies on display were high-end artifacts buried with their expensive knick-knacks. It occurred to me that I didn’t think of Upritchard’s hokey mummy as ‘dead’ either. It was down but not out. Its glass eye permanently fixed on the future, a pack of Benson & Hedges strapped to his side.
The party eventually snuffed out. I walked home along the canal, my crop top concealed beneath a thick outer layer. The water was blacker than the sky or at least it seemed full of unfathomable depths. Hockey sticks and syringes were probably jockeying for position in the mud. The jealous saboteurs were out. The yellow lights of warehouses blinked on the water and it felt like the aspirations of so many antipodean artists could be devoured from a greasy spoon.
In the midst of all this, Upritchard’s mummy moaned: “Save yourself.”
Things I heard about Jemma Upritchard before I met her:
- She was a model.
- Her mother had gone to art school at the same time she did.
I first met Upritchard when she turned up to install her window work at Fiat Lux, the artist-run space I directed with David Townsend in Auckland in the late 1990s. Her installation was a badly botched taxidermy of a ginger tabby cat. The tabby looked like an escapee from Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery. The amateur nature of the taxidermy accentuated its charm. At Fiat Lux, we were into ‘bad’ things: our gallery was low-fi, our aspirations cheap. I presumed the cat was a readymade Upritchard had plundered from a charity shop, like the taxidermied ferret that sat on our bar, legs jauntily crossed, one paw holding a bottle of lager. At the time, it still seemed we alone understood the covert humour of such kitsch Victoriana.
With horror I realised the cat was actually her family pet. It was ill and had to be euthanised. Instead of burying the cat, Upritchard decided to stuff it. The cat was displayed in the window of our gallery, standing on a wooden table with four legs that were equally spindly. It didn’t seem so funny anymore. Francis had known the cat. Presumably, it had dined with her family, slept on their cushions.
Our relationship with our taxidermied ferret was fundamentally different. We didn’t stitch up its belly and pull a waistcoat over its shoulders. We didn’t have the guts. The weakness of our own moral position was exposed. We were naval gazers.
New Plymouth is located on the West Coast of the North Island under the frosted cap of Mount Taranaki. It is a small city by the sea. Len Lye’s Wind Wand is aquiver to the waves that rush in from the ocean and spray the Coastal Walkway, stippling the kinetic sculpture. The city was named after Plymouth in Devon, from where the first English settlers migrated, but its Maori name is Ngamotu.
The local economy thrives on dairy farming, natural gas, and petrochemicals, but it is also a centre for art. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery is based in New Plymouth, and is home to the Len Lye Centre, which opened in 2015. The Taranaki region features prominently in New Zealand art history. In 1840, Mount Taranaki rose steeply, elegantly, and inaccurately in Charles Heaphy’s early-colonial watercolour. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1931, the British-born painter Christopher Perkins, inspired by Mount Fuji, captured the mountain wearing a hula hoop of clouds and flanked by a dairy factory.
Later still, Don Driver, peddled the streets of New Plymouth adding stained tarpaulins and other inorganic rubbish to the back of his Raleigh Twenty. His Ritual (1982) is a gothic rendition of The Hay Wain, a series of dolls with goat-skull heads stand atop a cart of 44-gallon oil drums, bearing sickles. The children of the corn cometh!
In 1976, Francis Upritchard was born at New Plymouth Base Hospital. Her father worked as an agricultural scientist for the Dow research station. She was the fourth in a family of six children. The twins Hannah and Willy came next. Her mother was a member of the La Leache League and their house was often filled with other breastfeeding mothers of twins. And potatoes. And apples.
Upritchard’s father tested pesticides. His job frequently involved working with potatoes and apples. ‘I’ve loved potatoes my whole life’, Upritchard tells me. She would sometimes help her father. Together they sorted through wheat stalks: what percentage of rust was on each stalk?
“That’s the kind of work I like”, she says. “A bit like cleaning. Organising.”
- In 1982, the Upritchards moved to Christchurch.
- The motto at her primary school was ‘Learn by Doing’
- Taranaki (1997) is a Upritchard sculpture, a beautiful wooden display cabinet that houses views of Mt. Taranaki, Paritutu Rock, and Marsden Hill, out of proportion (making mountains out of molehills.)
- Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950) is a pivotal early painting by Colin McCahon, New Zealand’s most important modern artist.
- Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (2008) is a series of diminutive sculptures of hills set inside vintage eyeglass cases that Upritchard made while she was at Christchurch art school.
- She looked at New Zealand through the master’s spectacles, then cast them aside.
In December 2007, Upritchard returned from London to New Plymouth, as artist-in-residence at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The residency culminated in Rainwob I. The petrochemical paint jobs on her figurative sculptures have come of age. Reacher is rainbow striped; she sits on a macrocarpa stump and points into the future. Upritchard’s centaur Horseman evokes a fruiter version of Narnia. His semi-flaccid arms dangle before him; his penis is as organic as a wheat stalk, perhaps requiring a lower dose of pesticide. Arranged on a large, low plinth, Rainwob I reads like Upritchard’s take on the wasteland, complete with inbuilt seating and sheepskins.
Accompanying her figures is Zippy House. This sculpture of a domed dwelling reminded the critic David Eggleton of Edgar Roy Brewster, who built a hexagonal house in New Plymouth. But Zippy House is also a blatant reference to the British children’s TV programme, Rainbow. Upritchard named the work after the puppet on the show who had to have his mouth zipped shut. Zippy was tangerine, almost the colour of rust. In Rainwob I, Upritchard’s earthenware Zippy House is open-mouthed; twin nests with blankets for sleeping, dreaming, or birthing.
Established in 1972 as a UK rival to Sesame Street, Rainbow’s upbeat theme song arcs to a crescendo, ‘Paint the whole world with a rainbow!’ At the Govett-Brewster, Upritchard appeared to have taken this missive literally. However, she reversed the effects of the rainbow. Rainwob throbs with doubt and uncertainty. In the bare branches of her rainbow tree, the natural and the chemical collide. In the face of climate change, the question seems stark: what is the harvest for humanity?
Upritchard furthered her figurative sculptures in Rainwob II at Artspace, Sydney. The tie-dyed figures in both installations are modelled on music-festival goers from the 1960s and 1970s summers of love. From Rainwob I and II onwards, the hippie is established in Upritchard’s practice as a frivolous archetype and a cold warning. In 1977, the Sex Pistols sang, ‘Never Trust a Hippie’. But it is not just the failure of free love and idealism that plagues society now. Upritchard’s hippies provoke our post-industrial yearning for an agricultural past, and perhaps, even more worryingly, suggest this could also be our future. Too much rust has been extracted from the rainbow.
But, I think Francis is a hippie.
She has had her own allotment for ten years and makes her own kombucha. She does yoga three times a week. And jogs.
“Are you vegetarian?”, I ask.
“No, but people tell me I have the aura of a tee-total vegetarian.”
I bring up her use of the word ‘stiffy’, feeling pleased with myself, as though I am presenting her with a particularly splendid parsnip I alone have pulled from her allotment. She is a female artist who often makes sculptures of men. Sometimes they have erections. I feel sure we are getting closer to something. A revelation.
Francis says, ‘Stiffy seems more innocent.’
As soon as she has said it, it seems utterly obvious.
You could hardly accuse the Horseman of having a throbbing hard-on. Nor could you say that her pale-blue Wanker (2012), caught in the act, had a massive boner.
Her figurative sculptures aren’t pornographically charged. The penis is included as a detail no more profane than a small branch on a rather ridiculous tree.
After the Beck’s Futures award, I next saw Upritchard’s work at her new dealer Kate MacGarry in London. In the first gallery, she presented Traveller’s Collection. The mummy had returned, this time he—she?—it?—lay on the middle shelf of a wooden table. The tabletop was festooned with haughty animal-headed canopic urns. The Egyptian gods had been mixed-and-matched with 1960s German ceramics. On the bottom shelf, faux-Maori trinkets made of plastic polymer lay inside their velvet cases omitting a pale unease. They looked like they were made of bone. This seemed apt for a country known, at the time, for one lonely Booker prize-winning novel, The Bone People. I assumed that the faux-Maori relics looked more exotic to the Brits, who had not grown up in Rotorua surrounded by sheepskins and plastic tiki.
Upritchard’s mummy gave me the warm fuzzies. Death was awful, but when you died you could a have a lie down and have your nice things spread out around you. Ashes to ashes, junkshop to junky, Traveller’s Collection made colonialism look funky. The Saatchi Gallery purchased it for their collection. The rest, as they say, is history.
I don’t know what I expected to see in the second room at Kate MacGarry. More urns? Another mummy? Instead Upritchard had fashioned planets out of Fimo and fitted them to the points of school compasses. The compasses were arranged in split-legged configurations, as though demonstrating the alignment of planets. Displayed on a folding wooden table, Planets in the Detrimental Signs resembled an errant school science project.
This work gave me a jolt. Space is cold. Distant. Most of the planets were very small. Almost insignificant. And the folding table just echoed the limited orbit of each compass. Things can move, but only so much.
The gallery filled up, so I went outside to finish my drink and stood in the throng on the cobbled street. In the sky, the moon was shallow and thin. Not all the planets were in the detrimental signs. I saw a familiar woman across the crowd and stared at her, wondering where we’d met before. Then realised it was Annie Lennox.
The opening swung on its axis. Afterwards, we all headed across the road to The Owl and the Pussycat.
“Tell her about the stuffed owl”, Sue calls out.
“Oh, the stuffed owl”, Francis replies.
Across the road from their house in New Plymouth was a cemetery. In the cemetery, she found a morepork lying on the ground. Her brothers Robert and Steven took it to the museum. And the museum sent a lovely letter back saying: thank you, it’s in perfect condition, we’ll stuff it.
“Why did you change your name?”
“I think it was because of sexism”, she says. “Also my accent. Everyone thought I said Jimmy instead of Jemma. I don’t know why I didn’t just change my name to Jimmy, which would have sorted out two problems at once. I wanted to call myself either Vivian or Francis.”
Vivian Upritchard sounds like a character in a book. Perhaps an Agatha Christie set in Egypt.
Prince Charles. What planet was she on? Of all her shows, I remember this one as truly other. In 2001, I walked up the stairway to her dealer Ivan Anthony on K Road. The building had once been a bank and the stairway is made of a stately apricot-coloured marble. Inside the gallery, his head was too big for his body. Charles resembled a Punch-and-Judy puppet. His head was made of paper mache—he looked like a piñata. Upritchard had been living in England for a couple of years. Her first exhibition in London was devoted to the Internet conspiracy theory that Prince Charles was the Antichrist. But, I wondered, what does that have to do with New Zealand? The fact that we were still royal subjects seemed a trifling issue.
Charles wasn’t good looking in real life either. Upritchard had captured his likeness as expertly as any newspaper satirist. But I wasn’t endeared to him like I was to the mummy in Save Yourself. Instead, I cringed, the way people do when they see Camilla on a magazine cover. Was Charles meant to be funny, or was I meant to pity him?
The show was titled Ich Dien—‘I serve’—Charles’s motto.
Is she secretly fond of Charles because he’s a gardener?
“I got to Prince Charles in a really weird way”, Francis tells me, “through thinking about heredity—what we genetically inherit from our parents, but also what we are born with in terms of luck. We can follow Prince Charles’s lineage. We know where he’s been and where he’s going to, and, even though he’s super lucky, he’s also unlucky. His position is quite inescapable.”
Quite. Upritchard’s watercolours of Prince Charles also bear an inescapable likeness to Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s The Big Friendly Giant. I think it’s something about the ears.
Over Skype, Francis holds up her favourite childhood book, John Burningham’s Would You Rather …
“Would you rather have a monkey to hold or a bear to tickle … so that’s a positive page and then the next one will be horrible.” She flicks through showing me examples.
“Would you rather swallow a dirty frog for twenty pounds …”
“The beautiful, beautiful pictures”, Francis stops and points. “That’s a favourite, jam on the head of the child.”
“Makes me think about your shrunken heads”, I say.
“Yeah, they are like that … I used to go to the library and get all the books I could out and read until I was told to TURN THE LIGHT OFF.”
“You used to read a novel a day”, Sue says. “And you had violin and recorder practice. I don’t know where you fitted it in.”
“Late-night reading”, Francis replies.
Upritchard’s lamps have slit-eyes that the light shines through. They are watchers, medieval grumps that preside over her exhibitions like gargoyles. I still can’t work out whether her lamps resent being turned off or on?
A pair of lamps lit the vintage museum display cases in Doomed, Doomed, All Doomed at Artspace, Auckland (2005). The cases were rich in the bespoke treasure that has become Upritchard’s trademark: cigarette necklaces, repurposed pottery, monkey sculptures that bristle with real fur. Many male artists, including fellow antipodeans Ronnie van Hout and Ricky Swallow, have made work featuring monkeys, but Upritchard’s sculptures seem simultaneously less autobiographical and less cynical about civilisation.
In a contrary move, the largest gallery at Artspace was solely occupied by a far-reaching sloth. The sloth sculpture lay, stretched on its back, its fingers festooned with rings. ‘Would you rather … ?’
I always fancied Francis would rather be a sloth than a monkey.
Doomed, Doomed, All Doomed went on to win The Walters Prize in 2006.
Judge Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev said, “Upritchard celebrates the hand-made, and poor technology seems to me increasingly topical today, in the digital age. To understand the past, one does not only collect it, one does not need to incorporate it into a museum or archive, one needs to remake it, to recreate it, and thus to make it personal, ones own.” [ii]
Next, the novelist Hari Kunzru, then Upritchard’s partner, wrote a piece of fiction about a deranged anthropologist for her book Human Problems.
Upritchard will continue to work with novelists on subsequent artist books, favouring fiction over analysis.
When Francis moved to London, she temped for two years. At the HSBC, her job was to search for old transaction details on microfiche. The transactions were all out of order, but she was good at ferreting out stuff. At the time, she was coaching the other staff on how to quit. “There was this young guy there who was the only one who knew the system. I was like: you could really ransom your knowledge.” Every day, she was five to ten minutes late and they’d write her name down in a book. “It was quite Kafkaesque.” She worked at the HSBC for three weeks.
“After that I got a cleaning job which I loved.”
Her first cigarette necklace was made from the butts she combed from a filthy beach in Croatia. ‘There was this amazing assortment of different brands.’ Including Camel.
One of her cigarette necklaces was displayed in the Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art, at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. The audio guide is led by Dr. Klaatu, the purported Director of the Martian Museum, who says, “If you look closely you can still see the remains of ash.” Space oddity.
In 2005, Upritchard commissioned German jeweller Karl Fritsch to make rings for a sloth. As you do. In 2007, Upritchard, Fritsch, and Martino Gamper exhibited in the group show The Crown Jewels at Salon 94 Freemans, New York. “We were all reworking found objects to make something quite different.” The trio later collaborated under the moniker Gesamtkunsthandwerk.
Worried Effigy: “In 2007, I took a year off showing. I made one female figure and that felt like the start of something new.” [iii]
Like the Ouroboros, the decorative crossover in her work comes full circle for her first museum exhibition, In die Höhle (Into the Cave) at Vienna Secession, in 2010. She describes exhibiting there as a lifetime high. “I was a huge Klimt fan when I was 15, 16, and 17.” It is one of the only institutions curated by artists and the historic building includes Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, painted in 1902. Upritchard draws her inspiration for In die Höhle (Into the Cave) from Klimt but also Sol LeWitt. “Bouncing off them as such opposites. So cold, so warm. One about the body, the other about surface.”
The installation featured chandeliers modelled on Wiener Werkstätte designs and a pair of fur-coat monkeys sitting on bright pink banquettes, which she describes as “very Viennese”.
Upritchard bought two wardrobes for ten Euros in Vienna and had legs attached to their backs. The upended wardrobes are a plateau for Land (2010): a mellow-yellow man and woman, their arms draped round one another’s shoulders. The man’s head is obscured by a cowboy hat. Either his head is too small or the hat is too big. The pair are nude. The wardrobes have become their world, yet provided them no clothes to wear in it, only different hats to put on: a Magritte bowler, a tiny cap. The hats are out of scale like Mt. Taranaki and Marsden Hill. Remember Lucy who enters Narnia through the wardrobe where the fur coats turn into fir trees …
Jemma loved to dress up as a child and was often seen toting her alligator handbag, a gift from a shop on Vivian Street. See you later alligator, in a while crocodile.
Upritchard has been sorting through old letters and diaries when she first comes onto Skype. “I’ve been interested in false histories for a long time.”
She has been called a voodoo priestess. Her sculptures: mannequins, golems, talismans, sages, freaks, gurus, imbeciles. Each adjective adds a layer of silt. The percentage of the past in her exhibition A Hand of Cards (the Bayeux Tapestry) and the present (Martino Gamper’s furniture) is at once quantifiable and abstract. In 2012, Upritchard produced this exhibition as a dance of war while listening to P.J. Harvey’s album Let England Shake. Her male figures are caught in an indeterminate choreography, knaves each and every one. The sculptures are posed on Gamper’s tall black plinths, like archers releasing their bows. The plinths contain triangles, diamonds.
When War Dance was exhibited at Anton Kern[iv] in New York, the critic Alfred MacAdam wrote, “We live in nature, but we are not of nature. Our world, like that of Upritchard’s figures, is what we create.”[v]
Recently, she’s entered the Cretaceous Period, sculpting dinosaurs from balata. She moulds balata in the bath. She has to work fast. The artist, Mr. Darlindo, sends it to her tapped from trees. It comes directly from the Amazon.
Her first dinosaurs appeared in Do What You Will, the Children’s Commission for Whitechapel Gallery in 2014, and continued to thrive in a project for the Hammer Museum later that year. “I had a big dinosaur idea about LA.” Los Angeles, city of tar pits and ‘meet the Flintstones’, “You’ll have a yabba dabba doo time.” Upritchard visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which has nothing to do with dinosaurs, but instead is a unique and dubious homage to museums of yore. This cabinet of curiosities includes The Horn of Mary Davis of Saughall and The Stink Ant of the Cameroon. “I got so excited going into the gift-shop that I almost couldn’t go any further.”
It seems rude to ask Upritchard about her childhood, her relationships. Yet I do. Am I just digging for dirt? A bad feminist? Yet Upritchard’s career has often provided the putty for lifestyle pieces. Perhaps a similar grave-digging impulse drives tourists to visit the Valley of the Kings. Upritchard’s art and life is covetous and coveted. The New York Times has profiled her home twice.[vi] The first piece introduced the house she bought in Hackney as Martino Gamper’s house that he shares with his ‘artist wife’. “It’s so fucking sexist”, she says. Then pragmatically points out that such pieces can be useful for his career. And hers.
I have my list of authorised questions and then the things I really want to ask like, “Were you really a model and did your mother go to Canterbury art school at the same time you did?”
“Yes, both are true.”
She was approached one day in Cashel Mall by the wife of a photographer who said she could make a lot of money modelling and put herself through university. “And I did make a lot of money and it did put me through university.”
She took two or three jobs a year. The work she did appeared mostly in Korean magazines and knitwear catalogues. “It had nothing to do with me and my fashion.”
She stopped modelling as soon as she left Christchurch, describing herself as a terrible poser who was not obedient enough for the industry. However, the process of going to a lot of interviews was useful.
“It made me very unscared of going to interviews for other things as well.”
I had some half-baked idea that her experience of modelling is linked to her figurative sculptures.
“What did your mother make at art school? Was she a sculptor?”
“Um, Mum?”, Francis calls out.
That’s when I realise Francis’s mother—Sue—is in the background listening to our interview.
“Mum was always interested in art. When I was younger, she made a lot of stencils and did quilting. Then she decided to go to Hagley College and do two years as a student there. I encouraged her to do that but then I was pretty horrified when she went to art school at the same time as me.”
I was horrified that her mother was listening in to our conversation. I felt like I’d been caught trespassing.
“It was a bit close for me”, Francis says.
When Upritchard represented New Zealand at the 53rd Venice Biennale, in 2009, she named her installation Save Yourself. The mummy had gone. A constellation of figurative sculptures in Rainwob colours occupied three canal-side rooms at the Palazzo Mangilli Valmarana. Upritchard had absorbed a range of historical influences, from the paintings of Bruegel and Bosch to the wooden sculptures of Morris dancers by German sculptor Erasmus Grasser (c.1480) to the ecstatic revellers of latter-day Glastonbury. At Venice, her handmade figures were presented as contemporary archetypes: I just dropped in (to see what condition my condition was in).
The sculptures were arranged on tables Upritchard had custom-made to match the size of the mirrors in each room at the Palazzo. Yellow Dancer faced her own reflection, a deep-purple shawl draped over her shoulders. The beautiful fabrics bestowed on certain figures only enhanced the atmosphere of fragility. Nearby, the brazen body of Eel Dancer gleamed like petroleum.
Upritchard titled each table: Dancers, Long, and Lonely. Lonely is just so. One phosphorous-yellow figure points off into the unknown. Venice is a city where visitors get lost. Lonely is accompanied only by rainwob-thwarted trees. Upritchard’s figures are hermetically sealed off from one another and from the viewer. They have no pupils to return our gaze. Don’t look now.[vii]
“Do you believe in life after death?”
“No, not at all.”
Upritchard was in a bad car crash off the Port Hills when she was 17. She had been rock climbing with friends and her boyfriend was driving them home. They went around a corner too fast, missed the turn, and plunged off a steep hill. The car went head over heels a few times and the people in the back weren’t wearing seat belts and the whole way down she was screaming, “This isn’t real. This is a dream. I’m going to wake up now.” And that’s what the other people remember most.
Now she’s piling up dinosaurs.
[i] Megan Dunn, ‘Mummy Dearest’, Pavement, February–March 2003: 54.
[iii] Worried Effigy is a representation of Upritchard’s dealer Kate MacGarry.
[iv] The first show she saw at Anton Kern Gallery was of surfer/bather paintings by Dan McCarthy. Upritchard told me she could instantly feel the gallery’s warmth.
[v] Alfred MacAdam, ‘Francis Upritchard’, Art News, October 2013: 112.
[vi] One of the New York Times articles includes a close up of their front door as though it might lead to Bag End, an adventure waiting on the other side, except, instead of a note from Gandalf the Grey, the door features a custom-made window sign: ‘NO JUNK MAIL PLEASE’.
[vii] The murderous dwarf/goblin in the red raincoat that appears in the finale of Don’t Look Now (1973) seems to have some strange affinity with Upritchard’s figures. Nicolas Roeg’s cult film is based on Daphne Du Maurier’s short story of the same title, whose protagonist is tormented by premonitions of his own death, but doesn’t recognise any of the signs until it is too late.
image: Francis Upritchard, Save Yourself, 2003. Mixed media.