Have you ever wondered what it's like to be traveling all over the world; going where your work takes you? How much would you really see of what each place has to offer away from your workspace? Would the travel become a blur of light, colours, and sound that blends together with other travels of similar nature?
Do you become adept at picking out distinctive patterns in the shifting shapes that whip by you as your body is propelled by one means or another through or past them? Do those fleeting glimpses give any real insight into your new environs or are they just the revelations of illusion?
Tourists are packaged up into buses and shipped through countries spending an hour here and an hour there so they can say they've done France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland all in two weeks. What do they see and when they get home and develop the pictures they have taken why don't they recognise what's on the prints in front of them?
Usually it's because they have tried to preserve something static in an ultimately kinetic experience and what is still in the frame in unrecognisable. Nothing but bricks and mortar or wood and plaster captured within the neat frame of a 5 X 7 inch postcard that says nothing about where they were and what it meant to be there passing through.
MoTe Upoko-o-Te-Ika / For Wellington is a collection of reproductions from two exhibits of photography that Viggo Mortensen presented as a gift to the city of Wellington New Zealand in the year 2003 after the completion of filming for the Lord Of The Rings movies. The images that appeared in the exhibition were of the places, including New Zealand, which he had traveled to in the years directly preceding the show.
The pictures that form the first part of the book are abstract representations of the places he has visited. The shutter has been left open allowing it to capture every iota of movement that can paint its way across the lens. Layers of texture and colour are painted on negative, and then given life under the enlarger as Mr. Mortensen brings us a glimpse of how fast the world can be.
In some instances he is the one standing still watching the world zip by, and in others he is travelling at speeds that match or are faster than our poor planet can turn. Is that what we are seeing in these photos, visions of speed blurring everything until all that's left is colours and streaks of light?
Abstract art in any medium presents the conundrum of what we are to attempt to take away from the images. Do we stand in front of it and try to guess what the artist's intellectual motivation was for the work, or do we let the colours and configuration wash over us and feel whatever emotions they generate?
Sometimes the artist doesn't give us any choice in the matter and the images are so powerful we can only stare at them overpowered by colour, light and design. Mr. Mortensen's work in this instance falls into that category as they explode off the page in their vividness. Galaxies swirl in whirlpools of beams of white light etched into blues and blacks. Greens, browns, blues, and whites appear in splotches looking like a satellite image of some mysterious coastline.
Either one of these combinations is enough to be stirring but to turn the page from one to the other is to be aware emotionally of the contrasting environments in the world; feeling the diversity of the planet instead of just knowing it. It's exhilarating, but also tinged with sadness seeing how ethereal it all can be.
At least that's what I felt. Someone else, somewhere else at another time might feel something else, which is one of the beauties of abstract art. They give the viewer the freedom to feel emotions instead of being overtly manipulated by sentimental attachments to figures or real situations.
The second half of Mo Te Upoko-O-Te-Ika/For Wellington is composed of photos that are more easily recognizable. Landscapes, forest groves, trees, and other familiar objects are the subject matter. Judging by the titles in first section of the book and those that are given to the more figurative photos in the second, they are all, if not of the same subject matter, have been at least taken in the same locales.
Some are from other series that have appeared in other books. The "Hindsight" sequence for example has shown up before, and here again offers views in tight circles that appear to be looking backwards, or from a distance at the subject matter even when in a tight close up. There is something distancing about this effect that makes them almost as abstract as if they weren't figurative and removes the photographers influence from the shot as much as it was in the earlier part of the book.
Mr. Mortensen has always described his work as being a means of journaling and recording what he sees around him. Whether it’s a photo, painting, or poem the objective is the same. With that being his goal his work has no ulterior motivation; there is no manipulation of set to make us feel anything in particular.
He looks, he sees something that attracts his attention, and he shoots it with his camera and the result is what you see on the page in front of you or on the gallery wall. In some ways he stands a lot of notions of modern art on their head in that his realistic imagery is far less objective than his abstracts.
With his abstracts he has to "stage" the shot more and aims for a desired affect. But his figurative images are much more "of the moment" in that he is only recording what he sees with no other objective, and leaves it up to us to interpret it to our heart's content.
Mo Te Upoko –O-Te-Ika/For Wellington is an opportunity to see the two sides of Viggo Mortensen's photography, the abstract and the realistic, and reach your own conclusions about which you find more effective emotionally, artistically, and visually. Each has it's own unique perspective to offer on the world and each has something different to offer the viewer.
(Originally posted June 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.