Ann Shelton : jane says

30 April - 17 May 2020

Presented as part of Auckland Art Fair 2020 Virtual Fair



jane says depicts plants, herbs and flowers as diverse as peony, rue, sage and pennyroyal, which feature in recipes for tonics and tinctures that have been used historically in attempts to control conception or to bring on menstruation and/or abortion.[1] This series of large-scale hyper-real photographic works reference the Japanese tradition of ikebana, which the artist learned, and its visual and conceptual qualities of structure and control. Drawing on Shelton’s own childhood experiences of small-town flower-arranging competitions and her decades-old collection of 1970s ikebana magazines, the series utilises saturated utilitarian aesthetics to draw a viewer into the deeper research context for the work. The series also includes printed matter and performance components.


Many Ancient Western medical practices incorporated herbal traditions into their healthcare regimes, allowing women to control their own reproductivity and health. Women certainly continue to use abortifacient or anti-fertility plant remedies, albeit in many instances covertly, in contemporary societies across the globe. Interweaving the underground trading of information, often orally, around these plants, both fabled and real,[2] these photographs operate as an index to the discussion of reproduction and its control in society and are in dialogue with the tradition of still life photography. jane says allows us to examine of the loss of this knowledge inside the secrecy of personal trauma and to consider the profound risks women took in utilising these plants. 


Shelton was initially drawn to this material after reading trail blazing New Zealand Feminist Margaret Sparrow’s books on the history of abortion in New Zealand. Sparrow evidenced primarily through death notices and autopsy reports, that women’s engagement with inaccurate information around abortifacients meant many died in the process of trying to find effective means to control their own bodies during Aotearoa New Zealand’s colonial period. New Zealand where Shelton is from has just now passed a new bill into law, removing abortion from the Crimes Act (March 2020).


As plants, their patenting and ownership are increasingly commodified, the trade and use of plant tools and knowledge, locally and personally, comes into stark conflict with the practice of commerce in late capitalism.[3] The images in jane says form a kind of photographic garden of these plants. 


The accompanying performance, The physical garden, references the tradition of the artist lecture as performance and presents a viewer with glimpses into the historical context for these artworks: tracts of information, not unlike Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927-1940) which was published unfinished as a kind of stream-of-consciousness list of related quotes which were assembled into common themes. The physical garden is also a list of quotes – covering everything from a now-extinct giant fennel that was traded for more than the price of gold and harvested to extinction because of its popularity as a contraceptive, to the poroporo plant, farmed commercially briefly in Taranaki, Aotearoa New Zealand, to be used in contraceptive pills. Shelton is interested in performance as a way to extend the art object, in her case the photographic frame, beyond two dimensionality and also as a mode of art making through which she can interrogate the complex art historical and hierarchical conversation between the two mediums.



The three sisters


The three sisters, as Shelton calls them, all feature voluptuous Dinner Plate Peonies and were all made after Shelton’s first showing of earlier works from the series jane says at Denny Dimin Gallery in New York in 2019.


They respond to Shelton’s experience of New York City and of recent galvanising American political debates about the exploitation and control of women’s bodies. A first-person encounter with Judy Chicago’s work The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, the US-wide dismantling of legislation around abortion rights and the now anthemic Janelle Monae track Pynk all fed into the construction of these three works. The Congress Woman, reflects on the powerful and diverse female senators that were elected to the 116th American Congress in 2019, The Party Girl responds to the excitement of opportunity and youth and to the great sense of potential that social exchange can hold but also to how that moment can be exploited or manipulated, The Influencer looks to the Instagram phenomena of the influencer, most notoriously visible perhaps in the Fyre Festival debacle in The Bahamas. More generally these three works reflect on the authority women can have in modelling and articulating their own personal and political power, through the structuring of technological and civic mechanisms circulating around their bodies. Peonies are considered emmenagogic, substances that stimulate or increase menstrual flow.[4]


[1] Plants such as Opium are included as they were also used in these tonics and tinctures.

[2] In sourcing these plants there is an element of non-specialist interpretation perhaps akin to the action of attempting to source these plants as part of a lived experience.

[3] Some countries have criminalised this folk knowledge, wanting to shake off perceptions that “witchcraft” is widely practiced on their communities.

[4] The root of Chinese peony has been used for over 1,500 years in Chinese medicine. It is known most widely as one of the herbs used to make ‘Four Things Soup’, a woman’s tonic, and it is also a remedy for gynaecological problems and for cramp, pain and giddiness [254]. When the whole root is harvested it is called Chi Shao Yao, if the bark is removed during preparation then it is called Bai Shao Yao [250]. The root is alterative, analgesic, anodyne, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, carminative, diuretic, emmenagogue, expectorant, febrifuge, hypoten- sive, nervine and tonic [176, 218, 238, 279].

Ann Shelton (b. 1967, New Zealand) received her MFA from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand and exhibits internationally. Her most recent museum survey, Dark Matter, was curated by Zara Stanhope (now at the Gallery of Modern Art, QAGOMA) for Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in November 2016 and toured to Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū in December 2017. A catalog accompanied the exhibition with essays by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Ulrich Bauer, Donna West Brett, Dorita Hannah and John Di Stefano, and Dr Zara Stanhope. Ann Shelton is represented by Denny Dimin Gallery in the United States, where she recently had her first solo exhibition in North America at their New York location. Her most recent body of work, jane says, has been exhibited at twelve galleries and institutions worldwide and the accompanying performance, The physical garden, has been performed a further eleven times. Shelton’s work has been extensively written about and reviewed in publications including Hyperallergic, Journal of New Zealand & Pacific Studies, artnet news, The Art Newspaper, Galerie Magazine, and the Evergreen Review. Her works are included in public and private collections throughout NZ and in the US.


Shelton’s most recent research is manifest though plant-based photographic constructions engaging plant, gender focused, and anthropogenic narratives or histories, in particular the intersection of these histories with human knowledge systems and or with feminisms. For Shelton making photographs comes with a complex potential agency and set of overwhelming ethical and moral margins that are at the heart of the medium’s difficult ontology. Combining photography, performance, doubling, spoken, textual and printed matter to open up what can be critiqued as the seamless, closed and singular nature of photographic objects, Shelton employs these interventions in an attempt to question and to complicate the singular status of photographic meaning, rendering her images more mobile, multiple, insecure and stammering.


Shelton is Honorary Research Fellow in Photography at Whiti o Rehua, School of Art, Massey University, Te Kunenga ki Pürehuroa.