Francis Upritchard (2003 Beck’s Futures finalist in London and 2006 Walters Prize winner in Auckland) has an unerring knack of holding us between the alluring and the completely disgusting. The 2002-03 heads are exemplars of this. Untitled is as much a vile and bilious thing as it is religiously haunting, like the throat singing of Tibetan monks; and delicate: look at those cute, magnolia-white ears! It is pestilent and sweet; untouchable and reverend; dumb and profound. “What are we to make of it?!”
I remember the first time I encountered Francis Upritchard’s work, and then the young artist herself, in a 1996 exhibition of graduating Ilam students in disused Christchurch railway workshops and yards. As I moved from room to room looking at other installations which I have no memory of whatever, I came across an empty workshop: bare concrete floor, stained block and slab walls, steel-vaulted roof and draughty openings… Nothing to see! The room was empty, but we understand this game of art don’t we. There must be something here. I looked again: still nothing, until noticing a small hole in the floor towards the middle of the room, perhaps the diameter of a $2 coin and for some reason decided “this must be it.” I peered into the hole but it was black, Even so I gingerly poked my finger in. Yuck! Oh! It was soft! Upritchard had secreted a little battery and motor deep in the hole and attached a soft long-haired brush that was sitting just below the surface, out of sight, steadily rotating. I jumped up at once surprised and delighted and called out “Where is this artist!?”
Here’s an artist who had already hit her stride 12 years ago. Then and now Upritchard is capable of whispering something delightful and sacred in one ear and something else, disturbing and profane, in the other. The 2002-03 heads could easily remind us of the sacred shrunken heads of Maori assiduously being repatriated from European collections. But as this one is not Maori, it suggests a kind of fake anthropology: a tribe of lost Pakeha identities. It is also simply horrible… At the same time that Upritchard was making fake heads the news was full of stories of severed heads floating in the Tigris, Westerners beheaded by Islamist terrorists, and of Saudi executions. Straddling horror and reverence as skilfully as it does, little wonder this head has featured in Upritchard’s Walters Prize Artspace exhibition Doomed, Doomed, All Doomed, and in Telecom Prospect 2004.
Frances Upritchard, Untitled 2002-2003, 2006, fibreglass, resin, fake hair and dental teeth, 270 x 185 x 215mm (excluding stand)
Previously published in Contemporary Art + Objects, 18 September 2008, Art+Object 21st Century Auction House, Auckland, p46-47.