GEIST Douglas Wright photographed by Tessa Ayling-Guhl

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Geist is an intimate body of photographic portraits by Tessa Ayling-Guhl. Largely untranslatable from  German, the term Geist contains the English meanings of ghost, spirit, mind, and intellect in one – and in so  doing encapsulates a person’s essence, the elemental quality of the body as well as its fallibility. The title is a  fitting tribute to the subject of the images – the visionary artist, dancer and choreographer Douglas Wright  (1956-2018). 

Born in Tuakau in the Waikato in 1956, Wright began his career as a dancer with Auckland-based Limbs  Dance Company in the early 1980s. He went on to spend time in New York with the Paul Taylor Company,  and in London with DV8 Physical Theatre, before returning to New Zealand in 1989. He then founded the  Douglas Wright Dance Company, with which he created more than 30 major works, “each with its own  searing, indelible imagery and breath-taking choreography and dancing,” and established himself as a  leading figure in the world of contemporary dance. When one of his works, Forever, had its European  premiere in Switzerland, it was hailed as “an overwhelming contemporary contribution to the history of our  life and times”.  

Throughout his career, Wright was known for his ability to blend classical technique with a raw,  experimental energy, resulting in performances that were both technically impressive and emotionally  charged. Writing in Landfall in 2001, he noted, “From the earliest time I can remember, I felt compelled to  move.” He was also renowned for his unique approach to storytelling, using movement to explore themes of  love, loss, and identity in deeply personal and thought-provoking ways. Wright’s significant contributions to  the fields of dance, literature, and the visual arts are remembered for how they have changed the way we  move, see, think and feel. As Ayling-Guhl recalls, “The first performance I saw of his was Black Milk. It  cracked my mind open creatively, viscerally, and emotionally. That was a pivotal moment in my own mind's  creation. In my eyes he is the most wonderful and important New Zealand artist – first a dancer, then  choreographer, storyteller, author, innovator and inspiration to many.”  

Douglas Wright was also a close friend of Hunters & Collectors’ founder Chrissy O, the pair having flatted  together in Ponsonby as teenagers – both fleeing the claustrophobia of small town New Zealand in search of  bigger thrills: “We danced in and out of each other’s lives … I was always in total awe of him and knew how  lucky I was to have known him in his torment and his pleasure with dance and to have watched him  perform.”  

With its genesis in a project undertaken at the Ostkreuzschule in Berlin, these works also reflect Ayling Guhl’s background as a dancer and continuing passion for the medium. “For me, photography is a way of  immersing myself in the world of dance, to be part of what the dancers create. I move with them as they  move, capturing their essence in my photographs. There was no doubt in my mind that for this project I had  to photograph Douglas.” In these images, we see an affective portrayal of the body in movement. Taken in  the garden of his Mt Eden home in 2015, it was the first and last time Tessa and Douglas would meet.  

An early root of Geist is said to also have carried the connotation of "ecstatic agitation.” Ecstatic, from  ekstasis, to quite literally stand outside oneself – was a condition ascribed by the Greeks to the mad, to the  genius, to the lover, and to the poet. As in Wright’s works, these photographs are a celebration of ecstatic  and unruly bodies: his spirit lives on.  

About the artist: Tessa Ayling-Guhl graduated from Wellington’s Massey University in 2008 with a Diploma  in Photography, before moving to Germany to attend the Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie in Berlin, graduating  there in 2015.

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