‘Anne Zahalka: spurs of the moment’, Art & Text, Number 54, April, 1996
Throughout its short history photography has had a special relationship with both privacy and publicity. It was invented during a period when the domestic sphere of social organisation was reaching new levels of importance. But it also inaugurated the era of mass media and the age of publicity. Photography redefined both the living room and the street.
On one hand photography became the ultimate medium of private communication. Under the rule of painting and its various genres portraiture had been fundamentally declarative—of wealth, status and ideology. With photography it became confessional—of desire, personal obligation and sheer bodily existence. For centuries portraits had been coolly assembled by trained experts out of a generic lexicon of social signifiers—costume, pose, accoutrements. With photography portraits became both more popular, and warmer. They were physically warmed by the cosy fires of the domestic mantelpieces on which they sat, or by the loving bodies against which they nestled; and spiritually warmed by the intimate urgencies they conveyed as mothers looked out of them at their sons who were far from home, or lovers used them to steal secret glances at each other. The inevitable accidents of amateur photography became part of portraiture’s poignancy—the random details, slight blurs and fleeting expressions becoming, in Barthes’s words, punctums to pierce the heart.
But on the other hand photography also represented the public to itself. As Benjamin pointed out, in the nineteenth century urban crowds not only came to dominate the social landscape, but also to demand that they themselves be portrayed, just “as the patrons did in the paintings of the Middle Ages.” . Benjamin recognised that in the twentieth century “mass movements, including war, constitute a form of human behaviour which particularly favours mechanical equipment”. In the age of mass reproduction the masses best reproduced themselves through photography and film. Countless carefully orchestrated revolutions, rallies and sporting events since have confirmed his observation. Our experience of urban space has been slowly re-engineered by photography and film, and we are all now well used to imagining ourselves as civic actors, visible to ourselves every day in the crowds on the street.
Photography was therefore intractably intertwined with the social, architectural and technological changes which produced our modern conceptions of private and public relations, and domestic and civic spaces. In this context Anne Zahalka’s photographic work can be read as a response to recent changes in these fundamental categories of modernity.
Zahalka first began to work with portraiture in the 1987 series Resemblance, which were based on Dutch genre paintings. The delight audiences experienced in the elegant luxury of these large chromogenic prints, and their satisfying recognition of the art historical citations encoded into the images, perhaps masked what was most interesting about the works—the challenge they presented to our current conventions of photographic portraiture. Taking photographs which were intended to function, at least on one level, as ‘real’ portraits of contemporary people, but within a post modern quotational style referring to a painting genre which had been functionally redundant but aesthetically valorised for four centuries, stretched the assumptions underpinning our conventions of candid portraiture. But by jettisoning all of the casual punctums of the candid portrait in favour of cold generic citation Zahalka was potentially doing more than merely glibly tweaking portraiture’s re-conventionalised stylistics. Perhaps she was also engaged in a full blown documentary project, a social taxonomy of her historical period which, like August Sander’s Men of the Twentieth Century, choose its format and style to fully embody the temper of the times.
Side by side with her interest in portraiture Zahalka also pursued an examination of urban geography which she also regarded as a set of received spatial and iconic conventions to be parodied and pastiched. For instance in her Bondi: Playground of the Pacific 1989 series the famous beach was reduced to a painted backdrop for a staged re-enactment of various tableaus of multicultural nationhood. And in an earlier, charming series of straight photographs, precise points of view were chosen to deconstruct Centrepoint Tower’s iconic eminence over Sydney by, for instance, photographing it so that it appeared to be just another chimney sprouting from the roof of a suburban factory.
Both these long standing interests have culminated in two recent series of large backlit transparencies. The Open House 1995 series are portrait tableau vivants staged by members of Sydney’s artistic beau monde within their authentic domestic environments. Fortresses and Frontiers 1993 are views taken in a recognisable Sydney, but of strangely redolent, heterotopic spaces. In some of these views various figures—everything from zoo animals to office workers—appear in a kind of purposeful but suspended pose.
The tableaus of the Open House series allow a kind of visual anthropology of some of Sydney’s domestic spaces. The meticulous art direction of the images, and the attention to the clothes, pose and gesture of the sitters, invites objective scrutiny. But on each of these carefully prepared stages a scene of slight, ambiguous domestic tension is also being enacted. These repeated domestic scenarios tell a story about the fundamental apartness of people, their ‘public’ selfconsciousness even within the bosom of the private. Zahalka’s living room inhabitants submit themselves to self display in the same way we all unconsciously ‘gather ourself’ the moment we step outside our front door. They are as aware of the other people around them, but as unresponsive, as people forced to share a seat on the bus.
In Fortresses and Frontiers Zahalka has set up a series of ironic visual relationships within each urban space. For instance in one image a lonely giraffe in the middle of a bare enclosure at Taronga Park Zoo looks out over the Harbour at the distant capitalist spires of Sydney. In another, a similarly lonely salary man carries his briefcase across a concrete walkway towards the same spires, now turned sulphurically brazen by the setting sun. In a third image a homeless man sits and waits for the evening tennis players from the brightly lit courts in the background to go home, before settling down for the night in a bizarre, cave-like, moulded concrete park shelter. (At Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery this image was hung next to another zoo image of several mountain goats resting on top of a similar concrete.)
In these deliberately ironic juxtapositions Zahalka isn’t revealing anything to us which isn’t already known and acknowledged by the city itself. Everybody has always known that the city is a ‘human zoo’, Zahalka is simply declaring what the city explicitly states on its own behalf every day. However by using these ‘concrete jungle’ cliches, Zahalka has managed to flatter the city into declaring its own implicit boundaries between the public and the private.
To be homeless in the city is to virtually cease to exist, so the two tennis players ignore the homeless man as they walk home after their game. He is a nocturnal, nomadic ‘urban caveman’, waiting in the shadows until it is late enough for the park, and his rustic shelter, to invert their designated function and become his private space. The potentially threatening indeterminacy of city space is also present in images such as the one of children playing on some bright, new, council playground equipment. But the children are playing at night, they have strayed outside their designated temporal zone in the city’s strict diurnal timetable, and a threatening shadow is phallically casting itself towards them. Fortresses and Frontiers documents the shifting physical and temporal boundaries of the city, and the dissolution into each other of the categories of public and private
For Zahalka the fluorescent light boxes on which her large transparencies are mounted refer to the preferred display technology of upmarket advertising, most commonly seen in airport concourses. Photography, film and TV have produced the airport as the key symbol of contemporary de-spatialisation—an affectless, shadowless interzone where will and autonomy are drained and subjectivity itself seems threatened. Airport light box ads for mobile phones, digital watches and other re-assuring accoutrements have a similar ambience to Zahalka’s work—they are declarative, yet inert.
Her light boxes produce quite a different effect to the grand ‘epic of the everyday’ scenes of Jeff Wall. There is no real sense of psychological or phenomenological experience in her images, and no sense of time—no sense of a moment on the verge of either explosion or implosion, as in Wall. Zahalka’s images are deliberately assembled with an art director’s imperative to leave nothing to chance, to leave no potentially disruptive visual excess or scenographic residue. All of her photographs are resolutely expository. They are lit and considered from corner to corner and edge to edge, and evenly irradiate refrigerated light. Even when atmospheric moods are employed, as in some of the Fortresses and Frontiers series, the lighting effects are so deliberately emplaced, and conform to such a corporate vision throughout the series, that they immediately declare themselves before the viewers eyes. All of this gives her images a curious inertness, despite their monumental visual exertions.
The two tennis players walking along the pathway in the background of the homeless man image from Fortresses and Frontiers are friends of the artist conscripted to play the part. But in a complete reversal of the ethic of the street photograph the camera doesn’t instantaneously capture them in mid stride, rather they are photographed standing in the attitude of walking—one foot held suspended, the tennis racket clenched at a particular angle—waiting patiently for the exposure to finish. But in their frozen movement they are not absorbed into the moment either, they are not like those figures seen in nineteenth century city views eternally poised getting their shoes shined. Time has not accreted around their stillness because Zahalka’s figures are already drained of blood and subjectivity.
This reverses the usual relationship between city and citizen. The citizen becomes the scenographic cut out against which the city acts itself out. It is the city which glows and shines, pulses and beckons. Her characters do not even serve the emblematic role of the figures conventionally found in the foreground of picturesque landscapes, they are not there to draw the viewer into the scene, but to confirm an unbridgeable abyss between the new imagistic virtual space of the city and the phenomenological space of the viewer.
Similarly, in the staged tableaus of Open House, the poses are directed to such an excruciating pitch, and held in such a deliberate way by her sitters, as to be neither ‘people posing for their portrait’, nor ‘people acting out a part’. The lighting is arranged to evenly illuminate every surface, every nook and cranny of the room, so the sitters almost become extensions of their furniture, materially continuous with their possessions. The clutter of each house is art directed to within an inch of its life, doing double duty as contemporary clutter, and second degree signifiers of social meaning á la Dutch portraiture. But in contrast to Dutch painting, in these light boxes there is no sumptuous thickness of paint for the ‘thingness’ of their possessions to grow into, no implacably ineffable expressions caught in a few enigmatic brush strokes and presented to our endless curiosity. Instead, brutally irradiated by fluorescent light, the domestic tableaus become almost forensically explicit. As in Fortresses and Frontiers the tableaus are not acted out, but instead enacted in a curiously constricted way.
Zahalka has cited TV sit coms as a point of reference for these works. And those ‘personalities’—actor/character hybrids who live out their lives in three-walled rooms, repeating the same hyperdomestic patterns under the shadowless, public glare of TV lights—could be the result of today’s dispersed, atomised publics demanding that they themselves be portrayed, just as the masses in modernity were, and the patrons of the Middle Ages before them. But Zahalka herself has largely abandoned even the sit com’s vestigial desire to represent particular ‘people’, and instead concentrates on contemporary ‘inhabitation’, where there is little to distinguish between being at home or being out on the street.
Martyn Jolly is an artist, academic and writer and is Head of Photomedia at the ANU Canberra School of Art.