Justine Varga ‘Maternal Line’

Look I don’t want to add to the beat up, but jeez some ridiculous things are being said about Justine Varga’s winning photograph for the Olive Cotton Portrait prize. Now a professor of Law at the University of Sydney is saying the chemical and light produced image of Justine Varga’s grandmother’s pen marks and spittle isn’t authored by Varga but by her Grandmother. Does she know nothing of the history of, say, conceptual art (Lewitt: ‘The idea becomes the machine that makes the art’) or participatory art? This completely out of touch law professor thinks that ‘expression’ must lie in the perfunctory hand made mark (presumably because Shakespeare wrote his plays by hand?), not in the photographer’s highly developed and thought through photographic process of indexical translation. Somebody else (responsible for the nausea we feel when we are landing in QANTAS planes) reckons it’s not a photograph, even though at its core it is driven by light and chemistry and touch, the things that have been celebrated as the core of photography by photographic theorist since, oh, I don’t know, 1839? Somebody else reckons its not a portrait of Varga’s grandmother, even though all anybody has been talking about is — her grandmother! And even though, to return to our Sydney Law professor’s valorisation of the hand in her misunderstanding of art authorship, we have all long  been valorising and fetishising the hand made mark as a signature of the person.

4 thoughts on “Justine Varga ‘Maternal Line’

  1. Well said! Re Sydney Law professor:
    1. Shouldn’t give up their day job (especially considering they are seeming ignorant of all the debates and theory surrounding authorship.
    2. Ironic the way she has ignored all of Varga’s intellectual property and research in terms of her process and focused only on the mark making which is only a component of the overall work.


  2. This ‘beat up,’ as Martyn aptly describes it, is deserving of further analysis. The first thing we need to do is put aside the idea that the articles in the Sydney Morning Herald are the result of ignorance or incompetence. They are instead classic examples of hack journalism designed to manufacture controversy and sell newspapers. The journalist concerned didn’t bother to do any research or to see the work being discussed or the exhibition it is in. No effort was made to inform readers about Varga’s career (this was the fourth prize she has won) or her working methods, or about the history of photography with which she is so thoroughly familiar. The fact that a very knowledgable judge, not “a curator” but the Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, the staff at the Tweed Regional Gallery, and the sponsors of the Olive Cotton Award were all full of praise for the winning photograph was glossed over or ignored. While anxious to imply that a photograph without a face in it could not possibly be a portrait, no mention was made of the fact that the trustees of the AGNSW had just put a ‘dot-painting’ by an Aboriginal artist in the final selection of the Archibald Prize, obviously having been persuaded that a deep association with the country being depicted was tantamount to making it a self portrait. So what was this ‘beat up’ actually about? Notice the design of the first story, on the front page of the Herald no less. ‘Nice Frame. But is it a photograph?’ said the headline, accompanied by a soulful photograph of Varga, taken by an accomplice of the journalist writing the ‘story.’ The inference was plain: the artist is female, young and attractive and therefore should not be taken seriously. This kind of insidious sexism undermines us all, both men and women. In this case it was accompanied by a celebration of ignorance and a palpable distrust of what the bloggers are calling “experts”; that is, people who have taken the trouble to know something thoroughly. So let’s be clear about the position of the Sydney Morning Herald: it is against the arts and innovative creativity, against having an informed citizenship, and certainly against women. We should henceforth read every story published there with this agenda in mind and treat its version of the “news” with deep scepticism.

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