Handmade Media

‘Handmade Media’, Return to Sender, exhibition catalogue, University of Queensland Art Museum, 2012, edited by Michelle Helmrich, pp 61-80, ISBN 978-1-74727-050-0

Only now, when you re-visit this work about twenty years after it first became familiar, do you realise, with something of a shock, that our attitude to images in general, and photographs in particular, has changed profoundly.

It is impossible to think about the art and photography of the late 1980s and early 1990s made in any city in Australia – Brisbane, Melbourne, but most especially Sydney – without also thinking about the pervasive presence of ‘theory’. The semiotic theories of the image, developed by people such as Roland Barthes in the 1960s and 1970s and widely read in Australia in the 1980s, imagined the image as a complex machine. In semiotics, images produce meaning through the interaction of layers of denotation and connotation. They became personally significant through the pricks of a personal punctum that pierced the skin of the image’s public studium. These devices of visual linguistics were linked in with other written texts through further mechanisms of ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’. Within the psychoanalytic theories that were also widely read at the time, images mainlined larger political power structures directly into our deepest desires via yet more processes of ‘the gaze’ and identification.

By the 1980s, too, theorists such as Paul Virilio or Jean Baudrillard had amped up Marshall McLuhan’s universal theory of the media from the 1960s to an apocalyptic, millenarian fever pitch. Baudrillard’s lectures, which took such grand titles as ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ or ‘The Evil Demon of Images’, were translated into English and published in Australia.1 To Baudrillard, images had ‘a force of seduction in the literal sense of the word, a force of diversion, distortion, capture and ironic fascination’. To him, images contaminated reality, so that the real could no longer exist in and of itself, but was always preceded by the image. This had short-circuited representation as such. Baudrillard declared that the ‘image has taken over and imposed its own immanent ephemeral logic’ on reality.2

In retrospect, the millenarian manifestos of the postmodern media theorists of the 1980s appear shrill in the face of the more recent orders of image exponentiality brought about by social media and the internet. Today it feels slightly absurd to endow the individual images, which congeal themselves out of the mist of pixels we now inhabit with anything like the ‘force’ they once seemingly possessed. We are now less concerned with their ability to compromise our experience of the real itself. But, in the period treated by this exhibition, the hyperbolic language of theory gave images a strange prestige. Such theories endowed the artists who engaged with them a sense of power and centrality that seems, at least to me, quite distant now, when artists appear less concerned with breaking images down, or pulling meanings apart, than turning images to account once more. In retrospect, also, artists from this period seemed relatively untroubled by qualms about engaging head on with the big issues of national identity, historical memory and gender politics. They did this without recourse to autobiography or personal anecdote, which nowadays might be necessary to permit or authorise such an intervention.

Australian art of the late 1980s and early 1990s assumed that the viewer came to the artwork armed with a set of conceptual tools – borrowed from political, psychoanalytic, feminist, semiotic and media theory – with which to discern the mechanisms of representation and simulation that lay dismantled before them for their connoisseurial delectation. What was on display to such an audience member, cum media critic, was the elegance of the artist’s dismemberment, the nicety of their dissection, and the finesse of their excoriation.

In order to dismantle the image it often had to be refabricated as an auratic sculpture. New objects were built from old images in a loving labour that turned visual codes into physical artefacts, semiotic procedures into sculptural events, and human performances into pantomimed tableaus. And what I love about these works is how handmade they often are. Many, while taking the requisite ‘critical stance’ towards our mediatised landscapes, were nonetheless handcrafted in the sense of the word that entails all of its loving, nurturing connotations. Media images appeared to be undergoing a technological apotheosis during this period that gave credence to the millenarian temper of the times. TV had been regularly beaming its glowing images instantaneously around the globe since the 1960s. But, in early 1991, Desert Storm in Kuwait was the first war to be televised instantaneously into our homes, complete with its celebrated ‘slam-cam’ footage transmitted from the nose cones of smart bombs. As well, thick, glossy, art, fashion and lifestyle magazines continued their reign, and in Australia were sliding off the printing presses in slicker and thicker wads at unprecedented numbers. But to the young artists on their subsistence budgets, the resources they had at their disposal remained the conventional ones long used in the twentieth-century atelier. In 1990, Adobe’s Photoshop was still at version 1.0, and years away from becoming the commonplace verb it is now; while readily accessible video compositing software such as After Effects, and photographic-quality digital printing,  let alone the World Wide Web, lay a good five years over a still-distant horizon. So, in this period, even those images targeted at the very hypercentre of the mass-media experience had to be made by hand.

Thus Robyn Stacey made black and white prints, which she hand-coloured using techniques that had been employed for decades in commercial photographic studios before they were re-discovered by the feminist photographers of the 1970s. She then, crucially, copied them onto medium-format transparency film and printed them onto Cibachrome paper. In the pulp-fiction series Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 1985, this extended process of hand application and mechanical reproduction created a generalised sense of the mass media’s generational memory. But when, in the series Redline 7000 1989, the hard metallic surfaces of the Cibachromes are bonded onto acrylic sheeting, the rush of a wide-screen cinematic experience seemed to be literally freeze-framing and materialising in the viewer’s presence.

Cibachromes are now a virtually extinct process, remembered with wry nostalgia by old darkroom hands for their unforgiving optical characteristics and extreme chemical toxicity. Then they were the epitome of mass-media aura made physically manifest. They appear again in Rosemary Laing’s work Untitled 1992, encased in Perspex boxes pierced by a giant steel needle. Works such as these are not concerned with the mise-en-scène of mass-media images, but with the constituent parts of their visual mechanics that have been stilled, re-dimensionalised, and made auratic in a gallery. To be effective, Laing’s works have to look as though they have been technically produced, rather than handmade in a studio, but, nonetheless, they revel in the same artisanal qualities employed in fabricating shop signs or hand-moulding surf boards.

Collage and juxtaposition were other studio techniques aimed at deconstructing the diabolical image. While Robyn Stacey might have materialised a cinematic cross-fade in Cibachrome and Perspex, Fiona MacDonald wove the body of one photograph, sliced into strips, into the body of another, creating a tessellated surface of colonial miscegenation. Tracey Moffatt and Lindy Lee used strategies of seriality and repetition straight out of a conceptual artist’s tool bag. Moffatt resurfaced a historical image of Aboriginality with the sheen of contemporary glamour. Lee revisited the unsolvable modernist conundrum of mobile image versus unique historical artefact by emphasising the auratic facture of the mechanically reproduced image with shifting washes of paint over fused Xerox pigment. In contrast, Jeff Gibson’s cheap and cheerful screenprints mined pop-cultural archives to create semiotic perpetual-motion machines by juxtaposing different, but formally related, images articulated across a double-jointed caption.

The Super 8 film format, originally developed by Kodak for the home movie market, also proved a remarkably versatile medium for the collating and colliding of mass-media sounds and images. Both pre-recorded and live TV could be filmed directly off the domestic television set — along with lashings of electromagnetic snow, colour oversaturation and cathode ray distension — and manually intercut, repeated and layered, either in the camera or through an editing splicer. In the hands of Super 8 filmmakers like Gary Warner the tiny frames of Ektachrome emulsion, each half the size of the fingernail on your little finger, and the film’s thin magnetic sound-stripe, became like a sedimentary repository for the powerful but evanescent electronic images and sounds that encircled the globe. In his Resistance Today of 1987 Australia’s role in the American Alliance was satirized through a mash-up of television footage that mixed the kitsch Hollywood genres beloved by other artists such as Robyn Stacey with contemporary news footage.

This aesthetic was also present in the video work of Mark Titmarsh and Ross Harley where the layering, repetition and juxtaposition produced by video’s phantasmagoric electronic effects once again presumed a contemporary viewer primed to recognise ideological cues and read mass-media codes, rather than psychologically invest in narrative exposition or original mise en scene.

Finally, performance and masquerade were other tactics used by the Davids of the studio to subdue the Goliath of the media image. Stacey’s friends dressed up and enacted historical pop-media typologies for her art-directed scenarios, while John Gillies and the The Sydney Front, again through repetition and juxtaposition, broke down the body’s universal demand to express itself into a disjointed language composed of isolating hysterical gestures.

Using this clever array of studio-based tactics, efficiently applied at an economical scale, these artists plunged into the centre of the maelstrom of mass images that obsessed the late 1980s and early 1990s, and re-fashioned them to address head on the biggest issues of the day: history, identity, and the mechanics of meaning itself.

In the decades that followed, the works produced by emerging Australian artists got bigger, bolder and brassier as newer and cheaper technologies allowed them access to much the same tools as were used in the mainstream media. But as the scale, definition and seamlessness of their works increased, perhaps their focus shortened. In general, it seems to me, younger artists increasingly feel that they need the passport of personal identity or autobiography to enter the territory of images, or that the paraphernalia of  ‘media production’ is needed to reinforce the denotational power of their works, rather than deconstruct it. So when looking at the works of the parvenu artists in this exhibition, produced after their arrival in the metropolises of the south, concentrate not only on their craft, but also on their ambition.

Martyn Jolly

  1. Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Precession of Simulacra,’ trans. Paul Foss and Paul Patton, Art & Text 11 (1983): 3-47; Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, trans. Paul Foss and Paul Patton (Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1987).
  2. Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, 14–15, 23.

Australian tableau photography in the 1980s

‘Australian tableau photography in the 1980s’, National Gallery of Australia photography symposium, 21 May, 2011.

1980s Australian Art Photography

Three formal techniques characterize 1980s Australian art photography: hand colouring, collage and tableau. I want to argue that these three things were determined by one underpinning factor: that the new art photographers of the 1980s were very aware that they were a new generation, succeeding preceding generations. I will also argue that these three techniques were infuenced by several key theoretical ideas which were widely influential at the time.

GENERATIONS

Let’s pick a date at random: 1984. The Australian Centre for Photography was one decade old. It is now almost four decades old. Specialist magazines like Photofile were widely read, and other magazines like Art Network regularly discussed photography; museums like the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia regularly exhibited photography; and corporations like Phillip Morris, CSR and Polaroid all had Australian photography collections.

A previous generation of photographers, lets call them the ‘1970s’, had succeeded in establishing this infrastructure of art photography. In the decades before the 1970s — the 1960s — Australian art schools didn’t teach art photography much, commercial galleries didn’t sell art photography much, museums and collectors didn’t buy it much, and art magazines didn’t review it much. But in the 1980s they did.

The decade of change — the 1970s — was a decade dominated by the 35mm black and white snapshot. Of course there are some exceptions. Some conceptual and performance artists such are Robert Rooney, Tim Johnson [Johnson SLIDE] or Robert Owen did use photographs as a kind of ‘neutral’ recording tool for their performances or for their conceptual stratagems. And some photographers did work in colour or alternative techniques during the 1970s. Nonetheless the dominant paradigm was the snapshot. [Jerrems SLIDE]The snapshot was the way the 1970s generation defined themselves against the previous generation or primarily commercial and journalistic photographers. In 1978 the Australian’s reviewer Sandra McGrath took up the cause of the 1960s generation of commercial photographers who had been disenfranchised by what she termed ‘the great camera art explosion’.

‘’He’s a commercial photographer’ has overtones of — well he’s not that creative, or his work isn’t personal, or maybe it isn’t arty enough. It all seems a bit unfair. The usual photographic exhibitions in recent years have been obsessed on the “snapshot” generation, who in turn have been obsessed with photographing their pregnant girlfriends, party antics, bed-sitters, friends making love, shooting up or drinking beer. Everything has been photographed very casually, very intimately and very informally. It may be more appropriate to call this younger generation the Narcissus generation.’

If that was the 1970s, look how it had changed by the 1980s. The title of a project show curated by Gael Newton in 1981 summed it up. She called it: Reconstructed Vision: Contemporary Work with Photography. [Install SLIDE]The titles of other key books and exhibitions from the period continue this them, such as Kurt Brereton’s Photodiscourse from 1981 or the Virginia Coventry edited book, The Critical Distance, from 1985.The automatic vision of the snapshot was under interrogation, it needed to be broken down, rebuilt, and deliberately worked with. This new generation were not narcissists casually inhabited the medium, but self-conscious camera workers breaking their vision down from the outside.

IDEAS

What tools were used to reconstruct vision? Several potent ideas were circulating in Australia at the time, which were distilled from a much wider body of writing collectively called ‘theory’. In the art world of the 1980s these ideas, which were often quite simple, and extracted from larger and more complex, circumspect and philosophically embedded texts, gained an almost autonomous status as free-floating short-hand ideas, charged with contemporaneity and ready to be appropriated and applied to a wide variety of creative circumstances.

The Gaze

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 article Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema, which was widely anthologised at the time, took the scopic structures of classical Hollywood cinema as the paradigm for the more general act of looking within patriarchal culture at large. Hollywood cinema gave pleasure to both men and women, but the pleasure it gave through the filming of its beautiful stars actually had encoded within it patriarchal ideology itself.

‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly.’

Cameras therefore bore a gendered gaze, a look which turned women from active subjects to passive objects. This power was insidiously built into the very structure of camera vision. To resist patriarchy you must also resist the gendering power of the camera’s look. [Rrap SLIDE]At the opening of the decade Julie Rrap’s installation Disclosures: A Photographic Construct brought her own performed body directly in the line of fire of the camera’s gaze to provoke, ricochet, expose and deconstruct it’s role. As George Alexander said: Julie Brown-Rrap’s work is both a physical ordeal as well as a visual experience. As she acts out objectification, she displaces it.

[Hewson/Waker SLIDE]

Semiotics:

The semiotician Roland Barthes’ two key articles The Photographic Message and The Rhetoric of the Image from the early 1960s were translated into English and published in 1977, and were widely influential. Barthes mapped the science of signification from the linguistic realm onto the visual realm. Photographs became texts that could be interpreted and analysed, but only with a set of tools available to the cognoscenti. They now had two layers, the layer of denotation, still attached to the real, but on top of that, another layer, a layer of connotation, which was attached not to the real, but to culture and politics. A photograph of somebody was no longer just a photograph of somebody. It was a piece of that actual person transferred onto the paper, on top of which the rhetorical language of their pose, their clothing, their gesture, their background, their lighting, and the angle with which they’d been shot were all added. Moreover, the bottom layer of denotation worked to make innocent (Barthes’ potent word) the top layer of connotation. The cultural and political messages of various powerful interests were thus surreptitiously slipped into photographs that, if we weren’t careful, might appear to be reality itself! Luckily ordinary people had art photographers to protect them from the pernicious influence of these messages.

Precession of the Simulacra

This hyperbolic reading of the power of images was ramped up further by Jean Baudrillard. In 1983 one of his articles was translated by the Australians Paul Foss and Paul Patton and received its first global publication in English in Art & Text  magazine. In Baudrillard’s formulation the simulacra was not an inferior copy of an original and unique real, rather it is part of an infinite chain of simulation which the real itself had now become part of. The real was not the beginning point off this chain of simulation, it was now produced by simulation — the ‘precession of the simulacra’ of the article’s title. In this millenarian fantasy the real itself was so corroded by images that it had become, in Baudrillard’s words, a desert! Baudrillard said:

‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short circuits all its vicissitudes.’

What is produced by these significatory operations is hyperreality — a physical reality sheltered from any distinction between the real and the imaginary. The following year Baudrillard himself visited Sydney to a celebrity’s reception. At about the same time the Italian theorist Umberto Eco also visited Australia to a hero’s reception. His book Travels in Hyperreality was published in English 1986. It was a collection of old newspaper essays which took a playful anthropological look at various ‘hyperreal’ phenomena, particularly in America, like wax works and Disneyland.

The simulation machines of the 1980s were not only the wax works, theme parks and automata which Eco loved, but also: glossy magazines; movies; television (particularly live television broadcast via satellite); xerox machines and billboards. This media landscape was not dissimilar to the media landscape which had been the background of pop art in the 1960s. However forms of electronic and live media were becoming increasingly important, and the age of the personal computer was just on the horizon. The photograph was a cheap, efficient way to evoke and engage with all of these industrialized forms of simulation at the domestic scale of the photo artist.

Heady, apocalyptic theories such as these had a big effect on young impressionable photographers. In 1985 one of them overdosed on Baudrillard, and gave himself Marinetti-like delusions. He wrote:

We no longer feel any joy in camera vision. We no longer delight in the eye. Photographers were once ever alert to the new, the revealing, the penetrating. Not any more. No more vertiginous camera angles, no more witty compositions, no more frozen moments, no more timeless landscapes… Now our photographer’s eyes are numbed. The stroboscopic ‘shocks of recognition’, provoked by ‘decisive moments’ in time, have reached the frequency of a TV’s pulsation. … The photograph was once the function of a vertical thrust – a probing lens, a straining eye. Print clarity, lens resolution and artistic perception were all indices of this depth. …. All the photographs in the world have congealed to form a global, gelatinous skin. Photography is now not so much a window on the world as an oily film which coats it. …Current photographic practice has ceased to be defined by the vertical thrust entailed in the act of taking a photograph. It is no longer a series of individualistic probes. Now it is defined by the horizontal slide of the photograph’s infinite displacement and endless proliferation through reproduction. (A reproduction in which the mechanical and electronic exponentially multiply the photograph’s inherent reproducibility.) Now we blindly feel our way across the global, mobius surface of photography with the expectation of revealing nothing new. … We abandon vision in favour of the surface, penetration in favour of the survey. We invite the quotational, parodic and ironic to play across the photographic field.

Who wrote that? I think it might have been me. I wrote it for a sheet that accompanied a show called Killing Time at Mori Gallery which was curated by Bruce Searle and included Jacky Redgate, Anne Zahalka and Kendal Heyes, amongst others.

Aura

Another key philosophic term which was dislodged from it’s original context and made available for re-use in the 1980s was Walter Benjamin’ concept of aura. In 1936 Benjamin had argued that the magical value of the old fashioned authentically hand-made, original and unique work of art, it’s aura, which had worked away over centuries to kept the masses enthralled to the cult of art, was being stripped away in the modern epoch by mass-consumed and mechanically-reproduced photographs and films. Yet photographers in the 1980s remained enthralled by the aura. Supposedly a redundant bourgeois value, it nonetheless remained fascinating and seductive, particularly for those working in mechanical mediums. Could an aura be remanufactured, or at least simulated, within the very medium that was supposed to destroy it?

Despite the power of these ideas of the gaze, the simulacra, hyperreality, the aura and visual rhetoric, the photographers of the 1980s continued to be very interested in the Real. Not the real directly — the personal narcissism of the 1970s snapshooters in their bedrooms and at their parties — but the overarching narratives of reality. I will show that the narratives which most concerned them were identity narratives, particularly Australian identity, subcultural identity, and gender identity.

TOOLS

Three techniques were used in response to these ideas: handcolouring, collage and tableau. Each was reconstructive, each signalled a generational break with the snapshooters of the seventies, while also signalling an allegiance to both longer histories of critical resistance and to larger bodies of ‘authentic’ art production.

Collage

Collage bore the most explicit allegiance to social and cultural critique. We had all been taught about John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi montages at art school, and the German collage artist Klaus Staeck, a second generation Heartfield, was exhibited at the first WOPOP conference in Melbourne1980. [Staeck SLIDE]

Collage directly intervened in the smooth media flows of books and magazines. All you needed were scissors and glue and a retouching brush. Significantly, these were the first tools to be the most frequently used from the Photoshop palette when it finally came along ten years later in the early nineties.

In 1980 Anne Zahalka played with kitsch images of Australiana in her series Beautiful Australia, [SLIDE] as did Midnight Oil four years later when they used an apocalyptic collage by the Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura for their album Red Sails in the Sunset. [SLIDE] Zahalka also used collage to reinscribe received Australian historical narratives. [SLIDE] In The Immigrants she used family snapshots to write the post-war migrant history of her family into McCubbin’s anglo-colonial painting The Pioneer. In collaging iconic imagery, works such as these appropriated some of that iconic imagery’s residual political and cultural power.

Handcolouring

Less explicit, I think, were the historical links that handcolouring had to women’s practice in the industrial photo studios of the earlier part of the twentieth century. But in Robyn Stacey’s hands handcolouring went from a feminizing, hand crafted application of nurturing care directly onto the surface of the print as object, [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] towards a more hyperreal mediatised space, as she used punkish flouro colours [SLIDE] [SLIDE], or reshot her handcoloured images and reprinted them on glossy Cibachrome paper. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] The handcolouring was therefore shifted from the personal register, where it had been in the 1970s, to the mediated register. From the physical to the virtual.

This technique introduced another element into the mix, historical genre. Historical genres were amateurised and domesticated, taken from the control of industrialized media production and overarching historical narratives and given idiosyncratic and personal meanings. Other photographers, such as Fiona Macdonald, also produced series, without hand colouring, which nonetheless recreated familiar media genres in a deliberately lo-fi way. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] To a certain extent there was an element of retro-hipsterism in this play with genre, but also a recognition that genre meant power and that there was a politics in you controlling genre rather than it controlling you. Robyn Stacey’s retro handcolouring looked great on the covers of Died Pretty records, [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] but it could also construct historical allegories when, for instance, it was reproduced during 1988 the Bicentennial year in the book Island in the Stream in a work called Modified Myths. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE]

The Cibachrome print with its hard metallic duco was the perfect print-medium for the period. It was as far as possible as you could get from the Kodak tri-x film D76-developer print of the 1970s, and as close as you could get to glamour and spectacle and artefactual ‘aura’ on a tight budget. It did, however, restrict the scale of the print; and scale, how to get as much of it as possible, was something which all photographers at this time struggled with. Sometimes the need for scale drove photographers back to black and white to get the size they wanted, for example in Jacky Redgate’s magnificent cornucopia image, which seemed monumental at the time. [SLIDE] When the Polaroid corporation brought out their massive Polaroid camera that took 50 x 60 cm unique polaroids, photographers such as Fiona Hall, Anne Zahalka, Robyn Stacey and Debra Phillips got the opportunity to make giant polaroids. [SLIDE]

Tableaus

But of course the leitmotif of the period was the tableau. [Zahalka SLIDE] No other visual tactic sums up the period as succinctly as the tableau. At the time I think the tableau artist were largely unaware of the long history of tableaus in photography and lantern-slides, except for the famous examples of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson. Their tableaus leapfrogged these more immediate histories and gave them access to visual rhetorics drawn from the history of western painting that had been absorbed as a kind of collective unconscious into mass media imagery.

Tableaus and techniques like handcolouring could be used to manufacture a kind of photographic aura. As Catriona Moore wrote in the catalogue Pure Invention, a show of women photographers, including Robyn Stacey and Jacky Redgate that travelled to Japan, faking aura could be a form of feminist empowerment:

Our feelings are prompted by the attention these photographs give to technique, stage-craft, masquerade. This work has an almost tactile, artisanal or sculptural quality, built through an association with cinematic, painterly or theatrical forms. Mechanical reproduction here paradoxically invests an almost carnal aura of hitherto denigrated or low-life popular cultural signs. The complicitous spectator appreciates this ‘faked’ auratic quality. We too take centre-stage to feign a [past] connoisseurial glory, an immersion and abandonment to the seduction of palpable surface effects and stylish mise-en-scene. We recognise well-known codes and gambits of glamour, and appreciate our own informed sensibility.

[Ferran SLIDE] Tableaus referred both to the weight of western visual patrimony via the prestige of painting, as well as to the dominant media for the twentieth century imaginary, cinema. As Adrian Martin wrote in an article about Scenes on the Death of Nature in a 1986 Photofile, tableaus could slow down the heady onrush of media imagery:

Tableau based work is curious and paradoxical: we witness films slowing down to, desiring to emulate the still photograph, and literally trembling with the tension required: and we gaze at photos in a perpetually frozen moment of torsion as if trying to animate themselves in order to take their place as simply passing frames in some unknown, imaginary film.

As well they could evoke supposedly timeless myths:

the question today is… what can you know with the movable (not immutable or originary) structures of myth? Modern culture is full of strategic ‘drifts’, from the rewritings of mythic fiction…that choose not to adopt the regressive mode of ‘return’ to a before-and-beyond. Myths told in the present are (whether they know it or not) of and for the present.

Anne Ferran herself agreed. She said:

The idea was not to claim any power of resistance for these images but to go the other way, to make them overtly passive and unresistant to see what effect that would have. One of the problems to be dealt with is whether these pictures are literally passive and compliant or whether they are (instead/also) somehow about passivity and compliance. Whether they are exactly what the pretend to be or something else as well.

Not all tableaus of the period relied on a manufactured aura, or shifted questions of desire into a rhetorical space. Some, such as Judith Ahern’s magnificent Cowboygirl were, while being allegorical, also just as immediate and painfully autobiographical as well. [Ahern SLIDE]

Other tableaus more explicitly referred to film. In 1985 Kendal Heyes, Anne Zahalka, and two others (Joy Stevens and David James) held an exhibition of Cibachromes at Artspace. To our eyes now these Cibachromes look quite small. They were shot in a studio with a rear projected 35mm slide, with the figures in the foreground also being lit by slide projectors. In a period before the self-equalizing digital image the projector’s hotspot gives each image a wonderfully groggy, gluggy, overheated feel.

Anne Zahlka’s Tourist as Theorist (Theory Takes a Holiday) [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE]  used the artificiality of the tableau and it’s seqentiality to visually ‘theorize’ the hyperrerality of tourism —where the simulacrum of the glossy colour brochure precedes the real experience of jostling crass crowds. Zahalka wrote: ‘In an attempt to possess, to appropriate, the tourist photographed the sight, was photographed with the sight, brought souvenirs and postcards, but was never able to fully accede to its pure presence’.

Kendal Heyes’s series From a Shipwreck [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] was made up of: ‘philosophical fragments, metaphorical figure by some of my favourite authors, brought together in ‘set pieces’ from a hypothetically completed text, a movie.’

As I concluded in my catalogue essay to the show:

‘Photodramas’ does not attack photography or film. It is not avant-garde, nor revolutionary. Rather it seeks to both loosen and rupture traditional cinematic and photographic modes of reading. The viewer is invited to inhabit the fissures and travel the faultlines of these ruptures, to read the stories without being their subject, to view the photographs without being the camera’s eye. In fact, to be the worst possible audience — interested but obstreperous.

COMPARISON BETWEEN NOW AND THEN

[Mental as Anything SLIDE] How are we different to those strange creatures from long ago, back last century in the 1980s, those ancient photographers with their crazy ideas and theories of everything. I would like to conclude by making some extremely broad and sweeping generalizations, to which you will all be able to immediately think of exceptions I know. But I will make them anyway.

They were historically conscious. We aren’t.
They were concerned with the past as a presence and a force in the present. We aren’t.
They were interested in photography as a discipline and a medium. We aren’t.
They read books that seemed to be of the moment and attempted to put what they read into action. We don’t.
They thought of themselves as a new generation, not necessarily avant-garde or radical, but definitely a new generation succeeding the previous ones. Our young photographers no longer do.
They thought of themselves as Australian, not in a parochial or nationalistic sense, but in the sense that they were concerned with the problem of Australian identity, or with the problem gendered, racial and sexual identities within an Australian context as much as a global context. We no longer worry about ‘Australianness’ in that way.
They were more suspicious than we are.
They were suspicious of pictures of the body. There are very few bodies in this period. With the obvious exception of Bill Henson few photographers photographed bodies. The body was generally displaced during this period. [Fereday SLIDE] It is often evoked through metonymic substitutes for it, folds of red drapery being a favourite. [MacDonald SLIDE] When bodies did appear, such as in the work of Julie Rrap, it was in a clinical laboratory of the gaze for the purposes of auto-critique. [Rrap SLIDE]
They were suspicious of public spaces. They didn’t go out much with their cameras. Public spaces and landscapes were often displaced into the studio. [Zahalka SLIDE] The kept to their studios and handled a lot of the issues of the day not directly, but by proxy.

Thank You

Martyn Jolly

Exposed Fictions

‘Exposed Fictions: Anne Zahalka, Robyn Stacey, Tracey Moffat’, introductory essay for slide kit, 1992

Third Draft (Tertiary Version), Exposed Fictions, Three Australian Photographers

Introduction:

The three artists represented in this slide kit — Tracey Moffatt, Anne Zahalka, and Robyn Stacey — all grew up in Australia in the 1960s and 70s. And they each began to make art in the 1980s.

During the 1970s Australian art fragmented into a wider range of art practices. For example, artists became involved in community arts projects, performance art, political poster collectives, crafts and, for the first time, photography. Feminism played a key role in this assault on the traditional primacy of painting and sculpture. Younger artists saw mainstream disciplines as redundant, outdated and male dominated, and they began to be interested in Australia’s burgeoning mass media and popular culture.

In the 1980s many artists, particularly women artists, began to see these new ‘media environments’ or ‘cultural landscapes’ as sources for their most urgent subject matter. The image field of magazines, TV, films, and advertising was alluring and pleasurable, but it was also powerful and controlling. It was the site where what you were, or could be, as an Australian of a particular gender, race, class, age or ethnicity, was defined.

It’s not suprising, then, that in the 1980s, and through to the 1990s, some of the best Australian art was produced using photography, and that the most challenging photography is done by women. After all, the roles assigned to women within Australian culture, and their identities as defined by the mass media, are most fluid at this time. They have the most at stake in the image field to which photography is central.

The strategy of appropriation

Each of these photographers re-uses imagery which is already circulating in our media or culture. Robyn Stacey, for instance, directly copies images off the video screen to construct her works.  Anne Zahalka, in the seriesThe Landscape Re-presented, 1982, copies and collages Australian painting ‘classics’. But images from the past do not have to be directly copied to appropriated, their surface appearance, visual style, and dramatic genre can be mimicked. The photographed tableaus in Tracey Moffatt’sSomething More, 1989, for instance, look like enlarged film stills from a Technicolor melodrama film that might have been made in the 1950s. While Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 1987,  evokes the 1940s Hollywood gangster genre of of the 1940s. In Resemblance, 1987, Anne Zahalka takes portraits of contemporary people, but in the manner of Dutch painters from the sixteenth century. And, in Some Lads, 1986, Tracey Moffatt’s portraits of young, spunky, Aboriginal men contain within them the visual memory of nineteenth century anthropological studies of Aborigines photographed by white colonisers. Tracey Moffatt said about this work: “Aborigines have been continually represented as ethnographic or documentary subjects. The idea behind my Some Lads series is an attempt to dispense with the seriousness and preciousness…which a lot of photographers…have cloaked us in…The images are intentionally posey and sensual. These are traits rarely assigned to Aborigines and rarely sought out and captured within photographs.”

In some cases these artists are using appropriation as a political strategy, a lever to prise apart things which are normally assumed to be glued together. For instance, the ‘golden summers’ paintings of the Heidelberg School, which celebrate the pastoral wealth of turn-of-the-century British colonisers, are often still used in advertising and the media as images of ‘Our Australia’. But where does this leave other Australias? Aboriginal Australia for instance? Or Migrant Australia? Or even Australia as a cultural satellite of the USA? In The Landscape Re-presented Anne Zahalka’s collaged interventions into these seamless Australian arcadias ask these questions on the level of the ‘truth’ of the image itself. At first the image appears familiar, then we notice a subtle alteration. Our momentary confusion forces us to re-think the familiar message of the original painting.

At other times appropriated visual genres are used as a powerful, shared language in which to talk about the artist’s personal emotions and desires. In a way we are all, as members the same culture, pre-programmed with a shared knowledge of the visual codes and rhetorics of the past. For instance the dramatic characters and spectacular scenarios of Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Redline 7000, 1989, and All the Sounds of Fear, 1990, immediately seem familiar to us because they are condensed and refined out of the phosphorescent soup of media images, genre types, character poses, cityscapes and special effects in which we are all electronically emersed. But not only do we recognise them, we also directly feel them because, to a certain extent, our shared experience of the media has helped to form us all as the kind of people we are. Robyn Stacey has said: “By reducing or abbreviating the imagery to the very skeletal aspects of narrative, I could concentrate on the more sinister, or more potent aspects of each symbol … I was fascinated by the fact that now, so litle information is needed to tell a story. It is sufficient to simply signpost sitiuations because viewers bring their own associations to images … I wanted to leave space in the work for this to happen.”

In Something More Tracey Moffatt provisionally occupies the narrative space of that ‘familiar story’ of an ‘outsider’ girl leaving a brutal home for the big city. But she does not just re-tell this story one more time, rather she uses it as a kind of allegory for the dislocation, loss, desire and oppression felt by all colonised peoples everywhere.

Anne Zahalka’s Dutch-style portraits in Resemblance  are of real people, but her portraits don’t claim to ‘plumb the depths of their souls’ in the way a traditional portrait might, rather we see her subjects as individuals constructed out of a present permeated by the past. As in all of her portraits, their individuality is not an inborn kernel of being, but is dependent on their social environment. The viewer is aware that Zahalka is re-using a particular visual rhetoric to construct a particular, provisional ‘portrait’. Another rhetoric could be used to construct another portrait of the same person. “In the nineteenth century it was thought that a good portrait should depict the character and being of a historical period. Such judgement assumes the objectivity of facts and the possibility of true perception. But in our time the solid historical reference points are threatened with dissolution, without exception. Time without a past, in which one can break off masonry from the ruin ‘history’ to adorn oneself in accordance with one’s own history and need.”

Similarly, in Bondi: Playground of the Pacific, 1989, Zahalka has documented Bondi, but she hasn’t documented it as a simple ‘place’, rather she has photographed Bondi as an ensemble of myths, histories, memories and prior images.  And this ensemble, which is seen to somehow ‘reflect’ Australia, is always under contention. She has again used staged tableaus to show the provisional nature of such enactments of nationhood.

Our shared language of images

The relationship between the artist and the viewer in this kind of art is a special one. The viewer is not asked to ‘experience’ the art work as some kind of magical distillation of the artist themself; nor does the viewer simply read and ‘understand’ the image as though it was a direct copy of reality; rather there is a pleasurable complicity between artist and viewer. Both artist and viewer delight in the shared exploration of visual languages and in the enpowering thrill of role playing and masquerade. Both artist and viewer delight in raiding the citadels of history and trespassing on the gardens of culture.

But in the best examples of this kind of art such playful transgression has a very serious purpose. For women, for instance, it might have a political purpose. Women have usually been the subject of history and culture, not its object. That is, they have been the models and muses, rarely the artists or creators. They have been those who are desired, rarely those who desire. In short, women have usually been asked to ‘dress up’ as themselves for others. In these art works they ‘dress up’ as others for themselves. These artists do what they have always been asked to do — become seductive, spin a web of illusion — but now they do it on their own terms. “Feminist photographers … aim to unfix the pre-given truths of social and cultural discourses. They work on the assumption that woman has been excluded from any control over the truth and language of these texts in the first place. Therefore they have nothing to lose by destabilising the feminine performances of allegory, muse and model that have provided woman’s conditional access to social and  cultural truth.”

The new reality of the mass media image world

This kind of art also takes a new approach to ‘reality’ itself. In looking at these pictures we take an almost connoisseurial pleasure in the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of the mediated image. We almost palpably savour the Technicolor gloss of Tracey Moffatt’s large Something More images, or and the Renaissance nobility of Anne Zahalka’s detailed Resemblance  tableaus, or the ‘cheap ‘n’ nasty’ inkiness of Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang series. Her All the Sounds of Fear  incorporates the temporal dimension of the media flow into the images graphically: “Horizontal panels replace the jump cut linear sequence of television crime drama…”. Her computer generated and manipulated Infinity Gardens 1 & 11, 1992, seem to imply an entirely new spatiality of the image, no longer a perspectival projection of the world, but now a cold enveloping and undulating surface which electronically generates a virtual space all around us. “Each work becomes a ‘screen of knowledge’, the illusion of a well ordered, highly rational world. But this is merely staying on the surface of events and things; it is a window on the world that keeps distancing and making observers of us, rather than active, inventive participants.”

All this draws our attention to the mediated image as a new kind of fact. It is now an artefact from an image world which perhaps is becoming just as substantial as the physical world.

Our common sense notion of reality is that there is a real physical world which we are able know through our own visual perceptions of it and the representations of it in painting, photography, film, video etc. We think: “the world comes first, then we know it through representations of it, and the two together make up reality”. This art, however, argues that in fact the two now interpenetrate each other. It suggests that there is no prior truth — of the person, or of history, or of culture, or of gender, or of sexuality, or of desire, or of science — which we reach through representation. Rather, these artists claim, what we know as the truth is produced within representation, not revealed by it. Therefore the truth at any one time is always affected by its social political and historical context, so it is always under negotiation, and it is always up for grabs.

That is why the field of the image has become an important site for these artists to talk about their own reality. They are not so much exposing fictions as revealing the multiple truths within fiction.

Martyn Jolly

July 1992

 

PHOTODRAMAS – Both an exhibition of photographs and a telling of tales

Catalogue Essay for Artspace exhibition with Anne Zahalka and Ken Heyes

SCREEN GEMS

Firstly, the medium — the Cibachrome photograph. A beautiful, hard object, the sheer gloss of which often obliterates the image whilst dazzling the viewer. The viewer’s head must constantly move in an attempt to slip the gaze, almost surreptitiously, under the image’s emanation; whereupon flecks of silver can nearly be fancied embedded in the plasticized emulsion.

Truly a technology of restless desire — an object whose image tantalizes. Not an object of prolonged contemplation, where the viewer’s gaze can be comfortably absorbed into a palpable surface, or can come safely to rest on the tread of a brush-stroke. Rather an object from which the gaze skids — always nearly too quickly, always nearly out of control.

Cibachrome is a technology of loss, of almost but not quite. Like a film frame which is only projected momentarily we cannot focus on the image’s grain, cannot fully grasp its informational plenitude. All we seem to be allowed is the chance to prepare ourselves for the next, equally elusive, frame. These images are at once near and far. at stasis and in movement. They are Screen Gems, auratic and fugitive.

FILM STILLS WITHOUT A FILM

Secondly, the succession — the story. Not a series in the ‘Directorial Mode’ of the 1970s, not a relentless click-click-click leading to that inevitable punchline which invariably testifies to the directorial subjectivity of an artist. Nor a purposively muted ‘catalogue of events’. Rather, a procession of photographed tableaux with a diegetic reference, but not a narrative rationale. Images which are freed from the ruthless logic of temporal causality but which remain articulated within a metonymic succession.

Like film stills without a film they are nodes of dramatic over-determination left high and dry by a receding story line. These images take their cue from those other moments of film that are similarly marooned by cinematic narrative: those romantic moments on the ship’s deck against a back-projected moonlit sea; those dizzying car chases down Broadway where the back-projected pedestrians appear to sway drunkenly as they step from the kerb: those ‘significant’ close-ups on that vital clue; those attenuated ‘establishing shots’ before anything actually happens.

These Cibachromes are images which simultaneously ‘hold’ and ‘pull on’. They have metaphoric depth — they reach out to pull in the viewer’s powers of association — yet they also assume the viewer’s movement from one image to the next. They both burrow back into the gallery wall and point the way along it.

They are filmic without being cinematic. The standard cinematic suturing devices of ‘shot, reverse shot’, ‘point of view’, etc, are kept to a pragmatic minimum. The streamlined efficiency of the mechanics of traditional narrative is abandoned; each image is allowed, instead, the possibility of a ‘permutational unfolding’.

These successions are concatenations yet more still, since syntagmatic progressions are discounted each image is granted a multiplicity of paradigmatic levels on which to operate. These are not moments of connection between a before and an after, but moments of association within a configuration of befores, afters and nows.

TO SHOW AND TO SHOW TO SHOW

Thirdly, the image — the tableau. Not simply a photograph, since each image in enunciated by a scenario. Nor simply a montage, since there is no hope of a purely formal resolution to the image’s internal dynamics. Neither is there any surreal contradiction, nor any ostranenie. These are not dream images, nor images of formulaic play. No feats of imagination are required from the viewer, nor any self-satisfied grunts of privileged recognition — only work, reverie recharged as reading.

Each image is a semantic confine of diegetic elements — a careful assemblage of people, places, props, and other photographs into a plot, though not a plot closure. The awesome, rational, renaissance space of the camera is not attacked, nor embraced — merely assumed for the sake of argument.

These images proclaim their artifice, but have no point to make about it They both show and show to show for the viewer’s benefit, not their own. The viewer is faced with a referential emptiness in which a new reading must be made. The artifice of these images is a function of their considered construction from a lexicon of cultural redolences. The viewer’s reading of these images must be just as considered.

These tableaux are attempts to work with the visual culture without being subject to it, to manipulate cultural signs without simply being quotational or ironic. The viewer is left with the pleasure of working from one image to the next without consuming them. As part of this work reading may slow down, pause, reverse, or even speed up; whilst never losing sight of the ‘diegetic horizon’, nor ever simply following the logic of a story.

INHABIT FISSURES AND TRAVEL FAULTLINES

Finally, ‘Photodramas’ does not attack photography or film. It is not avant-garde, nor revolutionary. Rather it seeks to both loosen and rupture traditional cinematic and photographic modes of reading. The viewer is invited to inhabit the fissures and travel the faultlines of these ruptures, to read the stories without being their subject, to view the photographs without being the camera’s eye. In fact, to be the worst possible audience — interested but obstreperous.

Martyn Jolly

Sources

Roland Barthes. “The Third Meaning”, from Image Music Text Fontana, 1977

Alain Robbe-Gnllett. “Order and Disorder in Film and Fiction”, from Alpha, Trans, Chung, by Peter D’Agostino. NFS Press 1978.

KILLING TIME (What’s on our minds)

1985 Text for Mori Gallery exhibition Killing Time with Jeff Kleem, Jacky Redgate, Maureen Burns, Anne Zahalka, Ken Heyes, Juliee Pryor, Bruce Searle, Martyn Jolly, Mori Gallery January 1985

We no longer feel any joy in camera vision. We no longer delight In the eye. Photographers were once ever alert to the new, the revealing, the penetrating. Not any more. No more vertiginous camera angles, no more witty composltlons, no more frozen moments, no more timeless landscapes,

The photographer’s eye once strained to see as far as possible, penetrate as deeply as possible into the real. ‘The real’ was a complicated plot that only reluctantly revealed its secrets. It was a veil to be lifted, a chaos to be ordered, a depth to be plumbed. Not any more. Now our  photographer’s eyes are numbed. The stroboscopic ‘shocks of recognition’, provoked by ‘decisive moments’ in time, have reached the frequency of a tv’s pulsation. Everything now pereieved through the camera’s lens is an always already seen, known and read. Now we do see forever, for in photography we see everything always.

The photograph was once the function of a vertical thrust – a probing lens, a straining eye. Print clarity, lens resolution and artistic perception were all indices of this depth. Photography once seemed to be simply the collection of these photographs – a set of individual ‘seens’, a forest of camera extrusions. Now Its ubiquity has congealed into a field of contiguities. Each photograph is now merely one of all the photographs in the world – an image with edges but no boundaries. Each photograph shares in the same substance as every other photograph, each dips into the same pool of immediacy and veracity. The Integral history and historical location of each is subsumed into the immanent photographic presence. All the photographs in the world have congealed to form a global, gelatinous skin. Photography is now not so much a window on the world as an oily film which coats it.

Current photographic practice has ceased to be defined by the vertical thrust entailed In the act of taking a photograph. It Is no longer a series of Individualistic probes. Now it isdefined by the horizontal slide of the photograph’s infinite displacement and endless proliferation through reproduction. (A reproduction in which the mechanical and electronic exponentially multiply the photograph’s Inherent reproducibility.) Now we blindly feel our way across the global, mobius surface of photography with the expectation of revealing nothing new.

Yet photography qua photography persists. Its horizontallzation has not destroyed its priveleged relationslilp to the real  ‑ its optical andchemlcal -causality. Its almost carnal palpability. Only the particularity of the object, the eye and the Instant has been lost: individual photographs endlessly circulate beneath photography’s smooth skin; the photographer’s eye stares blankly ahead; the decisive moment expands to dissolve the instant.                                  –

We abandon vision In favour of the surface, penetration in favour of the survey. We Invite the quotatlonal, parodic and ironic to play across the photographic field. Photographs are rephotographed. Empty arcades are searched for the traces of previous photographers. The immaculate ‘reality’ that once-upon-a-time existed before the, cameras of famous photographers Is recreated and rephotographed in a cruel parody of ‘original vision’. Faces loom in a conflagration of masterpiece and blowup. Innocent, ‘sensitive’ emulsion is clinically spread to passively await its fate. The delicious pain of precious memories is nurtured in funereal swadling, or casually collected like holiday souvenirs. The two-dimensional and three-dimensional relentlessly fight it out. Texts and images gossip about each other behind their own backs. The game of portraiture is played out on an elaborate scale to once more gain our attention. Individual photographs supi-iliantly curl in their own transparent nests.

Martyn Jolly

Australian Photography in the 1980s: Connoisseurs of the Code

‘Martyn Jolly: Commentary’, Anne Marsh, Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, ISBN 978-1-92-1394-10-2, p385.

I remember the graffiti that appeared on a wall in my first year of art school, it read: ‘Postmodern Cadets’. Postmodernism was the one word that described the decade. At art school I read Roland Barthes’ semiotic deconstructions of the photographic message, first published in English in 1977. Other touchstone events were WOPOP’s Australian Photography Conference held in Melbourne in 1980, the first issue of Art & Text in 1981, and Sydney University’s Futur Fall conference in 1984, at which Jean Baudrillard spoke. I loved (and still love) the traditions of photography — the fine print, the grabbed street shot — but the 1980s was the decade that made all those traditions problematic — another favourite 1980s word. Photography was no longer the product of its own discrete history but was now in dialogue with painting, performance, video and film. It was no longer just an art form but was now an integral part of the cultural discourse around the powers of the mass media, the desires and disciplines of the body, and the telling of history. From being relegated to the sidelines, the photograph suddenly found itself at the very centre of attention as the model for what was happening to reality itself — which was said to be becoming thin, brittle and increasingly defined by the exchange of signs. For photographers, the decade was marked by a schizoid relationship to the photograph — both suspicion and seduction. This tension produced an amazing variety of work, from the grimly declamatory to the extravagantly coloured. As photographs grew in size, ambition and self-importance, we all became connoisseurs of the code, sharing amongst ourselves our knowledge of visual styles, genres, modes, subtexts and connotations with a kind of guilty delectation.

Martyn Jolly