International photography – Australia: Jane Brown and Gerwyn Davies
International Photography: is a new series of conversations from Loupe. Each edition is held by a writer and two photographers, who all share ties to a country. The series searches for commonalities in photographic output from particular regions, as well as discussing the photographers’ own practices.
Interview by James McArdle – In this interview I spoke to photographers Jane Brown and Gerwyn Davies, whose work represents the diversity of practice in Australia, and at the same time characterises aspects of this country.
Jane Brown’s first exhibition in 2009 had the prescient title A Hopeless Taste of Eternity. The ‘hopeless taste’ is a palpable melancholia for the strangeness of a white history that is grafted onto Australia, imprinted in the analogue monochromes of her silver gelatin series.
Gerwyn Davies approaches this understanding with irony. His series are theatric in their digitised colouration and meticulous realisation. In them, he appears as the protagonist, but so heavily costumed as to be invisible. His backdrops are seamless exaggerations of the intense climate of his native Ipswich; peerless blue skies or radioactive sunsets.
Both photographers touch on a sense of the eternal which is always close in a country shared with a continuous civilisation of more than 40,000 years, but dismissed by our forebears as a ‘Terra Nullius’ (nobody’s land).
James McArdle: How have you come to know each others work and what has been your response to it?
Gerwyn Davies: I discovered Jane’s work at Stills Gallery in early 2017. I was drawn to her subjects in Sporting Country and the melancholic spaces through which Jane and her camera move. These sites are instantly familiar, yet through Jane’s work they are tinged with a sadness or listlessness, which for me was a new way of seeing them, as I envisage them soaked in saturated colour and crammed with people. Such iconic and nostalgic spaces loom large in my mind, but Jane strips them all back, making me look at the substructure more closely, they appear vulnerable and impermanent.
Jane Brown: Suite, 2018, is what immediately comes to mind when I think of Gerwyn’s work. Photographed in the Windsor Hotel, we see a figure bound-up in a metallic, peach-coloured balloon. Trapped, like a party balloon man for hire gone wrong, he sits alone on a sofa framed by the chintz fabric of the hotel curtains. and then you notice he is also wearing hotel slippers, which makes the work seem all so human.
JM: What does the term ‘Terra Nullius’ (nobody’s land) mean to you in terms of Australia’s obsession with public monuments, and what is the importance of the constructed or industrial environment in your imagery?
GD: This is a huge question. Being of European descent, living on stolen and un-ceded ground, I don’t have the authority to answer that on the personal level. There is increasing debate about the choice of the monuments that are erected in Australia at the moment, and internationally too. I think it’s reasonable for indigenous people not to want the spoils of war and its key actors heralded as bronze heroes scattered throughout public parks, on land that was taken from their ancestors with violence that remains unacknowledged.
The constructed environment, in particular spaces for leisure and recreation, have been important in developing my work. I’m interested in the design and designation of public spaces for tourist activities globally, how they are constructed in routine ways to provide a space for having an enjoyable, often family-oriented time. These spaces bank on clichés in their construction, when you step back and look at them as empty sites alone, as Jane is doing, this recipe or formula becomes really obvious and as a result humorous. When you start to think about leisure or relaxation as something that is highly fabricated and choreographed, where a space is first made within which to perform the act of tourism and relaxation, it becomes uncomfortable; all those awkward family holidays conducted in these simulated spaces. In that sense I am captivated by the constructed environment when it is highly artificial, social and importantly performative.
JB: I think in Australia there is often an indifference to history and to the built environment – a kind of erasure that I don’t understand. Though Australians have no greater an obsession with public monuments than other nations and perhaps a lesser obsession with monumentalism, our colonial concept of Terra Nullius is both overwhelming and appalling, and of course a nonsense. While my work is not a commentary on land rights per se it is the idea of absence/presence that interests me. This is alluded to in both landscapes and interiors where people are absent but we see traces of human activity.
JM: Wolfgang Sievers was one of the immigrant photographers who brought modernism to Australia – has his work influenced you?
GD: His work is beautiful but I wouldn’t say it has directly influenced my own.
JB: In 2014 I was commissioned by the Centre for Contemporary Photography to create a work in response to Wolfgang Sievers. It was a lovely opportunity to work with the Sievers archive and legacy. I was always drawn to his architectural work for its formalism and geometry. I looked at a paper mill that Sievers had photographed. The mill to me had become a testament to manufacturing in decline, far from the pristine example of the modernist era architecture that it likely signified to Sievers. The abandoned paper factory was overborne with stairs and monstrous machines and I described the work as having the appearance of a Carceri etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Unlike Sievers I tried to create a sense of disquiet and unease – far from being the shiny examples of engineering in the machine age, these abandoned machines were worn down, covered in pulp. Despite the efforts of heritage groups to save some of the site’s industrial legacy, the majority of the factory has now been demolished.
JM: Has the selfie replaced the tourist snapshot of the ‘big thing’?
GD: I wouldn’t say it replaced it, instead it reprioritised the frame. The ‘big thing’ is now slightly obstructed. A successful tourist space must be photogenic. Now instead of just capturing the family for the private photo album, the task is to perform the holiday for a wide network of strangers in real time. Through social media anyone can flip through that private family album with their sticky hands, so the function of the image changes. It drags in all these issues of performance and self-branding that are fascinating. The snapshot is still essential to tourism, but it has now become important to not photograph an empty landscape. If anything, these big things are successful in that they are singular, iconic and accommodate posturing in front of them; they can be collected and they are geographically specific, providing a distinctive backdrop to the holiday self.
JB: This culture of narcissism really scares me. Personally I like the ‘big things’ you see on road trips – something melancholic and naïve about them. I particularly enjoyed photographing the big trout in Adaminaby.
JM: Gerwyn, you work exclusively in colour, while Jane, you work in black and white, and have titled one of your series Island of the Colourblind. Are your preferences indicative of interests in specific periods of photography and its technical development?
GD: My interest in colour isn’t intentionally drawing on a specific period of photography, but I think a shared interest in particular subjects and spaces can connect it with the predominantly American colour movement of the 1970’s. People like Shore, Epstein, Sultan, Meyerowitz but also Parr, artists (I apologise I just listed all men) working with the vivid and saccharine idealism of that time, often exploring themes of tourism and travel. Using such vivid colours is a visual excess that lures a viewer, suspends them there momentarily before realising things are a bit odd and unnatural in the detail, that something hard or sinister might lurk beneath the shiny veneer. I am interested in colour on the precipice of unnatural; that unnerving edge of artificial where skies are a little too blue, as in Blue Velvet or Edward Scissorhands.
JB: Island of the Colourblind is the title of a series of work I showed at Breenspace (2013). The exhibition title refers to a 1997 book by the same name, written by neurologist Oliver Sacks about the Micronesian atoll of Pingelap, where approximately 5% of the population are affected by achromatopsia, a disorder characterised by seeing in black and white. The island’s inhabitants are only able to describe their world in terms ‘rich with pattern and tone, luminance and shadow’. It was a useful and touching metaphor for my obsession with monochrome.
Black-and-white may differentiate the living and the dead, the past and the present. It can transcend the constraints of time, memory and death; all subjects of my work in which landscapes contain vestiges or traces of past life and memorials become otherworldly. I like to think they are poised somewhere between nostalgia and an awareness of the uncanny in our contemporary world.
JM: Both of you employ some form of installation in making or exhibiting your work; how and why has this become part of your practice?
GD: My personal interest and investment in photography is in the processes that come before and after capture and so in that, the majority of my practice happens in planning, building, wearing, performing and then editing and experimenting. I haven’t done a great deal of installation when exhibiting my work, but I am interested in developing this further, considering how the work can leak out of the frame and take up gallery space through constructed objects.
JB: The works are hand printed so there is a sense that they are objects in their own right. This is conceptualised in the way I install the works, some of my installations have been described as musical, I certainly pay attention to spacing and rhythm.
JM: What is the importance of craft in your photography?
GD: Craft is immensely important to my work but not necessarily traditional photographic craft. The making and preparation that comes before the image is where my interest lies, the ornamentation of my body, the construction of a false world, it’s all wrangling materials and craft in a more traditional sense. While Jane spends hours in the darkroom meticulously working her prints, I don’t control the output as it is done by a professional lab. The majority of my own labour lies in preparing for the image and that for me is very physical.
JB: It is of course hugely important. In my case the darkroom is fundamental and the printing stage key to the way I understand my work. The alchemy of the process is magical and I find the whole experience of darkroom work very contemplative. I feel it is important to print my own work, to have that control and ownership. It also gives me the freedom to experiment, spending hours just working on one print; mucking around with contrast, paper surfaces and toners. I feel very privileged to work with film, for me the darkroom print is the only logical conclusion to the many steps in the process of making the work.
JM: There is both humour and misery in your work – is the emotional reaction of audiences a gratifying response, or would you rather it be intellectual?
GD: I can’t dictate the response that people have to the work, if people are looking at it at all that’s tremendous. There is a lot of (often convoluted) thought and research and experimentation that goes into building the work and I’m happy that not every conversation is about the intricacies of that. If people feel comfortable to have their own response, then diverse and unexpected conversations and observations can take place. People are generally pretty forthcoming with their feedback and some of this then informs future work, some of it is hilarious, sometimes its confessional, it’s always more interesting than talking to myself about the work.
JB: Of course I would hope there is both an emotional and intellectual response to the work but I am completely with Gerwyn on this – you can never know or control how your work will be interpreted, as frustrating as that can be at times. What worries me is that people may interpret my work from just what they see on the Internet. For me it’s more important that they see the actual work rather than mediated through a screen. I want them to see the actual surface of the work, to see the final print which in my view renders the work to a more elegiac interpretation.
JM: Can photography still influence our political and social stance?
GD: Yes. Hopefully. I’m sure Kim Kardashian could mobilise her 116 million followers (just checked that number) to do all sorts of things.
JB: Personally I am not drawn to making overly didactic imagery which doesn’t mean I am not interested in political or social issues. I am suspicious of the power of social media to encourage groupthink and reconstitute new forms of social control. But in answer to your question I do believe photography can still provide a platform of influence.
JM: Human presence is implied but invisible or concealed in your work – why?
GD: I am interested in fabricating these characters that are ‘others’, it isn’t about sharing something about me as an artist specifically so concealing the face is important in putting some distance between my person and the image. It allows me to reinvent and become something else and focus on the body as a platform for this process. To build out and extend upon it. I am interested in creating these characters, narratives, places, events that exist only within the frame, that are sealed off tight inside the image world from the rest of us. They are really cumbersome constructions and so they don’t feel entirely human even to me.
JB: It is my chance encounters with the traces people leave behind that I find most interesting and moving; it draws attention to the evanescent nature of our existence.
JM: What are the projects you’re currently undertaking?
GD: I am currently in Kyoto on an Australia Council residency looking at Japanese performance and working on my studio practice in response. I am watching incredible performances and understanding not a single word, but the characterisation, the costumes and the movement of their bodies is amazingly emotive. I am hoping to pilfer that energy and develop and improve the use of my body, the expression of character in my own work while also returning to more site-specific work around Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, outside of the photo studio for a while.
JB: The project I am most excited about at the moment is a collaboration I have with a writer, Monica Raszewski. The work is a kind of dreamscape about memory, travel and displacement. Written as a novella my photographic work will compliment the essay, not in any illustrative or literal sense but in a more in abstracted, meditative way.
JM: Thank you both.
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