Wednesday, 1 May 2013

In Conversation | Drew Pettifer

Untitled (ACC), chromogenic print, 36 x 42cm, 2013

You're running out of time to catch Drew Pettifer's fantastic show Androgyne at Wallflower. So, for the last week of his show we organized a nice little interview about his work, experiences and what to expect in the future.

This is your second visit to Mildura and I know you grew up in central Victoria, what attracts you to this region?

In fact this is my third trip to the region (though the first two were in quick succession), so I do have some attraction to the place. I first came up to do a residency at The Art Vault while making a work at the Perry Sandhills. That was in August 2011. The place certainly left an impression on me, as I was back only a month later to help document the Mungo Youth Project and to catch Palimpsest in September 2011. As a country boy myself I do have an interest in Regional Victoria and take a somewhat autobiographic approach to the Victorian landscape in other bodies of work. I think I am particularly drawn to Mildura though for its open engagement with the arts. The community here seems to express a degree of interest and involvement you just don't get in many other regional centres - and I say this as a member of the board of the Shepparton Art Museum. I always enjoy coming back here and engaging with the local art community.

In Androgyne you challenge the traditional binary approach to gender, embracing a more gender-queer reading of identity. What role does Judith Bultler’s theory of gender distinction being ‘performative’ conditioning have to play in this exhibition?

Yes, you're right to say that Androgyne is an attempt to challenge to traditional binary approach to gender, where you are either male or female, masculine or feminine, with a correlation between male and masculine and female and feminine. Judith Butler argued that the connection between these categories wasn't innate, but was rather socially constructed, and she came up with the idea of 'performing' gender in the late 1980s. She wasn't saying that we can adopt any gender identity we like, but rather that it is through a series of performed acts - like the clothes we wear, the way we cut our hair, our mannerisms etc - that we perform our gender identity. These ideas are all central to the exhibition. What I have effectively done is remove many of the signifiers of gender in the works in Androgyne so that the viewer is left without the cultural coordinates to locate the gender of the subject, enacting what Butler called 'gender trouble', where the distinction between the two dominant gender categories become troubled and blurred.

Your previous work has a strong personal narrative to it: domestic environments, descriptive titling. The Androgyne series removes that identification, providing a surface representation that eschews the previous intimacy. Is this switch from personal to universal reflecting a shift in the focus of your practice? Something perhaps a little more analytical?

I think you've identified a real shift in my practice here. In the past 2-3 years I have expanded my practice from a singular focus on intimate, domestic photography to include a more conceptual and perhaps more politicised strand within my work. I still make intimate domestic works, but these are no longer my sole area of practice - or even the centre of my practice. And I do think this reflects a kind of opening up to a more universal and engaged practice where the audience is asked to consider specific issues and ideas, such as androgyny and gender trouble in this body of work, or the history of the struggle for sexual rights in the Still Revolting billboard series, or the relationship between the subject, the photographer and the desiring lens in Hand in Glove. So there is a real analytical thread in these more recent works, which certainly reflects the present trajectory of my practice.

You’ve mentioned that your subjects are primarily sourced through friends, how important was the role of sexual tension when working with people you know, particularly the heterosexual males? I presume there has been a varied range of reactions from the participants’ friends, family, etc and how important is this tension to the work?

It seems that the majority of my subjects are heterosexual males, most of whom are friends or friends of friends. The tension that invariably arises between myself and the subject, both in terms of the power relationship between a subject and a photographer and in terms of the tension that arises around queer desire, certainly animates the work, or at least I hope it does. I suppose it is at this point of tension that the work becomes somewhat collaborative, as both artist and subject compromise in some way to resolve the work. In some ways all relationships are about negotiation, compromise and the tension between people and because my subjects are quite active participants in my work I guess it is even more inherent in my work. I hope that some of this tension comes through for the audience too since I think these ideas around negotiated desire and intimacy are ideas many people can relate to.

Australia has quite a conservative cultural climate where mainstream media often indulges in a sensationalist reading of sexuality in art (especially country Australia). Your work engages people in a provocative discourse around gender and sexuality, do you find that this is a challenging environment to be working and exhibiting in? Does it inspire or distract you?

I think I oscillate between finding it a worthy challenge and finding it totally demoralising that we seem to live in fairly socially conservative times, particularly when it comes to issues like gender, sexuality and identity. On the one hand, it can feel important to make work which aspires to some kind of socially progressive position in such a climate, but at other times it can be tempting to just move to a city with more like-minded people; which is possibly one of the reasons for the influx of Australian artists in cities like Berlin. While I don't advocate that all artists become activist artists, I think artists have an obligation to engage with their social and cultural context. They invariably reflect this context anyway simply by being part of contemporary society - no-one makes art in a vacuum - so I encourage more artists to engage with this context more through intelligent, artistic responses. Some Australian artists seem to do this rather well, such as Richard Bell, but I would love to see more people fighting the good fight.

Last year you had show at CCP “Hand in Glove” where you moved from behind the camera, forcing the viewer to contemplate your work in a different, more immediate way. How important was it to blur that distinction between the ‘distance’ of looking at a photographic record of an event and ‘participation’ of the viewer through their presence in the space of performance?

The works in this show were very gestural, in the literal sense that they focused on capturing a particular gesture. My concern was that the photographic documentation of performing this gesture could be received quite passively. We are so accustomed to reading photographs today that we can let almost any images wash over us. I wanted to punctuate the anaesthetic effect of mediated imagery to add an immediacy to the gesture by performing it live at various points in the exhibition alongside the photographs.  This forced the viewer to evaluate the gesture itself and to confront the subjects and the gesture in real time, rather than just analysing it as a photographic image.

Do you plan to do more performance projects?

I do, yes. Most of them involve using subjects to perform works I have devised, but I do hope to reintroduce my own body into my work at times; it seems appropriate with a practice centred around the body and desire that I should include myself in the work when the work calls for it. I should mention that I included a brief performance at the opening of Androgyne at Nellie Castan Gallery last month where one of the subjects performed the 'tucking' gesture live in the space for a period of time, so it seems to be becoming another facet of my practice.

Can you elaborate on the large-scale video project you are working on that you shoot in the Perry sand hills (rumour has it this work is contemplated for the Palimpsest Biennale)?

The work has been given the working title Sturt’s Boat. It is a fairly ambitious three-channel video work that was filmed in the Perry Sandhills a little while ago, which is presently being edited and scored.  The work revolves around themes of masculinity, vulnerability, futility, performativity and endurance.  The project takes its cue from the historical narrative of the colonial explorer Charles Sturt who spent much of his life championing the notion of an inland sea in Central Australia.  He was so convinced of his theory that he led a major expedition into the interior in 1844, taking two large whaleboats with him.  The conditions on the expedition were horrific, yet Sturt persevered in blind hope.  The incongruous image of these men persisting to carry these boats through the harsh Australian landscape forms the central motif of the video work. The project involved the reproduction of a historical whaleboat, which was taken up to the Mildura region and used in a filmed performance where four young male subjects wearing only khaki shorts carried the boat across the surrounding desert landscape, literally for hours.

Lastly, we have asked a number of artists what they would recommend the viewer to listen to while experiencing their exhibition and we have received a number of interesting responses. What would you suggest for the Wallflower show?

Well the first song that comes to mind is Blur's "Boys and Girls"! Other suggestions might be "Androgyny" by Garbage, Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel" ("You've got your mother in a whirl/Cos she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl") or even Richard Thompson's "Woman or a Man".

Any questions for Team Wallflower?

It seems to be onward and upward for Team Wallflower. What's next? And do you see an end point for Wallflower, or do you see it as an ongoing project?

We hope that it will be an ongoing project and see a future for Wallflower in Mildura as a photomedia-dedicated space. We are also working to get more Australian and international artists out to regional Victoria and involved with the unique landscape of the area. Next week we have Daisuke Morishita from Japan and Wallflower will also be hosting a popup bookstore with Perimeter Books from Melbourne to co-incide with the Mildura Writer’s Festival.