Photospace and Siren Deluxe
By Mark Amery
For over ten years Photospace in Courtenay Place has been providing a home for photographers. The only gallery dedicated to photography in Wellington it’s big on inclusiveness, steered by a dynamo of a man with a keen eye and a passionate advocate for photographers, James Gilberd.
There’s a higher quantity to quality ratio than you’ll find with the leading art dealers, but this opener model has proven itself. With Gilberd’s adventurous idiosyncratic spirit, there’s the joy of never knowing quite what you’ll get. But a great stock room is testament to the fact that quantity can beget quality when there’s limited support for these artists elsewhere. This year there have been quality adventurous shows to match from Yvonne Westra, Pippa Sanderson, Peter Black and Andrew Ross, to name a few better knowns. Like a good creative laboratory there’s always something interesting developing, providing a launchpad for newcomers and an engaged community for the experienced artists.
Gilberd likes activity. His business is a whirl of side projects. A year ago saw the opening of the Gilberd Marriot Gallery in the same building, providing curated shows of other visual artists’ work. A studio in Dixon Street is available as a gallery space for hire, and Gilbert has a grafitti-ed basement space near Cuba Mall, for which he is asking for expressions of interest for a weekend underground art gallery and market, to open in January. In December Gabrielle McKone, whose shoot-from-the-hip street photography is in the Peter Black tradition (her daily blog is a delight), has a show in the lightboxes in Courtenay Place opening, with Gilberd curating. With this man it’s always a case of watch this space.
Siren Deluxe has been a regular exhibitor at Photospace since 2001. Deluxe has been a good example of how sex continues to sell - her so-called erotic-feminist nude photography getting plenty of media for being supposedly controversial.
While admiring her sculptural boldness at times, I’ve tended to find the work cold, flat and simply constructed rather than sensual or shocking. Nor in its gender and sexuality games has it had much new to say next to the wave of enduring work by women photographers in the 1980s that played with these themes.
With current show NZ Bound however things I think start to get more interesting as they get more personal. There’s a vulnerability that leads to a far more knotty nakedness.
The work is a response to escaping New Zealand, care of a residency at the Museum of Sex in New York, only to find that things aren’t as edgy as envisaged. At a distance Deluxe came to value what she had left behind.
“I was disappointed to discover,” she writes, “New York supported unadventurous art galleries showing generic paintings. I was appalled to witness the waste and pollution of the city, and the women arrogantly wrapped head to toe in exotic furs.
Shock, horror! While someone could have told Deluxe this, the experience has clearly been formative and the story is one we can relate to. She expresses shock in New York at how her values suddenly felt polarized - a push and pull tension expressed in this exhibition by the use of bondage imagery.
An example of how Deluxe’s use of symbolism can be simple, strong and nicely executed sees legs photographed against black dangling down from the top of a long portrait shaped picture frame, the head and rest of the body already having risen beyond. The legs (perhaps also representing New Zealand’s outline) have escaped a gold plated anchor with rope that is a real object resting on a plinth in the gallery. Yet the ankles remain tied together by the frayed rope at the other end. A metaphor for feeling you’ve broken free from an old anchor but still feel tied.
This compares to a more trite and obvious statement here where leather bondage anklets and braces are strapped to skateboard sized outlines of the North and South Islands(a case of “in the bonds of love we meet”?). More effective across from it as a symbol of the comfort and danger of personal history is New Zealand’s outline is quilted onto a soiled mattress or padded cell wall, held within a large gilded frame.
One of the strongest images in the show is of a naked woman in a semi-foetal position lying on an anonymous made-up bed, a hand clasping a toe, her head encased in a plastic skull. It relates to how Siren suffered from migraines whilst in New York but also taps into how the mind and body aren’t always at one in terms of both location and sexuality. In starting to uncover the conflicting feelings about sex and personal history at a distance you get the sense Deluxe has started to dig into deeper psychological ground below glossy surfaces.
NZ Bound, Siren Deluxe, Photospace, until 28 November