It intrigues me that the English language uses the prefix auto when referring to a biography of or about oneself, and yet, unlike the French – auto-portrait – English resorts to the prefix self-portraiture when describing an artist creating an image of themselves. I have chosen the French version here for the title of this new work, perhaps as an acknowledgement of the enduring influence of the early adult years of my life spent within that particular language and culture; a culture, it should be noted, that played quite a pivotal part in the early history of photography – the medium within which I work. So here, in the thirteen images I present in this exhibition, is an auto-portrait – by an autodidact.
Wary of much of the current usage of the artist’s statement – artists seeking to justify work by referencing at times quite complex and obscure contemporary art theory – let me tread carefully here lest I commit the same crime. There is all too often a severe discrepancy between such statements and the actual visual work on the walls. One of the buzz words in much recent writing on contemporary art is the word identity, and I will, no doubt, be obliged to consider this concept in what I write here, but before I do, let me first shed some light on why I have chosen to work within the conventions of the self-portrait by recounting some autobiographical anecdotes.
As a young child I remember delighting, as most children do, in playing dress-ups. With scant means and boundless imagination I would transform myself into some exotic other – a sheet wrapped around my loins with a curtain rod as my prod and I would become the elephant boy, riding my elephant around the house in a state of ecstatic joy.
I have often wryly noted to friends my belief that life peaks at around the time one turns six or seven and is all pretty much down hill from then on. Our complex cerebral hemispheres start to kick in and we progressively lose that joyous spontaneity. We become more reflexively aware of ourselves, conscious of our own actions and aware of ourselves as perceived by others. We start to define and present ourselves in terms of our peers. Cultural conventions start to dictate how we are. Even sub-groups defying such pressures are often bound by fierce peer group conformity, albeit to a smaller base.
I count myself fortunate to have had opportunities in my life to side step some of these conventions, some of this peer pressure. The first of these opportunities unfolded exactly forty years ago. Then just 21 years old, I bought a one-way fare to Europe on an Italian migrant ship and in mid 1968 I disembarked in Genoa. Within a month or so I had fallen head-long into French culture and the French language. With frequent breaks in Paris between seasonal work, for the next four or five years I managed to earn a living travelling and working with the French in different countries throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Thus, as I moved into this new existence, effectively leaving behind me all that was my past, my history, my peers – even my own language – I had the chance to explore within a much broader context the notion of my own identity. Even in the simple way I presented myself, the clothing that I wore, I was freed up from past conventions, allowing myself to dress according to the culture I was working in at the time. I thrived on, and felt so at ease with, this cross-cultural dressing.
Eventually and inevitably I was to return to Australia – to my own history and my own past and once again old cultural conventions were to dictate some control over the way I presented myself. A certain physicality of contact with others inherent in French culture had to be modified, and my somewhat flamboyant cross-cultural dressing had to give way to a more conventional form of dress. One cannot go through daily life in what would have been perceived here as ‘fancy dress’ mode without being branded eccentric.
In the latter part of my time spent in Europe as a young man I became involved in two different fields of interest, the first of these was photography and the other was acting. Both these interests developed into pivotal aspects of my life when I returned to Australia, and both these interests, at different times and in differing ways, were to allow me once again to explore notions of identity – my own and that of others.
In this current work I have sought to draw on both photography
and theatre to play with the question of identity within the
portrait. Historically my work in portraiture has always been very direct,
with the sitter looking very consciously into the camera: this new work
is no exception. Yet within this quite rigorous structure, I have used
the convention of the self-portrait to revisit the ‘fancy dress’
games of my childhood. The elephant boy has re-emerged to play with cross-cultural
references, to play with conventions of male attire, to play with colour,
and to play with these notions of identity.
P.S. Like the young elephant boy that I was, I can still, on occasion, experience ecstatic joy, but it tends to manifest itself in a much more subdued manner these days.