October 2010

Arts & Letters

The faith of images

By Peter Conrad
‘Up Close’

Why, confronted by a camera, are we expected to smile? A face, as Carol Jerrems said, “tells the story of what a person is thinking”. Although mouths find it easy to lie by twisting their corners upwards, “the eyes”, as Jerrems put it, “reveal the suffering”. Kodak moments supposedly preserve our instants of happiness but in doing so they remind us that time has passed, leaving us with the sad second-best of a replica. Jerrems underlined the melancholy of her own art in Mirror with a Memory: Motel Room, an ingeniously staged post-coital photograph of herself and her lover Esben Storm. Reflected in the mirror, Jerrems stands naked in front of a used bed, her camera, with its metallic, monocular lens, replacing her face. Storm, at whom she aims the gadget, is seated, talking on the phone with an open agenda in front of him: his pleasure – as momentary as a photograph – is already behind him and he is making plans to move on. The camera masks her feelings about his indifference or preoccupation. Unable to see the suffering in her eyes, we are challenged to intuit the emotional atmosphere. For Jerrems, an image was an education in empathy.

Australia is impatient to canonise its artists, and in Jerrems’ case the process has been fast-tracked, because her premature death made her one of photography’s martyrs. She worked during the 1970s, an interlude of political and personal liberty when the activists of her generation, helped by handouts from the Whitlam government, constructed a new Australian culture. Before the end of the decade she was ill, stricken by a rare liver condition; she died, aged only 30, early in 1980. The cruel interruption probably did not surprise her. She modelled herself on Diane Arbus, who photographed a New York menagerie of freaks and crazies, and then – in a gesture interpreted by some critics as a testimony of good faith, proof that Arbus shared the misery of her subjects and was not cynically taking advantage of them – slashed her wrists in a bathtub and died in 1971 at the age of 48. Jerrems, according to her teacher and friend Paul Cox, “felt that she should do the Diane Arbus business totally”. Doing the business totally included dying.

The analogy with Arbus is harped on throughout the catalogue of Up Close – an exhibition currently being held at Heide Museum of Modern Art – which also measures the work of Jerrems against that of the Americans Larry Clark and Nan Goldin and her Australian contemporary William Yang. The connection has posthumously exalted Jerrems but it may not be appropriate or just. She and Arbus were as different as Manhattan and Melbourne. Arbus had a richly remunerated daytime job fulfilling commissions from glossy magazines, such as Esquire and Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar and Sports Illustrated; she sought out her deviants and mutants after hours. Jerrems, lacking a local market for her work, was less fortunate. She refused to take commercial assignments, and spent the last year of her life teaching photography in Hobart. The only collection of her work, A Book About Australian Women, was a pulpy paperback, cheaply bound and poorly proofread. In 1975, after pleading that she needed “to meet other photographers, in London and New York”, she received a travel grant from the Australia Council. She was unable to use it because the living allowance was not enough to support life.

Yet although Jerrems may have been disadvantaged, she was hardly fragile. The risks Arbus took in the demi-mondes she visited were psychological; Jerrems had a plucky physical courage that pushed her to fraternise with sharpies hanging out on the banks of the Yarra, as well as to lean on the bar in rough Redfern pubs photographing Aboriginal drinkers. Most importantly, Arbus chose to die, and did so midway through a successful career, whereas Jerrems was killed by Budd–Chiari syndrome before her career had properly begun. Must Australians always be matched with some prototype from the wider world, rather than being judged on their own merits?

The contributors to the curator Natalie King’s catalogue fuss about the ethics of Jerrems’ enterprise, much as Susan Sontag did about the voyeurism of Arbus. Jerrems caught her subjects with their defences down and their clothes off, or else cajoled them into disrobing. The contact sheet for her most celebrated image, Vale Street, reveals that Catriona Brown and the two youths who lurk behind her in the shrubbery began with their shirts on and were sweet-talked into removing them by Jerrems. Undressed, they assumed more ancient identities. As Gael Newton points out, the woman became a pagan goddess with lazily lidded eyes; the teenage boys were now her attendant satyrs, leering from the shadows. King insists that such set-ups were “consensual and participatory”, which is a necessary scruple in the prim, preachy world of feminist art theory, where men – the horned devils of what Anne Marsh in her catalogue essay calls “a phallocentric society” – are supposed to be the only manipulators, scopophiliacs who rule by looking.

But such right-minded bleating about “the politics of consent” is sabotaged by Kathy Drayton’s research into the circumstances behind another photograph Jerrems took of Mark Lean, who glowers behind Catriona Brown’s bare right shoulder in Vale Street. Mark Lean: Rape Game shows him menacing Jerrems with a straw held between his fingers. Somewhat over-excitably, Drayton calls this tiny stick “ominously suggestive” and “vaguely obscene”, another manifestation of the wickedly rapacious penis; but she goes on to disclose that Jerrems was infatuated with Lean and bribed him to pose for her by supplying him and his friends with beer. The “intimate frisson” Drayton senses in the image has little to do with consenting adulthood. Lean was 16 at the time, and a student of the 25-year-old Jerrems at Heidelberg Tech. She knew she was sexually slumming, as well as breaking professional rules; if his face in the photograph is a ripe pustule of oozy testosterone, that is because she had volunteered to play the reprehensible rape game with him.

There is a troubling connection here, which none of the essayists in the Up Close catalogue bothers to make, with Larry Clark’s book Teenage Lust. To compare Jerrems to Arbus promotes her to an existential heroine; comparison with Clark – who spied on the drugged, drunken and promiscuous cavorting of drop-outs in his Oklahoma home town of Tulsa, and on the hustlers who used to offer their scrawny, pimply bodies for rent near the bus station in New York – takes her into more dubious territory. King herself unguardedly remarks that Jerrems “found ways to infiltrate” the subcultures she photographed: the word implies deceit, skulduggery. Of course a transgression such as this is only a problem if you think, as many of the contributors to the Up Close catalogue do, that the imagination should be governed by a strict sense of political rectitude. The complex, grown-up truth is that fantasy is instinctively devious and deviant. Jerrems’ most intriguing photographs – of two men entwined in a rumpled bed, or two naked women flexing their limbs in a brick tunnel that is like a birth canal – show us what we see when our eyes are closed.

The American critic Jim Lewis has said that Clark’s forays into the underground are exercises in “a very personal shamanism”. The remark might be applied to Jerrems, who saw herself as a mediator between the bright, bland, suburban daylight and a darker zone inhabited by spirits or demons, like the supercilious full-breasted deity and her scowling acolytes in the Vale Street garden. Cabbalistic signs hint at the allegorical roles she assigned to the three figures. The woman wears a pendant with an ankh cross, the knotted talisman borne by the Egyptian gods. It served as a hieroglyph for life, and was adapted by the Romans to symbolise Venus, denoted by a uterine circle with a cross beneath: that is still our graphic shorthand for the female. Jerrems presumably trusted in such gynaecological magic, since while mortally ill she adopted the optimistic name Savita, which, as she told her mystified mother, “means to be, and to become, positive!” Enigmatic symbols are also inscribed on the flesh of the young men. Jon Bourke has an RIP for a dead crony tattooed on his bicep inside a galaxy of stars, and Mark Lean’s chest and arms are a sacred bestiary, with room for a minotaur in boxing gloves, a flaunting bird and what looks – when he emerges from the gloom in Rape Game – like a snaky mermaid. It’s disturbing to see that the lewd figure who plays the rape game has appropriated the ankh, which dangles from his earlobe; worn by him, it looks distinctly sacrilegious.

Jerrems made an offer of priestly intercession when she announced that “This society is sick and I must help change it.” As it turned out, she had no chance to prescribe spiritual medicine to Australia. All she could manage was to photograph her own sickness, making portraits of her surgically scarred body in the bathroom of a Hobart hospital and writing a diary of her illness in which she depersonalised herself as “The Patient”. Were she and her liberated colleagues in Up Close offering a remedy for social maladies or contributing to the malaise of the times? The 1970s was a party that soon turned into either a riot or an orgy, and left the revellers with hangovers or infections. Rumpled, chaotic bedrooms in trashed houses recur in the work of all four photographers. One of the characters from Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency curls up foetally in a Spanish hotel room, which is as torridly yellow as the Sahara. The morning after a rowdy night at Whale Beach, Yang photographs six tousled heads poking out from under quilts and blankets on a single mattress. Around it on the floor is a surf of discarded jeans and swimsuits, half-empty glasses and piles of records. More abstemiously, two of Clark’s lustful teenagers do without a bed and copulate stark naked in the back seat of a car. Ah, the flexibility of young bodies! Oh, the lack of concern for the upholstery!

Up Close is an obituary for the 1970s, a survey of lives cast adrift by an unruly freedom and tempted by experiments in self-destruction. Languishing in hospital, Jerrems lamented her “broken heart” and “beaten body”. Goldin exhibits the same damage in gruesomely rich colour: a striped bruise beneath one eye, the other eye reduced to a crimson smear in a livid blue puddle of discoloured flesh – gifts from her moody, brutish boyfriend. A young woman huddling in bed in Clark’s portfolio Tulsa has a shiner of her own, plus a welt on her shoulder. As Catherine Liu has commented, Clark’s young men “look like they can’t live up to their hard-ons”; unable to express tenderness or admit their own vulnerability, they automatically advance to violence. At least the seam of stitches that runs down Jerrems’ belly in one of her last self-portraits is evidence that the doctors were trying to save her. In the case of Yang’s tribe of bacchanalian disco bunnies, the scarification is subtler and more decorative, applied later as a cosmetic afterthought. Yang photographed his bedmates during the 1970s; in the 1990s, when many of the objects of his desire had died from AIDS, he returned to the photographs and wrote reminiscences of the encounters across the prints. He marked the bare back of the sleeping Joe with a finicky script that looks like the tracing of a tattooist’s needle, lightly tickling the skin rather than digging into it. His reminiscences of Mark, who performed best when fed Mandrax, are scribbled from the subject’s neck down to his groin, ending at a fat penis unveiled by his lowered underpants. Here the needle bites, jabbing an accusation into Mark’s furry groin: he had ripped off his older protector “for quite a large sum of money over some drug deal and his name was not to be mentioned”. Yang’s cropping slices off Mark’s head, and the elastic band of his pants truncates the penis that was the source of all the trouble. These abbreviated stories, written on bodies that had aged or died in the interim, are a wistful, remorseful commentary on the fugitiveness of sex and the elegiac fixity of photography.

After so many images of beds dishevelled by the romping of their occupants, it’s a shock to come upon the neat, joyless, strictly solitary beds of Ward E, Medical Unit A, where Jerrems spent three months in the middle of 1979. In Patient, Royal Hobart Hospital a woman in a dressing-gown sits beside her own empty bed, its mattress hollowed out in memory of the immobile hours she has spent in it. Her head is slumped on the pillow and she appears to be asleep – or, with her hands clasped, is she praying for a ghost that might wrap itself in that white sheet? The curtains around the bed, which guarantee that death can take place in private, have been drawn open. Directing the scene as usual, Jerrems organises a morbid tableau: a Madonna keeps a vigil beside an empty tomb, not celebrating a miraculous resurrection but quietly grieving for her own exit from life.

Up Close is on at Heide Museum of Modern Art until 31 October.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

Carrol Jerrems, 'Mirror with a Memory: Motel Room', 1977. Type C colour photograph, 23 x 18 centimetres. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. © Ken Jerrems and the Estate of Lance Jerrems
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