Diana and Sheila at Mojo’s 1975. ©Fiona Clark.
From EYELINE Contemporary Visual Arts number 54 : Winter 2004.
The work of Fiona Clark By Adam Geczy
Street wisdom warns not to tamper with a transvestite’s clothing; do not lay a finger on her hair, her make-up, anything that will alter her appearance and reveal the skin underneath. If you do you might well be attacked with a ferocity that outstrips the most testosterone-ridden boy. Treat the goods with respect, and if you stare, try to smile. There are many stories like this, and apocryphal or true, they advise one to keep one’s distance, at best, in order to respect what you do not know, at worst, not to be tainted by an urban freak. A drag queen is a singular phenomenon after all, because she is not like a transsexual who sloughs on skin to become a different breed, rather the transvestite wears two skins at once, parading the signs of each unequally but with exaggerated relish. Most often , the transvestite is the male made female, though of an exaggerated femaleness which is a genus all of its own, historically inscribed since the beginning of the twentieth century but existing since ancient times, and with a degree of recognisability and cultural endurance that makes it a third gender. Whether that third gender, which conceivably encompasses both transvestites and transsexuals, will be at all recognised is still a long way off, because it threatens essential values, those fictions used to cover up the spaces of uncertainty. But what is harder to deny is that trans-gender people do have an inner life and codes of behaviour that are particular and the norm to them. It is a way of life that New Zealand artist Fiona Clark depicts with a frankness that does not buy into conventional questions of what is normal or natural. In Clark’s work, things are what they are, a status in photography that ironically, is hard to achieve.
Fiona Clark is an artist with a seasoned record of obloquy. The best known train of events took place early in her career, when she staged a series of exhibitions in New Zealand around 1975. The subject matter was deemed offensive enough to warrant censorship; the captions on the photographs were covered up, then the works themselves were removed. Exhibitions were closed down. Politicians and other defenders of decency got involved. In Australia, many topics from the strength of the dollar, to rugby, to progressive thinking – can draw an patronising attitude towards New Zealand, and when people were told about the history of these images during a recent overview of Clark’s work in Sydney, eyes rolled with the same condescension. But we forget that it was only in 1994 that the Australian law governing the censorship of depictions of male genitalia was revealed for the anachronism that it was. This was when the Museum of Contemporary Art staged the large retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpes photographs which had already caused consternation in Ohio and Washington. Australia was, so to speak, cowed into submission, and showed the work without much protest, seemingly because it did not want to apear so backward.
Since photography became widely used and moderately affordable by the end of the 19th century, it has been the principal medium that draws attention to the blurry line in censorship that divides public protection from the silencing of others. With hindsight, we can say that the upholders of decency that caused Fiona Clark’s images to be taken down were themselves indecent. They shut out a world that the artist simply said was there. The very candour of Clark’s work makes one ask whether such outside reactions were to the artist’s own viewpoint or more simply to the world she depicted.
Of Clark’s photographs of trannies, lesbians and queers, you would have to say there is a stubborn element of truth. If you are the sort of person who is confronted but not troubled by the content there is something comforting in recognising this truth. The delight one gets from Clark’s work comes from several sources: the carnival atmosphere that pervades some of the images; the sense of liberation of such content; and, on a more philosophical level, the fact that an air of truthfulness is achievable in the medium whose unspoken relationship to the true actually buries that truth in so many mindless assumptions and unqualified myths. There are roughly two paths a photographer can tread to get some form of truth from a photograph, by stealth or trust. The first relies on invisibility for its results, the second on empathy. The latter involves an unteachable skill, because the photographer must have a personality that allows the subject to come forth and not be inhabited by the inner theatre that is effected in taking the photograph. The artist abides by the paradox that compassion in a work is a result of detachment and self-effacement. This is the quality that links Clark’s work to that of Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, and one also can detect a bit of Brassai about it. Being more your invisible fly on the wall type of artist, Brassai liked to declare his subjects covertly, through their exchanges with one another and through the open suggestion of excess. And when you are in the presence of this excess, you are in the presence of the disruption of beauty.
Beauty is an issue at the forefront of Clark’s photographs. Aside from the basic beauty of human presence and life, or the beauty of a successful artistic conception, or the beauty of a clearly articulated idea, in her work we see stock conventions of beauty come and go. For a large part, her subjects have openly undergone the process of beautification, with their strongly accented body shapes, their at times studied clothing and their lurid make-up. At other times, when the subjects are not shown in company and done-up, when they are alone and perhaps more sober, they stare out with a defiant insistence of who they are, as if to say, I’m beautiful whether you care to see it or not., Even though the definition of a transsexual or transvestite is underscored by the notion of alteration, what one gets from them in Clark’s images is their unalterableness; they too have been made this way, and this is sated with visual matter-or-factness. This plain assertiveness is relayed in the ongoing title for Clark’s work, Go Girl, an expression of encouragement, self-affirmation and perseverance within the gay scene go girl, show em you’re beautiful.
One of the complex particulars of gender studies is how to resolve the distinction between nature versus nurture, and where to draw the line between sex and gender. In the first instance, the question is whether we come to be how we are as a result of conditioning or of something innate. In the second, sex is defined through biological signs and gender via linguistic signs; the difficulty of this classification is how to gauge the degree to which the status of being a particular sex affects gendered responses to things, down to the way people deport themselves and speak. These issues carry considerable weight in the slow and gradual psychological assessment of a person who wishes to change sex, because she, but usually he, must establish beyond reasonable doubt that he is in fact a woman housed in the body of a man. Sex changes, when effective, have untold and salutary results. But then there’s another variable in the sex/gender equation, which is the transvestite who is happy to retain the intrinsic traits of manhood but adopts the outward face of a woman. This is someone who is complete by combining aspects of both sexes. The difference between a transsexual and a transvestite is that they can be seen to occupy different comfort zones. One becomes comfortable by deciding to change sex and effecting a smooth, and hopefully undetectable transition from one domain to another. The other is a celebration of changeablility and the stretching of rules, frequently stirred by boredom or disgust at the status quo. The cross-dresser, therefore, indulges in social criticism through his/her bedizened artificiality, which is a parody of the acceptable conventions of what passes for natural and what does not. As the psychoanalytic theorist Charles Shepherdson puts it,
The great variety of forms of cross-dressing are all socially subversive acts and can function as critique, even if the dominant culture subjects them to criticism in turn, limits their visibility, and their recognition of controlled laces – certain neighbourhoods, houses, or cabarets. As a critical force, the transvestite is also subject to satire and victimisation.
Characteristically, the home or the club/cabaret are the two main settings for Clark’s pictures. But while the subjects of her images may sometimes offer a challenging face to the viewer, the images are not taken in the spirit of protest, rather they are statements of fact which, since their original conception in the early 70s, have now assumed archival status. Many of the people in her pictures have died from AIDS. There is a reticence in the way that Clark takes her photographs which allows for the arch facial expressions, the garish costumes, the harm theatricality to speak for itself. Even when she writes on the photography, Clark merely acts as a mimic for the irreverent banter that goes on during queer weekend get-togethers. The silent voices that accompany the hand-written scrawl are shrill, laced with gay lisps and have a theatrical twang; Diane and Tina flashing their hormone tips gasps one mage of two trannies rubbing against each other, and Diane looking like she needs an abortion. How many of you boys? (sic) would like to either suck there (sic) tits of have them for you’re (sic) very own. I bet you all would. In a way that one would never expect, the brazenness of it all, the joyous crudeness and the sloppy syntax and grammar has an innocence about it because there is nothing hidden. The taunting, deprecatory tone is what distinguishes it form the usual language of middle-class snap-shot captioning but is made all the more accurate for that, because it appropriates the desire surrounding the image rather than represses it with routine banality.
When looking at the range of Clark’s work and all the various gay and trans-types it encompasses, there is a consistent strand that runs through all of them, and that is that none of them appear contrived or posed. This is not to say that the subjects are posing all the time, but you believe that you are in the presence of something authentic. The only contrivance is left to those within the photographs, but even the uninitiated soon surmise that it is a contrivance proper to queens and queers. In Clark’s photographs it is always business as usual, the chaffing tone of the captions guaranteeing to deflate the mock grandeur of the depicted antics:Diane trying to do an a Carmen but not making it, love the man’s hands. Or Tracy the slut queen. Doing a Marilyn No 2 making it better that most ugly real women! The jibing from caption to caption shows a certain self-mastery, but also betrays the opposite, and is like the bitter exchanges that occur between groups who are robbed of self-esteem; distress about their lot is vented amongst themselves, exacted on one another.
When Clark’s shots are not of the party interactions in bars, they become serene and mute. There are no captions to the older, no less lusty, drag queens which Clark depicts alone at home or looking on their younger friends getting down in the clubs. Amidst the time and care they have devoted to their appearance, there is a makeshift air about them, a temporaries, that echoes the low-key surroundings if not the very fleetingness of the photographic image itself. Photography is a medium suited to these subjects, whose consciousness of age, worth and the fragility of that happy moment shared with friends, is as acute as any. These people are rare types, they know that, they pronounce themselves to us as precious in their rarity, and ask to leave all the trifling up to them, not to us the outside viewers who might not know the score. And we as viewers are once more brought up against the solemn limitation of any photograph, which is immediate death, because after a photograph announces that this has happened and has stated the existence of this or that person in the work, the thought that ensues is that this has been, never to happen again; these people will never be the same. In photography things are simultaneously now and never again, but as the photograph ages, the consolation of what is now subsides.
What I see in Clark’s photographs is this oscillation which is the conduit of photography and which is the reason why real (as opposed to veri-similar) truth eludes most photography. Clark’s success lies in harnessing technique and sentiment in the one moment. For there is a strange but no less fundamental mixture of joy and melancholy which comes from the way photographs help you to remember that something has been. She lets the subjects make the statements for her, her technique is not just in her own effaced temperament that gives her friends free reign, it is also in the choice of images for exhibition: none of them appear composed. None of them appear chosen. The already choice nature of her subject matter would not allow it.
I wrote earlier in this essay about two kinds of photographers, one motivated by empathy, the other by stealth, and I implied that Clark has qualities of both. I’m looking at a photograph of two girls ogling at the camera, as demure as private school girls, except for an exposed nipple and too much make-up (Dianna and Sheila at Mojos, Auckland 1975). The one bearing her breast is a remarkably attractive woman, although she was once a man. She is clearly proud of who she is and her semi-undress does not seem crude. Needless to say, the censorious drones of the jid-70s got the visual dynamic all wrong. The intrusiveness of these images is not the same intrusiveness of pornography or the irksomeness of being force-fed someone else’s belief. What we may first perceive as intrusive is the visual penetration of thes3 pictures, that we have become acquainted with people on a level that we may find unexpected, and we feel privileged.
Charles Shepherdson, The Role of Gender and the Imperative of Sex, Vital signs. Nature, Culture and psychoanalysis, Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 111-112.
Go Girl was exhibited at Mori Gallery, Sydney. 11-28 June, 2003. It was previously shown at Govett-Brewster Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand.
Fiona Clark is one of New Zealand’s best known photographers. She lives and works in Tikorangi, Taranaki, New Zealand. Adam Geczy is a Sydney-based artist and writer.
Reproduced with the permission of EYELINE