Deborah Paauwe interview with Alasdair Foster, Director of the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney. Photofile issue no.70, Summer 2004, p.16-19.
Deborah Paauwe is one of the most successful young photomedia
artists in Australia today. Born in Pennsylvania with a mixed Dutch and
Chinese background, her early childhood was spent in Singapore before settling
in Adelaide at the age of 13. Now, still only 30, she is ranked amongst
the top ten most collectable photomedia artists in the country. Her first
video piece, Beautiful Games was shown in October at the Centre for Contemporary
Photography during the 2003 Melbourne Festival and a new body of photographic
work opened a month later at Fotonoviembre 2003, a international photographic
biennial in the Canary Islands. Her photographs were recently shown in the
National Gallery of Thailand in Bangkok and Singapore Art Museum as part
of the Photographica Australis exhibition, which is currently the Australian
entry in the Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka. Deborah Paauwe is one of the featured
artists selected the 2004 Adelaide Biennale and she is the first photomedia
artist to be selected for the annual SALA book, a monograph published for
the South Australian Living Artists festival. She will have an exhibition
at Greenaway Art Gallery in August to coincide with the book launch and
is also showing at Sutton Galleries in Melbourne during the year. I caught
up with Deborah Paauwe shortly after her return from Europe, where she has
been exhibiting at the Naarden FotoFestival in the Netherlands, to find
out more about the artist, her work and her rapidly maturing career.
Your work over the past five years
has been remarkably consistent in form and theme. How did this project begin?
My very first photographs were self-portraits taken in my bedroom. I suppose that the driving factor for me here was being able to create my own little world free of interference behind closed doors. That idea of self-revelation has always been central to my work, as has the concept of the very private becoming the very public.
I believe that it is always important for artists to deal directly with issues that have meaning and resonance for them. Photography seemed to be the perfect medium to play out my concerns with the flux that exists between identity, childhood and adolescence.
Do you find this ambiguity between childhood and adulthood a particularly potent moment in life?
This sense of floating between stages is what fascinates me. As children we live in the moment but also look forward into the unknown. As adults we can drift back and forth between memory and the present. We are the sum of our experiences and, as an adult, childhood always exists for us in memory. It is this state of ambiguity that surrounds identity that intrigues me.
In almost all our daily activities we are faced with choices both conscious and unconscious. How we react to these situations is determined by and through the constant battle between the intuitive responses of the child and the considered reactions of adulthood. Sometimes our sense of control and understanding is clear and thoughtful, at other times it is not.
One of the first photographs I made that carries a particular meaning for me is Blue Tights an image of a pair of dangling legs. Like a lot of my work, the idea for the piece is based on my memories of being a little girl and my feet not touching the ground when I sat in an adult’s chair. There is an air of innocence and vulnerability about it that I feel is particularly successful in capturing an aspect of childhood. There is a bright orange background, I am wearing bright blue tights with red and white polka dot shoes. The colours are very intense and meant to bring a vibrant almost cartoon-like quality to the work while contrasting the deep shadow cast by the feet in the background. Interestingly, a book publisher purchased the rights to reproduce the image on the cover of a novel. When the book came out I was somewhat surprised to see that it was about a young girl’s attempt to hang herself. For me this reinforces that idea that we can never control the interpretations of art.
Blue Tights 1998
Although your work is very appealing in its colours
and construction, there is often something within the content that suggests
something darker. Is that a conscious starting point or an effect that finds
its way in during the process of working?
Every moment has the potential to shift depending on the attitudes we bring to it. What interests me is the impossibility of fixing the meaning of any image in any definite way. It is the tension that hovers over meaning that I hope informs my work. I am fascinated by what lies outside the frame, what is excluded from our view. That sense of uncertainty underpins the work of all my favourite artists. People like Sarah Jones, Anna Gaskell, Hellen van Meene, Rineke Dijkstra and the early work of Cindy Sherman. I aim for an enduring air of the unresolved; a continuing yet unanswered desire for the safety of knowing.
So, if there is a safety in knowing, do you think one of the attractions of your work, which remains ambiguous, is the very way it hints at danger? Sweetness somehow tempered by anxiety?
That element of the unknown, which is often unchallenged, has underpinned my work from the beginning. When I was 10 I was staying in a hotel and to while away the time my girlfriend and I were wandering the corridors when we met the hotel janitor. He offered us money to come to his room, gave us the number and then left. Even as children we could sense the danger of the situation but the temptation of the money drew us to the hallway outside his door. For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a matter of seconds we stood outside his door trying to summon the courage to knock. We were filled with a sense that oscillated between fear and excitement. Fortunately the fear over-rode everything else and we ran. That mixture of dread and exhilaration has stayed with me ever since, that desire to know something that will never be known still lingers.
Your reputation as an artist has grown very consistently from the outset and you are now recognised as one of the most collectable artists in Australia, you have exhibitions and a dealer gallery in several states and overseas, your work is included in many public collections. Did you start out with a clear strategy to build your career, or has it more been a question of making the most of opportunities as they arise?
I have tried at all times to make my work my priority and let everything else fall where it will. Basically, I have taken things one-step at a time and have learnt not to accept every opportunity that has come my way. I want to achieve the best I can with each project I am involved in yet still enjoy what I do. Also for the past ten years I have been working with the same photographic hand printer because it is very important to me that I maintain a consistent level of quality in my prints.
How important was the Samstag to your success as an artist?
The Samstag scholarship took me to London to study at the Chelsea School of Art where I completed my MA in Fine Art from 1999–2000. Over the last few years my art practice has become increasingly hectic and having a year off to focus on my work was much needed at that time. The publicity and prestige that surrounds the Samstag scholarship is huge and any attention of that kind for any artist is always good.
I am very interested in colour and texture, especially in relation to the fabrics and clothing in my images. While I was in London I worked at Steinberg & Tolkien, the famous vintage clothing store. They would let me borrow clothing for my shoots and my fascination with costumes has continued ever since.
How did you secure your overseas dealers?
In 1999 Paul Greenaway took my work along with that of Peter Atkins to the ARCO art fair in Madrid. During the fair a well-known Spanish curator noticed my photographs and brought them to the attention of Luis Adelantado the director of a fabulous gallery in Valencia. Luis offered me a show a few months later and I have been showing with him ever since.
Then, in 2002 I participated at the Melbourne Art Fair (again with Greenaway Art Gallery). There was a stand upstairs run by Bartley Nees Gallery from Wellington, and they were showing some very interesting work by a New Zealand photographer called Anne Noble. I ended up having a conversation with the directors and, by coincidence, they had seen my exhibition that was showing concurrently at Sutton Gallery. A few months later they emailed me and offered me a show at the beginning of 2003, and they have subsequently offered to represent me in New Zealand.
You recently made your first video, Beautiful Games. That’s something of a new departure for you. What prompted the change of medium?
I became interested in working with video while doing my MA at the Chelsea School of Art in London in 1999, I had sketched out some thoughts but it wasn’t until recently that I found the time to put those ideas into practice. It was important for me to work with video in a way that was consistent with my still imagery. For quite a while I have been interested in the idea of my images coming to life and moving but at the same time remaining positioned within their original context. It was important for me that the same sense of meaning and potential readings flowed through into my video work. Video allowed me the opportunity to dwell on details, gestures and rituals by stretching the ‘moment’. I also had very definite ideas from the beginning in relation to a musical soundtrack that would enhance the atmosphere I was trying to achieve in the visuals. The music for this video piece was written and performed by my partner Mark Kimber.
In this video scenes of two young girls involved in the rituals of hair brushing, sash tying, clapping games and so on is inter-cut with an image of a young woman in a red sequined bathing suit. She is dancing, and although we cannot see her face, she appears to be alone and self-absorbed. I felt even more strongly here an aching sense of a hankering after the simple rituals of childhood viewed from the perspective of a newly sexually aware young adult. Is that central to the work or simply an individual interpretation I am making?
Certainly the sense of re-evaluation that can take place when we revisit our past is central to this piece. An understanding of the importance of particular experiences in our lives often only comes to us in retrospect. It is then that these events can take on a degree of significance. But I hope that I can provide multiple entry points for viewers with my work. I always try to create work that can serve as a trigger for different responses in different viewers. I have often found it fascinating that two people can stand in front of one of my images and travel to two very contrasting destinations. People always hold the framework of their own experiences in front of any image they view. I have at times both disturbed and delighted people with my images. Most of my works are constructed out of quite innocent and child-like experiences that some viewers have chosen to interpret in particularly dark and sexual ways. Though I quite readily acknowledge the validity of those interpretations it has never been my aim to create just overtly sexual imagery, it is the duality of the situations within my photographs that compels alternate readings.