Australian photographer and costume maker Gerwyn Davies stretches the boundaries of camp and fashion to explore the concept of identity. In his latest series Subtropics, he turns his eye to the hundreds of “Big Thing” monuments that lie scattered around Australia to mark tourist spots and entertainment parks: giant shrimps, pineapples, pies and koala bears. Here, in the all too realness of the absurd, his costume creatures suddenly seem a natural fit …
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Gerwyn, can you tell us a bit more about where you are from and what’s that like?
Originally I am from Darwin at the very top of Australia. It was a completely unsophisticated tropical town in the early 90s and I loved growing up there. It was very uncool. Everything was dripping in vibrant color. It was all palm trees, cyclones and crocodiles and I spent a lot of my time rollerblading around with my dog wearing fluorescent bike pants and not much else.
It was kind of a frontier place to grow up, it had a different pace and social conduct to the rest of Australia’s cities which probably at that time (and still now to be honest) liked to consider themselves as modern and urbane and as culturally important and European as possible.
But Australia isn’t Europe and Darwin made sure I never forgot that growing up. You didn’t wear shoes anywhere. We had one TV station. Our friends would freeze McDonald’s burgers to bring back with them on planes from their holidays to Sydney and Melbourne. I think it’s fairly common for people to recall their childhoods in hyper-color, but that visual overload is very much Australia to me, hot, sticky and bright. It was like Muriel’s Wedding.
You graduated in Photography and Creative Advertising from the Queensland College of Art. What are the main things it taught you?
It gave me a good base for working my way around the photographic studio and helped me to understand how you can really make anything happen in a tiny restrictive studio space if you are resourceful. It’s so important to think on your feet when you are making images, you can pull anything together to create this fantastic illusion for the viewer if you have a good technical knowledge. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
Where does your passion for making costumes stem from?
I taught myself to sew years ago when I was originally studying journalism and I had an addiction to daytime panel TV shows and not doing my assignments. I used to make functional clothing, but I became more interested in using odd materials and exploring unexpected shapes. I really enjoy how slow the process is, it’s meditative and calming. With craft activities you can slowly assemble something while listening to music and kind of drift through the day.
You’ve created some truly fantastic outfits over the years. Could you tell us a bit more about how they come alive?
I raid dollar stores, old lady craft stores and Asian supermarkets looking for the brightest and most colorful things I can find. I buy them in bulk and scurry home to throw them together. I try to work as automatically as possible as most of the materials I work with have a fixed form and function already. As a result, some things lend themselves to being manipulated more than others. It is pretty experimental. A lot of the costumes I make just don’t work out in the end, as the material is too stubborn or the costume reveals itself slowly as completely hideous. With my recent work, I have been incorporating more postproduction in to this process, so I am able to digitally extend the costume-making process, which has its own set of challenges. It isn’t as rewarding though. It lacks that therapeutic repetition that I liked working with my hands.
Your latest series is called Subtropics. What’s the idea behind it?
I live in the hills behind Byron Bay at the moment and there are a lot of small coastal towns around me that are big tourist havens. I am really fascinated with how Australians create these tourist spaces by building loud monuments and painting tacky murals and declaring them a place to stop. Tourist sites are universally put together like this, I’m sure, but small town Australia throws it all together with such cringe worthiness and excess! I think the ethos of it is: the tackier the better. And I believe most Australians actually love it. The sense of irony has disappeared in there somewhere.
I am really drawn to this idea of celebrating the low brow and wanted to make work in these kind of spaces, spaces that are primarily defined by their subtropical climate and their tourist appeal. I love that glistening spectacle made purely for holidaymakers. There is a mimicking of these highly constructed costumed characters and the highly constructed spaces they are in. They almost seem native to them, their own gaudy habitats. There is a futility to them too. Because these costumes are so awkward and weighty there is an ability to freely move about the space and you feel a bit sorry for them and their uselessness.
I must say I was quite surprised to learn that the Giant Shrimp and Pink Poodle Motel weren’t creatures of your imagination but places that actually exist. What do they tell us about Australia?
Australia has hundreds of these ‘Big Things’ monuments scattered around the country: pineapples, pies, koalas, knights, tennis rackets. It is a national obsession. The Big Koala is genuinely terrifying by the way. They are important markers on any long road trip, which in a country as geographically vast as Australia is a fairly routine holiday. These monuments are camp cultural icons, there is no sense of irony, just affection for these giant things by the road. There is an honest sense of pride in them, a real celebration, despite their mediocrity and even sheer ugliness. Again, see the Big Koala. Making a sweeping national assessment then: Australia has unpretentious taste in public art.
The beasts in your series Beast are actually quite lovely. Beauty-beasts?
I guess terms like Beast and Creature I used for earlier works was just about establishing the sense of Other. It was a way of expressing the idea that these forms and materials I was using were creating something unusual or unexpected. I like the contrast of the term “beast” and its material too: the soft and delicate pink feathers that completely shroud the face and choke you. Particularly shooting this in an Australian basement in summer, it became quite a beastly experience.
It is often you who wears the costume. Does that make your images somehow self-portraits as well?
Yes, I would call them self-portraits, particularly in the process of making them. It is this act of dressing up and performing a new self. I am creating them for my body only, I am alone in the studio and watching this thing build up in front of me. Like a really gay Frankenstein. It reflects directly how I want to express my physical self at that time. Perhaps here is where it starts to split in to being an Other.
The costumes are worn and actions created depending upon the material and how it sits, which can be really uncomfortable and totally alien to my movement. So it starts to feel like I have moved in to something else. I remember once making a full bodied costume out of steel wool. It was stiff and cumbersome and, after I took it off, I was covered in blood from small cuts and the stench of steel was stuck in my nostrils. Stepping out of that felt definitely like returning back to a more ‘authentic’ me. In the end I throw out all the costumes I make, so they only exist in the photograph. In that sense, I start to think of them as past tense and a separate character, distinct from the me looking at the image.
What is ‘fashion’ to you?
Fashion is all about performance. It should move well beyond the utilitarian and become a performance of the self/ selves, a way of declaring your person for that particular day. It is innately creative. It should definitely evolve over time as your interests change and you're exposed to new art, music, politics, whatever floats your boat. It should be multifaceted, a compilation of all your influences and emotions. It doesn’t need to be expensive or even coherent, as long as it is engaging or even it just makes you feel like you’ve been heard. My current brand is perhaps Suburban Goth Dad at the Beach.
What’s ‘Camp’ to you?
Camp is about exaggeration, excess and the idea of artifice. It’s a celebration of the low brow, a mining of pop culture for the tawdry, and often shallow. It is about relishing in the surface. All the things that I love about the visual language of advertising, tourism and costuming.
Bruce LaBruce talks about how Camp has become completely mainstream and its political essence deflated, but offers really hilarious ways of seeing Camp like “Conservative Camp”, Fox News or Donald Trump and “Bad Straight Camp”. Adam Sandler movies and 50 Shades of Grey. It’s fascinating but I think, however, that inherent to Camp is self-awareness and intent. You need to set out knowing that it’s a bad party and then you’ll have a fantastic time.
Do you also do commercial work?
Not so much lately. I currently teach photography at a university and have my arts practice, but I haven't invested myself too strongly in the commercial realm recently. It is definitely something I am interested in. I love the plasticity of advertising images and the cross section of advertising and art is where I feel most content. I love art that incorporates that shiny veneer. The hyper visual world of advertising has so much to borrow from.
If you had to choose between making photos and making costumes, what would it be?
Making photos. Everything I make ultimately ends up in the photograph and I am really interested in its loose relationship with reality. I love the idea of completely fabricating something for the viewer and being able to control every element of it to provoke a response. I guess that’s why I love advertising imagery so much. Costuming has been more of a leisure activity for me that I enjoy incorporating into my work.
If you could choose to do something completely different with your life, what would it be?
Perhaps being a professional gymnast, if I was three feet shorter. Or owning a dog kennel and grooming business. Or being a DJ at a roller skating rink but I don’t think that job exists anymore. Something very professional sounding like that at least …
What will 2017 bring Gerwyn Davies?
I am in the process of applying to do my PhD in Sydney (on tourism selfies and Instagram: a very loose description), so hopefully that and moving to the big smoke for love. I have been making lots of new work this year. I really enjoy keeping productive. so will continue doing that.
Where will we be able to see your work?
I have a few group shows in Sydney coming up. I am currently making a new body of work called Heatwave, some of which will be in those shows, and ideally will be organizing more exhibitions internationally. It’s a matter of coming up for air after making lots of work to see where I am and figure out where it goes, before starting the making process all over again.
INTERVIEWED BY PETER SPEETJENS