Anne Zahalka: The ceremonial subject - Art Collector

Issue 49, July - September 2009

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Unlike most portrait photographers, Zahalka is not interested in displaying the inner states of her subjects. Instead, she treats them as just another object in a tableau that tells us far more about the staging and ceremony of the world than the quirks of personality, writes Edward Colless.

If the world’s a stage on which we play our parts, then portrait photography is the play’s publicist. What we expect of portraiture is an insight into characters of this play: the intimate motivations inside a public persona, as provided by the script’s subtext, such as egoistic ambition, guarded vigilance, amenability, susceptibility and so on. And we expect to see this in the physiognomy of personality: the impact craters of social or domestic events, the stretch marks and scars of history.

Publicity sells the story that a picture tells, and a good, professional portrait has this obligation to spin the mere appearance of someone – the anonymity or typicality of a face, of a model’s body, even the simple resemblance between a mugshot and the mug itself – into a complex icon charged with familiarity or sentimentality, if not notoriety and celebrity.

The central theme throughout Anne Zahalka’s 20 years of award-winning photography has been portraiture. But hers is an idiom that emphasises the stage, rather than the characters strutting on it, and so she tends to invert the values and the qualities traditionally attributed to the professional portrait. That has been her consistent originality within the genre, although ironically her work emerges from a wave of Australian postmodernism in the 1980s, which self-consciously promoted appropriation as a critical, sceptical rebuttal of the importance usually accorded to originality.

In this respect, Zahalka is perhaps best known for the 1988 photograph that parodies Max Dupain’s iconic 1937 Sunbaker, in which she replaced the heroically muscular bronzed surfer, who seems monumental in close-up scale under a hot and evidently real sun, with a slightly-built redhead whose vulnerable pale skin is spotted with freckles and who is awkwardly mimicking the original in a studio set.

But her distinctive style is more visible in a slightly earlier – and still compellingly beautiful – series of portraits commenced during a residency in Berlin in 1987. Titled Resemblance, Zahalka posed friends in tableaux based on 15th century Flemish interiors and 17th century Dutch genre scenes. With both the figures and the sets dressed in local flea market bargains, there are striking anachronisms – headphones, for instance – embedded in what initially seems to be a homage to, say, Jan van Eyck or Johannes Vermeer. Despite the second-hand patina of the mise-en-scène, the portraits have a hushed reserve and sullen density in their conscientious composition, and in their almost spellbound deportment, so that they are not reducible to costume party pastiche.

For all their preoccupied, moody tranquillity, the figures in Zahalka’s tableaux do not reveal profoundly singular inner states. Instead, they’re installed in comfortable habits, or in the routines of leisure, or in the accoutrements of their profession. The meticulous clarity and the controlled, even lighting throughout the intensely wrought detail of her imagery consistently holds us at a coolly neutral distance from her subjects. It suggests not so much a sense of primly formal etiquette or discretion, but an almost fetishistic fascination with the scenic apparatus – with the ceremony – within which her cast, singly or in groups, takes its place. This effect can be transfixing, and it’s equally as evident in her self-portraits and personal shots of friends and family, as well as in the large-scale views of crowds gathering in public spaces, whether at sports events, casinos, theme parks, shopping arcades or on beaches. Every part and scale of the world is run on this strange ceremonial order.

In her spectacular photograph of Jacques Derrida in a packed public lecture at Sydney’s Town Hall, the famous French philosopher is a diminutive if detailed figure seated on stage in the far distance. In the way that most of an audience at a massive rock gig gets to see the rock star, a huge video projection of Derrida on a screen behind the stage dwarfs the actual person. This is, of course, a wry comment on intellectual celebrity within media culture. As a portrait, it’s both comically deficient and also cleverly faithful to the encounter. Derrida remains a mere appearance rather than a substantial character; we see him only inasmuch as he resembles his publicity image. Taken from an isolated area and behind all the seating, the photograph relinquishes the privilege to be up close.

Zahalka has mentioned that she sees the subject as just another object in the room, being equally interested in what surrounds them. When we look into these surroundings, however, we know they are not merely décor. They are the staging, and the ceremony, of the world.

Anne Zahalka’s latest series, Playing the Game!, will be exhibited at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney until 18 July 2009. New work will also be exhibited with Arc One Gallery in Melbourne in early 2010.

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