Article: RIP her to Shreds: The art of Eliza Hutchison




As with most images by Melbourne photographer Eliza Hutchison, itís not clear what weíre seeing at first.  In her series Kewpie and the Corn Idol, photos are sliced to ribbons; the tattered strands have been mounted as a sculpture, or scored to fall like a row of intestines.  Some of the works are on the verge of being portraits, as we can make out an eye or a lip behind the curtain of strands.
It takes a moment to realise that weíre looking at one of the most ubiquitous film images around: the poster for the teen vampire romance Twilight.  The works are composed from shreds of that poster, and each ribbon is a sliver of a young actorís face.  Bella and Edward, the Twilight couple, become a mass of disintegrating eyes, skin and hair.  This is clearly a love gone strange.  
Lesley Chow: Why did you turn these star actors into a mass of shreds?
Eliza Hutchison: The Twilight lovers are the most recognisable couple in the world, but cutting them transforms them into organic matter and opens them up to the natural process of disintegration.  It shows that teenage adulation and mass culture can be part of the cycle of growth and decay. With each cut, their identities become more and more abstract.  Iíve always been interested in the Italian curator Germano Celantís theories on cutting.  For him, to cut is to think, to cut is to sculpt.
LC: How is cutting a way of seeing for you?
EH: Itís the idea of obsessively repeating a process in order to unlock a certain feeling.  It is a compulsive art, where youíre making these strong vertical cuts again and again.  Lucio Fontanaís ìcutî paintings were about piercing space to see what lies behind.  I was also thinking in terms of self-cutting, and the kinds of sensations it might produce.  Thereís a release and freedom, but also a self-harm.
LC: The idea of shredding the features and re-draping them over the face brings up a range of myths.  The ìcharacterî in this series resembles a mermaid or sea monster.
EH: Itís like a drowning Ophelia or a pile of seaweed.  The work draws on the tradition of symbolist photography and painting, where you conjure imaginary worlds and figures.  
LC: There is also a sculpture, Busto, which is a tangle of human matter. It looks like a Gorgonís head. 
EH: Yes, or a gravestone. I created that sculpture quickly, as if I was arranging a hairstyle or making a sketch ñ with that sort of energy.  The Twilight poster would generally be placed at the bottom of the rung when it comes to artistic imagery, but Iím transforming this ignoble material into 3D, working with the posterís own qualities and tonal range.
LC: Why did you decide to have a sculpture alongside the photographs?
EH: I originally studied science at a very conservative Methodist school.  I transferred into architecture at university, then studied law, psychology, film and theatre. I realised that the common aspect of these studies which interested me was sculpture, the concept of the built form.  Even though I take photos, I think of sculpture as my primary practice. Photography can be seen as a form of sculpture, in terms of creating a body in space.  Contemporary art gave me an avenue to explore all these interests.
LC: Youíve talked about the show as an attempt to preserve the lovers through time.  Occasionally the lovers look angelic, but more often theyíre ghastly.  Some of the images seem jellied or embalmed.
EH: Iíve worked with themes of preservation and mortality in Memphis Minx (1999), where I re-created an embalmment using a bandaged body.  Photography is about preserving the moment ñ and it is very much a moment, with the way the lens hits the paper, the depth of field, the amount of light.  I played with the poster for a long time to get the image to reveal itself in different ways, depending on how you cut and light it.  I used the gloss of the paper to make the skin look petrified and marbleised.  
LC: The relationship between the lovers does appear to endure, even though their bodies are falling apart.
EH: The lovers are like stone idols, drowning and dropping through time, and they endlessly re-attach in various ways.  Some people told me I should get my show out quickly, to trade on the Twilight moment of celebrity. But I feel that Edward and Bella have this eternal air of deathliness, theyíre like floating memories.  Using mirrors, I projected their memories onto different surfaces.
LC: In one of the most striking images, you pin the planes of Bellaís face together, so that they meet in a kind of self-embrace, a vampire kiss.     
EH: I used flexible mirrors to curve around and merge into the poster.  Mirrors are fascinating tools for drawing out psychological readings.  This work is about the teen idol engaging with her self-image through mass culture.  Bella exists only through the lens, and I wanted to develop that theme.
LC: The shreds of paper take on different properties. Sometimes they are softly combed, like mermaidsí hair; at other times, theyíre coarse and sweaty-looking. What is the nature of these strands youíve created?
EH: They are decaying fibres. I was referencing the ritual of the corn idol, when pagan Europeans transformed the last sheaf of the harvest into a doll.  Itís a way of conflating nature and culture: subjecting a mass media image to an agricultural, mechanical process.
LC: Was the idea to make something monstrous out of the idolatrous?
EH: The actors are classically beautiful, so I did want to make them monstrous, like a poster coming to life.  I was mimicking the effect of pareidolia, where you read patterns into images and shadows.  The Twilight poster on a bedroom wall is something which might be transformed in your imagination, just as you wake.
LC: The lead character in your last show, The Ghillie (2007), was also a legendary monster hiding behind layers of hair.  How does that series relate to this one?  
EH: Iím interested in photography as it relates to psychology, probably because of my background in theatre studies.  When you see photographs of the ghillie, with a person dressed up as a mythological beast, you think about camouflage and abstraction.  Is he an individual figure or part of the landscape?  You also wonder about the person playing the ghillie, how he physically relates to his environment.
LC: One of the key elements in your work is an expression ñ possibly a facial expression ñ which is difficult to read at first glance.  We instinctively feel that something is wrong with these faces.
EH: Itís my interpretation of the history of photography, particularly those early photographs where you see people holding uncomfortable poses for long periods of time.   I wanted to capture that weird awkwardness in front of the camera, when people inhabit a strange scenario.
LC: Every time I see one of your new works, Iím not exactly sure what Iím looking at.  In this show there is a photo which looks like it could be crumpled sheets of paper, but thereís so much blur I canít tell if the pages have been computerised or liquefied.
EH: In that case, I shredded the paper and reflected it through various mirrors, and the whiteness of the shreds served to marbleise the image.  I made hundreds of images to work out how to optimise these effects.  In the end, I sculpturally transformed the paper.   I think of this show as performance photography ñ it is my performance with the poster, even though Iím not literally in the images.
LC: One of the shots of Bella is completely disorienting.  We appear to be seeing her reflection in a mirror, but there are some odd things creeping into her reflection!
EH: I wanted that look of slightly sexual abstraction, verging on monstrous.  I used mirrors to create a kind of anamorphic image.  This is a portrait with the personality taken out.  Bellaís features are emptied out, and all you can see is the edges of her face.
LC: Thereís always some uncertainty and mystery about your images.  
EH: I like to start with the coolness of conceptual art, but then to warm it up, make it affective.  You can begin with a conceptual framework but still engage the viewer in a psychological and emotional reading of the body.  The face in my works has an expression which is endlessly shifting.





By Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow is a Melbourne arts critic and associate editor at Bright Lights. Her articles have also appeared in Artist Profile and Photofile. She has curated works and appeared on festival juries in Portugal, South Korea and Hong Kong. She is the author of catalogues for artists including Jacqui Stockdale, Alan Jones and Guy Maestri.