Q&A: 26th Wallace Art Awards finalist Cathy Carter

Mareea Vegas talks to 26th Wallace Art Awards finalist Cathy Carter about her ongoing photographic enquiry into bodies of water, which has provided sustained inspiration for numerous collections of work

Napili, Canon Powershot G12, 6.1–30.5mm lens, 15.7mm, 1/125s, f/8, ISO 80

Napili, Canon Powershot G12, 6.1–30.5mm lens, 15.7mm, 1/125s, f/8, ISO 80

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) graduate Cathy Carter’s fascination with the human relationship to water has become a source of inspiration and creative flow, in life and in practice. Her personal perspective explores bodies of water in a psychologically intimate way, offering us an experience in which to contemplate our human vulnerability within these expanses, which constitute 71 per cent of the earth’s surface.

Cathy is a three-time finalist in the prestigious Wallace Art Awards (2014; 2016; and, most recently, this year). Her work has been exhibited worldwide, with an upcoming group exhibition at Studio 541, Mount Eden, as part of Artweek 2017, opening early October.

We spoke recently about becoming an artist, her enduring fascination with flow, and her recent series, Seaside.

Mareea Vegas (MV): So, who is Cathy Carter?

Cathy Carter (CC): That is a hard question, labels are so restricting, but if I had to take three words with me to a desert island I would take ‘artist’, ‘thalassophile’ [lover of the sea], and ‘environmentalist’. I’m interested in the idea of the blue mind and how we are affected in many ways physically, and psychologically, by being near places of water. Never far from my mind is the beautiful quote by Senegalese poet and naturalist Baba Dioum: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught” (1968). Reconnecting on a deeper level with nature, in order to conserve what we have, is what I most love about this quote.

Shelley Beach, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Tamron SP 150–600MM F/5-6.3 Di VC lens, 309MM, 1/400S, F/7, ISO 100

Shelley Beach, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Tamron SP 150–600MM F/5-6.3 Di VC lens, 309MM, 1/400S, F/7, ISO 100

MV: How did you become an artist?

CC: I have always considered myself an artist, and have always practised art, but, on leaving school, I was discouraged from pursuing it as a career. I feel that I have been working my way towards being a full-time artist ever since … Recently I curated my first show — called Open Waters — with four other artists for this year’s Auckland Festival of Photography theme of Identity, and for this year’s Artweek, opening on October 7, I have curated a group show called Obscurity at 541 Studio in Mount Eden with artists Denise Batchelor, Kathy Barber, Kaye McGarva, [and] Sonja Gardien, which I’m really excited about.

MV: Your Seaside series is incredibly striking. How does your study of water and flow relate to you on a personal and artistic level?

CC: Thank you, I really loved making these works. The characteristic of flow is central to the nature of water, and also something that connects us all. My life journey, like everyone’s, is a story of ‘becoming’, and the experience of flow in water is a physical expression of this. So my focus on water as a study of flow is an exploration of ‘becoming’ in an artistic philosophical sense, as well as a reflection upon the reality of the nature of existence. Some artists talk about the experience of being ‘in the zone’, but, for me, it’s an experience of being ‘in the flow’. This creative flow that I find myself in has a sense of direction and ease and exhilaration. If my creative process gets hard, or feels like I am going against the flow, it is a sign that I need to back off and rethink what I’m doing!

Takapuna, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, 100mm, 1/640s, f/13, ISO 100

Takapuna, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, 100mm, 1/640s, f/13, ISO 100

MV: By featuring people ensconced in personal moments while in the ocean, what is it that you hope that we might take away from viewing your work?

CC: Humans’ relationship to these fluid spaces that I photograph is primarily as spaces of play and rejuvenation, but also as spaces which hold memories and feelings of being out of their depth or in danger. However, these both work to bring us to the visceral, poignant, and powerful here and now. So I hope that these works, on some level, even if it’s an ambiguous experience, operate to make these spaces ‘real’ again, [or] felt again. In these places of water, the body has the potential to transcend itself, becoming a vessel of sensing potential within a potentially limitless space. Particularly, immersion in water offers a sense of presence and an immediacy that can lead to an imagining consciousness. Water can be thought of as a space of ‘becoming made visible’, an impermanent space, ephemeral and fluctuating, even illusory, a space of action without limits. Water’s ability to suspend matter, due to its dilution of gravity, and also to distort and subdue sound, makes these spaces mercurial, transformative, and magical.

As Gaston Bachelard puts it, “To give an object a poetic space is to give it more space than it has objectivity; or, better still, it is following the expansion of its intimate space.”

Pauanui, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Tamron SP 150–600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC U lens, 552mm, 1/300s, f/10, ISO 100

Pauanui, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Tamron SP 150–600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC U lens, 552mm, 1/300s, f/10, ISO 100

MV: Could you talk more about how the Seaside works were created on a technical level?

CC: Each image in my Seaside series is a construction of many photographs taken over a period of time at the same location. I always use RAW files in Photoshop as a starting point in the process of creating and editing. With these works, I began by collaging four photographs to create the scene, involving near and background photos that work together, and then used layers to work individuals from other photographs of the same scene into the works. With Waikiki #2, this involved 41 layers, all with their own unique [post-process]. I have found this an easier process than trying to get these things correct in RAW file, and it allowed me to move the individual bathers and alter their dimensions through transformation for a believable composition. These works were all produced from an aerial or drone-like perspective, but, because I wanted to use my camera and lenses, I had to find locations that afforded this point of view. The Waikiki work was taken with a tripod on the seventh floor balcony of a hotel located on the beach. Napili was at a rock jumping location on Maui Island that was reached by walking along a winding path along the cliff’s edge. Shelley Beach was sitting on the branch of a tree overhanging the water at the top of a rocky cliff. Pauanui was at a vantage point from the track to the top of Mount Pauanui, which is where the ultra-telephoto Tamron lens really came into its own. Takapuna was taken standing on a fence post above the coastal walk to Milford.

MV: The images construct a sense of place by the way it felt to be there, rather than simply how it appears. What was your thought process behind this?

CC: An aspect that really interests me, and that I explore in my Seaside series, is Deleuze’s ‘third model of time’, in which repetition is itself the form of time — time as a form that is imposed on sensory experience which places events into time as a line, not as a series of passing moments. Deleuze talks about this model of time as the “eternal return”, the repetition of that which differs from itself. The Seaside series is influenced by this model of time, combined with another aspect of my practice, which is fascination with how our human eyes process the visual world. By this, I mean the concept that what we see isn’t necessarily a true representation of the real world. Paul Corballis, a visual cognitive neuroscientist, talks about the world each of us experiences visually, as a personal “construction of reality”. Each image in my Seaside series is a construction of many photographs taken over a period of time and then digitally collaged. I work with all my images to offer my own sensory experience of these spaces. In the work Waikiki, this experience for me was of being in a human soup — the sensation of being surrounded by a proliferation of humanity within ‘nature’. These ‘natural’ spaces of water, inundated with humanity, also pose the question for me about what the impact our use of these places is having on these environments.

Waikiki, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF24–105mm f/4L IS USM lens, 105mm, 1/1250s, f/14, ISO 640

Waikiki, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF24–105mm f/4L IS USM lens, 105mm, 1/1250s, f/14, ISO 640

MV: How does the large scale of the printed photographs lend to the overall effect?

CC: Yes, scale is crucial to exploring big ideas like the sublime, and spaces like the ocean. Part of my art practice is to invite the viewer into the space constructed by the work, and scale, as well as form, is central to this. I have created works that are the size of doorways as well as portals to underscore this notion. Large scale, and this feeling of being immersed in the image, contributes to creating a visceral response in the viewer, and this experience is often layered with ambiguous associations with water — combinations of vulnerability, freedom, dread, seasickness, and exhilaration.