Photographers are often loath to get in front of the lens themselves, but Auckland-based emerging artist Helen Clegg doesn't fit that mould – she's the centrepiece of all her images. A challenging blend of self-portrait and landscape photography, her style looks at the relationship between the body and its surroundings. In her latest series, The Bridge Gathers, Clegg has created images of herself confined within a transparent box, transported to various locations. The exhibition is on show from May 29 to June 20 at Newton's Lot23 gallery as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography. Helen talks to D-Photo's Point-Shoot blog about the new works.
D-Photo: Can you briefly tell us a little about yourself and your photography background?
Helen Clegg: Originally from the UK, I made my way to New Zealand about five years ago, via a three-year stint in France. I have a BFA majoring in Photography under my belt and after some time dabbling in different genres of photography, I realised that the only thing that was going to work for me was focusing all of my creative energy into my artwork. My artwork sits somewhere between, and challenges, traditional ideas of performance, self-portraiture, and landscape photography.
What's the central idea behind your series, The Bridge Gathers ?
The underlying idea behind all of my work is an interest in the body’s relationship to and physical experience of landscape, and that the manner with which we embody space affects our experience of it. The Bridge Gathers takes this one step further as a personal investigation into my internal experience of the New Zealand landscape as a migrant, of feeling comfortable and at ease within the country and yet at the same time separated from it as a foreigner, hence the see-through box. To quote one of my favourite artists, Roger Ballen: “Photography always has to confront the externality of the world when trying to realise the internality of the artist.”
What does the exhibition's name allude to?
It's full title is The Bridge Gathers(as a Passage that Crosses), which is quite wordy, hence shortening it to The Bridge Gathersfor the exhibition. It comes from a Heidegger quote I found in Homi K Bhabha's The Location of Culture when researching the effects of globalization and migration on the individual and society.
You use yourself as the model in your work, what led you to this approach?
Essentially it stems from my interest in 1960s performance art combined with a persistent uneasiness with empty landscapes. Whilst traditionally the performance art movement refers to documentation of a live event, I try to emphasize the construction of a performed momentary gesture, staged expressly for the camera. In the absence of an immediate audience, I use photography to both freeze and extend a moment in time in an anti-immediate translation of performance. I like to think of the landscape not just as a theatrical stage but as a counterpart within the image. The action of my body within the surrounding landscape acts as a bridge, opening up the scene to the viewer by relieving the formality and tension that often imagery of empty landscapes, distanced from the viewer by a lack of human presence, can take on.
Setting up must get tricky with you being in front of the camera – what goes in to putting the shots together?
I shoot on a fully manual Hasselblad 500C/M, so that in itself makes things tricky before I even put myself into the scene. I work quite intuitively, so once I’ve found the location, I’ll spend some time getting a feel for the environment, the light and the gesture I want to enact in that space. Then I’ll set-up the camera ready for the shot before moving in front of it. At that stage it’s really down to a combination of imagination and knowledge of how the camera is framed up as to how my presence in the frame will work out. I’m very un-fussy, I’ll only shoot one, maybe two frames per set-up then move on. Anything more and the work start to feel laboured, I prefer spontaneity and to work intuitively. Not everything comes out exactly as I’d pictured it, and sometimes that’s for the better. I like to experiment and have some fun with my work.
You've also got a chance for the audience to participate in some way during the exhibition, what's the story?
Natalie, the curator at Lot23, and I wanted to put on something special for the Festival Tuesday circuit night. Because it’s the Festival of Photography we thought what better way for people to interact with the work and participate in the experience then build a photography set based on The Bridge Gathers series in the lighting studio, so that the audience can photograph themselves too. It’s only up for one night but will be great fun.
You exhibited in last year's Auckland Festival of Photography too, did you pick up anything from that experience that is going to benefit the new exhibition?
Last year I exhibited in the side way window gallery space at Artstation. Because of the nature of the space and its location, I projected a different image into the window every day for a month. I wanted the installation to be an ever-changing artwork for the locals and commuters who’d walk past day in, day out – and I received a great response. The one thing I learnt from that experience is that photography can be really engaging when it’s embraced in different forms other than print. That’s why it was so important to me to add another element to my exhibition this year, hence the audience participation piece for the opening night.
Last time we talked you had just won an Emerging Art Award from the New Zealand Affordable Art Trust, how did that all work out for you?
It was such an honour to win and I’m so grateful to the NZAAT for their support. Ultimately winning that award meant owning my own Hasselblad, and the means to creating more work and continuing my career. It would have been mighty difficult without a camera to carry on after university.
You're also part of the BizDojo shared creative space team; what do you do and how do you like working there?
Working at the BizDojo is a perfect match for my artistic career. Not only is everyone so supportive, but I get to interact with and meet fantastic artists and creatives every day. I run the Print Room which is powered by and located in the BizDojo. We’re a small boutique printer specialising in high-quality large format fine art and photographic printing, which is great as I’m surrounded by artwork every day. Nothing makes me happier then handing over someone’s newly printed artwork and seeing them happy with the prints. I’m a perfectionist, and taking the care and time over every single piece that comes through the Print Room really satisfies that obsession.
What's up next for you after The Bridge Gathers exhibition?
As you’ll see at the exhibition, I’ve started working on a new project. I’m showing just a little taster alongside The Bridge Gathers series and after the exhibition I’ll be focusing on this new work and pouring all my energy into it. I envisage it’s going to be a very large body of work and I’m only just starting to sink my teeth in now. It’s exciting to see where I can push myself and my work.
What are you most looking forward to seeing at this year's Auckland Festival of Photography?
Tough question, it’s such a great festival programme this year that it’s hard to narrow down. I’ve already visited Tangent Collective’s Great South Road at Artstation, that was on my must-see list; loved the newspapers. I’m really keen to head to Gus Fisher for Christine Webster’s Therapies and the McNamara Gallery’s Flora Photographica Aotearoa on at the Depot Artspace too. Plus as much of the Talking Culture Sunday series as I can, there’s nothing better than listening to artists speak about their work, so insightful and inspirational.
Helen Clegg's The Bridge Gathers exhibition runs from May 29 to June 20 at Lot23 gallery in Newton, and is part of the Festival Tuesday circuit on June 3 from 6pm.