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Detail from ‘Self Portrait (Dilemma)’ 2019, Meg Porteous
Detail from ‘Self Portrait (Dilemma)’ 2019, Meg Porteous

ArtApril 29, 2020

Facial gash: The troubling self-portraiture of Meg Porteous

Detail from ‘Self Portrait (Dilemma)’ 2019, Meg Porteous
Detail from ‘Self Portrait (Dilemma)’ 2019, Meg Porteous

In the age of the selfie and mundane domestic photography recontextualised for social media, Auckland artist Meg Porteous’s work speaks strongly to the politics of representation. Art editor Mark Amery shares words and images with Porteous across bubbles, via screens, in advance of her show at the Auckland Virtual Art Fair from this Thursday.  

‘Self-Portrait (the spectator)’, 2019. Inkjet print. 570 x 810 mm. ed 2 + 1AP

I was struck by the way so many images in your debut at Hopkinson Mossman ricocheted off each other at interesting new angles. This one [‘Self-Portrait (the spectator)’, above] particularly struck me as a gateway to the exhibition. For me it spoke of a ambiguous socially-distanced perspective born of apartment living –  a dark domestic voyeurism with me since Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

I live in a central Auckland city apartment on the fourth floor. This image was taken from the perspective of my window outlook onto the street. I guess with apartment living, your world is slightly more compressed as far as being around people is concerned. The view out my window is a way for me to watch and see people on the street. 

With this image I was thinking about more conventional modes of documentary ‘street’ photography, where a power dynamic is at play. The photographer in a position of power photographing its subjects. I wanted to confuse this logic by subjecting myself to the gaze of the camera. I made the image by running around the block as my brother photographed me from my bedroom window. The running from the camera applies this melodramatic narrative of escaping the camera’s gaze. It is a self-portrait, but one where I am both the subject and the spectator.

‘NZ Surfer, gash gore of the month (reject)’, 2019. Inkjet print. 350 x 250mm. ed 2 + 1AP

The juxtaposition of [‘Self-portrait (the spectator)’] with this one is troubling, but it also feels far more open than just a domestic violence reading. I end up asking again who is in control of the camera and whether the woman in the first image is fleeing from danger. It’s nice to read you affirm that this is as much about freedom as subjugation. Who is this in the photograph?

Me again. The facial gash was actually a result of a surfing accident. The surfboard fin came down on my face and sliced my lip open. I was 13 at the time. I remember my Dad driving me to the hospital and crying, not because of the pain but because I thought the gash would make me disfigured and ugly. 

The nurse at the hospital was also a surfer and asked if he could photograph me, and encouraged me to send the image to New Zealand Surfer magazine. They used to run this section called ‘gash gore of the month’ where surfers would send in images of body/surfing accidents. My older brother, who was experimenting with photoshop at the time edited the photo slightly so the gash looked more exaggerated. I submitted the image to the magazine but it was never published and I never received a reply from the magazine, which I was always bewildered and annoyed by as I thought the image was gnarly enough. Maybe they thought I looked too young, or it was too confronting having an image of a 13-year-old girl. The surfing world and magazine is pretty male dominated.

It was cool to finally show the image that was rejected for whatever reason in an art context. 

Readers can now tell we’ve never Zoomed! So, two images right there where you don’t hold the camera, but manipulate the image allowing you to explore different kinds of spaces and times. Breaking outmoded unwritten rules about photography in so many ways. A kind of performance. 

I keep thinking how different yet in other ways similar your exploration is to Yvonne Todd’s. Perhaps that comparison is very broad brush, but it just seems to me that despite us living in the era we do where people are obsessed with manipulating their own image on phones, the kind of dynamic work with the portrait you and Yvonne do with camera isn’t that common in Aotearoa. 

‘Self-portrait (the dilemma)’ 2019. Inkjet print. 594 x 841mm. ed 3 + 1AP

Which brings me to ‘Self Portrait (the dilemma)’. What’s the dilemma?   

Yeah, Yvonne Todd is my favourite NZ photographer. ‘Self-portrait (the Dilemma)’ is a recreation of an image my mother took of herself in the mirror when she was pregnant with me. My t-shirt has a basketball stuffed in it to give the impression I was pregnant. I was reading Sheila Heti’s Motherhood at the time and was thinking about a woman’s decision to procreate or not. With other works in the show I revisited negatives of images my mother had taken of me as a three year old. I like this idea of re-authoring and recreating images that were previously seen in family albums. 

The gloves I am wearing were sort of a performative gesture – inspired by the character Agatha in David Cronenberg’s 2014 film Maps to the Stars. 

Again the image is slippery in its veracity in all kinds of ways. The gloves, that cushy belly. It’s Todd-smart-funny. And it’s directing the camera back at the viewer. Speaking of which, what is the camera? 

The camera in the image is a Contax, but I use a variety of cameras (both digital and film). 

Another kind of look back at us with camera: ‘Carrera Lady, Quasi Femme, The Watches’, 2019. Why did you pair that with the surfer with a gash in the exhibition? 

‘Carrera Lady, Quasi Femme, The Watches’ 2019. Inkjet print. 841 x 1189mm. ed 3 + 1AP

‘Carrera Lady, Quasi Femme, The Watches’ is two different images overlaid. The first image is a screenshot of some footage I took of a luxury watch billboard at the Auckland Airport on my camcorder, the brand is TAG Heuer. I really enjoy watch advertisements, they are always really slick and high production. I was also really obsessed with this National Bank ad at the time, which has an image of a ticking clock throughout. It’s high drama and I love it. The second image laid overtop is a naked self-portrait, but my face is obscured by the camera. I liked this idea of literally putting my body up as object of desire, but cropping my face out. 

Where my face is obscured in ‘Carrera Lady, Quasi Femme, The Watches’, in ‘NZ Surfer, gash gore of the month (reject)’ I stare straight into the camera, at the viewers. There is tension between the two images and the control one has over their own image; growing up and becoming more aware of the way you market yourself.

The group show you’re in at Christchurch Art Gallery, Uncomfortable Silence, must have been up just a matter of a fortnight when it closed due to Covid-19. And then Auckland Art Fair and Photo 2020 in Melbourne were both physically postponed until next year. But I see you’re in the Auckland Virtual Art Fair.   

The work for the Auckland Art Fair is a series of c-type prints (colour darkroom prints). This is the first time I’ve done colour darkroom photography and I really enjoyed the process. These are photographs of car interiors (in the back of Ubers) and women’s hosiery. Accompanying these c-type prints is a work titled ‘teeth grinder’, a digital image sent to me by my dentist.

‘Teeth Grinder’ 2020. Digital inkjet print. Edition 3 + 1AP

With several images of an Uber ride, not to mention teeth, there’s a sense of a story there. Your story is implicated. They’re your teeth grinding away. Is there a story in its making? Or do stories come later?

I really enjoy going to the dentist and looking at all of the dental equipment, particularly the little oral camera on the stick that connects to a monitor. Here my use of the teeth image is referencing an anxiety. 

Storytelling in my work can be intuitive. I will often have three or four different ideas or trains of thought that can seem unrelated at the time of making. The narrative comes to fruition in the installation through different pairings or sequences of images. I like the way a number of different works presented together can create subplots and tensions. I want to keep a reading open, and not close it down too much. 

‘Drive’ 2019. c-type hand print. 20 x 16 inches (508 x 406 mm). Edition 3 + 1AP

I’m interested in your thoughts on ‘exhibiting’ work online when your juxtapositions are so important. This at a time when Instagram and other platforms have given photography a new focus. Is exhibiting physically important to you or, quite frankly, just where the market is?  

Exhibiting in a physical space is and has been really important to me. And while I do have hesitations about having work re-contextualised as an online show, at this moment we are all having to reconsider what we took for granted as normal. 

There are plenty of artists who create work with the intention of it existing online and it is nothing new. Last year I created a work for Window Gallery online. I made my first video as it felt appropriate to the context. I’ve always preferred viewing a moving image work online vs the gallery space.

Meg Porteous shows with Mossman Gallery online at the Virtual Art Fair, organised by Auckland Art Fair, 30 April-17 May.

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