The team of five
Bronwyn Lloyd is buoyed by the control and power in recent photographic tableaux by Heather Straka – relevant, aptly artificial, endlessly connective.
In the last issue of Art News, Justin Paton likened the writhing elements in Ben Quilty’s massive, viscous painting The Last Supper 2017 (2017) to the “knotted and frantic feeling” that so many of us have been experiencing lately, and he applauded Quilty’s insistence on making art that is “aggressively, even self-destructively, timely”.
My pick of a timely artwork – prescient even – is the equally imposing photograph Teamwork (part II) (2019) by Auckland artist Heather Straka. I would go so far as to say that I credit this piece with preparing me psychologically for lockdown. I saw the photograph in a group exhibition at Trish Clark Gallery a few days before Aotearoa moved to Alert Level 4. I had just left the office with the news that I would be teaching classes remotely for the rest of the semester. It was raining heavily and my bus never came. I ordered an Uber and spent the journey into town trying my best to reassure the driver, Chandresh, who was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to support his family if he couldn’t work.
By the time I reached the unassuming door on Great North Road that led up to Trish Clark’s generously sized gallery spaces, I was feeling frazzled, but that was about to change. Teamwork (part II) was waiting at the top of the stairs, filling the back wall of the first gallery like a still from an art-house movie, one that I urgently needed to see.
The photograph’s shallow, theatrical space, lit like a Caravaggio painting, features a culturally diverse group of five women, strong and self-contained. The scene takes place in a shabby room with dark, stained walls, a window obscured by a torn lace curtain and a closed door with a glass pane at the top leading to a lighted room beyond.
The room is decorated with various curios. A taxidermy grouse with outspread wings hangs on the wall, forever in flight but never getting anywhere. A tiered shelf in the corner holds an array of macabre objects, including a preserved animal foetus in a jar and a pair of curled merino horns. An ornamental ship made of horn, possibly a replica of Cook’s Endeavour, sits on the top shelf.
The five women are glamorous but not overtly sexualised and their costumes are not tied to a particular fashion era. One model wears a silk cheongsam decorated with flowers. Another barefooted model, seated on the floor among lumps of coal and a toy fire truck, wears a grubby, cream-coloured shift. Her heavily tattooed right arm supplies a decorative accent to her outfit, with the figure of a snake writhing through the densely inked sleeve of foliage extending from shoulder to wrist. The three remaining models are dressed in more androgynous clothes, with fitted black blazers and trousers.
Four of the women wear fur stoles of various types, and they all wear a red fabric band on their right arm. This power accessory unites the women in a single endeavour: the business of constructing Molotov cocktails from Pegasus wine bottles and pointing a rusty blowtorch towards the figure of a piano standing centre-stage in the scene, smoke rising from its smouldering keys.
What struck me about Teamwork (part II) as I stood in the gallery that day was the way that the photograph exuded a sense of perfect control. These women had a plan and they knew how to execute it, and at that moment when life as we all knew it was about to get very strange indeed, Heather Straka’s team of five gave me confidence that if I played my small part, and everyone else did the same, then the “team of five million” (as we came to be called in Aotearoa) could gain control over Covid-19.
Teamwork (part II) was the first in a sequence of five progressive ‘scenes’ that made up Heather Straka’s solo exhibition Another Dissection at Trish Clark Gallery in 2019.
All of the scenes used the same set, built by Straka in a barn on her family’s farm north of Auckland, and destroyed incrementally over the course of the one-day photo shoot.
During a recent chat with Heather Straka she told me that the series of photographs was motivated by her antipathy towards the 250th anniversary commemorations of Captain James Cook’s 1769 voyage to New Zealand. She wanted to create a body of work that would burn down the vestiges of colonialism, represented metonymically by the old piano, and promulgate a new, more diverse vision of New Zealand. “I used a big gas bottle to power the blowtorch to incinerate the controlling discourse,” Straka said, “using a man-made flame to attack a man-made problem.”
In The Scream, another work in the narrative, a non-binary black model wearing a red dress and platform boots physically assaults the collapsed piano, their face contorted in a silent scream. “The model is screaming my frustration,” Straka said. The particular sources of frustration that were prevalent in the news as Straka planned the work for Another Dissection were the Me Too campaign that was raging as the case against Harvey Weinstein built, and the protests that were in full swing in Hong Kong as citizens sought to defend their civil liberties against the Chinese government. Now, of course, it is impossible to look at the photographs without thinking of more recent outpourings of anger and protest. The interpretative possibilities of the body of work shift and grow.
In the photograph Thing of the Past four burly firemen try to resurrect the fallen piano, posed like the group of American marines raising the US flag in the iconic photograph after the Battle of Iwo Jima. In Straka’s tableau, a pre-pubescent boy looks on at this heroic scene with an inscrutable expression. The young boy appears again in Man of the Cloth. The fire is now extinguished and the boy sits among the debris. He looks calm, but the presence of an elderly priest behind him sounds an alarm, understandably so given the recently publicised, decades-long failings by the Catholic church. Perhaps the scene speaks more generally, however, about the faith people place in organised religion and whether or not this trust is misplaced.
In the final image, Reverie, the boy sits in the same position, this time alone, and the scene tells a story about the sorry state of the world that he has inherited. Straka acknowledges that the stories in the images are mutable, remarking that the boy sitting amidst the devastation, like a lone survivor, definitely captures something of the horror of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Level 1 resumed and life returned to some degree of normality, a second iteration of Straka’s exhibition, this time called Dissected Parlour, opened at Jonathan Smart Gallery in Christchurch. The five photographic tableaux were augmented by a set of individual ‘parlour’ portraits of the five women from Teamwork (part II). Displayed in a room of their own, three of the nearly life-size subjects face down the viewer in a defiant and unsettling way.
The opportunity to bring Straka’s ambitious idea for Another Dissection to fruition presented itself when she was employed as the fine artist on the set of the TV adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries. The colonial-style landscapes and portraits from Straka’s previous solo exhibition at Trish Clark Gallery, The Strangers’ Room (2017), led to a commission to execute paintings to adorn the walls of The House of Many Wishes, the fortune parlour owned by the character Lydia Wells in Catton’s story.
Although Heather Straka has considerable accomplish-ments across the genres of painting, photography, film and sculpture, she was keen to enhance her technical skills in set photography by taking advantage of the expertise of people in the film industry. As filming for The Luminaries came to an end Straka drew on its crew of professionals to help her realise her vision.
There are always connections to be teased out between present and past bodies of work in Heather Straka’s practice. Teamwork (part II), for instance, is the companion piece to Teamwork from the artist’s 2012 series Bloodlust, which took a shot at the hunting, fishing ‘Southern Man’ paradigm. Teamwork presented five young male models, sourced from Invercargill Rugby Club, wearing white singlets and red armbands and gathered around a table covered in stuffed animal carcasses.
Straka is also known for including insider jokes in her artwork. In Teamwork (part II) this takes the form of a veiled self-portrait: the seated woman directing the production of the incendiary devices and the burning of the piano is a stand-in for Heather Straka herself directing the photo shoot. The model is dressed in Straka’s own androgynous tailored suit. She appears again in the striking portrait Dissected Parlour V, this time holding one of Straka’s Italian greyhounds, a nod to the Renaissance portrait tradition that often featured pets.
Heather Straka wanted the artifice of the set to be apparent in her photographs. She didn’t want to hide behind fancy special effects or digital manipulation, exploring instead what could be achieved through costume, pose, effective lighting and the use of humble tools to create atmosphere, like the bee smoker borrowed from the neighbouring farm. The dioramas Straka saw in the Natural History Museum in Bern during her tenure as the 2009 Wallace Arts Trust / Altes Spital artist in residence in Switzerland were a major source of inspiration. She was delighted by the artifice of the shallow scenes, with their flat, painted backdrops, combined with the simulated poses of the taxidermy animals.
Ideas of the fake, the artificial and the simulation of the real are omnipresent in Straka’s work, ultimately tying back to the notion of identity. “I’m a fake,” she says candidly. “I’m adopted, and so all my work is concerned with constructing or translating an identity with a set of rules that don’t quite make sense, hence my long-standing interest in and empathy towards trying to understand the ‘other’.”
While artifice might be at the heart of Heather Straka’s practice, the significance of Another Dissection and Dissected Parlours cannot be dismissed as fakery. The timeliness and relevance of Teamwork (part II) and its companions has only expanded following the hiatus of lockdown, in surprising and far-reaching ways.
Heather Straka’s Another Dissection was at Trish Clark Gallery, 1 November to 21 December 2019. Dissected Parlour was at Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch, 4 to 27 June 2020.