Webster by Elizabeth
Through the lens of her camera and the commitment of
others prepared to do her bidding, Christine Webster
has created a world of fiction that has both intrigued
and shocked her audience since her 1982 entrée
to an art arena dominated by the documentary genre.
Pivotal to Webster’s art practice have been her
desire to rebel against the strictures of society by
exposing the unaccepted frissons underlying it, her
fascination with the different personae people reveal,
and her wish to connect to her audience by ‘expressing
the inexpressible’, something universal she can
explain only as being ‘about the human condition,
a longing, an emptiness’1. All her work stems
from her exploration of identity, gender stereotypes,
sexuality and the inter-gender balance of sexual power.
As a means to this end, she uses disguise, the ‘pose’
and performance, her maxim being, ‘I’m not
so interested in photographing what’s there –
I’d rather construct the image – it’s
more true to me’.
Webster was introduced to photography as a drama student,
as the model on the other side of the lens – to
which she attributes her directorial mode of working.
She began photographing people at night under street
lighting, quickly recognising the enigmatic and dramatic
potential of darkness as a ‘blank canvas’.
This became the perfect backdrop for many of her subsequent
highly posed tableaux. Webster has always identified
with the darkness and vulnerabilities of others, seeing
in their reflection her own struggles, and the universal.
The daughter of a Baptist pastor, her childhood memories
are saturated with religious imagery evoking drama and
violence that bordered on the erotic. She feels she
‘learned to be an object’, and yet recognised
the traits and vulnerabilities buried as complex layers
beneath her public persona. Peeling back these layers
of identity in herself and others has been the task
of her adult life, and the particular focus of ‘The
Players’, ‘Black Carnival’ and ‘A
Serious Doll House’.
In her early 1980s’ exhibition ‘Recent
Photographs’, Webster’s large, coloured
photographs provided ambiguous narratives that explored
fantasies underlying people’s lives. Ethereal
and blurred, and in uncertain surroundings, her subjects
seemed always to be in motion, or on a threshold between
energetic activity and pause – a theme she was
to pursue again in ‘Circus of Angels’ over
a decade later.
By 1987, for ‘New Myths’, she had begun
creating photographic ‘stills’ that questioned
the balance of power in sexual relationships. Reminiscent
of ‘tableaux vivants’2 and set against black
backdrops, these portrayed men and women in highly charged
situations seeped with sexual reference. They were born
of a feeling of confinement by society at a time when
her life was in disarray, and were the beginning of
Webster’s challenging of the traditional representation
of women, of her wish to subvert the ‘male gaze’
assumed in art history. [Recognising that the attributes
of rôles and characteristics are reinforced by
visual representation, she was ‘rewriting’
gender rôles that society presumed to be accurate.]
In ‘The Players’, a series of life-sized
cibachromes, Webster cast each model in a rôle
that embodied gender-stereotypical attributes (such
as Soldier, Rescuer, Gambler, Provider, Seducer). She
was questioning the universal and interchangeable rôles
we choose to perform, and drawing attention to the fact
that we make choices voluntarily and that each rôle
is only as successful as our commitment to it. The models
gaze directly and serenely at the viewer with no hint
of the passive, subjugated models of yester-year. In
creating this series, Webster felt liberated from the
straits of convention, and by her provocation of society.
‘Possession & Mirth’ followed –
an exploitation of the historical connection between
sex and violence, and a countering of the traditional
portrayal of the female nude. Exploring the theme of
‘martyr’, a male nude was portrayed in vulnerable,
‘pain/pleasure’ situations. Although these
images verged on the blasphemous in their religious
symbolism, Webster felt they demonstrated a triumph
of the sacred, and were imbued with a sense of the range
of emotions suffered by Christ.
She returned to issues of sexual identity and the mystery
of public/private personae in Black Carnival (1994),
60 lineal metres of life-sized cibachromes that mined
the psyche and, in their presentation, reversed the
normal ‘spectator/spectacle’ dynamic. Costumes,
masks and props freed the wearer to temporarily slip
from their usual rôle in life to another. Webster’s
focus, however, was sexuality, and the acceptability
by society of various roles played (FN3). She was fascinated
by the masks’ effect of disguising an identity,
and yet revealing a new persona, and that the risk of
identification was often part of the appeal of participating.
Her acknowledgement of the diaristic quality of this
and other series reveals a rejection of her conventional,
middle-class upbringing, and this is reiterated in ‘The
Hunt, The Seduction and The Kill’, 1996. This
series resulted from a dangerous fantasy about desire
that Webster and her partner played out, and photographed.
By taping over sections of the original photos, then
enlarging the whole, she fetishized body parts and created
enigmatic snippets of imagery.
In 1997, Webster collaborated with well-known New Zealand
dancer and choreographer, Douglas Wright, in a series
exploring the threshold between endings and beginnings,
movement and stillness. Suspended seemingly in defiance
of gravity, he was portrayed in poses that suggested
transcendence – over death, gravity, pain and
living. Strength and vulnerability sat side by side,
a pairing she presented again in ‘Quiet’,
2004. Inspired by a boxing match she watched, Webster
pared back the boxer’s masculinity to reveal his
innate vulnerability and beauty. She paired each image
with a photograph of fabric, tracing a connection between
the stereotypically feminine characteristics unearthed
in the boxer, and the post-industrial materials (manmade)
replacing the fabric traditionally handmade by women.
Again in ‘Fugue’, she sought the vulnerable,
in portraits of her baby son sleeping – images
that contain echoes of religious classical paintings,
and that challenge the posed tradition of photographic
studios associated with family portraits.
Webster sees her role as that of catalyst. She draws
from her own vulnerabilities and seeks models who are
willing to be directed, so that together they can portray
an element of the ‘human condition’ that
will find empathy with, move or offer intimacy to the
(1) All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are taken
from correspondence or conversations between E M Caughey
and the artist, March – May 2005.
(2) A Victorian party pastime, when performers struck
a pose and the curtains opened and closed briefly, leaving
the audience with a fleeting impression.
(3) She pushed this concept even further in ‘A
Serious Doll House’, 2000, by creating hybrid
rôles that fall well outside our society’s
tolerance, eg. mother/whore.
© E M Caughey 2005, art writer,
from Contemporary New Zealand Art, Volume David Bateman