Process.. Procession.. Possession by Ewen McDonald


‘A course of action’, ‘a method’, ‘a series of changes’... ‘a construction’, ‘as time goes on’ these variables suggest a beginning. From the start, photography is specified as a ‘process’, a method of manufacture, a ‘set-up’ a coaxing out from darkness. Equally, it could be that we are being led back into the dark. Imagine this: face to face with a life-sized photograph of a woman in a wedding dress, her arms outstretched, half-welcoming, half-pleading, and bearing a faint smile. She stares out from the darkness, but from behind a golden mask. She looks but we cannot know if (and what) she sees. Without eye contact we cannot tell for sure what we see. In this game of blind-man’s bluff the ‘bride’ waits... perhaps she leads us on.
In this instance the subject (now the object of our gaze) is a photograph of the artist herself. Yet it is hardly a recognisable self-portrait; blurred and ‘erased’, a degree of de-processing exaggerates the enigmatic. The photograph worked on and indeed, worked over is now disguised and appears to be more like a laser copy, making identification of both subject and production process difficult. ‘De-processing’ the photographic image becomes a means by which the artist questions not only the role she plays (both in and out of the photograph), but casts doubt on the true nature of identity. By placing herself within the role a ‘bride’ she critiques the masquerade as she plays the game; the role ‘artist’ then, is treated as a misnomer for Webster refuses to let the activity be separate from the daze of everyday life.

For the spectator then, unresolved tensions within such an ‘art object’ can focus attention on the real contradictions of daily existence. In front of an art work and later, touched by its reflection, can be deduced as being the same process by which we find ourselves and our place, in the world. The word ‘process’ is now extended beyond any specific photographic reference; if it is a construction ‘in time’, it is equally a state between. This is an important focus in discussing photographic series by Christine Webster. In recalling the circumstances of first encountering her work, I am remembering a specific image a blurred street scene, a line of open-mouthed garages and a dark-suited, white-faced figure running. As with the Bride of the Black Carnival ten years later, the dramatic use of light is used to heighten and reveal inner tensions. Always, one thing is posed against another yet stilled within the frame. The human figure taunted by light, is haunted by darkness; fleeting life is pitted against postures of confidence.


In orderly succession...’ceremony’... ‘festive occasion’; the recent work of Christine Webster can be seen as yet another parade of passing types. Black Carnival is made up of masked, unmasked and cross-dressed characters, ‘propped-up’ as if to suggest a celebration of life. Yet there is something about these particular photographic surfaces that disturbs the festivity, that makes them more than mirror-like. Despite their monumental statement (indeed, Black Carnival is a ribbon of cibachromes, fifty running metres in total, lining the room), the work is charged with a peculiar fascination that interchangable conundrum, I and Eye. In this Carnival the ‘I/eye’ seems disembodied and stares right into us.

Webster uses the very aspect of photographic surface, the seductive quality of cibachrome as well as its recent history not only in terms of her own working (for example The Players and Possession & Mirth), but incorporating as well, a photographic practice that has turned the cibachrome portrait into a mainstream art form. Now in Black Carnival, it is a history turned in on itself, an inwardness distinct from narcissism that becomes an examination of objectification. By objectification here, I am referring to the notion of ‘expressing in concrete form’, ‘an embodiment’, which sees the art object separated from its means of production and further, sees it return as ‘precioius capital’ as something removed from the realm of labour yet capable of adding to, everyday life. Here, the photographer occupies a strange space. By using a process, a coaxing out of darkness, cibachrome itself as well as the subject matter thrusts us back to our shadowy side. Webster demands that we confront ourselves via the art object to ask what is this Carnival? Whose identity is behind the mask?

Masks, manifestations of persona, are a playful, if not sinister means of disguise. They prevent identification yet they identify within us the very need for role-playing, the essential nature of ‘characterisation’. In saying this, I allude to a sense of terror that lurks beneath these shining surfaces. If this is a reflected world, then these photographs that are locked into representations of particular character types, simultaneously examine flaws in the looking glass. The strange thing in viewing Black Carnival (and here I return to the disembodsied I/eye and the active moment between the work and the viewer) is that on reflection, we see in these representations, the kinds of constructs, social and otherwise, that seal us over. Life-sized, these photographs question the habits and conditioning that make us as mute and smooth as a cibachrome surface. In Webster’s parade, we face the uncertainties and ambiguities we often dare not admit to; the characters themselves switch roles effortlessly from male to female, bride to groom and as spectators in a room full of stilled life, we are reminded of seventeenth century ‘vanitas’ paintings where the impermanence of temporal life and mortality is contained within objects.

This is the terror of masked characters. At the heart of this ‘black carnival’ is ghostly presence shadows of friends lost and traces of all the things we could have been. Because each photograph is both object and reflection, the act of viewing becomes participation in the dance. We find ourselves caught within the celebration, as if caught too and stilled by the camera’s eye. There is something here about the significance of dreams, about confronting identity, about oscillation between ‘the presented’ and the represented. There is a sense of dislocation. In destabilising the ‘social’ portrait and revealing the shifting nature of social relations, Webster suggests identity as spectral. And equally, like shadows... contingent and mutable.

What appeared at once to be a parade of human experience (characterised as a union of masked roles from carnival and vaudeville performers) is ultimately, one large portrait. Webster evokes in the viewer the possibility of a ‘multiplicity of selves’, that each one of us is a polyphony of voices waiting in the wings to play the roles on stage. By trying on (and thereby taking on) the establishment of identity, Webster’s Black Carnival is a single portrait, the key to which lies the fact that acts of transformation (and here like cross-dressing, taken on in the viewing) unlock and liberate ‘fixed’ notions of identity.

Black Carnival, like any carnival, is an act of ‘becoming’. The self is revealed as being no more than a set of indeterminate presences, of ghostly traces harboured just beneath a social skin. Hence Webster’s constant use of masquerade. Whether it be masking the face, or as a complete costume, the masquerade stands for the elaborate human games that play between representation, transformation and ‘identity’. Masks neither deny nor affirm identity; they say as much as they silence. As symbols they can create and enforce a sense of social cohesion, yet they have the power to interrupt that coherency by exploiting notions of gender, identity and ‘misbehaviour’. If in the parade they seem stereotypic or symbolic then, equally, masks ease the way for subverting social order.


Taking hold... to occupy, to own, to take as one’s own. In the silence of this gallery room, one takes stock of oneself. Representing the masquerade as a room of deep dark portraits, Christine Webster suggests in Black Carnival, means of distancing oneself from social ‘normality’. Space is created for hidden selves or self-images deemed at odds with the world; the corseted ‘hat-check girl’, the fluffy bunny girl, the ‘ballerina’ of dancing jewel-box fame, the ‘can-can’ boys frozen like the faces on their necklace masks, caught ‘knees-up’ in front of the red curtain. The scale of the work is crucial to the effect. Almost human in size, each character is engulfed in a field of darkness, suggesting that abyss we all face when confronting the mirror. These photographs are entrances and exits, doors through which we could easily pass on a journey toward realisation: a ‘Divine Comedy’ in which we encounter only aspects of ourselves.

If this be a ‘body of work’ in the very literal sense, then the spectacle like some circus hall of mirrors is about an essential distortion as much as it is about reflection. Unlike some Lacanian mirror-stage, where an idealised self or wholeness opposes the fragmented self one feels oneself to be beyond the mirror, this photographic carnival suggests there is no comfort in Self-comfort. Dis-integration is the key to recognition and affirmation, to self-awareness and self-assertion in a world of illusions. This procession of costumes and masks (a multiplicity of identity) suggests the very impossibility of social cohesion, even questions the desire for sameness.

Mirrors tell many stories. Like masks, they oscillate between acts of self-enforcement and subversion. If anything, despite the darkness beyond the photographs, the body presented here is a clear mask like ‘glass for licking’, window shopping in a mall amidst likenesses of ourselves. Herein lies the true fear that Webster’s work provokes. Behind all masks lies that other mask, the hidden face of death. In the Black Carnival, in this shuttered silence, ghosts have been caught in the room dancing with life.

‘Life-in-death/ Death-in-life’, this neatly balanced role-reversal reveals, yet revels in, the precariousness of it all. Under masks are other masks... and maybe this, in the end, is how we all face the world.

© Ewen McDonald 2005, Sydney-based writer, curator and editor.
A text written for Black Carnival, updated 2005, Art New Zealand No 68, 1993