Christine Webster by Elizabeth Caughey

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 viewer.

(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 Ltd.