Justine Varga has said that she could feel tension in the room when she was announced the winner of the 2017 Olive Cotton Award.
The prestigious prize for photographic portraiture was awarded to Ms Varga, despite the image not depicting a face, and a camera wasn’t used. The judge, Dr Shaun Lakin, gave generous reasoning for his decision, which seemed to relax the crowd at the award ceremony. But the fallout was immediate. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a front page story titled 'Olive Cotton Award: Photographic portrait prize awarded to image without a face', and later, 'Justine Varga's Olive Cotton prize: questions of art over a grandmother's prizewinning scrawl'. Even The Times UK weighed in: "In fact, there’s little human about the work’s sqiggles and smears".
Here, Ms Varga provides BAM with her perspective.
BAM. Please tell us your thoughts on why the piece is a portrait.
Varga. “I thought the judge for this year’s Olive Cotton Award, Shaun Lakin, was very eloquent in explaining why he thought my photograph was indeed a portrait and I can do no better than quote his words:
‘The winning photograph is a really extraordinary photographic portrait, but one that withholds from us the physical appearance of its subject. Instead of showing us what the subject looks like, it uses her handwriting and her saliva to build a very moving portrait not just of a person — in this case, the artist’s elderly grandmother — but also of a relationship between two extraordinary women.
So, I know that Justine Varga’s photograph Maternal Line will confound a few of you, and no doubt some people will be dismayed that a photograph that does not actually ‘show’ its subject can win Australia’s most important photographic portrait prize. But the basic facts are that this work is, more than most — in fact I would say above all — of the photographs in this exhibition, profoundly photographic. Not just in the way that it relies on photography’s historical processes — film and the darkroom — but also in the way that it engages with the idea of the photograph as a trace of its subject. Our emotion and psychic relationship to photographs of loved ones is often based on the fact that they stood or sat there in front of the camera — that their body left its imprint or image on the photographic print. This is part of photography’s power. Think especially of a photograph of a parent who has died — their body was there, and the photograph is evidence of this.
Here, we have the most basic photographic trace — an elderly woman writing directly onto the photographic plate, and making marks with her saliva, creating a portrait which has been exquisitely printed to a monumental scale. While it looks abstract, it is, as the artist says in her statement, profoundly realistic.
In the end, the thing that ‘got’ me about this photograph was the way that it engaged me emotionally — in the direct experience of it. Again, you really need to stand before the print, which is so beautiful, and so melancholic in its way. To be able to witness and share a moment of significant emotional and cultural exchange between two women at such different points in their lives, both of whom have equally created this photograph.’
How did you come to the idea of creating this piece?
Varga. "The form of my work is often determined by the circumstances in which I am living and working. At the moment I am spending a lot of time living with my grandmother and so I get to closely observe her. I try and make my photography an extension of my life, not something that is separate from it. Photography is something that is always with me. In fact, I can safely say that my entire way of being centres around it. In this instance, I brought a piece of photographic film, a negative, into my grandmother’s home and had her leave her own inscriptions on it. Her actions on the piece of film, so redolent of her character, of her love of doing things, of her way of always keeping busy, allowed me to conjure out of a piece of light-sensitive film a powerful portrait of the kind of person she is. I also chose this action because I wanted the marks that she made onto the negative surface to be automatic — I didn’t want her to get in the way of herself by feeling like she had to perform and make a work of art. As within all of my photography, there was only one attempt at this work. This is because my photography is about the action it is recording and not what looks most aesthetically pleasing. It simply is what it is. But the idea behind the portrait goes even further than gesture alone. With the trace of her hand and a touch of her saliva she is manifest within and as the photograph. In other words, there is no separation between her and the photographic object. When she is no longer of this world I will still always have her with me. If you close your eyes and imagine a loved one, I can almost guarantee that the impression you will find won’t be crisp and clear — it will be muffled and somewhat muted, just a memory of a gesture or the sound of a laugh, yet somehow you know it is them. My photography evokes this kind of sensation and I can’t express how close I feel to my grandmother when I view Maternal Line. Through it, I am nearer to her than any of the many lens-based photographs I have of her.
What is your feeling and reaction to the controversy?
Varga. "I don’t court controversy but do insist on making the kind of work I feel is necessary. I think everyone benefits if the community is thinking about and debating issues — What is a portrait? What is a photograph? — as long as that debate takes place in a considered manner.
Is this sort of wide experimentation a frequent part of your process?
Varga. "I am always seeking to direct my work into new areas. And really, this stems from a deep love for the photographic medium — I want to explore what a photograph is and what it is capable of retaining. As making photographs is my full time occupation, I would hate to know what each and every work was going to be and look like before it is finished — how incredibly boring! So, yes, experimentation of various kinds is fundamental to my work. This means sometimes I use a camera and sometimes I don’t, but with either method I am always pushing my concepts, along with the photographic materials and equipment I use, to an extreme. For an example, the negative from which the print of Maternal Line derives is incredibly over-exposed — it has been handled in the most uncouth manner. I have used a photographic process to collaborate with my subject in an effort to capture her more intensely than I otherwise might have been able to do. The resultant work that is currently on display at Tweed Regional Gallery, hung among my peers, for whom I have such enormous respect, is a culmination of all my experimentation with the medium to date."
Varga's large-scale work in homage to her grandmother won the $20,000 overall prize for the 2017 Olive Cotton Award, announced in an official opening and presentation ceremony at Tweed Regional Gallery, Murwillumbah on Saturday July 22.