|DAVID SYMONS: WHAT LIES BENEATH
“As I get older and my eyes may get weaker, I see more. More and more things in the world are beautiful, especially the ordinary, overlooked and chaotic. I am, however, still wary of beauty. It either promises so much and delivers so little or draws you in only to reveal itself as something else. Much like art.”
David Symons is an artist who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Photography is his medium and he has certainly mastered it http://www.davidsymons.com.au/. Yet he’s more concerned about capturing what’s beneath the actual image. What do I mean? Read on and find out.
MICHAEL: Hey David, I get a strong sense of mystery from your work. Much of it is dark and somewhat brooding. I look at the finished products and wonder what's really going on beneath the surface. Is this what you're trying to capture or is it something else?
DAVID: Hi Michael. I like the word brooding. It makes me feel like I work from a castle. Yes, you’re spot on. My work is in many ways about what lies beneath the surface of things, visually and philosophically. While some works have an immediate visual cue to the surface and what lies beneath, such as the cars in “Undercover,” there are other works such as “The Day the Clothes Took Their Humans Off,” where the underneath is discovered at a more subconscious or metaphorical level. I really like the idea of a thin skin-like surface that covers something which is potentially fathomless. Without sounding too dark, I think that in many ways the society that we live in has a thin veneer that we take for granted. While I do think or ponder very seriously about things - whether it is about the state of the world or whether photography is purely an exercise in fiction - I am not an overtly brooding or dark character in my day-to-day life. In fact, I would love to produce humorous photographs –although I’m not sure if I have ever seen many really funny photographs. I guess my photographs are where I can channel and contain any dark and brooding thoughts.
MICHAEL: Your work is also very visually textural. I see lots of images that I want to experience through touch. Very interesting.
DAVID: The world that I imagine and try to photograph is – jagged, rupturing, chaotic, bubbling and threatening and beautiful. I find the physical world and the social world very similar. I guess this brings us back to the idea of a surface and an underbelly. The photographs in “Come and See” are about how we are repelled and fearful of scenes of chaos, rupture and carnage yet, simultaneously, drawn into and hypnotized by them. With the land-form photographs, I am trying to capture a raw world as opposed to the contained world often subscribed to in photography. I am looking to capture something that is more fundamental and more subconscious. Possibly, of all our senses, the one that gives us the truest indication of what the world is really like, is touch. This is our most rudimentary sense, the sense that is most comparable with all other living organisms. If a work of art can trigger a sense in the viewer that is not associated with the medium then I think that is a good result. So I am very glad that you are compelled to touch the works.
MICHAEL: Many Americans view Australia as this far away, almost magical place where everyone is happy and friendly and the sun is always shining. Is that a fantasy?
DAVID: Fantasy or good advertising campaigns I would say. Like any country, Australia has its good side and its ugly side. It is as complex as any other modern society, but it certainly likes to promote itself as friendly, sunny and sporty. I think Australia tends to shy away from promoting its intellectual and cultural life which is a pity. I migrated to Australia from Scotland when I was 10 years old, so I can’t speak as a born and bred Australian. I am also wary of patriotism as it is sometimes used to exclude rather than include, so I can’t say that everyone is happy and friendly. I guess we get back to the idea that there is a surface or skin, in this case the image of Australia, and there is an underbelly, which amongst other things, contains society’s anxieties and fears. And that's what I am interested in exploring as an artist. Australia is indeed, however, a magical place; the landscape is awe inspiring. The real magic of Australia can be seen in Aboriginal art. The Aboriginal people of Australia have a profound spiritual connection to their land and the Dreamtime. Through their art, we are able to see the real Australia. Instead of the manufactured modern Australia of sand, surf, barbeques and beer, I think it would be good for Americans and other nationalities to see the Australia seen through the eyes of artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
MICHAEL: Exploring the underbelly means you're taking people to places they may not want to go. Yet I find that artists like you can even capture beauty in even gruesome images. Thoughts?
DAVID: I thought this would be an easy question to answer, but the more I thought about it the harder it got to answer. When I started to answer your question I was coming up with more questions than answers. What is beauty? What is art? You know … the simple questions. Back in my early days, when I first started using photography to create art, I saw and used beauty and ugliness in their oppositional sense. Like a lot of young people, I was anti–establishment. I viewed beauty as a commoditized construct, a marketing tool and I probably saw ugliness as the bearer of truth, the real world. I remember telling by my photography lecturer at one point that I wanted to make angry photographs that shocked people. The funny thing is I don’t think I ever did. My upbringing taught me to respect other people’s opinions and that you didn’t shove your point of view down their throat. I did however want to make art that questioned belief systems and to take the viewer out of their comfort zone.
There are a couple of works I made in the 1980s called “Woman Warman” where I used these oppositional qualities of beauty and ugliness as they are represented pictorially in the feminine/nude and masculine/warrior. As much as I wanted to provoke a reaction to the work’s content, the aesthetics quality of the work had to be maintained. For me, that balance in a work is important; not for it to be balanced as such, but to know how much to tilt it. I would like to think that my work is a step back from gruesome. I hope that it is the unsettling possibility of gruesomeness.
I think most people are happy to go to uncomfortable places, especially in the comfortable confines of a gallery. There is a fascination with the unpleasant side of life. We devour crime shows; traffic comes to a standstill as we slow down to glance at an accident and we are saturated with images of violence. The temptation to peek at our mortality is overbearing. As I get older and my eyes may get weaker I see more. More and more things in the world are beautiful, especially the ordinary, overlooked and chaotic. I am however still wary of beauty, it either promises so much and delivers so little or draws you in only to reveal itself as something else. Much like art.
MICHAEL: Nicely said. As you know, photography has exploded in popularity. So many people are out there documenting seemingly everything all the time. It makes me think that they're missing life because they're so busy trying to capture life on camera. Thoughts?
DAVID: I’m glad you asked for thoughts on this Michael. I am fascinated by the sociology and philosophy of photography. I could write pages of thoughts on the matter, but I’ll try and hold back a bit. While I do believe more people are taking photographs, I’m not sure if we are more obsessed with taking photographs or if it has just become a whole lot easier to do so. When going through my mother’s old photographs, there were thousands of photographs kept within pouches in drawers with hand-written descriptions. Now we have thousands of photographs in folders on hard-drives and clouds. I think our love affair with photography is a constantly evolving process. There are however, very interesting differences between analogue photography and digital photography as it is used on a personal level. The audience for the personal photograph has moved from the family (to be passed on through families as proof of lineage and of course proof of existence) to the ever-expanding global network family. The ability to replicate the analogue image was always more time consuming and costly to the average person. The digital age is the age of the instantaneous and “free” replica. The ability to transform, edit and modify all at the touch of a button means that we are not only creating facsimiles. We are creating mutations, transformations. This is something that is not lost on companies that make devices with cameras. They have tapped into the desire for re-invention. The personal images of the digital age are more like moving images. Each one is chronologically replaced by a new one; it’s very similar to the last. They are not used as portals to a time passed (a memory), they are reflections of the here and now, in a constant state of renewal. They are not about “we were here – we existed” they are a constant “I am here, I exist.” The problem is that they are always needing to be updated because the life span of a ‘here and now’ is gone in the click of a button.
MICHAEL: Very interesting, but this constant updating for what? If everyone is so busy documenting and over sharing, then who is actually taking stock of what's being documented? It's almost like an "updated" version of the ancient Egyptians and their attempts at immortality.
DAVID: I think we do strive for some sort of immortality, a desire to transcend this mortal coil. Whether it is an actual belief in an afterlife or whether we want to be immortalized through memory, I think it’s what makes us uniquely human. Photography democratized the immortalizing function of the portrait painting. The photograph is a time capsule, carrying our images through and beyond our time. For some, however, this state of immortality is imposed on them. Sometime before the age of 10, I remember watching a documentary on the Holocaust, the images never left me. Years later at University, I spent an afternoon pouring over photographs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, unable to stop until I was exhausted. Around the same time, I remember watching United Nations vehicles rolling through Balkan villages, piles of clothes could be seen in front of farmhouses. You didn’t need to see the bodies. The clothes said everything. The living and the dead of war captured forever. Immortality thrust upon them. The subjects of these images were like apparitions, ghostly images in limbo, forever emitting what writer Ulrich Baer has called, their “spectral evidence.” My response to these images was, I thought, as a witness, albeit a second hand one, one step removed from the primary witness - the photographer. Even though viewing such imagery creates an emotional response, there must be a huge difference between being a primary witness and being a viewer. If one cannot respond as a witness is one merely a voyeur? How was I supposed to respond to these images apart from being horrified and upset? I also wondered if where there is no real time attachment, no personal relationship to such images, we build up an understanding from other areas. This I believe is what the theorist Roland Barthes meant by studium – the external knowledge that we bring to bear on the image - the political, historical and cultural interpretation. It was his concept of punctum, the personal understanding, the emotional hit, that I was unsure about when viewing images of trauma. Do the subjects call out? Is this their afterlife? I started working on a series of photographs in response to the images I had seen and some of the questions I had. This series spanned a few years and ended up as “The Day the Clothes Took Their Humans Off.” Using the language of crime scene imagery, mythology and surrealism, I wanted to explore how we might process and respond to the subjects in images of crime, war and trauma. And further, what does it take to release them from their immortality.
MICHAEL: Finally David, what do you want people to take away from your work when they see it and what are your future goals?
DAVID: I think the viewer should try to understand what the artist is trying to convey, but people will always add their own interpretation to works of art. While “The Day the Clothes Took Their Humans Off” is an accumulation of images taken over several years based on ideas of the way we might process traumatic imagery, it is not a thesis, it is a contemplation. If people ponder on the images, then I think they have worked. It is also my intention that these images work outside of my ideas about them, that they are not restricted visually to my ideas. My goal is for the images to lie between fiction and non-fiction, the conscious and the subconscious, and the surface and the underbelly. If I have the balance right, the images should promote a sense of unease. I don’t do this to be cruel to the viewer, although I might want to get under their skin a bit, I guess it is to bring something to the surface that they may keep hidden. I think people get something out of being challenged like this. As I have said previously, I believe we desire the ability to look at uncomfortable things from a safe vantage point. One of the themes about the images from “Come and See’” is about the voyeuristic appeal of carnage and chaos. I take it as a great compliment if someone tells me that my photographs are unsettling or dark. My future goals? Sometimes I think I must be the oldest emerging artist around Brisbane. I would like to have more exhibitions, print more images and have my work recognized by a wider audience. I would also like to make some larger scale ideas come to life. Working full-time in an office job and making art part-time is never ideal, but for most of us, it is the reality (although working at a University library certainly has its perks when it comes to resourcing). In a way, I am processing my art practice full-time anyway. When I am not making new works, I am usually thinking about them or looking around for them. When I park my car in a car park, I am looking for images coming out from the dark corners. When I do the gardening, I am looking for what might lie beneath the undergrowth. But then I think we all do.
MICHAEL: Yes, I certainly do. Thanks David. This has been great.
Check out David Symons at http://www.davidsymons.com.au/.