A contribution to the panel discussion, Choker: Twenty Years On, City Gallery Wellington, 1 October 2015.
Choker (1993) is my favourite Fiona Pardington photograph.1 It’s so concise, so resolved, so iconic. No fancy collaged matt, no gilt or lead framing, no arcane symbolism, no pictorialist flourishes, no mucking about. A young woman’s neck is decorated with bruises. Everyone assumes she got them from her heterosexual male lover in a moment of grand passion (or lustmord).2 In posing for the camera, the woman seems calm and complicit, displaying her bruises with pride—chin up. Her breasts are not emphasised, so our attention can focus on the love marks, and Pardington records them admiringly. Indeed, we might imagine that, as the photographer, she is adopting the position of the imagined vampiric male lover, compelled to document his handiwork.
The work turns on the question of whether the bruises are benign love bites (making the title’s choking reference metaphoric) or whether they are the result of strangulation (making it literal). Pardington keeps both possibilities in play and that’s the point.
Choker was not produced in a vacuum. Pardington was already known for works like Prize of Lilies (1986), Saul (1986), and Bracelet (1987), which celebrated and eroticised an implicitly violent male ideal—Pardington gazing lovingly upon beefy thuggish guys, as if through rose-tinted glasses. Choker begs to be read in relation to such earlier pieces.
When it came out, Choker was not controversial. In the 1970s, it would have been hard to imagine a New Zealand woman photographer producing it, let alone it being understood as feminist. Such an image would have been condemned as a celebration of domestic violence. But, by the early 1990s, things had changed.
Choker reminds me of an earlier photograph, whose reception was rather different. Peter Peryer made Anne Noble, Easter in 1979, during his early passion-play, psychodrama period. In it, a naked woman lies across a leopard-skin pattern. It wells up beneath her like a torrent, like an altar, or like flames of martyrdom. She seems to be magically levitated by it, recalling Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–52). She is naked, but for two items of jewellery, a bangle (suggesting a handcuff) and a luminous pearl necklace (so tight that it seems to separate the head from the body3). The woman’s face is averted, so we can’t identify her, although the title tells us exactly who she is: Anne Noble, an equally known New Zealand photographer. This photo foreshadows Pardington’s work. The inclusion of the word ‘Easter’ in the title links masochism and martyrdom, sex and spirituality, sin and sanctity—ideas that Pardington will make her own. As a lapsed Catholic, Peryer deftly ties up his woman-issues with his religion-issues in this one-stop-shop image.
At the time, critic Tom Hutchins read the work in terms of an interaction, a transaction, between the photographer and his subject: ‘a female nude, lying as if in some sacrificial rite, offering up her body in a contradictory gesture that shows willing participation … The whole is a private theatre, a ritual of interplay of tensions, of superordination, submission and acceptance, acted out—making accessible its strange significance far beyond the initial transaction of the two participants.’4
Seven years later, in 1986, AGMANZ Journal published an article by Merylyn Tweedie (the artist now known as Et Al.)—‘Feminist Issues in New Zealand Art (with Particular Reference to Imaging of the Nude Female/The Naked Woman)’.5 In it, Tweedie made a very different reading, based on the idea that the artist simply framed his subject. In it, Tweedie wrote: ‘In portraying women as sexually powerless, passive and available, Peter Peryer in Anne Noble, Easter makes visible his own claim as a sexually dominating presence (even if he himself is absent from the image). Indeed Anne Noble … is reduced to little more than a good fuck.’ Rather ripe language.
Tweedie went on to contrast Peryer’s image with Carole Shepheard’s etching Joyce’s Lilies (1983), from her Body Covers series. Here, the quintessential Woman’s Movement artist presented an ambiguous, suggestive photographic close-up of a woman’s naked body and juxtaposed it with her own impressionistic graphic depiction of ripening lilies—as if equating the two. Casting Shepheard as good, Peryer as bad, Tweedie wrote: Peryer ‘operates within “historically reinforced codes of male gratification as the privileged user of the language of his culture”’, while ‘Shepheard attempts to undermine/deconstruct dominant forms of representation of the female nude and intervenes as a feminist in the politics of pleasure’. But, regardless of Shepheard’s intentions (or politics), her image hardly sits outside of ‘historically reinforced codes of male gratification’. One could argue that her nice image is at least as reductive and essentialist as Peryer’s nasty one. Actually, the Shepheard and the Peryer have much in common. Both feature women we can’t identify from the images (but who are more or less named in the titles). And both link jouissance with another element—the fabric pattern in the Peryer, lilies in the Shepheard. If Peryer’s image was made by a woman and Shepheard’s by a man (which is not impossible), I think Tweedie would have created a rather different argument for them.
Tweedie’s critique, then, was something of a set-up. It turned on a false opposition. It denied Noble any agency (or potential agency) in the Peryer image, even though Peryer’s title prompted us consider how the work might also fit into her oeuvre as well (one which was already full of sexy female nudes and water). Indeed, it raised that question of agency more sharply than a Noble self portrait could have.6 Tweedie seemed to assume that male artists necessarily operate at the slugs-and-snails Peryer end and female artists at the sugar-and-spice Shepheard end, failing to mention that, by the time of writing, Noble’s racy sex-fantasy series, Night Hawk, had been touring the country in the 1982 National Art Gallery show, Views/Exposures. One of the images, Rope, was a veritable bondage manifesto. In 1994, Artspace would reproduce it on the catalogue cover for its R18 pornography show, One Hundred and Fifty Ways of Loving, which included Pardington. Noble, then, is a key precursor for Pardington.
Of course, hindsight is a great thing. In 1986, when Tweedie published her essay, the scene was turning. Fiona Pardington made Prize of Lilies and Saul, Nan Goldin published The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and David Lynch released Blue Velvet. Carole Shepheard’s essentialism would soon be old news, as earth mothers, shields, shells, and tipis gave way to French theory. In the very same issue of AGMANZ Journal that Tweedie’s essay appeared, Lita Barrie published her Francophile attack on old-school essentialist feminists, titled ‘Remissions: Toward a Deconstruction of Phallic Univocality’ (although, on the contents page, they mistakenly called it ‘Toward a Reconstruction’—which shows just how confused everyone was). By 1990, the American feminist Camille Paglia would be hailing cock rock, celebrating sex as a dark force, and suggesting that prissy coeds get over it. By 1991, New Zealand women artists had veered so far into ethical grey zones that the new women-artists book would be titled Pleasures and Dangers, and it wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. The following year, Madonna and Steven Meisel published Sex and Cindy Sherman arranged prosthetic limbs and mannequins for her obscene Hans Bellmeresque series Sex Pictures.
In the 1980s and 1990s, our idea of feminist art stretched to embrace diverse approaches. Now we know that feminist art can be deep and cavernous or shallow and cosmetic. It can be tightly patterned or monstrously organic. It can be confessional and true or feigning and duplicitous. It can be abject or genteel, political or mystical. It can confront gender as deeply contingent, a ‘social construction’, or assert it as fundamental. It can embrace femininity or repudiate it. It can align women with nature or reject the very idea as sexist. It can rail against pornography and prostitution or defend them. While ‘bad girl’ feminists attacked middle-class values as patriarchal, preferring the rude and transgressive, other feminists can celebrate politeness and decorum, as if middle-class values were always already feminist. In a 1996 essay, ‘This Is Not a Cigar: On the Feminising of Mikala Dwyer’,7 Rex Butler observed that, as feminist art can now take virtually any shape, it is impossible not to make feminist art. I disagree, slightly. It is not exactly that everything in art is feminist, but that utterly polarised and mutually exclusive things are. In art, what one feminism promotes another will oppose. One woman’s feminism is always another’s anti-feminism. Because of this, feminism in art now is not one thing or the other, but one thing and the other. It is works that have questions or issues, rather than answers, in common.
These days, everything is scrambled. It’s hard to work out which way is up. Empowered autonomous females have become ideal sex objects—Lara Croft and Co. are every boy gamer’s wet dream. Meanwhile, the Fifty Shades of Grey books have been translated into fifty-two languages, with over 125 million copies sold—women everywhere showing their preference for submission fantasies. The customer is always right. On top of this, the rise of genetics has white-anted feminism’s key argument, that gender is a ‘cultural construction’. What’s a girl to do?
After One Night of Love (1996–2001), Pardington stopped making nudes, male or female. She also retreated from the Choker idea and from celebrating violent masculinity, frequently citing her own war stories of family violence. And, recently, on Facebook and in talks, she’s been spewing over Jono Rotman, for supposedly glorifying violent males in his Mongrel Mob Portraits.
Although Pardington has largely left the Choker idea behind, it persists in other artists’ works. I think especially of Sydney painter Fiona Lowry and her airbrushed paintings of the noughties. In 2006, Lowry painted Richard, a romanticised portrait of the ‘Night Stalker’, the American rapist and serial killer Richard Ramirez (who, on death row, had endless female groupies, including one of his jurors). That year, she also made portraits of the women members of the Manson family, based on their high-school-yearbook images. For some time, Lowry specialised in inappropriately beautiful scenes of the bush where vulnerable, naked women await their fate (Ivan Milat territory). As if relayed through their women subject’s eyes, these scenes have a disoriented, wrongly wired, Stockholm Syndrome aspect, as if the subjects—and, via them, the viewers—have become complicit in violent men’s fantasies. This is nailed by Lowry’s plaintive romantic titles, like Anything You See in Me Is in You (2006), For You I have Lived and for You I will Die (2009), and Will You Speak before I Am Gone? (2009). In such works, Lowry draws out and amplifies Choker’s issues. Can we call her works feminist? And, if we can, what does that mean for feminism? How far can the word stretch and remain useful? And what comes next? Can we, should we, dare we go further?
[IMAGE: Fiona Pardington Choker 1993]
- Choker is elsewhere dated 1994. There seems to be some confusion.
- Pardington was bent, but resolutely heterosexual—not queer. Which is not to say her work has no resonance for queers.
- Or so imagined reviewer Tom Hutchins, at the time. ‘Exhibitions: Auckland: Three New Zealand Photographers: Fiona Clark, Laurence Aberhart, Peter Peryer’, Art New Zealand, no. 14, Summer 1979–80: 19.
- AGMANZ Journal, vol. 17 (1986): 11–2.
- Peryer and Noble showed together early on, having a two-person show at Snaps, Auckland, in 1978. Noble’s work was also informed by her Catholic upbringing.
- Rex Butler, ‘This Is Not a Cigar: On the Feminising of Mikala Dwyer’, in Mikala Dwyer: Hollowware and a Few Solids (Melbourne: Barberism and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 1996), np.