Photography by Helen Kundicevic


Exhibition Reviews & Essays
The King and Eye by Simon Enticknap

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed lens is King. The camera’s viewpoint orders our perceptions and our responses, combining the omnipotent gaze of the One who sees with the passionless precision of the machine. You’re either in the frame or out of the picture. Once enthralled, there’s no escaping this dominion; we are all subjects now.

From Horseplay series
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed lens is King
The photographic artist, however, like the court jester, occupies a more precarious position within this realm. Artful criticism of the King’s supremacy is tolerated, encouraged so long as his rule remains intact, secure in the knowledge that each reproach binds the artist ever more tightly to the apparatus of authority. The Fool may test the limits of the King’s patronage but cannot afford to exceed those boundaries. After all, there is little alternative. Each act of revolt or refusal directed at the position of power merely serves to confirm that site as the place which matters, the singularity which must be addressed. Any denial is inevitably framed, circumscribed by whatever must be negated.

The challenge, therefore, is to behead the King without preserving his corpus , to raze the figure of the Old Master without reinforcing the pre-eminence of his standing.

Over the past ten years, the photographs of Helen Kundicevic have sought to address the precepts by which the camera governs. In exhibitions such as Vis à Vis (Artspace 1986), Mother, Weep While I Think (ACP 1988) and The Philosophers Stone (ACP 1991), Kundicevic has crossed and recrossed the no (wo)man’s land which constitutes the photograph’s empire; from subject to object, art to reality, surface to depth, truth to fiction, artist to model – and back again. With each sortie, the camera’s ability to divide and rule is turned against itself to reveal new territories, fresh fields.

In Vis à Vis, body parts and surfaces are rounded up for interrogation but refuse to be constrained, to reveal their totality; similarly in Mother, Weep While I Think, the investigative eye of the camera runs into trouble as the object of inquiry – the Mother – slides and shifts, always suggesting an excess that cannot be neatly penned. The Philosophers Stone acknowledges the transformative power of the camera – objects loom mysteriously out of the dark void – but each affirmation is laced with a duplicity which exposes the alchemist’s tricks. Even an apparently ‘straight’ documentary piece such as Terra Rock (1992) not only records (which is the camera’s forte) the processes of contemporary colonisation but also uncovers our collaboration, as viewers, in the construction of the photographic icon. Two deck-chaired tourists in front of Uluru turn to stare at us and ask: What are you looking at? Are you guilty too?

For the works of Horseplay, Kundicevic takes as her canvas the paintings of Van Dyck (plucked randomly from a second-hand book) whose elegant portraits, suffused with an aura of regal divine right, made him a favourite at the court of hapless Charles I. The painter’s subjects are overlain with the photographer’s own representations, melding them together with such force as to dissolve the portraits’ statuesque poise.

With a mock fidelity, the Master’s gesture is repeated, doubling the representation in an act of mimicry which deliberately reveals his authority as impotent, an empty space waiting to be taken over and reoccupied. By means of a blurring, a smudge, the Master is literally rubbed out in a move which both erases and describes the space of his absence (it is an act which e-razes). This is digital manipulation of the most physical kind, the fingers moving across the images with a mechanical, repetitive, unconscious motion to delete the surface of the original.

The result is a more-than-faithful copy that somehow manages to confound and unsettle. Like the mannequin that moves, the waxwork model that winks or the corpse that suddenly opens its eyes, the object comes alive. Something is glimpsed at the edge of vision, barely perceived, but which fills the gallery space with the whispers and glances of half-imagined conspiracies and liaisons. Did I really see/hear that, or was it just my imagination? Like the mannequin that moves, the waxwork model that winks or the corpse that suddenly opens its eyes, the object comes alive.

The pictures share an affinity with portraits found in haunted houses, where a panel slides back to reveal a pair of real, live eyeballs which follow the movements of the unsuspecting guests. There is a malign presence here more terrible than the banal surveillance of the security camera or the comic prying of the eye at the keyhole. It suggests a dark domesticity hidden within the fabric of the house, periodically confined to the attic or the fruit cellar, but always threatening to rise up and terrorise its captors.

The eyes have it. What is it about them that disturbs me? I have been caught looking, caught out by something which confronts the purity of my vision. It is impossible to occupy the disembodied, objective space of the Master painter. No longer a neutral witness, I am forced to acknowledge my own complicity in the kingdom of the blind. There is no security of contemplation here, no repose; my gaze is returned to me as an active, destabilising agent. Not content to hide behind a screen, the object shuffles between layers, refusing to remain fixed.

The barriers between subject and object are now breached, allowing occupation of both terrains simultaneously. The rider is seemingly poised to divide the cloak, relying on the faceless, compliant body to hold it tight and allow him to perform this act of discrimination. This time, however, there is an interloper. His authority is usurped, not by somebody taking his place, becoming the one who dissects and divides (an act which would simply restate the existing structure of relations), but by an element of horseplay which threatens to destabilise the forces within the frame, to unseat the rider before he can achieve his separation.

What is revealed here is not the power of the King/rider to enforce our blindness, the constrained perspective of the subjugated viewer, but rather the totality of his dependence upon our compliance. We’re not blind but blindfolded. Rather than the camera imposing limits on what we see, there is only our unwillingness to recognise that the blindfolds we wear are self-imposed. All we need do is take them off.

© Simon Enticknap June 1995

Vis-a-Vis Essay by Beth Spencer
In his discussion of the painting Las Meninas by Velazquez, Michel Foucault examines the complex network of ‘uncertainties, exchanges, and feints’ which sets up in the painting the illusion of pure reciprocity. …I could not join that troupe of those (the majority) who deal with Photography according- to-the-Photographer. I possessed only two experiences: that of the observed subject and that of the subject observing… Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida. He explores that place where the painter’s gaze converges with the spectator’s. That invisible, ‘neutral’ space of classical western representation where the observer and the observed ‘take part in a ceaseless exchange.’

For Foucault, however, the observer and the observed are both, and always, ‘he’. Even when he asserts that the true subject of the painting enacted is the couple reflected in the mirror on the far wall (those two faces seen dimly), the King and the Queen. Even while demonstrating that the true subject of the painting as portrait is the Infanta in the foreground: the young princess observing her mother caught in the painter’s gaze.

My relationship to these photographs is ambivalent, two-fold: initially as photographer’s model, the object observed; now as essay writer, the subject observing.

There is no neutral space — easily located, comfortably inhabited — where these two roles converge.

To stand facing these photographs has for me the quality of looking in a mirror. An old mirror, spotted and marked, a darkened room. Learning my body by seeing it in fragments, covertly.

It also has that quality of tracing the line of anoth-er’s body, a lover’s perhaps. Feeling the bumps, the spots, the folds of fattened skin. Recognising old marks, familiar terrain. Finding new ones.

Following a map to test it for accuracy. Inscribing it (again) as a thing remembered. Another darkened room.

Another covert touching. I am reminded of that first mirror, the mother’s body.

Irigaray says: With your milk, mother, I swallowed ice (*2). For her (the daughter), the mirror that she also becomes for the mother is la glace — ice, a movement frozen, a rigid caught pose.

Between them is the authority of the father, the phallus, that first signifier of difference whereby an absence or otherness is read as a lack, inaugurating a language and a culture based on a system of oppositions, on presence and absence, possession and non-possession, on the couple.

A couple dancing, standing face to face (vis-a-vis). The male partner leads, the woman dances backwards, not knowing where she is going. She ‘follows’ while being placed in front of the man. They revolve, reversing their positions without changing this relation, changing only and temporarily the direction of the circles being traced. The trace of a seemingly endless series of couples (a trick of mirrors, perhaps).

This is the gendered couple (male and female), constituted in the family, reproduced via the oedipus complex: the son bows to the authority of the father…

But what of that other, that pre-oedipal couple — what of that couple not based in an opposition? The Infanta, for instance, gazing at her mother (that look of surprise!), what does she see? And how does she describe what she sees?

I, too, am captive when a man holds me in his gaze; I too am abducted from myself. Classical western representation posits a ‘neutral’ space from which men can speak to each other, describing what they see, and where one can reciprocate another’s look with a look of his own. But this is a reciprocity unavailable to the Other (can the model look back at the camera?). Excluded from this privilege, how can the daughter describe what she sees when she looks at the mother? How can she talk to the mother except by adopting the stance of the son, or the father; except insofar as she shares their ‘neutral’ space?

And how do I write about these images without appropriating them as somehow ‘mine’, without defining them, exercising authority over them (as one who was there or who can explain them or who knows the artist’s intentions…)? How do I close without closing off the work? How do I write in this space and still leave space for the next writer, the next viewer?

Eudora Welty said: ‘Criticism can be an art, too… it may pick up a story and waltz with it…’

And so I return to stand, again, vis-a-vis the work.

Facing my mirrored, headless image. Decapitated, unable to speak in the language of the father and the son, (or) unwilling — using instead the body language of dance and play.

I throw an image of you to you, you throw it back, catch it again.

Here, as always, Irigaray substitutes touch for sight (catch these images in your fingertips, feel this body with your body). Substituting two (lips/people) in touch as a metaphor for engaging wth an other, replacing the possessive object/subject paradigm which defines the look.

Substituting a personal, gendered space for the privileged vantage point of the ‘neutral’ (neutered) male subject (a position which disguises the desire invested in it).

Here there is no neutral space where one can stand back and not be implicated. No position of mastery.

Here there is no neutral space where one can stand back and not be implicated. No position of mastery.

Indeed, the tactility of the images creates an uncomfortable intimacy. If these images are like images in a mirror, then it is a hand-held mirror. A small personal mirror positioned and repositioned, over and over. Mapping out the body in fragments, mapping it out in movement.

The images are both seductive and threatening, raising for me so many questions of identity — a desire to acknowledge the images as myself, accept them and the imperfection they signal; yet also a desire to speak of them — something I can only do effectively by standing back: retreating to the ‘objective’ distance of the critic.

To speak is thus to disavow them as myself, my body.

And again, the too-intimate relation of mother and daughter is evoked: the threat of annihilation implicit in recognition. A return to the site of exile is always a dangerous return.

A return to that place where the Infanta looks out at her mother. A look traceable (only) through a whole complex web of signification, a whole maze of other looks.

Each of us lacks her own image; her own face, the animation of her own body is missing. And one mourns the other. My paralysis signifying your abduction in the mirror.

1. The Order of Things (Britain: Taverstock, 1970), chapter one. Velazquez’s painting is reproduced as the fronticepiece to Foucault’s book.

2. Luce Irigaray, ‘And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other’, translated and introduced by Helene Vivienne Wenzel, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society,
Autumn 1981. All quotes in the text in italics are from this source.

Text © Beth Spencer. First published in Telling Ways: Australian Women’s Experimental
Writing, edited by Anna Couani and Sneja Gunew, AFS, 1988.
All photographs ©. Helen Kundicevic, from the series Vis-à-Vis. Artspace, Sydney, 1986.

©Beth Spencer March 1988

Blemish by Simon Enticknap

Blemish continues Helen Kundicevic’s study of the nature of photographic portraits and the various means by which the human form is captured and composed on film.

These near-sighted pictures of human skin and features focus on the blemishes, wrinkles, discolourations and hirsute bits that make everybody so distinctive, unique, imperfect and wondrous. Although they do not resemble conventional portraits, they nevertheless represent an extreme attempt to get up close and personal with their subjects, to have a good hard stare at the stuff of which we are made. At the same time, these are more than simply forensic shots testifying to the magnification prowess of the camera. When digitally combined with a series of Rorschach-type blots and drips, the resulting images evoke entire new worlds of hidden existence, like fossils from the future or alien species from a distant world.Although they do not resemble conventional portraits, they nevertheless represent an extreme attempt to get up close and personal with their subjects, to have a good hard stare at the stuff of which we are made of.

These images seem to sit precariously at the intersection of two axes of interpretation; one is the urge to ask ‘What is that? – A mole? A nostril? A lobe?’ – while the other asks exactly the same question but demands an imaginative leap – ‘What is that?’ – as if challenging our ability to speculate, to construct new forms from familiar sights. Thus an eye becomes a mouth, a nose is a head and a skin-fold forms a body. Both modes of meaning slip in and out of focus – we see either/or – but struggle to co-exist simultaneously. Like an optical illusion, the eerie nature of the images derives from an impossibility of holding both the body part and the body which that part has become in view at the same time.

Equally, the beguiling, uncanny beauty of these apparitions derives not only from the immediacy of skin samples or the random formations of blots and blobs, but also from a doubling effect, a tension between the fold of the skin which always appears slightly off-centre or skewed, set against the perfect, unnatural symmetry of the finished object. In the space between these two poles, there is room to discover believable impossibilities, some thing totally plausible and yet utterly fantastic – an anomaly which seems to make sense, not unlike those human blemishes which render us all the more remarkable by making us flawed.

Deadringers (Take 2) Catalogue Introduction

Dead Ringers (Take Two) is a series of portraits that confound the very notion of photographic portraiture, an unsettling collection of likenesses like nothing ever seen. Although conventional in the manner in which the sitters are posed, stilled before the camera lens, a quarter-turn away, they are marked by an irresistible blurring, an improbable doubling of the subject to create a fantastic projection that is nevertheless ‘all there’.

In the original Dead Ringers series, the sitters were arranged in an identical pose and photographed along the same axis of vision, front and back. The resulting two images, when viewed side-by-side, presented a subject as if sliced in half, a doubling which was also a splitting; when melded together in the same space, the Take Two images become more than the sum of themselves, an uncanny superimposition of the subject – a photo-graft – that is unimaginable and yet strangely believable. The result is, in effect, an overload of resemblance, too much simultaneous similarity – we know what we see should not be, but there it is.

…more than the sum of themselves, an uncanny superimposition of the subject – a photo-graft – that is unimaginable and yet strangely believable.

We search the faces for a kind of truth, not as the sign of an inner meaning but as a clue, a hint perhaps, for that which common sense tells us should be there but has now been effaced. In this moment, the essence of the portrait, a stand-in for what is already absent, is fully revealed.

Challenging the notion of the portrait as the identical double, the mirror image of our true selves, Dead Ringers (Take Two) evoke another double, a shadowy, furtive presence/non-presence that haunts our composed, public persona, the face we turn to the world.