I'm reading
Anne Zahalka captures our past and present
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Anne Zahalka captures our past and present
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Anne Zahalka captures our past and present
Pass it on
Pass it on
"I’ve always loved the way photography can condense the world into a single frame so seamlessly and faithfully, recording its minutiae."
10 November 2016

Anne Zahalka captures our past and present

Interview by Anna Rosenfield
Feature image photograph by Nick Cubbin

About Anne Zahalka...

Australians who know art know Anne Zahalka, our feature artist for issue 48. After more than 30 years on the contemporary art stage, Anne’s work has cemented its place in art history, becoming an important part of the Australian cultural landscape she’s explored throughout her career.

When I take in her vast portfolio I can’t help but feel nostalgic and forward-looking all at once; her art provokes both a sense of yearning for what was while deeply rooting us in what is. Famous for her representation of familiar cultural images, Anne highlights the passing of time and ever-changing narratives of our lives, opening up the conversation of collective responsibility and identity.

I am most struck by Anne’s ability to challenge our ideas of truth—of what’s normal or real—through art that is just as playful as it is critical­: a reminder perhaps, that not everything serious must be approached so seriously.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

ANNA ROSENFIELD: The beach seems to be a critical context for your work. I read your description of the beach as being a “mythologised site of our nation” and I wanted to know how that idea has evolved over time and in your work.

ANNE ZAHALKA: The beach is such a loaded place in the Australian psyche and so defining of who we are—or think we are. It’s a site that has been endlessly represented throughout our history and has been imbued with symbolic meaning for the nation. To me, the beach is at once nostalgic but also a fraught and contested site. It was the setting for race riots and cultural conflict over 10 years ago now, while it is also where cultural diversity and difference can be expressed in a very egalitarian way.

My interest in the beach as a mythologised site stems from an early residency at Bondi Pavilion in 1989, the suburb in which I lived at that time. Through my research into local and state library photographic archives, the surf lifesaving clubs and art galleries, I became fascinated with the way in which Australia had been represented through this place and how these images had come to define us.

Much of your work involves deconstructing something and re-presenting it in a new way. How does this concept of reinventing play out in your own life?

I feel my work has always engaged with an aspect of social documentation and commentary even when it is staged. As I reflect on my work, I notice that what has been recorded over the years are subtle changes to the way we live, the way we appear. And this applies to the images I have made in my own home—it’s a kind of visual history of our house.

Sadly the images that I have made are few and far between. But I’m constantly looking at images from the past and always interested in how we see ourselves through this lens today and the differences that exist between the two.

This idea of looking to the past… You rework a lot of historical pieces to represent contemporary life in your work, and I think that there’s an element of responsibility in that. What is it that you feel responsible for in your art?

Working with historical images can be tricky because of the attachment people have to them. Seeing them subverted and parodied can be affronting to some, especially when the pieces represent very different social, cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Not only do they occupy a space reserved for these revered characters, they, in fact, replace them. This puts considerable burden on those stepping into the place of these historic images and to perform there publicly.

I try to make sure that my models understand the role they are playing and what it might mean for them and to others. It is often about trust, but sometimes it is difficult to know how the work will be understood. I feel a responsibility to give voice to these groups and individuals, and to present them through familiar and powerful images of the past.

One of the ways that you re-present these images is through your use of mixed media. What is it about photography and mixed media that you’re drawn to? Has this changed over time?

I’ve always loved the way photography can condense the world into a single frame so seamlessly and faithfully, recording its minutiae. But so much rests on what is presented here. Realism can be a burden because of what it reveals, and sometimes I want to escape from the veracity of the photographic image and incorporate other materials and ways of working. While the photograph has incredible depth it is also very static and flat, and I find this frustrating at times. So sometimes I try to make my photos move or introduce sound in order to layer the image.

I began working with photomontage in my very early practice, cutting and pasting photographic images together to make an image ­and using historical reproductions. I’ve come full circle, except that now I’m doing it digitally.

I think photography is always about loss. Lost moments, lost events, lost people, lost things.
Anne Zahalka

You mentioned minutiae and I think that the concept of focussing on subtleties is very present in your work, and I’m curious about that. When I think about how you’ve chosen to pay close attention to the small rituals in every day life, as in your 1996 series Open House, or the homes of artists and collectors that are no longer living in The Appearance of Things in 2010, there seems to be a sense of nostalgia in all of that. Is this something you do consciously?

I think photography is always about loss. Lost moments, lost events, lost people, lost things. The photograph is a record of these and is inherently nostalgic because of this. Where my work references history and the past, then it is about the distance that separates us from those depicted. In some way my works attempt to understand the past through the present.

I’m currently working on a project that retrieves “street photographs” taken of passers-by in the city, in country towns or at the beach from the 1930s. They record our parents and parents’ parents—the way they walked, the parcels they carried and the clothes they wore. I’m collecting these for an exhibition and will also capture people on the streets today based on the locations they were taken. There’s been an amazing response through a call-out and I hope to bring these photographs from private and personal albums out into the public domain. Ten thousand photographs were purchased around the country every week! That’s a lot of photographs to find!

[Dumbo Feather readers: If you have street photos to contribute to the project, send them through (scanned, 300dpi, in colour with borders and with any information you can provide about the people in the photos) to: azstreetphotos@gmail.com. The exhibition, ‘Citizens of our Cities’ will be at the Museum of Sydney in Spring 2018.]

I love that! It’s fascinating to note the contrasts between our past and present in such a direct way; it says so much about where we’ve come from, and perhaps opens up the conversation of where we’re going. Much of your art points to the ever-evolving multicultural identity of Australia. How has your own heritage informed your work?

I’m a first generation Australian and the child of migrants, so I have identified with people whose backgrounds are also different. It has given me an understanding of the difficulties faced by new migrants and refugees and how hostile their reception here—by some—has become.

What does that look like, where are we headed?

Having only recently read polls that suggest 49 percent of Australians don’t want Muslims migrating here is disturbing. I feel very concerned by this and the difficulty and hostility it presents for Muslims living here. My mother was persecuted as a Jew and had to flee her country of birth and found acceptance and peace here. I hope that we are able to turn this tide of discrimination around and become the tolerant and generous nation we once were.

I also hope that we can reconcile with, respect and learn from our indigenous community with their rich and ancient culture, and to understand and feel connected with their lives and their land. Projects like Jonathan Jones’ Skin and Bones at the Botanical Gardens in Sydney is an important way of healing, teaching and bringing us together.

You’ve sold many works, received much acclaim for your art. What is your idea of success?

It’s strange, but the older I get, the less interested I am in success. I think it’s wonderful to leave a legacy and to feel I’ve made a contribution to the cultural landscape. Having my work studied and written within secondary and tertiary institutions and seeing my work hang in major collections beside great artists is very gratifying. Hopefully it will endure as long as the many artworks I have copied, appropriated, quoted or parodied in my art practice.

Feature image: Nick Cubbin

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