8 Mar 2016

Review: For Fantastic Carmen – photographs by Fiona Clark

From the collecton Arts Festivals 2016

Marking the 30th anniversary of homosexual law reform usually involves a “before and after” contrast, as if new legislation is a styling makeover. From the sad sack of homophobia and shame to the contoured bod of tolerance and diversity: look how far New Zealand has come!

But Artspace challenges that easy, simplistic trajectory and suggests a messier story with this large presentation of Fiona Clark’s photographs, which will “unfold” into a group show from March 12. It turns out the law wasn’t ever the only thing worth worrying about or celebrating.

Far more than mere documentation, Clark’s mid-1970s images depict trans performance culture – drag queen contests, strip shows and dance parties – as exciting and hectic, and its luminaries as glamorous and defiant.

In the main gallery space, the viewer’s eye is first drawn to the large beautiful colour glossies on the left – gorgeous people in gorgeous clothes, some in provocative poses. Tightly-cropped portraits are near life-size: artfully-languid trans women return the viewer’s gaze. Later portraits of some of the same (older) “transsexuals” are more formal; there’s triumph here, they’re still alive. Elsewhere, a sense of loss pervades the exhibition: kawakawa leaves indicate portraits of those now dead. Late-90s photographs of New Plymouth’s women-only Club 47 show a “loud and proud” space, but also a sadly empty one: the building was about to be demolished.

But it is the dance party series, the small black-and-white images on the right, which demand more concentrated focus. Snapshots taken late on a messy, heady night, they reveal pit stains, bra padding and “hormone tips” (budding breasts) – as the earthy, catty handwritten captions point out. “How many of you boys would like to either suck these tits or have them for you're [sic] very own. I bet you all would,” one scrawl asserts, written by the “Campest Queen on K Road”.

Partially because of that “voice” – important for Clark to include – the dance party series was censored in the mid-1970s at Auckland Art Gallery, and two prints disappeared forever. It took until 2003 before a gallery was “brave” enough to show this work as a collection, and it’s only now that Aucklanders are getting to see it. Even now, these glimpses of a marginalised, little-known sub-culture are still hidden away on Karangahape Road. (Artspace overtly links the exhibition to the continuing trans struggle: its Facebook page includes a photograph of last month’s No Pride In Prisons protest.)

Clark’s images are worth seeing on their own wondrous art merits, but also because the works’ treatment outside of Artspace show they still have the power to scare. Gender-blurred sexuality is still somehow, puzzlingly threatening.