Incandescent Moment
Fiona Clark's Go Girl

PETER WELLS

Mayor shocked by dancing pictures. 8 O'clock, 14 June 1975

It was in 1975 that Fiona Clark faced a censorship crisis. Her photographs, touring with The Active Eye exhibition, were on one level relatively innocuous. At first glance. They were two black-and-white images (250mm x 180mm) of what we would now call a dance party. It was when you took a closer look, the disquieting sense of things not being quite 'right' emerged. The women were in fact transgendered. But it wasn't even this. These were transgendered people having fun. It got worse.

Scribbled, in what now seems an old-fashioned inky ballpoint pen, were proclamations. These proclamations amounted to an assault: we are real people, & can fuck everything and everyone, enjoying life & having a ball. Aren't you furious, you hung up closet queens. That demotic wild ballpoint, driven by adrenalin and speed just kept on moving. It attacked the people within the photographs, one of them being the ugliest double-chinned mole in the trade. And then the pen just went wild. How many of you boys? would like to either suck these tits or have them for you're very own. I bet you all would. Strong meat for nervous art curators, anxious mayors.

Gallery withdraws 'indecent' exhibition. Taranaki Herald, 11 January 1975
The effects of this censorship on Fiona Clark's career were immense and long-lasting. She withdrew to Taranaki and, as her contemporaries like Peter Peryer and Anne Noble went on to stellar careers, she risked dimming down into being seen as a regional artist, an essentially politically motivated artist whose message was stronger than her art.

FIONA CLARK Jackie at Mojos, Auckland 1975
Colour photograph

It takes time to shift, for this shell to fall off and to be seen as the dismissive misunderstanding it always was. The almost terrible beauty of Go Girl, the exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, speaks for itself. And in rendering these past 'artifacts' - these photos - into a contemporary idiom, Go Girl seamlessly speaks to the present. Its voice is clear, sharp and accurate. The power of those scribbled comments goes on. What has changed is signified by the small, withered kawakawa leaves pinned to the bottom of so many of the photographs. Many of the people within the images are dead.

Seeing is Believing. Mojos Nightclub poster.
I said earlier that the occasion chronicled in the black-and-white photos is what we would now call a dance party. This points to its forerunner status. In fact it was a gay lib dance held at Auckland University in 1974 and I was there. I still have sharp memories of the occasion. But there was an almost tangible excitement in the air. It was something to do with being out in public with so many young politicised homosexuals and lesbians. It felt new. And the almost rapturous response of the transgendered people in these photographs is a response to what one might almost call the incandescence of history. Each person is thrilled to be caught on camera. It gives their transient, slippery identity a permanence. They become, literally, who they are, when the film is developed. More than any legal document, these photographs are their carte d'identité.

Then the participants have been given back the photographs. Presented with them, one can only imagine the moments of delectation that went into selecting the comments - those poisoned darts which are then encrusted on either side of the frame.

Unseen in all of this, because it happens off-camera, is Fiona Clark. The little 'girl' with the camera.

A French duchess was once asked about how Proust fitted into the world he chronicled and to a certain extent made immortal. She looked faintly bewildered. 'He was that little man down the end of the table, I think.'

Sometimes people to the side obtain the best view. Especially when they're a trained photographer, holding a camera.

Transvestite photos should be seen, says-lecturer. Northern Advocate 26 April 1976.
Fiona Clark went to Elam in 1972. At this time Elam was in a state of ferment about the exact status of all of the arts: canvas painting was under assault from photography, while video had destabilised photography as the most contemporary visual medium. Performance art had further shaken the belief in photography as the key contemporary means of representation. Warhol's films went further. Homosexuality became radically chic. Clark recalls the impact of some Darcy Lange videos and Boyd Webb photographs. John Turner, Leon Narbey and Tom Hutchings all introduced Clark to new information.

But one has to say that the excellence of the work in Go Girl goes beyond anything taught, or sheer technical assurance. There's something called 'an eye'. Again and again, in frequently difficult situations, Clark has managed to enclose people within the frame, and find a curiously charged, almost lithe, poetry in the image.

FIONA CLARK Diana and Sheila at Mojos, Auckland 1975
Colour photograph

This goes beyond the subject matter (which is admittedly fantastical, rich, almost overabundant in references). Diana and Sheila at Mojos (1975), for example, is an extraordinary image, saturated, potent and - beautiful. That is the only word for it. It is one of the coloured photographs which have been enlarged for the exhibition (blown up Durst Lambda prints 760 x 1250mm). They are pinned to the wall simply. But the effect is powerful. They have an almost natural poster-like quality. (They also seem to mimic film stills - inexplicable frames from some forgotten yet highly charged melodrama.)

The colouring is intense: white vinyl, saturated red of lipstick on parted lips - the lacquered sheen of immensely enlarged pupils - Sheila, Belinda Lee and Diana look - both faintly stunned, as if hurtling along on a trajectory they themselves can only vaguely understand, let alone control - yet they also look rapt, or wrapped, almost literally, in all the invisible furs and diamonds of the great queens of cinema. This is the imaginative space these actors in the drama of their own lives inhabit. Yet when one looks more closely, the buttons are falling off the vinyl, the wood at the bottom of the chairs is kicked. It is a world of improvised appearances. It is a nightclub. More than this, it is a tacky nightclub in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1975, when the legal substances available are lemonade, coffee, and Coca-Cola.

'What happened did change my life.' Fiona Clark
One has to say that Fiona Clark was the right person at the right time. She was there at the birth of the homosexual liberation movement in New Zealand, an especially moulten and charged moment. Lesbian herself, she could move at ease within 'out' homosexual and transgender circles.

FIONA CLARK Tiny Tina and Ian Geraldine dress at home, Auckland 1975
Colour photograph

An outsider might have got apparently similar images - similar in content, that is: but there's an almost feline relaxation in many of the big coloured 1970s images, just as the black-and-white photos essay an intimacy, an almost playful flirtatiousness with the camera. There's a collusion in Go Girl which is its hidden strength: collusion between the taker and taken, the seer and the seen. In this sense, Clark becomes an ideal kind of mirror. She provides the sitters with a version of eternity. Just like Proust. She also says Seeing is Believing, at the same time as the images bounce back and ask: but is it?

'I'm going back to LA to show the catalogue to curators and writers.' David Pagel, critic LA Times.
One should perhaps murmur the international names who have mined a similar territory, to assuage our national inferiority complex. Nan Goldin immediately comes to mind. William Yang in Sydney. To what degree, I suppose one has to ask, are these photographers Andy Warhol's discard love children? Is their work derivative? Or a development? I would say what is peculiarly new about them is a development in sensibility, or infusion of individual sensibility. Especially an emotion notoriously absent in Andy Warhol: compassion. David Pagel, the LA Times art critic points to the importance of Clark's work: 'I thought it was really ground breaking. It is wrong to think she is only working for an audience of one type of community'.

So relax, these aren't just gay snapshots.

'Homophobia is a tragedy really, it's like looking at someone with an illness.' Tina de MaImanche
Coming up the steps of the Govett-Brewster, (perhaps fittingly, once an old cinema itself), one is faced with six shiny coloured prints. To the left hand side a video flickers with the insistence of a small electric flame. To the right one feels the first, almost kinetic shock. These are the first really glorious, almost film star-like photos. What is astounding is the almost shocking beauty of these images. These seductions lead one up the steps. Indecision. To the left is a video room. It is dark, and inside, already, I can hear voices. Like most people in contemporary galleries, I'm drawn ineluctably towards the moving image. It's what seems natural. It's like a drug dosage we're all familiar with. It's almost comforting. I find an '80s music video on, with character parts played by posturing, heavily made-up 'drag queens'.

FIONA CLARK Ian Geraldine at Home, Auckland 1975
Colour photograph

The music is quite boppy but it feels odd, because I'm there on my own, in the dark. It's like I've arrived at a ghostly party. The members of the party then emerge, single file, up on the video screen.

These are relatively artless interviews, poignant in content and simply edited. What one immediately gets is - these are survivors. None of them is glamorous. None of them is a beauty. Life is hard. One after another they say: but we're lucky to be alive. They note the amount of death they've been acquainted with. The actual cause might be drug overdose, suicide, violence, or car accident. Later AIDS makes its appearance. But these are almost incidental to the shockingly high mortality rate: the real story is the hostility and brutality often visited on trans- gendered people. The concept of self-esteem didn't exist then. As Sally says onscreen, 'we took drugs to soften the harshness of people's reaction to us.'

There's a fascinating divergence here, between a private inner reality and a persona often played out defiantly: ironically, however, this persona was often the negative one most people had of 'drag queens': oversexualised, faintly infantile, almost wordless - all image. For a photographer this 'all image' was a gift, but it has, historically, been abused. The eagerness of many transgender people to be photographed - 'therefore I exist' - didn't sit alongside any sense of ownership of the finished product: the photograph. So the most familiar framing of transgendered people has been a variant on the Diane Arbus mode: look at these fascinating freaks.

FIONA CLARK Tiny Tina at Home, Auckland 1975
Colour photograph

It's a testament to Fiona Clark as both photographer and human that she has maintained good enough relationships with the people photographed for her to go back almost 30 years later. Or perhaps another way of saying this is: even in 1974 she was returning the image to those imaged, and allowing them to make their own comments round the frame. There's a connection here which, for the viewer, is quite humbling. It's called trust.

Perhaps this is what makes the video interviews so engaging. These are people without the mask of beauty any longer. What knowledge they have has been bitterly bought. I looked at the video of Tina de Malmanche with the sound turned off in the lower gallery (you had to put on the earphones): I felt I could read her language through gesture. There was the slightly world-weary, 'I've seen it all before', the raised eyebrows of almost suppressed humour, and the more gentle collapse of resignation' you have to accept it in the end'.

'This is one of the most significant photographic shows to be done in recent times.' Gregory Burke
How does all this sit in a museum whose policy is avowedly cutting-edge contemporary? Isn't there too much content here? Also: isn't there too much sexual politics? (Both of these are dirty words in the immaculate salon of contemporary art - what one might call the definitive white room.) The interesting thing is that Go Girl manages to be a quintessentially contemporary exhibition. The fact is the art within the photographs is so convincing as to be almost upsetting: how did we forget that these superb images existed? What was involved in this forgetting, this demoting? In this way the mirror is turned back onto the practices of contemporary art, of museology itself.

The uncomfortable fact is that the art world, for all its commitment to originality, is as narrow in its adherence to fashion as the average suburban hairdresser. Clark's battle in bringing the exhibition to fruition - it took over five years - is a comment on the set parameters of museological practice in New Zealand.

FIONA CLARK John and Peter at Home, Wellington 2002
Colour photograph

The trajectory of the exhibition from here will be interesting. For the Govett-Brewster the show was clearly a challenge, if a challenge accepted and well met. When I met director Gregory Burke he talked of the 'leap of faith' required in contemporising the project. That this has happened so well is a credit to Burke, the gallery, and to Fiona Clark. The national attention has been gratifying, if unsurprising. Yet when I asked Clark how many of the images belong in what I suppose we have to call the national collection (Te Papa), she replied - with an almost delighted, yet knowing laugh - none. There's something about Fiona Clark - her modesty which people might mistake for a lack of sophistication. Beneath this is a determination and originality which the 'sophisticated' might take for naivete.

We could be generous here, and say that the purchasers at Te Papa are sitting round conference tables, as you read this, and are taking up the challenge and purchasing the entire set of images: it is hard to think, certainly, of a more rare yet persuasive image of something Aotearoan and yet to do with understanding of gender, race and place. When will this happen? Or will this happen at all?

And where and when will the exhibition tour? Local people spoke to me about the extraordinary opening- 'the best we've ever had at the Govett - I've never seen an opening attended by more locals'. Admittedly they were there for reasons of voyeurism: but isn't all art predicated on the keen emotion of voyeurism? Transgendered people are, always, to a certain extent, going to be theatre, art and performance to those who are untransgendered: they are always on the end of the looking cycle. It is to Fiona Clark's credit that she has given back some of the power of looking to those people so often captured and imprisoned within the prism of the photograph.

Perhaps the gallery and museum system within New Zealand could continue the compliment and allow these beautiful images to stare out at us: to scrutinise us, as it were, all around the country.

Don't for one moment think I write this out of some sort of homosexual political correctness. This exhibition works on a number of different levels - emotional, historical, philosophical as well as fulfilling superbly the most stringent demands of successful art - involving, shocking, embracing - and finally, the oldest lure of art itself: truth.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 106 Autumn 2003