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Generating Serendipity

Dr Ted Gott

Catalogue essay to the exhibition D O < R > at Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria, 2001 


From his first experiments in photography to his latest digital work, Marcus Bunyan has always been fascinated by the associations that light, form, and thought can conjure for an artist; through his background in music (he has a degree as a concert pianist) he has developed a love of phrasing, of order and precision (the mathematical connections between things), and yet also a rare appreciation of life’s visual serendipities. In his earliest works light was used to convey the aesthetics of beauty, of time and place, and of identity. Many of Bunyan’s early photographs were also conceived as careful perspectival entities, with their foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds perfectly angled and intersected in correspondence with a belief in the critical layerings of time and space. Concurrently, running parallel to these ideals, Bunyan has always drawn inspiration from the anarchic principles of Surrealism and its conscious distortions of form and identity.

Early influences included the work of American photographer Minor White (1908-1976) through his process of creative ‘pre-visualization’ of things – the practice of ‘seeing’ the final print outcome prior to even looking through the camera, a process Bunyan still uses in the construction of his digital images and installations. In addition, Bunyan drew from Minor White a sense of how to create a spiritual presence from inanimate objects by approaching photography as a meditative act whose purpose is the revelation of spirit in both artist and viewer.

Other early influences included the work of the legendary photographer of urban Paris, Eugene Atget (1856-1927); Bunyan’s first exhibition Of Magic, Music and Myth (1992) included 11 exquisitely printed photographs of the interiors of the derelict Regent Theatre reminiscent of Atget’s house interiors, enhanced with Bunyan’s witty plays on the distortions of space and time, and with his interest in the serendipities of chance encounters. Bunyan’s growing interest in the beauty to be found in discarded objects also derives from this photographic tradition, along with his pinpointing of metaphors for the human body in elements of both the urban and natural environment. The artist generated a search for images which seemed to contain within themselves chance or constructed plays of meaning and symbols.

Some of these images found their way into the artist’s second exhibition, The Naked Man Fears No Pickpockets (The Photographers’ Gallery, Melbourne, 1993) whose title played on a feeling experienced by many artists, whereby the act of having an exhibition exposes one’s soul to public scrutiny in full nakedness. Numerous visual twists entered into his work from this point onwards, subject acting as metaphor for other states of being. His works of 1993-95 incorporated secret symbols that are only half-seen and half-represented – such as a shovel and coat in one photograph of an empty studio which combine to form an implicit human presence; or the insertion of a question mark at the heart of another composition, fashioned obliquely from the lines of an otherwise unremarkable object in the background. This type of compositional intervention offered a pleasing reassessment of reality, by its surreal distortion of the original purpose of the subject, or the objects being photographed.

A number of Bunyan’s photographs from this period had secret objects inserted beneath their protective window mats – scalpels, feathers, petals, etc. While totally invisible to the viewer, these talismanic items were placed there to satisfy the artist’s love of the games which can magically transform the meaning of a work of art upon their discovery. The photographs in his exhibition Inevolution (The Photographers’ Gallery, Melbourne, 1994) incorporated a variety of both visible and hidden visual arcana, such as bags of pubic hair cut from HIV-positive people, paper, stones, and pieces of lace.

His next exhibition The Cleft In Words, The Words As Flesh (Stop 22 Gallery, Melbourne, 1996) brought a major shift to the structure of his work. This exhibition presented no less than 180 photographs dispersed across 6 compositional sequences and 4 sculptural arrangements. In carefully choosing how to balance the works in the exhibition between a single image, a sequence of images or an installation, Bunyan looked back to his early musical training, and organised his sequences as if he were phrasing music. With this exhibition, Bunyan took a quantum leap. Where once he had taken hundreds of photographs and then analysed them closely for their encoded meanings, by the mid 1990s he found himself increasingly absorbed with ideas first, and photographing a much smaller selection of images to fit those ideas. His move now to installation-based photography grew naturally from this sea change within his own creative processes. The incorporation of sculptural elements and subtle notes of colour also signalled a shift away from his former adherence to a purely black and white aesthetic. ‘Quest/Wound’ (1996) for example, featured the use of coloured Letraset laid over the background images of a goblet greatly enlarged in size, and the documenting of a performance piece where scalpels had been used to cut a man’s back. Bunyan had long been intrigued by the manner in which Joseph Cornell constructed his sculptural ‘box worlds’, putting together totally unrelated images to germinate a new cross-pollination of ideas. Looking back again to this strain of Surrealism, now encouraged Bunyan’s own experiments with pushing the boundaries of sculptural photography.

Continuing his experimentation with colour and form Bunyan’s next exhibition, All Natural Fibres (The Photographers’ Gallery, late 1996) was in essence a three-dimensional recreation of Australian 1940s and 1950s pattern books for the knitting of mens’ sweaters. The exhibition cleverly combined the physicality of sweaters remade to the original patterns in modern wool colours, with large colour photographs of the 1940s/50s Anglo-Saxon male models, and wall-texts ostensibly telling the viewer – in English, French and German – how to make the sweaters depicted. A second glance, however, revealed that the exhibition continued Bunyan’s concern with recontextualisation, with talking about hidden identities and sexualities. While the English text on display discussed the processes of knitting, its foreign language ‘equivalents’ were copied from a 1974 pornographic magazine and described explicit sexual acts. As well as the sardonic inner narrative of the text, the photographs were subversive and transgressive themselves for, having invented a method of hand-painting 8 x 10 inch black and white negative film with photographic oils and then printing up the images to mural size on photographic paper, Bunyan played with the very notion of what was a photograph – presenting photographic images in which one could see every brush stroke, and which themselves looked like paintings.

The fact that not every viewer will decipher the full complexities of his work, is no longer problematic for Marcus Bunyan. While many of his earlier photographs offered an explicit and personal take on culture, identity and sexuality, in recent years this personal commentary has not so much been changed or dismissed, but incorporated into a more universal narrative – one which recognises the individual histories and memories that viewers bring with them when looking at an artwork. The viewer is no longer told what to believe or expect; and the subversiveness of Bunyan’s work is all the more effective for being made subliminal, to be read with unexpected surprise whenever it is cleverly deciphered.

In his more recent photographic and installation work Bunyan has achieved a new kind of balancing, born of looking at things from multiple perspectives. In Symbowl (Stop 22 Gallery, 1998) the artist examined the symbols used as identification on lawn bowls balls and linked them to images of the hands of the bowlers and their distortion though age and scarring, and a recreation of a bowling green using rope coiled in the manner of raked gravel circles used in Japanese stone gardens, commenting on the distortion of symbols and their meaning; in Background Sex (Centre for Contemporary Photography, 1999) Bunyan investigated the time and space of photographic images by enunciating the spaces present in the backgrounds of wonderfully coloured pornographic images. Reducing the body to a thin sliver within the digital photographs these images seemingly had “no-time” and no “real” context, which Bunyan then played off against the compaction of time in the language of the sex chat rooms of the Internet. In his latest exhibition D O < R > (2001) Bunyan continues his fascination with games, with identity, and the fabric of life (the buttons in this exhibition being ‘costume’ wear from the 1980’s).

Even the primacy of the camera is now challenged by the artist’s fascination with digital images and the interventions that can be brought to bear upon them through endless plays of shape and meaning, as he moves to further integrate his images into sculptural 3-D environments such as mobiles, paper planes, or poppers. In his Telluric Plates series (1999), for example, the artist combines images appropriated from a 1920s book on wrestling with a metaphor of the tectonic plates that separate continents, to explore today’s shifting boundaries of human sexuality and identity. Beneath the perfect symmetry of their surface the telluric (‘telluric’ means ‘dweller on the earth’) images reveal a frail inner structure, as the resemblance of their patterning to DNA strands perhaps alludes to the flawed nexus of desire, genetic modification, and hidden contagion. At the same time the ‘Telluric Plates’, through their celebration of the kaleidoscopic possibilities of digital manipulation, also consider the eventual immersion of the human body into the flatness of cyberspace. By speculating upon what will happen to the human consciousness when it is compressed into a digital environment, when humans inevitably start physically amalgamating with machines, Bunyan’s telluric images transcend specific issues of identity and generate fascinating serendipities when we ask of ourselves, ‘What makes us human, anyway?’

Dr Ted Gott

Back to the D O < R > exhibition page

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