Juno Calypso / The Honeymoon
September 2016 Interviewed by Joanna Cresswell
Juno Calypso is a London-based artist who began taking self-portraits in 2011, in which she staged herself as a fictional character named Joyce. Through this character, Calypso reenacts the private life of a woman consumed by the pursuit of perfection, raising questions about the laboured construct of femininity carried out to the point of absurdity. Residing languidly amid a Pantone pastel world of domestic settings, Calypso’s character always appears alone, experimenting with an absurd array of beauty technologies, exhausted by her own reflection.
Calypso’s most recent project, The Honeymoon, is a continuation of her Joyce series. In Spring 2015, she spent a week alone at a couples-only honeymoon hotel in rural Pennsylvania. Packing a suitcase full of wigs and wedding lingerie, she made a series of images that explore the rituals of seduction. In August of this year, she returned again.
In the culture we find ourselves in – one that is suggested to chart a person’s success in direct correlation to their attractiveness – Calypso has expressed an exasperation at the fetishisation of Joyce; being invited to participate in critical discussion or performance as her character, and not herself. Joyce does not exist. So why then do we continue to invite her to dinner?
Here, Joanna Cresswell discusses the construction of character with Calypso, the connections she finds between photography and anxiety, and a turn towards the colour blue.
Cresswell: I’d like to begin by talking about Joyce, the fictional character you stage yourself as. In an early conversation, I remember you asking, “Am I truly making an ironic statement? Or is this some sort of guilty pleasure performed in a context that protects me from its consequences?” Perhaps the photograph offers us a space for rehearsing and hypothesizing, but is it guilt-free? And given the themes that your work grapples with, do you think that the creation of a character can be a device to help artists (particularly female artists) approach making work with a feminist standpoint?
Calypso: I remember when I said that, it was 2012 and it was just before conversations around concepts like ‘slut shaming’ came about. Before that you were more likely to hear people talking about things like ‘raunch culture’. There was a book that became popular at the time – Female Chauvinist Pigs – and I think I was terrified of being seen as one of them. These days, I still haven’t read that book, but I don’t really feel like reading a whole book that points the finger at other women. I was unsure about indulging in feminine things at first, and as a result I thought – I have to make this ironic surely? And I did, a bit, at the time. Now I don’t care, I indulge in it.
The use of character definitely helps to approach these ideas. Dressing up and role-play is something that’s been instilled since childhood. We know what we’re doing. And then when I think of characters, I always think of caricature and humour. I think there’s a revolutionary power to women’s laughter. There’s that Margaret Atwood quote, ‘men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.’ Humour creates solidarity among the oppressed.
It might make you personally feel guilt-free by telling yourself it’s just a joke, but it still has a social impact when made public.
Cresswell: The relationship between author and character unfolding and colliding is richly covered ground in art and literature. A particular example that comes to mind is Anna Banti’s Artemisia. There’s a quote from Banti in which she says of her character, “we’re playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I”. You created Joyce as a way of detaching yourself from the image, but you’ve become exasperated with the idea of her. How has your relationship to the character you created changed over the years?
Calypso: In the beginning, the fact that I’d created Joyce was great, it felt less egotistical, and more like I was giving people something: they seemed to need a name for the character they were seeing. I would always cringe when people asked about ‘her’, but I didn’t mind because in some ways it helped me tie up the project neatly – she was like a hook. It was only when I wasn’t making work, or wanted to change the route of my ideas and explore something else and people would say, “How’s Joyce?” that I’d begin to feel frustrated.
Now, when I’m working, I’m always wondering how I would go about divorcing myself from the idea, or the association, of Joyce. I’m always going to take pictures of myself, so what do I do? Do I have to call this project Joyce forever? Can I just brush this under the rug yet? In the most recent images I’ve made, there’s nothing very Joyce about the way I’m presented. It’s less about her ego these days, and more about her body in relation to the surroundings.
Cresswell: In some ways, the work of the French artist Annette Messager could serve as a sort of unconscious foreword to the work you are making now, especially in projects such ‘Voluntary Tortures’. She also made work signed off by myriad versions of herself: ‘trickster’, ‘collector’, ‘practical woman’. In the 1970’s, she spoke of feeling like a devalued artist because she was female, and explained that that was why she sought out ‘devalued territory’, going on to say ‘hence my predilection with photography’. It was as if she felt a particular alignment with photography for its struggles. Do you find any common ground there? And what links do you make yourself between photography and anxiety?
Calypso: I can relate to that. When I started taking these self-portraits seriously, during my last year at university, I realised when I was shooting the images that I was performing the exact same anxious routine I used to act out when I was getting ready to present myself to the outside world. It felt like an exact manifestation of the ritual performed by myself and other women as we aim to transcend our bodies into the image haunting our mind of our ‘better self’ or a ‘perfect self’.
The year of my graduation I went to a symposium by Jo Longhurst at the Whitechapel Gallery, on Perfection and Photography. It took place at the same time as the London Olympics and so they were drawing a lot of comparisons between artists and athletes. They started with this quote from Nadia Comaneci, first perfect 10 score in Olympic history, Montreal 1976, “I don’t believe in perfection. I achieved it under a certain system, but there was plenty of room for developing that system.” They asked questions like, ‘Are perfectionist tendencies in the maker a necessary prerequisite for a perfect artwork? Or is the idea of perfection sterile?’ Photography is designed for repetition and replication – repeating until you achieve the desired result, or you get it ‘right’. Sometimes though, you only achieve 100 versions of the same bad idea.
Cresswell: The undercurrent of performance and theatricality extends to your recurring use of masks – in early works like the Linda Evans Rejuvenique mask, and in your most recent pictures, in chimerical, blue-hued images, adorning your character’s face as she gazes in the mirror or laid out on the floor and staring back up at her. What is it about the iconography of the mask?
Calypso: I’m really drawn to the strangeness of beauty masks; I used to collect them from eBay. Then I read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and she drew this comparison between women’s oppression and a medieval torture device called The Iron Maiden. It reminded me of a mask I found with metal pins inside that supposedly made you look younger by electrocuting your face. There’s a quote from that book that I particularly love:
‘The Iron Maiden was a body-shaped casket painted with the limbs and features of a lovely, smiling young woman. The unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside her; the lid fell shut to immobilize the victim, who died either of starvation or, less cruelly, of the metal spikes embedded in her interior. The modern hallucination in which women are trapped or trap themselves is similarly rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted. Contemporary culture directs attention to imagery of the Iron Maiden, while censoring real women’s faces and bodies.’
One of the themes that recurs most in my work is solitude, or isolation. This character is always alone, and so am I. We’re the same in that respect. Something about masks always seems to emit an idea of loneliness, but loneliness with an element of horror, or a sinister edge, which I like my work to have.
Cresswell: You returned to Pennsylvania recently to make new work for The Honeymoon. To date, your photographs have always been largely pink-based but in this latest work, the colour blue is a lot more present. If pink, in your words, is the only colour with the power to make people feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, then what does blue do for your photographs?
Calypso: I’ve had unfinished business with the chain of love hotels I made The Honeymoon in since I left the first time. There was this one blue room with an indoor pool that I knew I had to return for. Everything I loved about the original pink-mirrored room was replicated in blue. The entire room was designed for looking, for gazing at your lover from the mezzanine while they bathe in the pool below.
I remember when I was in primary school I got sent to collect the VHS player from the IT guy. When he handed it to me he said, “OK but no blue movies!” and laughed in my face. I had no idea what it meant then and even when I did find out I was even more perplexed. Why is sex blue?
What I didn’t expect is that technically blue is a really pleasing colour to work with, it feels like working in black and white. The suite I stayed in had this huge blue-tinted domed skylight above the room. When you closed the curtains the room was completely saturated with blue light. It felt almost ultra violet. It played tricks on my eyes. So yes, pink might be draining, flirtatious or embarrassing, but blue feels hallucinatory. I love the sexual and melancholic clichés of it.
Juno Calypso was interviewed by Joanna Cresswell for Photomonitor, September 2016.
For further viewing: junocalypso.com