Gerwyn Davies: Glisten


Showing at South East Centre for Contemporary Art (SECCA) until Wednesday, 3 April, Glisten is a glittering career survey for Sydney artist Gerwyn Davies. Conjuring characters through costumes fashioned with readymade and everyday materials that conceal, transform and abstract the body, the artist’s stylised transformations produce an ongoing inventory of photographic self-projections. Here, to mark his major museum show, we visit Davies in his Sydney studio and discuss the inspirations and creative processes that propel his celebrated practice.

To discuss acquisitions, available work and upcoming projects by Gerwyn Davies, please contact dean@michaelreid.com.au

What were your early creative influences?

If I’m being honest, my earliest influence was encountering the creative works of Tonia Todman on 90s daytime television. As a child, I was transfixed by Tonia’s capacity to transform even the most mundane object into something elaborate and new through the magical power of craft. There is a particularly mesmerising episode in which she decoupages a set of rocks into festive ornaments.

I know it sounds like I’m being facetious, but the idea of taking very ordinary materials, toying with them, teasing them, stretching them out and hot-glue-gunning if need be to create something playfully transformed has many similarities with my approach. Not being hemmed in by the form or intended purpose of an object or material but instead considering its potential … it’s a fun challenge to problem-solve your way through.

When I began working with costuming, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no formal training and I used a lot of trial and error to find my way through constructing something wearable. While frustrating and expensive, being self-taught is wonderful as it encourages you to adopt a more improvisational and canny approach. You break lots of rules as you aren’t aware of them.

Initially, I worked with materials from dollar stores and experimented with ways I could dissect, bend, stretch and shape them together to cover my body – like a decoupaged rock for your Christmas tree. Other influences tend to be less photographic and more from the realm of fashion. Designers such as Alexander McQueen, Viktor&Rolf and Gareth Pugh would begin with the mundane form of the body and turn it into something magical and sculptural and new.

What is the relationship between costume design and photography in your practice? 

When I first started making photographic work, it was very informal. I lived in a sharehouse where we spent Friday nights devouring cheap white wine and dressing up as characters. We would take turns operating the camera, running lighting (gathering all the bedside lamps and torches and modifying them), dressing up and modelling for the camera. It was a social, dynamic, playful approach that was really seductive to me and, from that, I decided I wanted to learn more about photography and studied at the Queensland College of Art.

I was never interested in taking pretty pictures of the real world but was enthralled by photography’s capacity to conjure fantasy. My earliest photographic works involved the construction of small dioramas by running paper through a sewing machine and using thread like a pen to give shape and detail. What I loved was the challenge of taking ordinary material like paper and finding a way to manipulate it, transform it and ideally suspend the moment of recognition. These dioramas lead to larger sculptural works, likewise with the emphasis on materiality and with the camera serving to document. The sculptural forms were then tacked onto the body.

The foundation I return to is my figure. Regardless of the material I’m working with, everything begins at the starting block of concealing the body, transforming its boundaries, extending it out in unusual ways and transforming myself into a kind of sculptural ‘other’. Another recurring element is the use of vibrant, animated materials: sequins, glitters, things that shimmer, shine, come alive under light and sing out to the viewer through the photograph. When I’m sourcing materials, I’m always drawn to tawdry, synthetic and shiny surfaces.

What is your relationship to the central ‘character’ in your work? 

When producing costumes, I’m not thinking of comfort or ease of movement but, rather, about creating the most dramatic, photogenic forms I can. As a result, the costumes are profoundly uncomfortable and hideously hot. They end up restricting rather than facilitating movement. I construct the costumes on a mannequin and rarely try them on before it’s time to photograph myself, so stepping into costume for the first time and appearing before the camera is a very real moment of transformation.

For the most part, I can’t see through the costume and I’m shuffling around trying to establish myself while the camera has already begun firing off shot after shot after shot. It always takes a moment to get my bearings and adjust to my body’s new coordinates – and then, that embodied performance really begins. I start to understand the new ways my body can and can’t move, and a kind of characterisation forms out of this.

In this way, the costume begins to dictate and define a character rather than this being something premeditated. As with the materiality, there is this very informal, improvisational, playful approach. After a period of panic, claustrophobia and overheating, I can start to enjoy moving around in this new skin. As the materials are so visually elaborate, I often find my first response to wearing the costumes is a feeling of real sexiness. Likewise, owing to their often large scale, there is a sense of grandeur and power.

If I were to think about performance traditions, I feel the work is far more indebted to the hammy canon of camp cinema and television – more akin to Dynasty and Sunset Boulevard than to the more earnest moments of performance art history. My performance ethos is more-is-more, an uncontainable camp excess which, to a degree, is what these costumes and photographic works require. Because the dimensions of the body are disguised and all facial gestures removed, I find I have to extend myself out and overact in elaborate ways for the character’s intentions to be realised in the photograph. Of course, like all good baby queers, my world was shifted upon encountering Leigh Bowery, and this remains an influence, particularly thinking about the way his body operated under such restrictive conditions.

I see the characters as completely distinct from me and that happens the moment I step into costume. It is a process of becoming ‘other’ – an erasure of the self as I disappear into costume and am consumed by material forms. When I look at the body of work as a whole, it is a single recurring character just appearing in different guises. The recurrence of tattoos and particular footwear reinforces that. There are small variations that come from the memory of making the works. If a costume is easy to produce, sympathetic to being manipulated and not horrendously uncomfortable, if the shoot is seamless and the temperature is not blisteringly hot, I remember the character more fondly. I have an affection for that work over others, like a favourite child.

How do you select the locations and what role does the environment play?

The landscapes vary between bodies of work. Sometimes I begin with a real-world environment, produce a costume that responds directly and shoot in situ. Other times, I begin with a costume and seek out a landscape that will accommodate or house it perfectly. Sometimes I shoot in a studio, constructing basic sets before stepping into the frame. Or the landscape is pure photographic fiction, a digital amalgamation of multiple sites shot and brought together through postproduction. Something I’m drawn to in all these approaches is landscapes or environments that are graphic and highly constructed with a degree of flatness. I am drawn to the architectural and artificial as it resonates with my approach to costuming. It is important that there is cohesion between the character and environment, whether via narrative or physical forms. I like to create digital habitats for the characters to be housed within, sealed inside image-worlds unto themselves.

As with the materials, I am drawn to the synthetic potential of photography. Often, even when shooting in situ, I will use postproduction to remove details from the image so that it takes on a strange, plastic, alien quality. The colours are a little too rich, the surfaces a little too slippery and the image manicured in a way that is not overt but definitely disconcerting. I may lightly skew the perspective of the landscape so the world inside the image takes on a confounding lack of depth. It helps build a world for the characters.

Is there a thread running through the works comprising Glisten at SECCA?

The works are drawn from a range of bodies of work – about half from the series Mustang, which was produced in 2022 and 2023 and is more cinematic in approach. These were intended as a sequence of 16 x 9 film stills – small vignettes plucked from a single, imaginary queer blockbuster. In each, a central character is adorned in distinctive costumes and acts out Hollywood tropes – car chases, cowboys, alien abductions. Performed by a single elaborate and ornamented hero, the scenes are designed to be interchangeable, so the narrative is not linear and the irresolvable storyline can be rearranged in its display. This work is indebted to late-70s Cindy Sherman, albeit reimagined by a faceless, tattooed, glistening queer figure.

The other works in Glisten are shot in the studio with an emphasis on the sculptural potential of costumes and figures. Simple monochromatic sets are produced for the figure to sit within. These works tease out the queer confusion of subject and object, still life and representation, sculpture and figure. This is at its most extreme in a series of busts in which the figure is cut off at the waist and mounted on a faux marble plinth.

While Mustang‘s narrative focus contrasts with the stripped-back studio works, materiality and sculptural forms – and my interest in playing with conventions of photography ‘portraiture’ – remain essential threads across all these works. Instead of revealing the subject to the viewer, I am creating works in which I dis/appear from view, both queerly there and nowhere to be seen, hiding in plain sight.

What other projects are you looking forward to in the coming year?

At the moment, I am completing a new body of work that began with a trip to southern Arizona in 2023. While the series comprises a set of performative photographic images, I am also exploring ways to give the costumes a life beyond the image. The use of materials is so central to my work; the sourcing, manipulating, constructing and wearing of costumes is 90 per cent of the process. It’s very labour-intensive, meditative, and equal parts frustrating and satisfying. But ultimately, that is kept buried inside the image and never encountered outside the studio.

What am I exploring is deconstructing these costumes after they have been shot, before re-combining the materials to construct something entirely new. At the moment, this is taking the form of landscapes and signs rendered in textiles. This extension of the process of constructing and deconstructing works has returned me to where my photographic journey began with the sewing of diorama environments and the use of thread as a drawing device. It’s rewarding for me to introduce the tactile and tangible quality of my studio process into the final works and uncover new ways of manipulating the materials that are so enticing and engaging.

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