The Distribution of Food (Installation View), 2016
oil on silver gelatin print
120 x 180 cm 

Georgie Mattingley: Preternatural Stillness

Georgie Mattingley is an artist who makes photographs, videos and public installations that ‘transform the appearance of hidden or confronting spaces’. Mattingley inter- rogates bureaucratic systems by drawing attention to inherent institutional fallacies. She graduated from a Masters of Fine Art at VCA in 2014 and has exhibited with LON Gallery, Strange Neighbour, Next Wave Festival, CCP and MARS Gallery. 

From 2015 to 2016, Georgie Mattingley participated in EmbedED: an artists’ residency at Warrnambool Base Hospital. During this period, she created the body of work Topias III. We spoke to her about the hand-colouring process for which she is known; the tension between painting and photography; the problem of voyeurism; working within systems of labour to docu- ment them; and how ethics function within her broader practice.

Ascension I, 2016
oil on silver gelatin print
21 x 17 cm

*dumb (brun)ette: The works that you created for Topias III were structured around the compositions of classical painting: still lifes, portraits, devotional scenes. Could you tell us why you chose this point of departure? 

Georgie Mattingley: I often fall into this habit as an artist. I
fell in love with art through classical paintings and the Italian Renaissance, so I taught myself how to paint by copying others. These visual tropes from the history of painting: the traditions of portraiture, religious iconography, still life, landscapes, now it’s just what I fall back on. No matter my subject matter, I often look through this classical lens. It’s how I approach image-making. 

*d(b): The production of these
works began with the residency at the [Warrnambool] hospital. Can you tell us more about this? 

GM: When I began I was in the emergency department. The EmbedED residency was started by a doctor in the emergency depart- ment that wanted to demystify what goes on in the hospital on a day-to- day basis. It was so overwhelming to navigate all the people coming in: there were such intense experiences of trauma I encountered chatting to people. 

*d(b): It’s a gutsy move on the hospital’s part to bring you into such a charged space from the beginning. 

GM: Yes, it can be quite chaotic, 
I think I was finding it really hard
in emergency because I was get- ting really wedged intimately into people’s personal lives in this really uncomfortable way. You step into the room, and whatever they’re experiencing, they want to share with you the events that led to them going into emergency and they are immensely personal I did not want this to be my focus however – I was more interested in the role of the hospital at large, in our society. To remove myself from this scenario of really intimate personal interaction, I proposed that I would document all of the hospital’s artworks and flow- ers on display. It became a really nice way to become acquainted with the hospital at large. I was moving across from the birthing suite to the morgue: this was a point of depar- ture. I had a clipboard and I was always on my feet; on the run. 

*d(b): It’s interesting that you were producing this work ‘on the run’, as each image seems to have a really strong point of stasis – fitting with the fact that they are modelled on classical painting, which almost always had a certain contrived composition. Perhaps it was due to the fact that they were taken during a state of flux – being in constant movement – that they reside in this place of stillness, although each image is charged with residual movement or narrative. 

Do you think that your particular material techniques give it that stillness? In a way you are not freezing the subject in time because they have an association with vintage photography. 

GM: The photography in my work is highly staged, highly laborious. I require setting up a tripod and very artificial lighting – everything is constructed. 

Foul Linen (Installation View), 2016
oil on silver gelatin print
180 x 120 cm

*d(b): With digital photography, there’s a sense of immediacy that lends to movement, and that idea
that you can almost see the image in freeze-frame, and I can often imagine the scene continuing to move after the shutter clicks. By hand colouring the images, you’re placing a lens that takes away that sense of immediacy. 

GM: I feel like my work sits some- where between photography and painting. I think in this instance, to me, when I look at them they seem to lean towards paintings, because of the way I composed the image, but also, the way that I applied paint to the image was quite free. In some parts you can see the paint on the surface. Painting feels less voyeuris- tic and there’s room for imagina- tion. My black and white negatives, before they’ve been painted, look so sterile, there’s no life, there’s no sense of my hand yet. It’s just documentation. 

*d(b): Painting is like you’re registering a perception; whereas photography is like a moment in time. 

GM: I love that. 

*d(b): In the context of photography, there’s a kind of reverence placed on
the act of pressing ‘click’ – choosing and capturing the image. Perhaps for you the actual art-making takes place in the processing of the photograph, not necessarily the act of capturing it. 

GM: I find that fascinating. I cringe a little inside when anyone refers to me as a ‘photographer’. It doesn’t encapsulate what I do. 

*d(b): What I find fascinating is that it’s such a context-heavy project, you can’t go to a hospital, make something and avoid a strong sense of place within the work. With your project however, the way the photographs are hand coloured gives them a sense of ambiguity in relation to that context. The colours you use are not quite life-like, and thus are loaded with other connotations that brings odd questions to mind: is this an astronaut? Is this a science fiction film? Was this taken during the Cold War? The work is loaded with potentialities. 

GM: The title of my past few series is Topias, what I really enjoy doing is investigating these other spaces which Foucault was labelling as ‘heterotopias’, and homogenising them: astronauts don’t dress that differently from surgeons and abattoir workers. 

Still Life I (Morgue Reception), 2016
oil on silver gelatin print
90 x 60 cm

*d(b): Seeing the uniforms and work- place accoutrements all together, helps you understand the ways that we as a society build a methodology through which the body should be interacted with: whether it’s the body of a carcass, the body of an adult, the body of a baby. The work draws attention to the ways in which – across most industries – there’s a certain distancing, a kind of sanitisation. 

Do you think that the tension between photography and painting helped you to address the notion of voyeurism? Because I remember that this was a big question for you. 

GM: I think there’s no real solution. It would be nice if that was one way to work through it, but perhaps that would be too easy. Voyeurism is a massive problem in my work; and in my process. Although I’m not saying problem in a bad way necessarily. Grappling with this is a part of my process that no one sees except me. I feel a deep, deep sense of respon- sibility to be very transparent. I just think it’s like a problem-solving thing – how do I make my ethics and process visible in each outcome. It’s not about concealing, but it’s also not about being didactic or blatant because that would be boring. 

*d(b): What I find interesting about that concept is in many ways it has allowed you to build your practice in
a way that’s helped that investigation flourish, for example instead of inter- viewing patients, you had to develop different devices to develop your work. I’m curious about the way in which the problem of voyeurism has pushed your practice forward as an ethical issue. You can argue that everyone is a voyeur. 

GM: So you think that everyone is a voyeur? 

*d(b): Well, I mean it depends: someone working with the lens just becomes a voyeur. Maybe not in that ocular, pleasure seeking manner – but you’re still looking. 

GM: I guess it still hasn’t resolved itself in my own mind, but I wonder if the voyeuristic act of taking
a photo is dissipated by using painting. But then how is there a difference? Because strategically I’ve done exactly the same thing. 

*d(b): Perhaps that’s the moment of agency: the act of painting as opposed to the act of taking a photograph.
It’s also the scenes that you’ve photographed, they’re not particularly invasive. 

GM: I’m more interested in our system of visibility: the disguise and the veneer that we all live by. I’m interested in revealing that process more than the thing that we’re all scared of. Andre Serrano for example, he went to a morgue and photographed dead bodies. That’s a project that may initially seem like mine, but it’s so different. I’m not documenting the bodies, the thing that we don’t want to see. I’m documenting the system and the aesthetics that make the whole invisibility possible.

Boiler Boys, 2016
oil on silver gelatin print
36 x 64 cm

*d(b): It’s interesting because documenting that system, even though it’s not revealing it, only alludes to its presence, heightens its prominence
in the viewer’s mind. The fact that it alludes to the accoutrements of caring for the body. For me your works almost seem more charged with the idea of mortality than a photograph of a dead person. It’s a dorky reference, but if I’m watching a science fiction film, the one where you never actually see the alien appears more charged with the idea of its presence than those in which
you actually see the body of the alien, because what you imagine in your head is so much more. There’s an intensity to imagined realities. 

GM: It’s distracting as well...If all you really want to see is how human society reacts to the alien. 

*d(b): It’s like Jaws and the shark. 

GM: Totally! You don’t see it until the end, it’s about the affect the shark has on this community, way more than it is about the shark. 

*d(b): But in a sense, the shark is still momentously present – an imagined presence. It’s such a letdown when you actually see the shark, because what you imagined is so potent. 

Coming from a painting background, I’m curious as to why you chose to step away from this medium? 

GM: I never ‘had’ a painting practice, although I tried so hard to build it. I majored in painting and in university, but working to such fast-paced deadlines: I wasn’t a good enough painter to ever realise what I wanted the medium to do. When I was younger, I taught myself to paint from photographs, I would construct images in order to paint them. After a while, it just made sense to delete that final process,
a very natural progression. I long more than anything to bring oil painting back into my practice - out of pure romance. 

*d(b): In terms of unseen spaces
 - going back to the hospital – you photographed the kitchen, the laundry, sterile stores, the theatre, the morgue and the acute mental health unit. 

GM: Yes. Out of all these spaces, the kitchen impacted me the most. I think it was the sheer quantity of the food that made me feel uneasy. 

Still Life I, 2014
Digital C-type print
120 x 180 cm

*d(b): We are used to seeing food on a more intimate scale in proportion to our body. It’s uncanny to encounter familiar substances in such unimaginable quantities: taken from this human scale to an inhuman mass. 

GM: It’s an inhuman mass. Also, it was the area of the hospital that affected me directly. I was eating at the hospital. Maybe it’s the one place I was really able to be implicated fully. 

*d(b): This is a twofold question: when in your practice did you first think about these other spaces? and when did you make the move from thinking about them to actually inhabiting them and documenting them? 

GM: I found a photo album taken from when I was fourteen. My parents took me to Europe and
I was photographing factories, chimneys...I remember not wanting to photograph the ‘happy snaps’ my family was photographing. I had this shocking zoomed in series of photographs of homeless people, it was before I was even an artist so I’m even embarrassed mentioning it here.  

*d(b): When did you begin to do it systematically? 

GM: The first time was probably
in India. I was living there in 2011, and as an outsider and a tourist in India, I became acutely aware of the invisible boundaries that happen every day on the streets. For example, you have to be of a certain class or social caste to walk in certain places. So, whether this was rash or wrong I developed a project where
I was crossing those boundaries going into these areas and working with the rubbish collectors to collect rubbish for an art project. I was aware that I was walking into
a space where I wasn’t invited to because of my social position in the world.  

*d(b): Entering spaces of labour
such as this and becoming a part of them to produce work seems to have become an established method in your practice. The fact that you often become an active part of these places, like the time you spent working in an abattoir, differentiates your work from others that may simply gaze at these spheres from the outside. 

GM: In the hospital residency, I did feel a difference that made me
uncomfortable. I approached the hospital several times because I wanted to become an orderly during the residency. Ultimately, I’m glad I got over it because I feel I produced better work by just inhabiting that space as an artist but I didn’t know how to just be an artist. I felt I needed to be an orderly: clean the floors, etc. This was also my first official residency as opposed to a self-initiated project where I insert myself as an employee, it was very transparent I was an artist there. 

*d(b): It illuminates how for your other projects the act of labour worked almost as a material, where working at the abattoir became a medium as much as hand colouring vintage photographs. This action of inhabiting labour intensive spaces strikes me as a form of unassuming and systematic research. Could you tell us about your work in the prison?  

GM: My aim was to become a prison officer, which is the lowest in the ranking. But I didn’t pass the test, so I work there in a non-custodian capacity as an art teacher. Which means I’m still an outsider to that hierarchical system even though I’m implicated. I just longed to be a prison officer so much. 

*d(b): You have a high ethical awareness, does it come from your experience in the prison or prior? 

GM: It comes from feedback I’ve received from peers and colleagues, particularly when I did my masters, as I had to submit my processes and projects to an ethics committee. 

Hands of a Melbourne Meat Packer, 2014
Digital C-type print
120 x 80 cm

*d(b): Do you think you are very receptive to spaces? It seems like you absorb a great deal from structures. 

GM: I process things rather than absorb them, I analyse them and use them as tools. Even when quite distressing things are happening around me, I have a way to process them in a fertile way. 

*d(b): The reason why I ask is because so many artists do their PhD and they learn shit from the ethics committee. Ethics approval is usually treated as a bothersome bureaucratic process, this is probably the first time I hear someone being positive about that process. 

GM: I love the idea of ethics as 
an aesthetic, how you look at the elements of design – composition, symmetry, line – and ethics is in there. But if you asked me at the time, no, it was really hard. I didn’t really have a lot of friends because
I was known as the exploitative opportunistic brat. I’ve just processed those experiences and I’m more confident in my own sense of ethics. 

*d(b): In a broader sense, how does your studio practice and research interact with each other while making work? 

GM: It’s a constant push and pull where I should spend my time: the space I’m researching or in the studio? I can’t manage to have both at once. I often take photographs from the space back into my studio, developing them in the dark room, collaging them, etc. 

*d(b): Can you tell us about your work Anaesthesia

GM: I anesthetised animals to photograph them, I would build small shrines and film the animal as it was being anesthetised. I was working at the abattoir at the time and I couldn’t believe people were so horrified by these works – I think I was a bit hardened by the abattoir. But the point of the project was to make morally questionable art to question morals. 

*d(b): Did you have to receive training? 

GM: No, I was collaborating with vets. That collaboration in itself is really interesting because of the willingness of these vets to do it. They were very unemotional about it - like, oh yeah, knock them out. It wasn’t hard to organise! 

Ascension II, 2016
oil on silver gelatin print
21 x 17 cm

*d(b): Did you call them up? How did you approach it? 

GM: I explained the project and what I needed to get done and they would assess it by asking them- selves if it was justified to anesthetise the animal. Their response was yes, in this case it is justified. And I was like woah, O.K. 

*d(b): Have you seen the movie Raw? There’s a couple of scenes where the animals were anesthetised and to me those were the most fascinating and horrific scenes. As I became a witness to these creatures losing their bodily agency and becoming completely vulnerable. It’s like they were losing their soul. 

GM: When I was working on this project I proposed anesthetizing horses to several people and real- ised that there’s more spirituality and nobility projected onto them
– which means that no vet could help me. I understand that but then when it comes to cows, which are arguably as noble and equal in size to horses, it was easy to facilitate because they’re considered dispos- able. People don’t attach the same value to a cow as they do a horse. 

*d(b): I’m as equally grossed out by the idea of people eating animals and cannibalism. Still, potentially what makes eating human flesh so grotesque is that we live for so long. 

GM: That is, precisely not it. Because why wouldn’t I get a nice fresh baby and cook it up it’s so
not it (laughter). If you went to a community and said: here’s a gun, you must slaughter and cook any person of your choice and eat it for your culture to survive people would go for the eldest. I don’t speak from experience, but I’m guessing. So, your theory is fucked (laughter). 

*d(b): Tell us about this new project you’re working on. 

GM: It’s still in an early developmental stage but I’m working on
a new prison that just opened. I’ve worked with various departments and an art consultant who selected all the artworks to go on display, so I documented the works that went on the walls of the prison. 

*d(b): These bureaucratic systems
– the prison, the hospital – which are supposedly in place for the greater good of everyone and to facilitate a functioning society are arguably made without the consideration of living human beings. Instead they are established to achieve the success of the bureaucracy. Your work with animals highlights this fact by documenting a creature losing its agency; considering certain medical legislations, one could say a patient in a hospital has as much autonomy as these animals.  

GM: If you look at social structures they are blindly visible all around us and they function best with a society of compliant robots. We are not compliant robots, we feel, we bleed, we dream, we are so much more complex than that. Human existence and the human condition I believe sits way outside these social structures. 

*d(b): Exactly, I believe your work points to that fallacy. I’ve read a lot of medical reports and the language becomes very dehumanising. 

GM: This idea that your body was misbehaving by getting injured and now its behaving again because
it has been adjusted, fixed. You’re compliant again, it’s like they are writing about your body as a separate entity. These systems create these processes to function efficiently. People are administered with a number and their progress written in code on a screen. 

You can find out more about Georgie’s practice here

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