Justine Varga

Justine Varga’s photography has liberated film from the confines of the camera to create 'slow photography', which brings a completely new notion of realism where the film itself bears witness to its own experience.

When Justine Varga graduated with honours from the National Art School (NAS) in 2007 she faced a void. Literally. After an intensive technical training she was finally confronted with the freedom, and the challenge, of making work solely for herself. ‘I set myself the task to go into the studio to do something every day, with the limitation that I could use only what was to be found within it. Fundamental to this time was that I gave myself no deadline to complete the works. I was doing it for no audience,’ says Varga.

The austerity of her project and the clarity of her purpose generated a series of photographs work that were minimal but not stringently minimalist. One included in it a roll of tape, another a small toy animal. Mostly though, Varga’s first works were down to the wire for physical content. Utilising materials that seemed abject, slender or arbitrary forced the eye to de-focus on the notion of a central object and see instead a portrait of light, or perhaps even of silence.

Empty Studio (2009) was the first series I saw made by Varga’s and I thought it hummed. Like a slow chord or the sound of a voice growing gradually closer, their chastity of ornament created a sonic growl. Every bruised scratch or ball of dust seemed to have its own hermetic code. Anti-monumental, they served as fresh respite from decades of heavily staged, costumed and gaudy photographic blockbusters. The artist describes her aesthetic of the time as ‘slow photography’ a conscious stance against saturation.

At the end of her cycle in this space, Varga created a series of photographs she called Moving Out (2012). These works took the poetics of emptiness to new heights. With nothing else but wire, flat planes and shadow, she made an attempt to evoke, not just the physical space, but what it felt like to be in there. The studio was demolished the following year.

In the series Sounding Silence (2014), Varga built installations and then destroyed them as she worked, leaving just the barest traces in the frame. Increasingly her practice engaged the idea of the palimpsest: the document altered by erasure and re-inscription but which still bears fragments of its original form. This, and the unreliable nature of memory. Instead of asking us to fill in the blanks, her work exalted them.

Varga concurs: ‘I have always been interested in what is peripheral, in what is left out of frame or focus. Photography has traditionally hinged on the singular image and the critical point in time, there has been so much emphasis on what is ‘worthy’ to be captured. But what about what occurs on the periphery of the action, surely these occurrences are also of significance?’

Perhaps the quest for absolute reduction and poetic economy led her to abandon the camera itself? But she sees it differently. Varga describes film as a sculptural medium made more so when it is liberated from mechanical enclosure: ‘At the end of 2010, I was asked to participate in a group exhibition detailing my process, to approach the idea of this sculpturally … I was holding a sheet of film in my hand and realised that this was my sculptural element. So, I decided to get rid of the camera as an intermediary between film surface and what I was recording.’

The act of touching film, deliberately marking it and exposing it to the damage of life and the elements outside the hermetic seal of the camera led to photographs that are sensual, haptic, and even performative. To Varga, film breathes, accumulates, decays, and bears witness. And when it is exposed over time to many, many moments and many many light conditions it becomes a rare vessel: a compressed duration of memory collapsed into one frame.

Working with cameraless photography for the past six years, she has used individual exposures as her own palimpsests: her negs were strapped to suitcases, left on windowsills, travelling (and developing) in her back pocket or physically gauged with her own hand. A set of metaphysical ideas were made to become very physical indeed. When the pieces of films completed their unpredictable journeys, they were processed in and considered against the print lab wall. Released from a camera. Dismoored from a fixed subject. Unsigned and suspended like shrouds. Layered loosely over each other.

Here was subtle subversion: ‘In my last show, ‘Accumulate’ (2015), I wanted to apply the logic of working in the studio and photo lab to my art practice. The flesh tone of the walls in the gallery was the colour of the unprocessed photographic paper. I also wanted to evoke the feeling of the work in process, pinned up raw. And then the air-conditioning moved the unframed prints and made them seem bodily, like a breathing organism.’

If her last body of works glowered and respired with veils of colour and smoky atmospherics, the newest series, destined for Hugo Michell Gallery in September, is more trashed. Abrasion resembles scarred flesh or a negative stripped back to its lightless core. Marking Time is the fruit of a gauged rectangle of film inscribed by the artist with carved notches, like a convict’s recorded days of incarceration. This work is like an electric scream following a series of acoustic albums. In a brief but intense trajectory, Varga’s interrogation of her medium ploughs on relentlessly.

The ‘ruin’ of her images and the focus on process rather than outcome is another big leap away from the idea of a literal subject or a “successful” photograph. Yet even though her Memoire series bears the frontality and gestural immediacy of abstract painting, Varga refutes easy visual connections of this sort.

‘This work is not abstract, in fact it is as realist as it gets.’ By this she means that every image is a document of events made in real time. Time is both the subject and the medium. And although history relies on photography to make time stand still, Varga’s layered, ambiguous work exploits the capacity of film to make temporal experience mutable. Scratched, damaged, erased and re-inscribed, memory is here represented as a strata, not a single shot enclosed inside a single frame. If her pieces of negative film fuses with the daily functions of her life, the dissolve between subject and object becomes more real. The eye is no longer a camera. The film becomes the eye itself. Varga says there is no demarcation between her own life and her work because the two intersect on all levels. It is a constant.

‘I feel,’ she said in a recent lecture at the National Gallery of Australia, ‘as though it is at the centre and my life orbits around it. Though, when I think of this, and also the binary nature of photography (negative and positive), these positions are interchangeable. My photography moves as a satellite, recording moments at the periphery of my actions, much like a process of soft surveillance.’

Imagine a photograph not ‘of’ a place but within it. This is the critical demarcation laid down by camera-less photography. Technically, and often visually, it is immersive. When Varga describes the way her work has unfolded she makes it all seem very natural. To spend 17 years in a darkroom thinking about light, to study a single image for months, to release film into unpredictable circumstances and then reel it back to herself through rigorous and secretive processes of development, disclosure and selection.

The work for her forthcoming show (called ‘Memoire’) is diaristic in the sense that her titles refer to actual places and events. But that is there sole clue we are offered. The inception of Ripe for example sounds something like a fable. The origin of the image was a piece of film that was tied to a tree branch and then brought indoors by a child who had ‘found’ the exposure amongst the leaves. ‘It had fallen,’ Varga told me, smiling, ‘it was ripe’. But of course, nothing just lands. Sometimes it has to be picked.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 36, 2016

Justine Varga | Areola
7 Feb – 16 March 2019
Hugo Michell Gallery, Beulah Park SA


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