Joseph Haxan

Adelaide-based artist Joseph Haxan chats about how the ostensibly disparate threads of suburbia, the occult, commercial retouching and animality interweave in his sleek yet crazed photographs.

You’re based in the Adelaide Hills. How has this setting influenced your work?
Where I live is sort of like a borderland. I’m actually based at the very bottom of the Adelaide Hills, where the suburbs transition into countryside. I didn’t realise it for a while, but I seem to be right on the forefront of that kind of ugly, major human encroachment on nature that puts a pit in your stomach. The destruction and fear of the natural world is a running theme in my work anyway, but living among it in real life helps you, I think, come to understand it in a more honest light.

A lot of us seem to treat the raping of nature in a tokenistic kind of way, or like a guilty afterthought. It’s easier to talk about it as a concept or a threat to the future when you’re not seeing the land around you transform. In the few years I’ve been living here the amount of new housing that has appeared is pretty frightening, the endless march of production and civilisation, I guess. However, for the time being, the border between ‘Humanity’ (and everything that comes with it) and ‘Nature’ (the material kind) is right on my doorstep. I’m drawn to night time because the suburbs lose some of their humanity then. The border is pushed back at night. I see foxes and kangaroos in the streets, and I tend to feel smaller, which I appreciate.

Your work often shows male figures in a kind of Dionysian rapture, but an exact narrative is difficult to discern. Are you concerned with storytelling, or with another mode of enquiry?
I’m inspired by film, and I’m a lot more passionate and know more about the history of film making than I do photography. For that reason, I like to think of the photographs as stills from a film that doesn’t yet exist. I also think of their narrative as a circular one, as though any work could be the beginning or end of the series, and they could be arranged in any order and still transmit the same message.

I certainly do think about some kind of narrative when I’m making new work, as if each new work is bringing the story closer to its resolution, but I’d say I’m more interested in moods and concepts than in storytelling.

How are the people in your photographs related to the animals they often share the frame with?
All the animals I have worked with are ones that share an intimate history with humankind: cows, sheep, foxes etc. In the case of the related works In Space the Stars are No Nearer (sheep) and Torment of Life, Paradise of Hell (a cow) you could understand the animals as representations of human/animal interaction- especially the botched, exploitative kind of interactions those animals are subject to. I think, depending on what kind of person you are, you’ll read them in different ways. On the one hand, the people in the images present as a pack, like scary and hungry and out for blood, and the animals have become their willing or unwilling sacrifice. On the other, the animals occupy the positions of power in those works, they challenge their audience and command the figures who share their space. All domesticated animals are a result of humans imposing their will on nature, and I think the idea that these animals feel any sort of kinship with us is just an illusion. When I look into the eyes of the animals in the works, I see the inevitability of nature. Their power isn’t a personal one, instead they’re like symbols of the chaos and violence of the natural world; of everything we run from and guard against.

I believe human beings exist to destroy the earth, or at least I would if it were revealed that there is some kind of profound order in the universe. So, although the work approaches some kind of environmentalist narrative, I find myself too sceptical about the reality of a positive way forward to fully commit. An idea I am more comfortable with would be that the people and animals in the works are alive without knowledge of morality or culture. That they operate at the level of drive and indulgence and have become bodies without a soul.

During your studies at The University of South Australia, your research has centred on occult practices, and this certainly seems to be present in your work…
Yes, very much so. However, I take a scientific approach to the occult, which is to say I interpret it largely as I do religion; as a reaction to the desolation and loneliness we often feel as human beings. For that reason, I’ve formed my own occult religion within the works. They’re a celebration of the flesh and our finite pleasures, without the pretence that there is some kind of overarching significance to our lives. I would say that the mysticism of the work comes from a disavowal of the mystical. That these happenings are of the earth, and the dangers of the occult and religion don’t come from magic, but from the people who believe so strongly in their power. I’m definitely still exploring all aspects of the occult in the works, and have my mind made up about very little.

Do you think art can be a vehicle for the occult and related practices?
I think so, in the sense that art and the occult are both the result of our collective will to transcend our material existence. Art is perhaps the most logical mode of representation for an assumed occult experience, but I think there’s a big trend going on in places like Tumblr where people are using imagery that’s evocative of the occult without having a clue about what any of it means. Not to say that’s a bad thing, necessarily. It certainly does imply young people are feeling pretty disenfranchised by the mainstream offerings. For the record, I am not a believer in any formal kind of magic, but I maintain a belief that art is near the highest form of communication, whether it is a conduit for mystical experiences or not. That’s certainly a question that has me thinking!

The colour red recurs throughout your more recent pieces. What does this colour do, aesthetically and symbolically, in your photographs?
I would say that red feels right, rather than being a colour I use to evoke a particular symbolic or aesthetic association. Red is in my opinion the only colour that transcends that label. It’s the colour we see when we close our eyes. We know it intimately, in the deepest parts of our body. My favourite colours are cool purples and greens, but red has a certain power that I am drawn to time and time again. In one of my photobooks I made reference to a ‘Red light that shines over you’ as a kind of ‘personality’ that hovered over the people in one of my photo-series, driving them mad. I think that’s a good example of the way I imagine the presence of red in the works. It seems to decide for itself which of my pictures it becomes a part of.

Professionally, you’ve worked as a freelance retoucher. Have techniques or ideas from this kind of work found their way into your creative practice?
I was amazed by the power of photoshop when I was introduced to it in a high school computer-imaging class. I tend to get bored with things very quickly once I feel I understand them well, but Photoshop is something that I feel forever impressed by. No matter my level of aptitude, I always know there is more to discover and understand. Apart from my school introduction, I am entirely self-taught, and was editing as a hobby for years before I ever published anything or was paid in any capacity. Although they may seem worlds apart, my images and commercial retouching utilise all the same techniques and tools, and that feeling of sparkly gloss you can add to an image (or entirely construct) with post processing is similarly satisfying in both. Film and fashion advertising are huge inspirations for me, and the glossiness and perfection of those mediums are creative influences. I think I have always realised their artifice, so they haven’t impacted me negatively, like they do a lot of people. Instead, I’ve always seen advertising as a study of beauty, and also a challenge to perfect my skill. I also think the negativity that has been pushed towards retouching in recent years is kind of misplaced. Retouch art is ultimately about the pursuit and aspiration towards perfection. Anyone can take a photo, but not that many people can make a photo and have control over every aspect of its production. I think I would feel inadequate as just a photographer. I tend to avoid that title.

How have collaborations with American Horror Story and the Satanic Church in Salem, Massachusetts, impacted your thinking and making?
Those two impacted me in very different ways, with the Satanic Church they were mainly a resource of knowledge and recommendations for texts and information when I was researching witch hysteria for a series in 2015. They’re big supporters of the arts, so it felt right approaching them. It’s funny to me that the work that resulted from that research, when I was in my second year of university, was the work that eventually caught the eye of the print and advertising team at 20th Century Fox a few years later.

I think the impact of the American Horror Story collaboration was a gradual one, the day the images debuted at Comicon I remember thinking: if I do nothing else for the rest of my life, at least I can say that happened. You don’t realise the scope of a show as popular as that until you have people using the images as their profile pictures and saying they’d do anything to work with you, it’s insane. It gave me the confidence boost I needed. I’m so grateful to them for that, and the opportunities I’ve been given as a result of people finding me through that huge grapevine.

You’ve worked as an archivist, dealing with the paintings of Robert Hannaford. Is Hannaford an influence? Who else’s practices inspire yours?
Alf (Mr. Hannaford) and his wife Alison, who is also a brilliant painter, have had a big impact on me in the time I’ve known them. Robert’s extremely prolific arts practice was an inspiration to stop dwelling on works and waiting for them to succeed. Or moving long past the point of diminished returns on a work that wasn’t worth the effort. Working for Alf during my arts degree was a huge benefit that I am very grateful for. I realised that no arts course can ever teach you more than just making, over and over again and that successful artists are always working, all the time.  In a creative sense, I draw inspiration from artists like David LaChapelle, Zdzisław Beksińki Stanley Kubrick, Damien Hirst, Lars Von Trier, Odd Nerdrum, Peter Paul Reubens and so on.

What difference does it make that your scenes of rapture are frequently set in suburbia?
Suburbia allows its inhabitants a level of personal expression that cities don’t, but it’s a false expression, because everything you do there is so strictly governed by the social norm. Being naked on a suburban street is such a huge societal transgression, but to have these very white, very idealised bodies gathering after dark and acting in a sub-human way is, I think, relevant to conversations about who the suburbs and society more broadly benefit. I think of them like an allegorical setting in that sense. Photographing the suburbs at night has this pervasive sense of wrongness to it, too, like you’re engaging in something very taboo. I tend to be drawn to things that make me feel like I’m doing something I shouldn’t be, especially when I can’t really get to the bottom of why I feel that way about them. You also can’t ever forget that the moment something goes wrong we’ll all be killing and eating each other either, to me the suburbs represent that fragility of morality.

How do you hope that audiences will respond to your work?
I honestly don’t think about it very much. How people respond is on them and doesn’t have a big impact on how I feel about what I do. The work I make connects with a particular kind of person. Some people don’t get it, not because they lack the education or anything, it’s just that the pictures didn’t speak to them in a language they understand. I get messages now and then from someone saying they’ve seen my work in a gallery or online and felt this massive and/or confusing connection to it. I know how it feels to experience a piece of art and be profoundly changed, so when I receive letters from people saying they’ve had that experience with something I’ve made I think that’s pretty cool.

Torment of Life, Paradise of Hell
3 – 26 May 2019
Floating Goose Studios Inc, Adelaide
Presented by Bluethumb Online Art Gallery

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