Madison Bycroft

In Artist Profile 55 (2021), Julianne Pierce explored the collaborative ethic and aesthetic rippling beneath, and jubilantly bursting through, the filmic surface of Madison Bycroft's 'BIOPIC or Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée.'

Since 1991, the annual Samstag Scholarship has awarded 146 Australian artists the opportunity to study overseas. It provides the space for artists to explore new ideas, expand creative boundaries and build significant networks.

South Australian artist Madison Bycroft was awarded the scholarship in 2013 and undertook a Masters of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam in 2014. This experience was pivotal for Bycroft, who has gone on to build an international career with work shown in the US, Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Italy, Lebanon and France.

Currently based in Marseille, Bycroft will be returning home to Adelaide and the Samstag Museum of Art in 2021 with the newly commissioned work BIOPIC or Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée. The experience of living in Europe has embedded its way into Bycroft’s practice, with this new film installation inspired in part by the extraordinary life of the Chevalière d’Eon.

Born in France in 1728, Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont was a diplomat, spy and soldier and lived openly as both a man and a woman. Earning much notoriety at the time, the Chevalière d’Eon achieved great prominence as noted by The Annual Register for 1781, London: ‘It must indeed be acknowledged that she is the most extraordinary person of the age … we have seen no one who has united so many military, political, and literary talents.’

Bycroft is intrigued by the story of the Chevalière d’Eon and in particular the way that it has been publicly retold. Bycroft says, ‘I was drawn to this historical character because of their relationship to legibility and illegibility, and via my continued interest in expanded forms of reading. I was also drawn to this story from the desire to tell it differently, but more specifically from the pleasure I found in the Chevalière d’Eon’s writing, and a desire to honour their voice.’

Bycroft notes that d’Eon’s writing does not follow ‘correct’ French grammatical gendering, using both masculine and feminine forms. Although famous as the Chevalier d’Eon, (chevalier is French for knight) connoting a male-representing subject, d’Eon signs their writing as ‘Chevalière,’ a knight in the feminine. 

For Bycroft, this is not a biography (hence the struck through BIOPIC). Rather, it is an imagined magical and poetic retelling through the three main characters of the film, Charlie, Lu and Andrea. Various other characters include a magic plant, a royal taxonomical society who arrive for dinner in a bus, French experimental filmmaker Marguerite Duras and birds escaped from the play by Aristophanes. As Bycroft comments, ‘I have for some time been interested in how we tell stories –  what we choose to reveal and what we choose to conceal. I think of story telling as making a care-full relationship between myself and whatever or whoever is the subject.’

The process of making this film was a step-change for Bycroft, as this was the first time they worked with a large group of around twenty-five people and took on the role of ‘director.’ The work was created during Covid and the team rehearsed via Zoom for months. Bycroft believes that this long process of development enabled intense collaboration amongst the group and allowed for the process of directing to become ‘indirect’ and fluid. The team grew in collaboration with each other and by the time they assembled with lighting, sets and costumes in the studio or a remote chateau they were comfortable with each other and with the characters.

An important element for Bycroft in their work is a sense of empathy, and that there is connection between the performers on screen and then in turn with the audience. To achieve this Bycroft strove to listen, observe and absorb the contributions of their collaborators. It was a long process, with twenty-six versions of the script and five script advisors: Jessica Saxby, Danielle Reynolds, Brian Getnick, Kari Robertson and Roya Zahra Shadmand.

Bycroft also gathered together a sound recordist, composers, designers, two cinematographers, an assistant director and a producer. It was a big production with a set constructed in Bycroft’s 180 square-metre studio at Les Ateliers d’artistes de la ville de Marseille. Together, the team realised a surreal and imaginary world influenced by uncanny and camp aesthetics with visual references from the time of the Chevalière d’Eon. ‘I’ve always been drawn to the decorative and excessive and overt theatricality of the seventeenth and eighteenth century in France and Britain,’ says Bycroft. ‘Masks, wigs and make-up were all worn by every gender in bourgeois society.’

The commission from the South Australian Film Corporation and SA Living Artists (SALA) festival allowed Bycroft to be ambitious. It gave them the space to work with collaborators from other creative areas to reimagine and recreate the flamboyant and fluid world of the Chevalière d’Eon. Covid caused much chaos during the process of creating the film with Bycroft testing positive, trains being cancelled, self-isolating and social distancing during shooting. For Bycroft it was both exhilarating and stressful, and as they reflected, ‘it was honestly a miracle that we managed to pull it off. I’m very excited to see the finished product.’    

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 55, 2021.

BIOPIC or Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée
31 July – 24 September 2021
Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide

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