QUEER CONTEMPORARIES: In Conversation with Taryn O'Reilly
TO (about their own practice):
I have always been interested in the macabre, B-horror films and camp aesthetic. Amongst the queer community, camp has always been at the forefront of social change. Filth, sleaze, & glamour is used strategically to make blunt commentary about social injustices in real time.
SS: This body of work heavily references Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and depictions of female sexuality and identity. Could you tell us a little more about the novel’s inspiration on your practice, and why you’re revisiting an old classic to explore contemporary ideas?
TO: To understand the impact this novel had on me, I reflected a lot on my personal experiences from childhood. When I was about 5 years old my dad had been diagnosed with cancer and when I was 9 years old he passed away. A lot of my childhood was spent grappling with the idea of sickness, death and the afterlife. I didn’t know many children my age who had to talk or think about death as much as I had to, so I always felt like a very dark-minded child in comparison to everyone else. Adjusting to my dad’s sickness meant that I had to be accommodating and incredibly patient in order to make my parent’s life a little easier. I spent a lot of time in my room watching black & white films because they were dark, exaggerated, sometimes campy and sometimes odd. I remember watching a marathon of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein thinking about how much he looked like my dad. When I saw the “Bride of Frankenstein” all I could think about was that she was just like me: dark, lovely, and quiet. They were both creatures walking the line between life and death and that really resonated with me. As I got older, I felt it was vital for me to revisit Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and the films because it informed so much of my upbringing. I see it now from an entirely different perspective. Being accommodating was necessary for my childhood but as I got older I began to realise that as a woman, it was socially expected of me. I did not have control over my own autonomy, nor were my wants and needs essential. I re-watched the film “The Bride of Frankenstein'' and went over her role in the book and realised she was only ever expected to be a companion to the monster and nothing more. In the film (entirely centred around her creation) she is only animated in the last 10 minutes and she can only scream. She has no voice. She refuses to accept her fate and for it she is brutally murdered. In the book her possible creation would mean that she could control her own autonomy. This concept frightens Victor Frankenstein enough to tear her apart limb from limb. I don’t think it is much of a stretch to believe that these narratives correlate directly to the queer community. Cis, trans, non-binary, and intersex womxn have all experienced this social fear of their autonomy and often times experience violence towards their bodies for it. It is all just a projection of fear of the “other”, and this has trickled into everything including legislation. So, for me, “Frankenstein'', the bride, and all of her parts are a very contemporary concept.
SS: What does the notion of camp mean to you, and how does it function within your work?
TO: Oh boy, I could gush about camp for hours! To me camp has always been very contemporary despite being somewhat of an underground “vibe” or aesthetic. It’s not always out in the forefront of the mainstream but it makes social commentary in real time. It uses filth, humour, and glamour to talk about really, really dark topics. Even though it’s confident and bold, there’s something about the undertones that I think are more about vulnerability and honesty. It brings up taboo subjects and makes fun of things that people would be typically embarrassed about or ashamed of. There is something about that, that I find to be so beautiful. Sometimes, I think people misconstrue vulnerability for weakness, when in my mind it’s the first step towards empowerment. Personally, I struggle with PTSD so allowing myself moments of intimacy and vulnerability are essential for my recovery. The more I was encouraged to spend time with moments of my life that I thought were shameful or dirty the more I have understood myself and how I function. It became so important to me to embrace the sensitive, the tragic, and the embarrassing in my work because it’s real and raw. Even though my work is quirky and odd, I would never want someone to approach my work and feel disconnected from it. Also, if you haven’t experienced it maybe it will make you laugh or think about things from another perspective.
SS: We really love the works included in the show; they are bright, playful and cartoon-like all while hinting at much darker themes, and feel quite gothic and macabre by design. How do you go from design to finished product, what factors inform your decision-making process to create one of these?
TO: Before I make any piece of work I spend as much time as I can researching my topics and it becomes a bit of an obsession. This particular series started from a fascination I had with researching the gender of death throughout art history. Death is so universal and metaphysical and yet gender played an important role. During the lockdown, I decided to figure out what my relationship to death and gender was and in that time I began to revisit a lot of horror films. A lot of female characters that survive are ones that take on more “masculine” attributes or they become monsters themselves in order to live. Films where the female protagonist embodies super-hero-like qualities have storylines predominantly about revenge. It is more about trauma occurring to their bodies and they become vengeful creatures to right the wrong that was done to them. I got really sick of these character tropes and started to ask myself “What would John Waters do”? Full disclosure, that is the driving force of my recent body work. So, I started pulling references from films and literature to inform my final pieces. My process itself has been very experimental. There are no set rules or patterns for what I am making so it is a lot of trial and error. Oftentimes I will come up with a design and when I try to execute it I’ll realise that the material can’t be manipulated in that way. So, I have learned to continually adapt.
SS: You’ve dabbled in the use of lots of different materials over your time as an artist, sculpture, charcoal, painting, fibre – do you have a preferred medium, or do they all feed into each other in some way?
TO: I definitely don’t indulge in 2D mediums as much as I used to. Once I discovered making 3D work I never really went back to it. Sculptural work that I’ve done, whether that was with fibre, clay, metal or casting have all really challenged me more than drawing and painting have; However, I think they still inform one another. Working 3 dimensionally pushed me in a way that my painting and drawing classes didn’t. Even looking at my most recent work, there are no patterns for what I am doing or YouTube videos to learn from. I have to build everything I do from scratch and it’s been exhilarating for me to explore that.
SS: You often describe the works as “monsters” – what does the word “monster” mean to you?
TO: Historically speaking, the term “monster” has always been used to describe those that fall into the category of “the other”. It suggests that there is some sort of deviancy inhabiting someone or something. They were used as a metaphorical projection of fear and served as a cautionary tale to hold back those who didn’t fit into the societal norm. When looking at horror and the abject it has always been synonymous with the female body. This could be the abject and horror that is expelled from the body such as menstruation, birth, or lactation; or the abject and horror that is done to the body. Violence, trauma, fetishisation, and policing of the female body are well documented amongst art history, literature, film and other media. Not all women menstruate or give birth, however these horrors and abject are still shared. Being able to re-appropriate this projected monstrosity has brought me real empowerment recently.
We would just like to thank Pri for taking the time to answer our questions and for allowing us to share their work through our Queer Contemporaries Showcase!