(A conversation with filmmaker) Taika Waititi:
Growing up in Waihau Bay, an isolated coastal town on the East Coast of New Zealand, filmmaker Taika Waititi lived in awe of a certain pop phenomenon, a king of sorts. “When we were kids we thought Michael Jackson was Maori. Same with Bob Marley, we thought he was from New Zealand”, says Waititi without a hint of irony, “Well, you know, they were brown.” Jackson casts a long shadow over Waititi’s new film Boy; his second feature following Eagle vs. Shark. The film’s 11-year-old namesake, brilliantly portrayed by newcomer James Rolleston, is enthralled by the entertainer. It’s a hero worship second only to that of his absent father Alamein, whose sudden re-appearance after a lengthy stint in jail forces Boy to reconcile his prodigious fantasy world with reality. Waititi describes it as “a comedy about child neglect”.
If that sounds like a jarring synopsis, rest assured, it works. He elaborates, “Audiences are pretty au fait with the rules of genres these days. It’s hard to show them new things when you’re sticking to one genre and playing it by the book. I wanted to move away from that earnestness that so many American films are infused with. I’ve always tried to do that with stuff I’ve done – writing comedy with my friends in the past has shaped the way I deal with serious stuff”.
Boy is based on Waititi’s acclaimed short film Two Cars, One Night, which garnered a slew of international awards. “That was the starting point, really,” says Waititi. “Boy is basically about kids controlling their world – looking after themselves and how they see the adult world. It’s loosely based on how we used to live back in the ’80s, in the area where I’m from. In New Zealand, definitely, it was more a time of innocence,” Waititi continues. “When the floodgates opened, we had all this American culture coming through. With break-dancing and all the movies. I remember people telling me about computers and I was like ‘Oh! I really want to see a computer!’” Waihau Bay was the only place Waititi could conceive making the film: “We shot in my childhood house. My aunty and cousins still live there,” he reveals. “It’s a really small community, so to get to get anything done you have to bring a crew into this tiny place, so we had to involve them all right from an early stage.”
Casting the lead role was crucial and proved to be a lengthy process. “The casting agent went to a whole lot of schools and held a whole lot of castings, going into small communities around the area. By the time we got to the rehearsal process, we realized that the boy that we had cast was a bit too old. It didn’t really work for the character so we cast him in another role and got in James, who we luckily found a couple of days before we started shooting. He was originally cast about seven months before, for a smaller part.”
Authenticity was of the utmost importance to Waititi – in fact, prior acting experience was not a pre-requisite. Rolleston had none, nor did Te Aho Eketone-Whitu who plays his younger brother. Alamein, the errant Father and object of Boy’s devotion was more difficult to cast – Waititi eventually assumed the role himself. “I wasn’t always going to do the part, I decided to about two months before. I felt that there aspects of the character that were quite specific. And I had quite specific requirements for it. I was confident in my comedic abilities and fairly confident with the dramatic stuff.”
Becoming an actor, not to mention a screenwriter and director, was not part of some grand design. Coming from a background in music and the visual arts, Waititi enrolled in a drama degree at university for unorthodox reasons. “I figured that the easiest degree was theatre, you could have a Bachelor of Arts in two years.” Nonetheless, he took to it with gusto, finding kindred spirits among his fellow students in Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, aka Flight of The Conchords. “We were writing our own stuff because nobody would put us in plays. We were young and we hated mainstream theatre because it was just plays about old people” explains Waititi. “It was more that we knew what we didn’t like and tried to do the opposite and as a result we developed this irreverent comedy style”. “We started writing for theatre and eventually I moved into film. I’d written ‘Two Cars, One Night’ as a dialogue between two kids and thought it might be good theatre piece.” However, he felt encouraged enough to move into another medium.
The rest is, well, history. An Oscar nod, followed by an infamous prank, beamed across the world during the ceremony, in which he appeared to be dozing, as his name was announced onstage. What’s changed since? “It has opened a lot of doors and I feel very fortunate,” he says, although he remains passionate about the industry he came up in. “I really want to make films in New Zealand. It’s hard when everyone leaves all the time. I love the films that I’m making and the opportunities that I get. But at the same time, I’ve got an American agent and I read scripts and stuff and I’ve got a few films in development with some people over here. All my films fit into an undefinable genre… This film is funny but it’s a drama. Eagle vs. Shark was a comedy but there was a lot of drama throughout it. It makes it hard to describe it, to market films like these. They’re beautiful films but they don’t follow quite the same rules.” Waititi is breaking the rules in the best possible way: he’s making his own.
(A conversation with writer) Kate Holden:
“I do have the kind of psychological profile that tends to be drawn to the taboo things - as an observer though, not as a participant - but in that case I thought I was going to be an observer, then it toppled over.” Australian author Kate Holden is explaining how she, a studious young woman from a stable background, who graduated from University with an Honours degree in Classics and Literature, became a heroin addict, then a sex worker.
“Your late teens and early twenties are full of things that you’ve never done before. I think I looked at it as a challenge, to take a step that truly terrified me” she elaborates. “It came from not understanding consequences, which I think is very typical of young people. I don’t recommend five years in heroin addiction as a maturing experience, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to test yourself. It did teach me a lot of things that I needed to know about the world; I just think I did it rather dramatically.”
Holden’s first book, In My Skin, published in 2005, chronicled those years spent in an underworld of drugs, prostitution and, ultimately, profound solitude. It was a raw account, conveyed with little of the self-indulgence she fears plagues the memoir as a literary form: the “monstrous narcissism”, as she calls it. It hit a nerve. Since the book was published she has received messages from many addicts and ex-addicts who have sought her out to share their experiences or, uncomfortably for her, advice. Says Holden, “I find it incredibly humbling and moving, and I really appreciate the trust they put in me, but I am not trained in counselling. I sometimes think, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t even know what I’m talking about’.”
It’s been 10 years now since she finally weaned herself off the drugs that had replaced everything else in her life, and began emerging from the cocoon of her nocturnal existence. It started, intellectually, with a year of reading up on the French Revolution, which she found "allegorical” at the time (all the revolution coupled with carnage), and led her to the Romantic Poets. “I read Byron – I love Byron. I didn’t read the poetry so much as about their lives, I was fascinated with that.”
Holden instinctively responded to their credo: “The Romantics believed there was nothing so true about yourself as your emotions, your response to the natural world. And I really needed to get back to that because I’d lived in this really strange world as a sex worker, where I was happy in lots of ways, but I lived a very artificial life, wearing costumes that weren’t really my kind of clothes, and performing as this other personality, so I really needed to find authenticity. That was what I pursuing more than anything else.”
Her new book, The Romantic, another memoir, recounts the nine months she spent living in Italy as she recovered from her former life. Holden felt the need to leave Melbourne in order to gain some perspective on what she had been through. “I think it was a good thing to do, to get away. Here I would have been constantly bucking against all the old things, so crossing to the other side of the world where absolutely no-one knew me, I could kind of reassemble everything.” As the fug of addiction dissipated she experienced an awakening. “To suddenly have pain there, and joy, and pleasure, and smell it was like coming up from a subterranean world and moving into the daylight”, she recalls.
Holden had planned to spend her time in Italy recuperating; instead she plunged headfirst into a series of liaisons, re-exploring her sexuality and newfound, unanaesthetized emotions with verve. She describes the book as being “about this girl who goes to Italy in search of the 'Romantic', then having this very picaresque journey through various types of romance and sex.”
It comes as little surprise to learn that Holden, who wrote her graduating thesis on the diaries of Anais Nin, has been an avid journal keeper since the age of eight. For The Romantic, they were her starting point. “I went back to my diaries and found there were really comprehensive accounts of what was going on, which is more tragic in one way than anything else because I was so focused on these relationships at that time that I kept very, very detailed accounts of them – there were even verbatim passages of the conversations we had.”
The result is another vivid chapter in Holden’s already colourful life: bittersweet, illuminating, a feminist tome for a new generation perhaps. Now, at 10 years clean, as a successful writer and columnist (for The Age, an Australian newspaper to which she contributes weekly), her years of tumult behind her, Holden exudes a kind of intoxicating vivaciousness.
“I’m really happy with the writing; it’s such a joy, such a gratification. I try and explain to people that with heroin, it’s hard to go back to other types of satisfaction; it can be a bit nebulous. Heroin is a very concrete form of satisfaction. It’s difficult, when you’ve learnt that one, to see how you could be satisfied by anything else. I used to absolutely marvel at people who could get through the day without it. I had no idea how I was going to do it.”
That Holden not only got through the day without it, but has continued to for years now, is something she doesn’t take for granted. Nor is the opportunity to follow her vocation: “That’s one of the huge issues in recovery, that you have no faith that anything will ever comfort you in the same way. You can’t imagine anything ever taking that space. I think I’m incredibly lucky that I did find something that replaced that, and that I got a career and some success out of it.”
(A conversation with cultural ambassadors) Maria Batiz and Jose de la Macorra:
Restaurateurs Maria Batiz and Jose Carlos de la Macorra first came to New Zealand eleven years ago on their honeymoon, with the intention of visiting Australia afterwards. They never made it. “I liked it better here!”exclaims Maria. They bought a truck with a motorcycle motor; it had a little wooden house built into the back of it. Then, for six months, they traveled the length of this country, stopping only for a spell to pick kiwifruit in Keri Keri, near the top of New Zealand's North Island.
Back in Mexico City, Maria finished her degree in art restoration and began teaching, while Jose worked between the corporate world and a business he started, exporting religious iconography to the United States. But their imagination had been captured. “We could see that in New Zealand, it’s really easy to do what you like. It’s possible. You can survive with a small business,” says Maria. They had a plan. Jose had studied hotel management in England, and had found while working in hotel kitchens that he enjoyed cooking. He wanted his own establishment, he wrote in his thesis. It would be a place to promote Mexican culture: he would be an informal agent for his country.
They returned to New Zealand – Maria found work in her field while Jose turned the basement of their apartment building into a kitchen, and Mexican Specialties was born. Initially trading as a sandwich delivery service to office buildings, it’s now a small yet bustling slice of Mexico tucked away in an anonymous block of shops in one of Auckland’s outer suburbs. Its reputation has grown primarily from word of mouth, and its whereabouts are passed rapturously from person to person.
Maria can be found up front most days, serving customers while sole cook Jose keeps the most authentic Mexican food in New Zealand coming out of the kitchen. Regular customers know to be patient as Jose, ever the perfectionist, detests any kind of culinary shortcuts – he sources and chooses all meat and produce himself, cooking everything dish by dish to ensure it meets his high standards. They had a chance to expand but decided to forgo extra space and more customers. “Sometimes you try to do more, but it changes, the atmosphere changes. So we decided to shrink!” says Jose gleefully. “If you put in 10 more tables, then you have to put another fridge, another cook. You start relying on other people, you can’t check on the quality”.
“Say with sex,” he continues, “Imagine you do it morning, afternoon, and night – it becomes quite dull. The thing with this is, if you do it too much, then that’s your life – it stops being enjoyable.” Which accounts for their abbreviated opening hours; the doors are open from Thursday through Saturday each week, even then, only from mid to late afternoon. It hasn’t deterred their ardent clientele, most who have supported them from day one.
The business is shaping up to be all they hoped it would be.“Personally, for us, it was our best chance to open up with the local people, it was a good opportunity to socialise. We have customers that come every day. Not even to eat! Just to talk for five minutes and go!”
“There is an Englishman who has come every Saturday since we opened,” says Maria, smiling. “He’s missed two Saturdays, because he went to England. He came, knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m not coming his week, so don’t worry about me!’”
“It’s not just a taco, you know? It’s really deep,” says Jose, “We talk to them about Mexico. We plan trips for them, and of course they can meet the parents, go for lunch with them.” In fact, four different customers have stayed with their parents since Mexican Specialties opened its doors.
The freedom that Maria and Jose feel they have in this country is not to be understated. “In Mexico he would probably never have had a shop like this. The social expectations are really different. You have to live in a certain house, drive a certain car and have a certain job – not making tacos and talking to people,” explains Jose. “You have to live on a level that is in accordance with your social status.” Would they consider moving back at some point? “We didn’t come here forever, we came here for a couple of years – but now it’s been 10,” says Jose, with a shrug. “There’s never been a reason to leave. Here we have our own life, our thing, and it reflects who we are 100 percent.”
(A conversation with actor) Ben Whishaw:
Bright Star, the new film from acclaimed film director Jane Campion is a tenderhearted rumination on the romance between the great Romantic poet John Keats and his mistress Fanny Brawne. The film shares its name with a poem Keats wrote for Brawne during their tumultuous relationship, which lasted until the bard’s untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 25. The union scandalised pre- Victorian society as the lovers conducted their affair out of wedlock, flouting the stringent social mores of the time. Poverty and ill heath prevented them from taking formal vows, separating the couple even as Keats lay on his deathbed in a foreign country. Their love formed the basis for much of Keats’ later work and endures in his poems, letters and biographies. Campion, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a story that focuses on the innocence and inherent poeticism of young love.
Eschewing a moral commentary of their relationship, the film instead hones in on the agony and the ecstasy of forbidden love. With exquisite attention to detail, Bright Star is achingly period in the visual sense yet is tempered with understated performances from its leads Abbie Cornish - in a breakthrough role - and Ben Whishaw, a talented young actor who has built up an impressive body of work in the past few years. Last seen playing Lord Sebastian Flyte in a long film awaited adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Whishaw is a working actor in the truest sense; while he was brilliant as a young man who is incarcerated for murder in the BBC five-part series Criminal Justice, he is as comfortable performing in radio play productions as he is on the stage, his first love.
Despite his rising star, Whishaw is somewhat wistful about his days at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London: “I went there when I was 19 – it was a three-year course, really intense. I loved it as much as anything because it gave me the chance to be in London and to meet new people and kind of live a bit. When I look back on it now I think, in some ways, that was the most valuable part of the experience.”
Growing up in provincial England, Whishaw showed an interest in the performing arts from an early age. While he now downplays his time spent in youth theatre as “a hobby, something I did at weekends and in the holidays”, by the time he was in high school Whishaw was already heavily committed to the Big Spirit theatre group. In 2005 he starred in an adaptation of a Primo Levi novel, If This Was a Man, which was staged at the Edinburgh Festival with the company. By this time, people were starting to take notice of Whishaw’s prodigious talent. He retained the services of an agent and was cast in his first film at the age of 17. “I did a film called The Trench,” he recalls “a film that hardly anyone would have seen. It was a feature by the English writer William Boyd. He wrote and directed it.” While the film may not have been a box office success, Boyd himself has described Whishaw’s small role as a young soldier in the First World War as “astonishingly good”.
After finishing high school, other parts in film and television followed, however Whishaw became frustrated; after such a promising start his career looked to be in danger of stalling. He attempted a fine arts degree yet found himself drifting back to his vocation. At the age of 19, Whishaw made an inspired choice for someone who had already achieved a modicum of success; he applied for and was accepted into drama school. “I always wanted to do theatre really, much more than I wanted to be in film,” he explains. “That was why I wanted to go to RADA, because I felt like if you wanted to be in theatre, you had to be properly trained to do it. So I went and studied, and when I left my mission was to do theatre – which is what I did for a year or something after I left college”.
Since graduating from that highly venerated institution in 2003, Whishaw has experienced a career trajectory that is nothing short of ascendant. He was chosen by celebrated theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn to play Hamlet in his production at the Old Vic in 2004, a role that garnered him glowing reviews and, ironically, paved the way for more film and television roles. Fans of arch satirist Chris Morris may also recognize him from the outré Channel 4 television series Nathan Barley as the eternal whipping boy Pingu: “It’s got a little cult following that show. It’s always nice when I talk to people who have seen it I loved doing that. I love Chris Morris,” enthuses Whishaw “I was playing Hamlet in the evening at the time and filming Nathan Barley during the day – it was a very schizophrenic period”.
His performance in Tom Twyker’s Perfume, another long awaited adaptation, this time from author Patrick Suskind, was notable in its intensity. In a film where the main protagonist is completely at the mercy of his olfactory sense, almost to the exclusion of all others, Whishaw had minimal dialogue yet made a powerful impression on the viewer. Here was an actor who had the presence and charisma to pull off one of literature’s most curious and illustrious characters. Not by design, Whishaw maintains, he has also played two of rock music’s most enigmatic characters – Keith Richards in 2005’s Stoned, and Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ conceptual biopic I’m Not There.
“I love music, it’s really an important thing to me” states Whishaw. “I would say that in my life, I need music much more than I need films or theatre. I listen to music every day. For me it’s a really important thing. But it’s not something I can do, I can’t play an instrument or read music – I don’t have any great facility for it but I love it and I am really interested in it. Those parts happened to come along, it was a completely random thing, and I didn’t seek them out or anything. It was a happy coincidence because I love those musicians.”
For the part of John Keats in Bright Star, Campion approached Whishaw directly: “She sent me the script and a letter saying that she’d seen a film I’d done and if I were interested, would I be willing to meet with her and audition. We sort of had an email conversation - back and forth – and then we finally met.” Whishaw remembers watching The Piano with his aunt when he was 13, and taking himself off to see Holy Smoke (two of Campion’s most well known films) at the cinema when it was released. He was already an ardent admirer of her work. “I hadn’t formed many attachments to film directors really, because I was interested in theatre, but she was one of those filmmakers that I connected with. So it was amazing when I got a script. I was incredibly excited by the prospect of it.” “She’s just got amazing way of seeing right inside people and an intuition for what they might have inside them that they haven’t discovered yet, haven’t released yet. Her instincts are really acute – she’s a very instinctive person, very in touch with those things.”
Campion and the key cast convened for a four-week rehearsal period, to work on the characters and scenes before shooting started. It wasn’t without its difficult moments. “Jane seemed to be quite hard to please. She didn’t ever seem to be happy with what we were doing and she was kind of scrunching up her face and I could see that she wasn’t really feeling it,” says Whishaw. “She encouraged us not to try so hard in a way because she could see that we were all trying very hard and acting very hard and she didn’t want that. She wanted us just to be – just to be the characters and be present in the moment.”
Keats, aside from his tremendous poetic aptitude, was also something of a philosopher. His theory of Negative Capability – a concept that has since captured the imagination of many – was introduced in a letter to his brothers dated 1817, in which he stated, “…negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Campion herself saw the potential in Keats' premise as a device for her cast and encouraged her actors to be mindful of this hypothesis when approaching their roles. Whishaw muses: “We realized that this idea that Keats coined was really a useful one for us in the way we worked: to be present in the mystery, if you like.”
Keats and Brawne were lovers in the early 1800s, and while Bright Star is highly stylised, the actors performances tend towards the natural. This gives the film, despite its careful attention to the detail of the period, a surprisingly modern feel. “That’s what Jane wanted,” agrees Whishaw “Whenever it sounded like we were talking in some period way she’d stop us, she wanted it just to be natural. Just to be everyday. And I think that gives the film a kind of intimacy that allows people in.” As the writer, as well as the director, Campion also had a very clear idea of how she wanted to portray the relationship. Brawne was derided during her involvement with Keats – fraternising with a man outside of the bounds of an official betrothal was severely frowned upon – Keats himself even went so far as to call her a minx, though it was surely in a playful sense.
Their liaison was fraught with the impossibility of it being actualised; by Keats’ inability to support her financially, and by his terminal illness. However a passionate bond existed between them, which developed into delicate and private love, which is what Campion chose to highlight in her dramatisation of their affair. “I think that Jane was interested in exploring a purity about people and that was what she wanted to focus on, the way people relate to each other, to explore the possibility of that purity,” clarifies Whishaw. “I don’t think it’s sentimentalised in the least, far from it, but I think she was more interested in the tenderness that existed, that perhaps it was stronger than anything else that may have been a part of their relationship.”
“There was a really jealous, exceptionally angry side to Keats as expressed in his letters which we don’t go into so much in the film.” He continues. ”Any film about a real person is going to be about a take, an angle, and I think the stronger that take is, the better really. It’s difficult to do justice to someone’s life, particularly someone like John Keats whose life is so well documented. We know so much about him through his letters and his poems. I think that Jane’s angle, through the eyes of Fanny, is a really inspired one.”
Running parallel to the romantic relationship with Brawne is Keats’ friendship with Charles Brown, a former merchant and lesser writer who became an ally, benefactor, caregiver and champion of the struggling poet. It was while lodging with Brown that Keats initially made Brawne’s acquaintance. “I think it’s a really interesting relationship, just because they seem so different,” observes Whishaw. ”I think it was hard for other people around Keats, maybe hard for people watching the film to understand what the two men got from each other. I think in a sense that Keats was everything that Charles Brown wasn’t and vice versa. They completed each other in some ways. I like that it was a relationship that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but was one that worked for them both. It was like Brown felt he was in the presence of a writer of superior ability, that Keats was just on another plane really. Charles Brown is presented in Jane’s script as very earth bound whereas Keats is in the ether somewhere.”
Whishaw, who has a self-admitted tendency to become consumed with his work, quickly became fascinated with Keats and the world he lived in. “I think that whole period, the Romantic period, was really interesting as it was a reaction was against industrialisation and dehumanisation. The Romantics put people and feelings back at the centre of life, which I really liked the idea of so I read quite widely – all his poems and letters but also several biographies and criticism of his work and other poets who were writing at the time, or just before, because I was so interested.” Ultimately, Whishaw was profoundly moved by the experience of playing the doomed poet. Especially seeing as it afforded him the opportunity to work with Campion. “I think it was a real turning point in my life – she’s had a really, really, really big effect on me – on my life and my work. I can’t speak too highly of her. I love her.” When we speak, he’s on the way to stay at her retreat in New Zealand’s South Island. It isn’t difficult to imagine that she returns his affection.
John Keats and Fanny Brawne – their romance was unequivocally a product of their time. The conversation with Whishaw ends with a musing over the impossibilities of a relationship, such as the one they had, existing in the modern world, as we know it. “It would have taken a month, at least, for the letter to travel from Rome to Hampstead after Keats’ death,” says Whishaw. How Brawne must have suffered – in this day and age someone would have instantly sent her an email or a text message with the bad news. “I know, so unromantic,” sighs Whishaw, said like a true Romantic.
(An audience with musicians) Psychic Ills:
It’s a sweltering evening in late May – summer has come early to New York. It’s 1am, yet the air is still thick with humidity. Outside Glasslands, a club and gallery space in Brooklyn, people are loitering, subjugated by the heat. The event, dubbed a “Psych Fest”, has brought together nine bands with various associations to that genre. The last group, who have retained a crowd despite the sauna-like interior of the venue, take to their instruments, charging the atmosphere of the room immediately. One of their members holds a rope of tiny silver bells above her head, stalking the stage like a hunting feline. As the band builds behind her, a synthesizer swells with bewitching effect. Coupled with the heat, it’s intoxicating.
Formed in 2003 by founding members Tres Warren, Elizabeth Hart, and Brian Tamborello, Psychic Ills make haunting, hypnotic records; modern psychedelia that fuses the requisite drone with tribal rhythms and electronic textures. “I have known Tres for a long time, from Texas. We both lived in California for while, and then wound up in New York, where we started playing music together,” explains Hart. “Prior to playing with Ills, I was just working on stuff at home, teaching myself to play. Tres actually gave me my first guitar, over 10 years ago. Actually it was my second guitar, I didn't really play the first one that I received on my 11th birthday…”
After self-releasing a single and touring locally, they joined forces with New York based label The Social Registry to release another single, and then Dins, their debut album, in 2006. A solid year of touring followed with Ariel Pink and Indian Jewelry, other artists bending the definition of psychedelic music in the modern context. Despite all three members being heavily involved in side projects, the band was refreshed by the addition of Jimi SeiTang on keyboards, after which Mirror Eye, another full- length album, was released in 2008. Meanwhile, their music had caught the attention of Australian label The Spring Press, whose head Jeff Burch approached the band directly.
A single, Astral Occurrence, was released earlier this year. Warren recalls the sessions wryly: “We recorded it to an old four-track recorder in the space that we were practicing in at the time in the East Village, across from the Hells Angels HQ – I think those vibes may have made their way on there [the recording]. Every time that we loaded in or out, we had to deal with a lot of jive from some 'hangaround' who thought we were gonna knock the bikes over.” Plans are now afoot to tour south of the Equator in support of yet another 12-inch vinyl-only release, Catoptric, out now on The Social Registry. It signals deepening experimentalism for a sound that is everevolving. “There's never been a concept – I don't like sticking with something just for the sake of it,” says Warren, assuring all listeners of their recordings of more magic to come.
(A conversation with artist) Annakim Violette:
In a culture obsessed with the minutiae of life, where we’re encouraged to update our movements in real time on social networking sites, who wouldn’t find it fascinating to see how other people live? Photographer Todd Selby has struck a chord with his website www.theselby.com, a glorious romp through the homes of a host of colourful personalities. Artist Annakim Violette has perhaps the most striking of them all: a baroque den stuffed full of her artwork, costumes and talismans. Unsurprisingly Selby wasn’t the first to showcase her fantastic surrounds. “A lot of the people that I’ve been photographed by have been other artists that I met through serendipitous synchronicities,” says Violette. “There are very different energies to each photo session. I nicknamed the house Glamityville, a take on the horror movie The Amityville Horror, which is very dark and full of imagery like the walls bleeding blood. So I thought, ‘What if my walls could bleed with glitter?’ Right after I named the house is when I started being approached for photo shoots.”
Violette grew up leading a self-confessed ‘dandy lifestyle’. As the daughter of musician Tom Petty, she toured the world as a child, later spending stints in Paris and Iceland, and bouncing between the US east and west coasts before finally settling in Los Angeles. “I feel like I have a lot of kindred spirits here, but it’s not just about Los Angeles, so it’s not so much about a location but a collective spirit… In my early twenties I felt pressure to explain myself, but now I realise that it has nothing to do with surroundings but what’s coming from inside. But at the same time I feel like a lot of people have been drawn here,” she explains. “I didn’t go to art school and I’m not a big fan of art school because my friends that did go had so many ideas forced on them; they were told who to be rather then finding out who they are. You don’t need a diploma to be validated. That’s why I don’t go too much into my background because it doesn’t fully explain me, and I don’t mean that to sound pretentious. All the labels that can be put on someone are redundant, because they’re going to change anyway. I like to keep as much mystery as I can possibly have, and it’s not even a control thing.”
Being self-taught – or self-actualised – Violette seems to have placed no boundaries between herself and her art. You only have to see how she lives, how she dresses and decorates her visage with paint and glitter, to recognise that she is committed to her artistic vision. “I’m not a very cerebral person, everything I do is very physical, very in the moment. I’m passionate and I guess I’ve always been that way, in my own world. I’ve always been interested in transformation and dualities. Things that are kind of taboo, things that don’t have a sense of time.” While many of her contemporaries may reference pop culture or mine history for reinterpretation, Violette seeks inspiration solely from within. “I’m inspired by dreams. It’s your viewpoint. I think that people are taught in modern culture to think they’re crazy for having daydreams, but I feel like those are the message that we’re getting, and I’m not talking about a religious experience. The only time I’ve experienced a confrontation with my art is when I haven’t followed those visions.”
Working in different mediums to serve her dream logic, some of her most profound work has come from working with taxidermy, anointing them with colour and sparkle. The result is a spiritual reanimation of a long-dead creature. “The thing with the taxidermy was that I saw these trophies that people left behind – they were Victorian and extremely old,” she says. “It was confusing to me because here was such a beautiful creature that had been discarded. It mattered to me what had happened to it. When I work with the animals, I have a physical experience with them. It’s very different to my painting, my more dreamy work, where you’re drawn more into yourself. So many people have loved the taxidermy, so there hasn’t been much controversy – I didn’t want it to be exploitive or political.”
Being an artist is more than having a tangible representation of a concept, or in Violette’s case, a subconscious conversation with herself. Violette seeks to elicit a visceral response from the viewer, for the work to precipitate a psychic change. “I feel like the things that are confrontational in the world are the things that people are scared of. I feel like the track that I’ve been on has been supported because other people like that energy. Even though art technically could be considered a superficial thing, I’m using botanical themes, the taxidermy, though it’s already dead, will eventually decay. I think that gives people a sense of freedom.”
Moving freely between the worlds of artist and muse, Violette is currently working with photographer Autumn de Wilde on an as-yetunnamed project. She will also be featured in an exhibition of Selby’s portraits at the cultural salon-cum-department store Colette in Paris in April and she has group show coming up at ‘Showcase’ in the creative enclave of Echo Park in Los Angeles. But there’s something else, something that may prove to be the culmination of her aesthetic and craft. “I’ve always wanted to make music but I’ve put it off because it’s been my dark master,” she admits. “I never saw a reason to take it out into the world but I love music and I love art, and I love incorporating the two, so that’s what I’m working on right now.”
There is a sense that Violette’s art demands much from her, and being her own work of art, that she expects much from herself. That categorisation would be a kind of death, the desire to remain mutable a strong instinct for her. “As much as people see me as a strong person, I’m actually very soft. I don’t follow or lead, I just want to be.”