Juno Calypso interviewed by Joanna Cresswell, 4 October 2016
It’s been one year since London-born Calypso set off on her first solo journey to a couples-only love hotel in rural Pennsylvania to create images for her series The Honeymoon. Posing as an aspiring travel writer, Calypso gained access to different suites in the resort and once inside, she spent the week dressing up in wigs and wedding lingerie and taking self-portraits. Slathering herself in green clay, adorning her face with anti-ageing contraptions and draping herself across heart-shaped bathtubs surrounded by mirrors, Calypso performed scenes of preparation and anticipation, acting out familiar rituals of beauty and seduction to an absurd degree.
In these images, Calypso created a fictional character named Joyce. With a wry wit, Calypso offered Joyce as a woman disenchanted by the “laboured construct of femininity”, mechanically testing out beauty treatments and body improvement devices, and consumed by the perpetual pursuit of perfection. Joyce was often seen gazing, seemingly exhausted, into the camera or at her own reflection. Calypso amassed a substantial cult following for this ongoing series of pastel pink-hued images.
In more recent images, the character that she portrays has an air of defiance, and now appears to be revelling in the construction of femininity where once she was weighed down. “I realised that I want people to laugh along with the character, like she’s in on the joke”, she explains. “Yes, the rituals we invest in as women can be bizarre, but that’s not really the problem. The real problem is the way women are considered moronic for wanting to indulge in those things. Stop patronising us. We know what we’re doing.”
Calypso has decided that she doesn’t necessarily want people to see Joyce when they look at her photographs anymore, but rather a more abstract figure. Armed with this sentiment, she has just returned from a second trip to Pennsylvania where she stayed at a new honeymoon resort. This time, she explains, it was much less about the ego of a character and much more about the way the body appears in relation to its surroundings. The promise of rooms designed only for gazing at one another, covered in mirrors and bathed in blue and pink light, is what drew her back. Everything else was improvisation.
Here, she invites Refinery29 to take the first look at her new work.
“Last year, when people asked what was next for me, I threatened that I’d go on a one-woman tour of honeymoon hotels around the world. Turns out there was something in that because recently I felt pulled back to the area of Pennsylvania I had visited the first time round. I knew that the hotel I stayed in had another branch a few hours away and so off I went. I wasn’t done with these places. This time I only packed cheap wedding lingerie, wigs and some electronic beauty masks. I tried to keep it minimal. It was all about the rooms this time. When I arrived it was the same thing all over again: nobody questioned the amount of excess baggage or the fact that I didn’t leave my room for three days straight. I was left to my own devices.”
“There was this one room with an indoor pool that really made me want to go there. Everything I loved about the pink honeymoon suite from my original trip was replicated in blue, but with even more mezzanines and glass ceilings. Being in the pool, bathed in low, blue light felt hallucinatory, and in some ways, sad – the perfect stage for my pictures. You could just tell that every room in the resort had been dreamed up in the head of one guy. There were no windows, just mirrors everywhere. Every part of the room was designed solely for looking at your lover, or at yourself.”
“I don’t have a studio, I always work on location – I like to search out private spaces that are made for indulging in fantasy and seduction. I began taking pictures in bedrooms and bathrooms, but as my work has grown, what better place than the honeymoon suite, where the archetypal rituals of the wedding night take place? My process is a bit like making a low-budget film, except it’s a one-person operation. Sometimes I’m the tyrannical director who wont let anybody stop working, and sometimes I’m the wayward actor who won’t get out of bed.”
“All of my work essentially boils down to two things: desire and disappointment. And I like to find humour in the path from one to the other. There’s a certain level of irony in all of my images. An important lesson I’ve learnt along the way is that humour is a powerful tool for women.
"The honeymoon hotel is a space charged with anticipation, and desire. I like to put my character through the rituals that would otherwise play out in these spaces with two people – the preparation, and then watch as disappointment unfolds. Solitude and loneliness are big themes. I’ll only ever appear alone."
“We’ve always been inclined to ‘dress up’ haven’t we? Since being little. I still like to do that, lots of us do. As RuPaul said, ‘you’re born naked, and the rest is drag’. I’ve always said that I use my work to explore the private underlife of a woman consumed by the laboured construct of femininity. And I do this because it’s a theme that I can relate to very well. It’s half autobiography and half nonsensical fantasy. Because of the kind of work I make, I always get male critics asking, ‘but can you really call yourself a feminist when you pose like that?’ Of course the answer is yes. It’s like there are certain conditions that you need to check off in order to prove you are one of the ‘good feminists’. I hate it when the privileged tell the oppressed how to protest."
“My generation came of age at the same time as digital photography, the internet and the selfie. It was an awkward time to be alive. There are a lot of female photographers publishing self-portraits alongside their photographs of female friends and models, which I think is wonderful. I just feel separated from that world because I exclusively photograph myself. It can feel very limiting at times, but morally, I feel very comfortable. I’m too neurotic to take on the responsibility of photographing someone else. The only person I’m exploiting is myself.”
"I’m too nervous to watch horror films and I’ve never gone deep into sci-fi, but I love the aesthetic of both so I skip and pause and try to absorb what I can. It’s funny these days that you can be a film expert without having watched anything. All you need is YouTube and Google Image search. The other day this guy said to me 'I like your work. It really reminds me of David Lynch'. I thanked him and told him that I’d only ever seen Blue Velvet. When I asked what he would recommend he told me, 'I don’t know, I’ve never actually seen anything he's done.'
"My favourite films are psychological horrors with a clean aesthetic like The Skin I Live In, Space Odyssey and Beyond The Black Rainbow. I reckon The Fifth Element also had a huge influence on me when I was younger. I thought a lot about that white bandage outfit Milla Jovovich wore when I was choosing costumes for these new images."
“If I’m in need of inspiration for new images, I’ll go on eBay. My key search words are ‘sexy’ and ‘pink’ and ‘mask’. I’ll start in the hair and beauty section and then move onto electronics, followed by a long browse in the wedding department. There are so many more trips I want to take. My location wish list is so long now that I’ve been considering setting up a fake online holiday agency called Joyce’s Choices.
"All of my best photographs are born from my worst ideas. If I try to be too serious the work becomes dull. When I’m setting up a photograph I’m usually thinking, ‘this is so bad’, but in the words of John Waters: 'Have faith in your own bad taste.' Show your dedication to the cause, whatever that may be. Yes, I find my own work tacky to look at, at times but I like that. I listen to Céline Dion, I watch reality TV, I have notifications on my phone reminding me to watch make-up videos on YouTube and all of that feeds into what I’m doing. There are no guilty pleasures.
Five Uneasy Pieces: An Interview with Juno Calypso, March 18 2016
BF: Within the theatricality of your images, you seem to be hinting at a considered perception of the feminine conditioned to that of a ponderance of abjection…a horror within…or a horror from a separate vantage point. I struggle to have a discourse on the politics of contemporary feminism due largely to its current faddism and constructs of bandwagon sloganeering, not because I take issue with the importance of its measure. Would you consider your work a personal investigation of self or are you pandering to the potential of contemporary feminism? Is the self exposed personalized or politicized?
JC: I would consider it a personal investigation of the self, but my self is a feminine-feminist. So it also becomes political, but I wouldn’t say I’m pandering – certainly not self consciously and even more certainly not unknowingly. Feminism was never a topic I chose to exploit. My mum raised me with a brutal education on women’s issues, but social media didn’t really exist then. There was no so called bandwagon for me to jump on. It took me years to convince some of my close friends that women’s issues were relevant. So even with the slogans and fads, I’m glad that young women are talking about it.
I don’t feel I am exposing my physical self by appearing in my photographs. It doesn’t feel like me anymore. I cringe every time click-bait articles claim my work is “blowing away perceptions of beauty”. What does that even mean? I use my body, but it’s the emotional self I’m focused on. I like making work where you can see the subject frozen in thought, you can hear them slowly dying inside.
Horror is something I’ve always loved. That was a topic I exploited thinking it would make me cool. The art I made when I was a teenager was so kitsch – everything had to be about sex or blood. I tried reading Powers of Horror to justify what I was doing but I couldn’t understand it. It was only when I got to university that my teachers all told me that what I was doing was obvious, and I realised they were right. So I re-read Powers of Horror and shifted my focus from the external horror, to the horror within. I discovered the powers of subtlety.
BF: Why is “Joyce” a stand-in? Tell me a bit about the performance measure of your work…why do you employ yourself and not others for the project? Is it the ritual of work or the interest of diaristic importance in a fictionalized setting that gives you a control measure to center yourself within?
JC: I described her as a stand-in when that was the literal function. There was no mention of ‘Joyce’ then, it was just me trying out ideas for photographs that I wanted to do eventually try with other people. I didn’t think I was interestingenough to be the subject of my photographs. Now I work exclusively in this way because it suits me so well. I never felt comfortable taking pictures of other people. I’d get distracted and the images wouldn’t turn out the way I’d planned because I was too busy keeping them entertained. Iwasn’t confident in telling other people exactly what to do. When I’m alone I can beat myself up for hours until the work is done. Most of the time I don’t know what I want to do, I have to test things out
until I get there. Being alone allows me to take my time. I was always so jealous of musicians and writers being self-sufficient in their practice. I wanted to have that life. I didn’t choose to use myself because I felt it was important to document my life. That’s a bonus. I chose to work alone because I like my own company and I’m always there. I don’t have to rely on anyone else to get work done.
BF: “The First Night”…the color blue…explain your choice of color if its worth mentioning. I can see cinematic and art historical contextualization within from Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” to transgressive Asian horror cinema, notable abstract anonymity of the hair and veil draping the female figure in an interior and familiar home environment. Do you draw inspiration for your tableau from cinema or art historical iconography?
JC: From both. Growing up I was taken to an Italian catholic church in London every Sunday but I couldn’t speak Italian, so iconography has been laser cut into my head. When I was a teenager I was obsessed with Battle Royale and the Korean psychological horror, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’. This was around the same time I discovered Caravaggio and Goya.
I googled ‘Picasso’s blue period’ a lot recently when I didn’t know what to do next with my work. Before I went to the Honeymoon Hotel I thought I’d had my time with pink so moved onto blue. Going to the Honeymoon Suite made me realise I will never be done with the colour pink. So now I alternate between the two. When I’m working on location I’ll allocate half my time to creating preconceived images, and the rest taking pictures of whatever. ‘The First Night’ was one of those whatever images. I had a bridal veil and an LED light, and that was the result. I placed the light behind me and saturated the blue in post-production. It was actually taken on a sunny day with the curtains closed.
BF: “wrinkle mask, baby oil, a tin of cold meat have become joyless and repressive”-Juno Calypso. Was it ever any different? When did the construct of consumerist intervention on the female body become a catalyst for your work? Was there a specific moment when these products equated to your own personal oppression?
JC: Yeah a tin of meat really pissed me off once and I had to do something about it. Nah, to be honest – that was actually one of the first things someone wrote about my work and I liked it so I took it. It’s true though, they’re all things that at one point in time were marketed as being nutritious or life-changing. When in reality they don’t work. I’m interested in moments of disappointment.
The critique of repressive practices on the female body has not to my mind been exhausted by contemporary culture. I became very interested in the consumerist intervention on the female body when I read ‘The Beauty Myth’ by Naomi Wolf. Hardly any of the products that appear in my images are souvenirs from my real life. I’ve tried making images more in touch with my own reality, but I prefer fantasy. An electronic wrinkle mask is more interesting to look at than a strip of wax.
BF: “A Dream in Green”- The engendered use of color in opposition to blue-pink. The angle of the shot…the mirrors…if I were to speculate about the idealized nude…Botticelli’s Venus (you can’t help but notice the correlation)…do the matters of feminist diatribes become difficult under the totality of self-representation in an image like a dream in green? If so, how would you combat the display of desire aimed at the viewer from the camera’s position from that of the desire of self within an autodidactic methodology of display? Do you feel the image is eroticized and if so…to whose advantage or disadvantage?
JC: I feel like this question is saying ‘can you still be a feminist when your camera is aiming at your ass?” If so, my answer is yes. Does it become difficult? Surprisingly it hasn’t. I know you don’t like slogan feminists but I can’t tell you how relieved I am that someone has given ‘slut-shaming’ a name. When I was at secondary school, if I’d even draw parts of my body for an art project I’d be scolded for being ‘too revealing’. And that was in 2005. It’s such a useless way to treat women.
A Dream In Green is definitely eroticised. Too whose advantage or disadvantage? I don’t know yet. I don’t think I am creating a disadvantage for myself, or to the women’s movement by making this work. The green skin has helped communicate the context I’m working in. Not that it should be any different, but with that in place people understand my images as a type of science-fiction, and I like that. I like the way science fiction has it’s political undertones but ultimately it is a fantasy. I also get a lot of messages from Star Trek fans now.
BF: Your work points towards moving image. Is this a medium you could see yourself working in.
JC: Definitely. I always use a video camera when shooting to help me test poses and so I’ve managed to create a few video pieces out of that footage. The style is very rough at the moment. I’ve worked on film sets and what I’m doing is the most DIY bootleg version of a serious film production. Filmmaking requires team work and doesn’t leave much room for mistakes, but making mistakes when I’m alone is the foundation of my practice, so I think I’ll stick with it a bit longer.
DAZED & CONFUSED
'Using pastel-hued rooms filled with tacky decorations and edible props, London-born photographer Juno Calypso has created a bizarre world for her alter-ego Joyce: a woman of indefinable age seemingly teetering on the brink of either a nervous breakdown, or death by indifference. Surrounded by cream cakes, fluffy fabrics and unearthed 80s beauty products, Joyce stares emptily back from behind her office desk, her deadpan mien and glazed-over eyes reflecting a deeper exhaustion with unrealistic ideals of femininity and beauty. Juno brilliantly balances comedy and melancholy, capturing herself as Joyce using both analogue photography and digital video, always with a glossy finish that works as an ironic contrast to her character's expressionless face and ultimately mundane environments. Since graduating from the London College of Communication in 2012, the 23-year old has exhibited her work at the Simon Oldfield Gallery in London, and is now one of 12 final nominees for this year’s Catlin Prize. Ahead of the exhibition opening at the Londonnewcastle Projectspace on May 2, Juno previewed three new images and talked to us about tragic comedy, guilty pleasures and how close Joyce really is to that breakdown.'
'With the plethora of artists who have used perforative methods to explore notions of femininity, it would be comparatively easy to reel off a list of references that could be seen to permeate the work of this year's winner of the LCC Hotshoe Portfolio Award. However, rather than being preoccupied with representations of femininity in its finalized form, Juno Calypso's work holds its focus upon its laboured production, through her imagined character - Joyce.
In a series of elaborately staged video pieces and large format, pastel-coloured photographs, Calypso explores the manufacture of femininity and seduction. The rigmarole of beautification is carried out to the point of ritualised absurdity, through which her perforative alter ego is reduced to, or perhaps heightened from a young woman to a vacant, sneering Spitting Image character.
The scale of production in itself echoes the ethos of the project; each of the videos allows us a glimpse at a different stage in the creation of Joyce. Within the first of the two films, Empty Pleasures, we see Joyce rocking disinterestedly back and forth on an exercise ball, and emptying a can of hydrating water spray on her face, as if trapped in a never ending, Energizer Bunny-like cycle. She appears expressionless, vapid, as she transcends her body towards her fantasised "better self".
The Second film takes the beautiful strangeness of the project a step further with an infomercial for a plastic anti-wrinkle mask, in which we are shown how to properly administer The Linda Evans Rejuvenique Facial Toning System by (silk clad) women who appear to be enraptured by the product, in what Calypso refers to as "the pre-orgasmic, masturbatory performance of women on television as they interact with cosmetic beauty products". Les Baxter's mamba sound track , grainy VHS visual production and a disconcerting moment in which in eye seems trapped inside the mask, (the human presence being eclipsed by the process of beautification) lend an ominous air, more appropriate to an exploitation film than, perhaps, a beauty informercial.
Each of the films builds to the final jigsaw piece of the project: a series of large format, and highly composed photographs, placing Joyce in cliche encounters with the male gaze. In Popcorn Venus, Joyce emerges Venus-like from a cake wearing a shell bikini, nestled amongst other party favours, aping a 1950s bachelor party, her expression, once again, vacant and tired. In the final stages of the series, A Modern Hallucination, Joyce lies, fists clenches, exasperated on a bed "acting" as Calypso puts it "as a mirror to the exhaustion felt whilst bearing the dead weight of constructed femininity".
Joyce is not purely a reaction to the male gaze, but also a darkly satirical indictment of the self-flagellating narcissism of the "bedroom-culture of image-making" created by young women, such as Calypso, with the rise of social media, altering the meaning of modern femininity for generations of young people. Juno Calypso is an artist from whom we can expect great things to come.' - Gregory Barker