'Escapade,' 2020, image courtesy the artist and Michael Reid, Sydney

Tamara Dean Lets Nature Take Its Course

Tamara Dean is an Australian artist known for her arresting photographs of bodies in nature.

Exploring the relationship between humans and the natural world is integral to every series she produces. Whether it takes place submerged underwater, across an isolated desert plain, or, in the context of her new exhibition High Jinks in the Hydrangeas, her own backyard. Possibly her most potent work to date, made over the course of 18 months of perpetual lockdowns, the series is finally on view in person and is now showing at the much anticipated Ngununggula—a visionary new regional gallery in NSW’s Southern Highlands. Deeply intimate, sometimes dark, and imbued with an underlying sense of joy, Tamara and I spoke all about the series ahead of the exhibition opening. Here’s what she had to share.

You started working on your new series High Jinks in the Hydrangeas when the pandemic first began in March last year. Can you tell me a little bit about what first inspired the photographs?

I live in a place called Cambewarra, which is in the Shoalhaven, in the summer just before March when Covid began. We’d been evacuated a number of times because of the fires—the Currowan fire. We’d lived through this crazy period, a weird summer, where home went from being this place where you feel safe to suddenly being this place of terror. It got to the point where we were thinking, ‘we’ve got to move, we can’t get through another summer like this,’ it was just way too stressful. Then within a matter of months, Covid hit and the social isolation measures were put in place, and suddenly what had been this terrifying place became a place of safety again, distanced from the social fears around the pandemic.

Photo by Zan Wimberley

When lockdown began, I realised that I couldn’t really rely on models in the way that I have with previous works. Every afternoon I headed out on the block by myself and went, ‘okay let’s see what you can come up with.’ That was the beginning. As I started to do that, I was approached by Milena Stojanovska [assistant director of Ngununggula] and she invited me to be the first artist to have a solo show there. In a way, it was therapy for me… it pushed me to try and visualise the psychological experience of this time. But I didn’t want this series to be a dark representation of this period, I also found a lot of humour in using myself as my subject.

Photo by Zan Wimberley

You went from working with the bodies of others to your lone form, going from a maker and producer of your photographs, to also becoming the person you’re directing. What was this transition like for you?

Well, I found that I ended up taking my clothes off. I’d start with costumes and then over the course of the shoot, there’d be clothes strewn across the landscape and it would end up being where I was nude in the landscape. It was a funny experience undressing through the shoot. I guess I was doing that because I was stripping it back and using branches, leaves and just trying to see what was working. I suppose I tried to think of myself as a figure, rather than myself, in the way that I would direct someone else. On the one hand, it was easier and I didn’t have to articulate what I wanted from the model, but it also meant a lot of running back and forth to the camera to set off the timer and the exposures. Usually in a shoot, I try to create a flow, and that would always be interrupting any flow, but eventually I got better at that.

‘Bluebells,’ 2020, image courtesy the artist and Michael Reid, Sydney

The series sees your body tested while the seasons unfurl around you, sometimes figures are almost disguised and concealed in the landscape, while in others there’s a tension between you and your surrounding environment. How do you navigate creating the softness of some pictures versus the drama of others?

A lot of what I’m trying to say is that we’re a part of nature, and so there’s a process for me to… rather than put nature on myself, to put myself in that environment and create a sense of immersion and connection. It’s all very site responsive. For instance, there was a wombat burrow and I kind of put myself in that gap. When I branched out to photograph in private gardens, I’d see this massive bloom of flowers and think ‘okay, how can I become part of that?’ as opposed to trying to make it become a part of me. It was about trying to integrate my form as best that I could into these beautiful moments of floral display.

‘Fleeting,’ 2020, image courtesy the artist and Michael Reid, Sydney

There’s also a sense of freedom or openness in the works. The contrast of being in isolation in a setting like that versus the city is vast. I think people will find it cathartic coming to see those works.

It’s true, in that experience I’m in the plant, which is actually often quite uncomfortable. The sense of being in those spaces is really healing. So in the exhibition, I worked with a scent designer Ainslie Walker—who I’ve worked with before on my installations—to come up with a scent for each gallery room that represents the works in the room and what I’m trying to say. When you walk through the gallery, you’re not only seeing the photograph, but you’re also getting this breath of something I’m trying to portray in the works as well. There’s four different scents and they inform the works too. There’s a relationship happening there.

I wish people used scent more, it’s so nostalgic. To be transported by the aroma of something is so powerful.

I think also because we’re in this time where you go out and have to put on a mask, there’s a real sense of masking any of those smells you’d ordinarily be picking up on, the subtitles. In the gallery, there’s enough scent in the air that you can smell it through your face mask. These ideas of scent and the virus and the invisibility of the virus, it’s all intertwined for me. In the exhibition, there’s also an installation where there’s over 100 pairs of garden shears flying through the air, which is my visualisation of these savage, deadly, viral particles that are just circling.

‘I wrap my face in her cloak of petals and breathe deeply,’ 2020, image courtesy the artist and Michael Reid, Sydney

That’s what it really felt like, particularly in the beginning—that ominous presence. I feel like the unknown is another strong theme in this series, whether the figures are passing through or immersed in the landscape. Especially the rope swing work. It’s this joyous thing to do, but also quite risky…

We put it up for the kids and they used to be on it all the time, but I was too scared. I’d been shooting and taking photographs of myself on the block on this particular evening, and the light went really soft and the air was really still and I was nude—as that process of undressing goes. I don’t know if it was for the camera… I mean, I set up the shot, so I’m obviously creating an expectation of myself. And I just swung out. It was interesting how having the camera gave me a license, or the bravery, to do something that ordinarily I’d be too timid to do. I found it quite liberating. I’ve always found if I’ve got a camera, I’ll do things I’d be more afraid of; whether I’m at a height or wading into water, there’s just nothing that stops me when I’ve got a camera.

Photo by Zan Wimberley

I think that shines through the works too, they’re ambitious. The show will launch next week at the new Ngununggula gallery. What do you hope people will get out of viewing the show here?

I’ve really created this body of work to be displayed in that gallery. I’ve made works that might not ever come back together in this way. The pathway through them is quite intentional, you go through this journey, the same way that you travel through my photographs, there’s a sense of that. I’ve got a lot of sculptures in there that relate to the photographs — I’ve never worked with sculpture before, which has taken my work to a completely new level. I would say the gallery has given me the opportunity to be really ambitious and think beyond commercial incentives. It’s an expression of everything I’ve felt.

Tamara Dean’s High Jinks in the Hydrangeas is on show at Ngununggula until 17th December, 2021. For more information, visit their website. If you can’t make it in person, you can also view the exhibition online at Michael Reid Gallery here

Sign up for the Monster Children Newsletter