A red seaweed, claudea elegans, from the series Herbarium
Across her career, Sydney-based photographic artist Robyn Stacey has produced diverse and distinctive studies of the nature of perception. Whether she is interrogating the stylistic mannerisms of film noir or the methodology of historiographic and scientific observation, Stacey is sensitive to photography’s ability to coax and control particular ways of seeing and dramatizing the world. Stacey has exhibited nationally and internationally since the 1980s, with work held in numerous state and university collections throughout Australia. Her divergent bodies of work trace shifts in thematic concerns and aesthetic predilections yet throughout her practice she has retained an interest in theatricality and the spectacle of the constructed image.
Stacey’s intensely stylized allusions to film noir from the 1980s and 90s, unravelling fragmentary narratives that are cinematic in form not just thematic association, have an oblique but important relationship to the work she began to produce from 2000 onwards. These later works examine the symbolism of flowers and engage with the organisational principles of botany as well as archival material from historical collections. The major body of work ‘Herbarium’, produced in 2004 as both a series of photographic prints and a book, was a taxonomic survey of the holdings from the National Herbarium of NSW at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Photographing original plant specimens from the archive, Stacey re-enacts the gesture of the botanist who attempts to document and catalogue the natural world. In these photographs, each plant becomes a narrative proxy. Plucked from their natural environment, they hint at life beyond the page of the botanical album.
This interest in the communicative force of historical objects is also legible in the still life tableaux Stacey has produced using colonial artefacts from historic Australian houses as well as the botanical models made in the 19th century that Stacey used in her 2005 work ‘The Brendels’ from the series ‘Supermodels’. Betraying their own history, and that of their past owners, the historical objects that Stacey adopts as protagonists in these still lifes possess theatrical agency. In this way they are distant echoes of the figures that populate the charged yet fragmentary narrative scenes of her earlier work. Each character, whether human or object, is a cipher that alludes to an insinuated narrative unfolding beyond the frame.
The implied narrative in Stacey’s 1996 lenticular ‘Love finger’ is augmented by optical illusion. The solemn face of the woman who appears behind bars is interrupted by the violent incursion of a gun that appears to the viewer as they pass the work at an angle. In this theatrical visual ploy we witness Stacey’s deft manipulation of the image to surreal and unsettling effect, a tactic that she deployed throughout her early work, most notably in ‘The Spot’, also from 1996.
Her interest in the malleability of both perception and the image is reasserted in her recent use of the camera obscura as a theatrical spatial device. Projecting views of the outside world onto interior environments, Stacey collapses spatial delineations and transforms rooms into hybrid geographies that play host to unexpected narrative vignettes.
type C photograph
80.0 x 59.5 cm
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Anonymous gift 2016. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Not on display
© Robyn Stacey. Courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery