Story. Not rumor. Not innuendo. Not gossip. Not chatter. But story.
The sort of story upon which myths are made and fables are created. Story fit for an oracle. Deep, dark, dreamy narratives, handed down by sages, through the ages.
That’s what springs to mind when first encountering the works of the artist known simply as Damson; and that’s what stays with the viewer throughout each and every encounter.
Story even continues to resonate after the eyes have been pried from the prized combines. Like Rauschenberg, by way of say Meret Oppenheim, Damson begins with traditional artifacts. Unlike either the American Expressionist or the Swiss Surrealist however, Damson’s artifacts have a century and change of history within them. Gowns culled from Victorian betrothals, dresses ripped from a very distant day-to-day. The finery of a high life riddled with ghosts and shadow.
To best represent the women who wore those stories, Damson adds the most personal part of her she can provide — her own blood. For this is much more than a figurative nod to those who so gracefully preceded her; it’s a bold and beautiful show of deep and unmitigated respect.
The Italian-based Aussie has a catalog of international exhibitions to her credit, including the Venice Biennale; what she doesn’t yet have is an American gallery. Not because there isn’t a Stateside gallerist who isn’t interested, mind you. But because until now Damson didn’t feel the desire to make a stand in the land of milk and honey. Having conquered the Continent though, and made significant showings across Asia and in her homeland, Damson has finally decided to take the plunge. It’s only a matter of mere minutes before Americans will be able to reap what will be a very vivid reward.
Tropicult got with Damson on the eve of her initial American introduction to cull some background on her, and the dichotomy between her native land and Italy; here’s what the keen-eyed creator had to share.
Just who is Damson, and what fabled place did she spring from?
Damson is the grown-up version of a little girl, who, at the age of eight, drew inspiration for her future artistic namesake from that of her mother’s lipstick (which she meticulously applied in great secrecy). Damson is a slash of dark red, the skin of a wild plum, the colour of lips and of blood.
What made you go from Oceania to Conegliano (and when)?
I had long considered Italy birthplace of art and culture. I was inherently drawn towards being a part of Europe, having studied the history of its art during my studies for a Bachelor in Fine Arts. It is also worth mentioning ancestral ties to both Scotland and Prussia, so Europe was an echo from the past and the whisper of its artistic patrimony lured me away.
A family friend and artist, with a small gallery in the north of Italy, gave me the opportunity to spread my wings and fly to the other side of the globe. My first exhibition was held almost a year after migrating.
How much cultural disparity is there between the two?
The difference between the two countries is not limited to their cultural diversity, but expands to include variations in flora and fauna and in the quality of light. Alienating deserts and hostile ‘scrub’ were replaced by tall forests, places which spoke of the past and its secret legacy. The glaring Australian light was tempered by Europe’s age-old shadows. Europe was the seduction of ancient rituals, far removed from those of the aboriginals, which intrigued me less.
If a cultural similarity could be drawn, I would say that in both cultures, we tend to hide that which is considered disagreeable. We hide the non-decorative, the unproductive, that which repels or brings to mind uncomfortable truths.
Women hide even better than others. We hide our blood, our age, at times the bruises we collect; we hide our fear, our bodies if they don’t conform to an imposed ideal. We hide behind words, behind make-up, behind dreams and silence.
Do you now identify more with Italy than Australia?
Though I have lived almost equal parts of my life in Australia and Italy, I identify myself more with the latter, and although I feel anchored to something undefinable in Italy, the crux of my work documents an early episode of my childhood which has inevitably left its trace.
I was around nine years old at the time, my neighbours were a young married couple. The woman unexpectedly left her husband, a police officer, who sadly shot himself in the mouth. Together with friends from the neighbourhood, I entered their house, intent on uncovering traces of the event that had tragically shocked our small community. The house was bare as several weeks had passed. I entered the master bedroom, with its floor to ceiling mirrored wardrobe. I slid it open and found myself staring at the only remaining item – a wedding dress – hanging alone and ghost-like.
Jim Morrison once wrote that “a child is like a flower with its head jerked by the wind.” The image of shock and confusion I underwent is conveyed in the circular movement of time focalizing in on the significance of certain objects, such as the wedding dress, and the systemization of relative elements such as mirrors and blood stains found in my work. The relationship between the eye and the mind, a dress metaphorically “wet” with blood. The slitting of reality, a collision between Life and Death, Love and Loss.
Could you do what you do without the inherent history of Italy?
I think I could do what I do without the inherent history of Italy, but I would say that my love for all things which manifest a certain degree of use or damage has intensified here. Items steeped in history, bearing its scars, enchant me. They can be used as a metaphor for the passing of time. Therefore, to this degree, an old, yellowing and stained gown can be implemented to demonstrate change, physical disintegration and the eternal cycle of life, as can a blood stain emblemate a rite of passage.
What compelled you to employ centuries-old dresses and gowns anyway?
I feel compelled to use centuries-old wedding dresses and white lace gowns not only because on a subconscious level it feeds upon the discovery of the wedding dress hanging in the wardrobe, but it has a duplicate role of conveying the sense of a body, or more rightly, a woman, in a much more direct and powerful way than by merely drawing or painting her figure. Here, the secret self is laid bare, here one sees a body in transformation, which, bleeding, gives itself to life, to a place of birth, of love and eventually, loss.
And the blood?
Blood, as with other fluids and stains, is an element which presents close ties to all that is female, the emotive dimension, the roundness of time. Blood is cyclic, fluid, all-encompassing, universal. It is symbolic of the Mother God, pregnancy and birth, blood and milk. A vital mix which meets in an indispensable act of faith.
Blood is a constant which measures the life of a female. Unfortunately sometimes as a victim of violence, rape or abuse. Heavily blood-stained garments are my way of denouncing an endemic condition of violence against women, considering that one in five women, according to the World Health Organization, is victim of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a male at some stage of her life.
Are there any other ancient/antique source material you feel compelled to employ in your work?
Old, heavily-ruined mirrors sometimes feature in my work, a recall perhaps to the mirrored wardrobe of my infancy. I also feel compelled to paint on the pages of old books as an alternative to canvas, because they are imbued with age and intriguing patterns of deterioration.
Do you think you’ve gravitated to a more historical gravitas despite or because of your Australian origins?
Due to my Australian heritage, where everything man-made is relatively new and in good condition, I have gravitated more towards historical elements for pure curiosity. For me it is a kind of archeology – it is digging to unearth the past and its secrets.
How much of your country’s outlaw origins do you think you carry with you?
I was born in “Ned Kelly” territory. Ned was an infamous bush ranger who rode upon a horse, clad in a sinister tin suit. The image of this outlaw conjures up a figure in black with no face, just a horizontal slit cut in a tin for his eyes, a cylindrical tin to protect his trunk. Faceless, he became symbol of defiance and the courage to rebel. Perhaps something of his daring has been carried into my work, where anonymous, headless women expose the female condition, reaching out to embody all women and their struggle.
If you had but a single sentence to sum up all that you do and are, what would it be?
I hang up empty clothes,
I am Ophelia,
drowning in heavy robes,
my heart takes in water
like there’s a hole in it.