Inspiring Stories

Rebecca Swan

"I became of service to the work that was...."

December 27, 2019 / Yana Papaya / 2 comments

Words and story by Yana Papaya
Edited by Rina Patel
Photos by Katherine Brook

Are you passionate about generating ideas? If so, what is your relationship with producing them? Fast and furious? Easy come, easy go? Do you like to chase ideas? Or do you let them attack you from behind and overwhelm you with an abundance of choices and possibilities, thus allowing them to become an integral part of your life, filling in every inch of your existence?

You find yourself grabbing, digesting and putting down ideas in your diary, being creative about your new diet, volunteering to help your best friend with that wedding party or being on the lookout for a new holiday destination. Moreover, if you have a family, run your business or work in creative industries, involved with agencies, you find yourself in the epicentre of ongoing brainstorm sessions where ideas bounce like a ping-pong ball from one part of your brain to another.

But what does this process of generating ideas look like and mean to a solo artist with a well-established background in photography and the arts industry? How do you juggle the pressure of creating things on the go and being able to say no, letting go of plans and allowing space for new ideas to come to you?

Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories

Rebecca Swan, a multi-talented photographer and visual artist with over 20 years experience in the arts industry told us that such a process was never easy for her. Over the years she has embraced, absorbed and released ideas in various forms inspired by her daily life and challenges. She developed an approach to the work with ideas much similar to a doctor’s approach when looking after a patient – researching, keeping it under control, questioning and predicting the cause and effect. She gave birth to ideas and watched them grow and expand whilst still being able to leaving herself space. But over the years she got tired of working with ideas in this way. She wanted more space and freedom. And it turns out that waiting for ideas to come to you and not from you was the hardest part of Rebecca’s  work-life process.

But her own life journey itself isn’t a glamorous fancy story either. On the contrary, Rebecca’s journey is a story of a strong human being to be inspired by. At 23 Rebecca was diagnosed with cancer. This didn’t put her off track but inspired her to publish a book, The Big C. Later on Rebecca chose to reflect upon all the battles and questions that she faced throughout her artistic life. Rebecca became a world-famous photographer whose art pieces were exhibited globally thanks to a book; Assume Nothing, which later was adapted into a movie directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker, Kirsty Macdonald. Assume Nothing was driven by Rebecca’s infinite curiosity that tried to present an alternative way of defining gender and exploring nuances and intimacies that relate to all human possibilities that lie in-between male and female roles and sexualities. Opening a romantic novel with her partner Jack, inspired Rebecca to create a bespoke series called Fabricated Truths that shed an intimate light on the real and surreal adventures with a beloved one which drew closer an understanding of how grounding and magic Love can be.

Lately Rebecca Swan confronted her artistic soul by boldly exploring Life and Death questions. With an open and warm spirit we talked about the hidden and obvious interconnections that our human species seems to forget about, like her passion for gardening and living simply. We found out more about her latest collaborative project The Exquisite Wound which includes stunning photographs of dead animals in the series All Hearts Are Sacred and a complicated installation Become the Sky which aims to activate all your senses, making you question: what lies beyond our physical bodies?..

Luckily enough those who are in Auckland, can still engage with her work for FREE during Auckland’s Arts Festival at the Silo, Wynyard Quarter from 10 – 26 March 2017. More details about exhibition are available here.

For those who are far away from New Zealand we invite you now to get a taste of the visual aesthetics, creative process and personal discoveries that Rebecca Swan shared with us during her moments of storytelling accompanied by the presence of her furry cute pet friend, present in our photography series.

Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories
Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories
Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories

Linear time is essential to our experience of the physical world where we move from one moment to another. I am intrigued by a vertical experience of time that enables us to transcend the limitations of our physical relationship to time, allowing it to become something else. I’m not really sure what that is, but it’s like the experience of many indigenous cultures experiencing ancestors, and generations to come, as part of the present moment.

I am a Gardener. It has been very revolutionary. I used to let someone else  grow my food. But having it as an integral part of how we live now I can say that gardening has changed my life. I have a completely different relationship to food and the planet. We are so interconnected with all the elements. One of the images in The Exquisite Wound is called “Companion Plant” which is an example of this interconnection.

Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories
Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories
Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories

A few years back I got bored by the idea of what artwork I could construct from my intellect alone, it felt very limited. Basically I decided not to make anything until it came across my path. And I thought it could take a few months, but I ended up waiting for two years.

Two years after nothing I started to notice little signs. I once walked down a street and saw a dead bird lying on the grass. Every day I walked passed it, I took a photo on my phone. Within sometime I noticed how it started to decompose a little bit more and more, day after day. So now I had this record of this bird decomposing. I didn’t know what I was meant to do with the images in the beginning, I just started to record a decomposing bird. The second bird I met flew into the window. As I was just on my way to throw it out, Jack, my partner, recommended holding on to it as it might be used in an artwork. So I picked this bird up and placed it into some cardboard. A week later, I noticed another dead bird on the grass as I was driving pass, so I stopped to pick it up. I didn’t question why, when and how, I just followed an impulse and just dealt with the unknown. I became of service to the work that was coming to me, not from me.

While working on photographs of that bird I decided to check on how the other bird I left a week ago in the cardboard was doing, of course it was writhing with maggots. I opened the bag and I was gagging at the smell. I thought I couldn’t deal with this, but decided to take a leap of faith and continued working on it. The wings were clean but the body was writhing with maggots, so firstly, I cut the wings off and photographed them separately against the black background. Then I photographed the body and then I cut off the breast plate. I used my photographic light and under-lit it. The areas of the body where the maggots had been, left holes in the bird’s body. So when you under-lit them, the light glowed through those holes. That image became the cover image of the Exquisite Wound series. That photo shoot was a turning point in my creative process, stepping into the unknown and unpleasant and transforming it into something beautiful and meaningful.

Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories

Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories

Becoming Sky is a separate installation that is constructed from various elements representing a collaboration project between my dad, Peter Swan, who worked on an engineering part of it; Peter Stoneham  who is an illumination artist, Damon Partington a coder, Angus Wilson a builder and David Shillington a scientist. The installation works on multiple levels and senses. There is a musical element composed by my dear friend Charlie Ha which accompanies a video piece called “I Am Here”. It’s quite visceral, so it communicates a universal language.

Themes in a previous exhibition, Dying To Know, and The Exquisite Wound touch upon what we are beyond our physical selves. Once a person walks into the Silo exhibition space they see a suspended wooden platform floating above the ground. A bubble with an image of an animal appears upon a bubble filled with smoke every 45 seconds. And then the bubble bursts. And then a beautiful thing happens – when the projected slide bursts, you can still see the shape of the animal but now it’s more like a three-dimensional ethereal picture rather than a clear vivid image.

Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories
Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories

The creative process was so different while working on this project. I am less affected by the creative ups and downs –  thought patterns like “The work is terrible and I am terrible” or “The work is great, so I am great.”  I just trusted as the process unfolded, the artwork would naturally find its course and do its thing. I had to let go of control and only focus on facilitating the process itself. That’s how it felt to me. There was nothing to do with that sense of ‘if I am a good artist or not.’

However, I am still very interested in seeing how the audience will engage with this new work.  There are so many access points, so many layers in it and everyone who encounters it will bring their own experiences and interpretations to it.

I think words can get in the way. I try not to verbally interpret the work too much as words can be reductive when it comes to a visual experiential work.

The interesting thing about creative production is that there’s always going to be a gap between the work and the perceiver of the work. You can fill that with titles, artist’s statements, you kind of try to intercede as the producer of that to bring the perceiver in in some way; but there always has to be a gap. The perceiver completes the work for them, you can never have any control of that. It’s one of those things you have to let go of. It’s like people meeting people. They are connected easily with some people, while they ignore others. The same applies with artwork. If the work touched me to a degree that it made me cry, then this is  like the ultimate. I don’t primarily relate to artworks from a political point of view, from a social / academic point of view. If it moves me to tears, I don’t have to question why…that is my measure of a fantastic art experience. And it doesn’t happen very often.

Olafur Eliasson MCA at Sydney had an artwork a few years back called Beauty. He constructed a natural cave in the gallery. You had to go from a pristine gallery space to an organic-looking cave, so gradually you start to lose light. It became darker and darker. It was like the experience of being in a natural cave, the atmosphere was damp, you could sense it on your skin and it got quiet. Inside it was all black and there was a very fine curtain of mist with one single spotlight pointing on it. It was like he created Spirit, envisioning something intangible that you can’t describe. You sensed it all through your body and your cells, you could see it, you could hear it, you could smell and taste it. I wept, it was sublime and beautiful.

 Beauty is anything that lights you up, that illuminates you in some way.

The Fabricated Truths series was made in 2008. Jack and I got together in 2003. So it was 5-years into our relationship. There is one work called “I wanted to show you my favourite Artwork and I hoped you would see what I saw.”  The image is of our two figures holding hands standing in front of a light work. A few years ago when we were in Venice, Jack and I went to an exhibition of light works. We found ourselves mesmerised, standing together in front of a light work, similar to the one in the Fabricated Truths photo. And I got excited and said: “This is the photo I made for the Fabricated Truths Series. This is us.” It was a very cute moment and it felt like that photo was a premonition of what was yet to happen.

Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories
Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories

The Fabricated Truths Series was inspired by our personal relationship, but it also relates to relationships in general. There is a final image called “We trusted each other to stay afloat.” And for me it’s a metaphor of being self-responsible in a relationship. If you don’t look after yourself you are impacting on your relationship. It’s important to look after your own well being, so you can give and remain healthy within the relationship. Metaphors aside, we do love floating together on the ocean. Jack is always keen to float in the relationships, his feet sometimes get too heavy on me so at times end up being almost under water. Jack blissfully is floating away as I go under the sea (laughs).

Our days  evolve around simple things. In the mornings we harvest whatever the garden gives us – passionfruit that have dropped, the tomatoes that have ripened, veggies that are ready to be picked; we walk the dog; when it’s warm enough we try to time our walks so we get to the beach by high tide and all have a swim. We both work very hard, but our days are punctuated by having the luxury of space to grow vegetables and enjoying simple things with each other. We can go for a week and realise that we haven’t even left Point Chev. We have lots of friends living here, we are really involved with the Point Chev  community garden. It feels like a micro-community which we love.

Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories
Photographer Rebecca Swan - Papaya Stories
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Check out Auckland Arts Festival 2017 programme


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