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Zahalka, Anne - 1996.4

Anne Zahalka

Saturday 2:48 pm 1995
duratran and light box
125 x 176 x 25 cm
Purchased 1996

Australian photographic artist Anne Zahalka is keenly aware of the camera’s capacity to both shape and subvert identity. Central to her practice is a sustained and critical interest in the portrait genre and its inherent malleability. Zahalka uses portraiture to question dominant stereotypes while complicating the distinction between reality and artifice. It is her ability to contaminate the real with the synthetic, or the everyday with the theatrical, that is central to the conceit of her 1995 series Open House. In this series, from which Saturday 2:48 pm derives, Zahalka turns the domestic environment into a pseudo stage set.

In Saturday 2:48 pm a man sits reading a newspaper at a kitchen table, while the woman to his right stares into space. As the precise temporal notation constituting the work’s title suggests, this appears to be a fleeting instant plucked from the ritual of domestic routine. Yet the longer one considers the scene, the more uncomfortable its composition becomes. All components, including the figures themselves, have been carefully angled towards the camera. The empty chair and the dishes on the table have as much, if not more, compositional prominence as the inhabitants. With her vacant gaze, the woman appears dislocated from her surroundings, while the man is perched awkwardly on his chair. Despite the fact that the kitchen is, in reality, their own, the protagonists in this micro-domestic drama are not discernibly ‘at home’; they are performers within a tableau vivant, not the focus of a candid snapshot.

Surrounded by the material fabric of their actual lives, Zahalka’s subjects are role-playing themselves. Commenting on these studies of uneasy inhabitation in 2007, Zahalka admitted: ‘in some ways I see the subject as just another object in the room’.[1] In the indivisibility between object and figure we witness another image taking shape, in addition to the one generated by the click of the shutter. The work is less a straight portrait than an examination of the way people construct (or image) themselves for the camera and for the context of public display. Fittingly, and to emphasise this point, Zahalka chose to present this photograph as a backlit duratran print. A tactic often deployed for street advertisements and real-estate promotions, the light box caters to (and indeed necessitates) a public audience. In accordance with the fabricated reality that such advertisements perpetuate, Zahalka’s scenography is both choreographed and contrived.

As a self-illuminating image, however, this photograph simultaneously courts an association with a wholly different pictorial genre: the religious icon. Instead of the Madonna and Child, the figures elevated and idolised here seem more closely aligned to the deified stars of the television sitcom, whose natural habitat is also an artificial domestic interior contained within an illuminated screen.

Introducing theatricality into the photographic frame, Zahalka undermines the medium’s claims to veracity. She anticipates and extends the camera’s ability to both display and deceive. Forcing her viewers to become conscious of the mechanisms of representation, she exposes the potential fallacy of the photographic portrait. This sleight of hand resonates with Zahalka’s broader practice and ongoing interest in the strategies of post-modernism. Whether she is challenging national stereotypes by re-staging iconic images such as Charles Meere’s Australian beach pattern 1940 or photographing wax replicas of female celebrities, Zahalka scrutinises the way photographic images are constructed, producing an incisive commentary about our relationship to the medium itself.

Isobel Parker Philip is Curator of Photographs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

[1] Anna Zahalka, ‘Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear: Anne Zahalka in conversation with curator Karra Rees’, in Karra Rees(ed.), Hall of mirrors: Anne Zahalka portraits 1987–2007, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, 2007, p.42.