At the inaugural Sydney Contemporary art fair in 2013, the elephant in the room was censorship in the arts. At the event’s vernissage, police demanded the withdrawal of the work of Melbourne-based artist Paul Yore, having deemed it an inappropriate representation of children in art, and sexually exploitative. It was not the first time the artist’s work had been work censored, it must be noted, and not entirely unexpected. What happened next was though.
The work of emerging Queensland-based artist, Tyza Stewart, was caught up in the maelstrom. Stewart, a 2012 Honours graduate of the Queensland College of Art had work withdrawn from Heiser Gallery. Stewart’s drawings and paintings were deemed to be images of children in sexual situations. Stewart was the victim of an unintelligent knee-jerk reaction, evidence of society’s wider inability to have a debate about sexuality and art. For a commercial art world newbie, the brewing scandal was an unwelcome distraction, not a case of Stewart courting controversy. What the powers-that-be failed to understand is that Stewart’s confronting images of sexuality are in fact intimate and courageous self-portraits that teeter at the very edge of gender theory discussions. That is to say, the work is all highly personal, depictions of the artist wrestling with and confronting self and sexuality. The artist is depicted as a child and an adult simultaneously, and – here’s the sticking point – in pornographic situations.
Stewart’s work is difficult, but perhaps only because it is uncompromisingly honest. It is the artist laid completely bare, in the process of becoming not one thing but another, yearning to be something else. This is not art that is neatly compartmentalised; it beguiles by virtue of its clear-eyed rendering and realism melded with fiction. It is brutally honest. That the artist’s autobiographical practice could be so misunderstood goes to the heart of a culture’s inability to see.
How would you describe your art practice? Is it purely autobiographical or is there a larger political agenda?
I think I’d describe my practice as self-portraiture-based. I often find myself thinking about how people perceive and understand each other, and the social structures and systems that inform and guide people’s understandings of each other and how little I understand of this. My practice is a way for me to experiment with and think about interactions between myself and the world, focusing on the ways I am perceived based on my physical presence and the impact this has on particular aspects of my identity. I want to experience less rigid, polarised ways of understanding and being perceived, and I think a lot of other people might also benefit from this, so that’s the kind of larger political agenda I’m interested in being involved in.
How significant is technique to the work you make?
The ways I render my works is significant but I find it difficult to talk specifically about this without making it kind of meaningless or too obvious. I try to use my technical skills to complicate the content of images within my practice so that my work, and the image of myself that I present through my work, is potentially less coherent when read through strict binary stereotypes, especially those relating to gender.
What did your experience at Sydney Contemporary [art fair], when your work was withdrawn due to its perceived sexual content, tell you about the state of contemporary art in Australia?
I wasn’t really involved; it seemed that my artwork and the context of the work wasn’t thoroughly considered. From this experience, it seems to me that censorship had perhaps become a standard reaction for some institutions and people working with contemporary art in Australia.
In recent years artists working with children has emerged as a kind of collective wringing of hands. Why do you think there is such a struggle to have an intelligent debate about sexuality?
The way I see it, I’m not working with children; I’m working with myself and sometimes myself as a kid. So I think sometimes the concern (shown, for example, when my paintings were withdrawn from the art fair) is not so much about children and protecting children, but more about what adults might have to confront within themselves when they encounter some artworks that involve images of children or concepts relating to childhood. It’s my understanding that children are positioned as the most important aspect of society and that they are idealised and treated as asexual, but also heterosexual. As kids, we are taught a limited range of acceptable sexual and gender identities through the privileging of narrow family ideals and interventions in children’s gender performances. And in variously visible and invisible ways heterosexuality and binary gender are both used to reinforce the stability and supposed naturalness of each other. If we start really discussing children and sexuality we may have to think about the ways we are taught sexual norms and taught to understand ourselves through binary gender. Since most aspects of society are based on a strict binary gender system, and we learn to understand ourselves through this system, it can be pretty confusing and uncomfortable to reconsider it as anything other than an essential fact.
It seems such a distraction from the actual work. What do you want the work to do – indeed, do you want it to do anything? Are you interested in or are you seeking to create a provocation?
I’m not seeking to create provocation. My work is in some ways the product of provocation; a reaction to what irritates me. Maybe this distraction will feed into my practice in the future, but at the moment I don’t often think about the issues arising from artists working with children and sexuality or about my experience at Sydney Contemporary specifically.
You are now 22. When you were 14 you wrote a note to yourself that said, “The thing to top my birthday wish list: to be a guy (and have a guy friend, who is quite as gay as I am (would be). This will never appear on lists that other people see, for obvious reasons.” What would you say to your 14-year-old self now?
The ‘obvious reasons’ will become less obvious as you come to better understand them. Probably wouldn’t be very helpful or informative for my 14-year-old self to hear; I’m not interested in thinking about changing my past like I am interested in questioning and complicating the way my past is interpreted. For any other 14-year-old with similar thoughts, maybe try finding someone to read your wish list.
Tyza Stewart’s self-titled show is on display at Heiser Gallery, Brisbane until 30 August 2014.