‘High Gloss’, catalogue essay, VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery, 2006
Mina Young, I Always Suspected I Was Watching TV Instead of Living Life,
VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery
20 April – 6 May, 2006
‘What made Hollywood unique was its total concentration on one thing. That was the word “glamour” – a word that Hollywood will always evoke.’
As early as the 1920s Hollywood established itself as the engine-room of the aesthetics of glamour, with the creation of the ‘glamour shot’ – a new style of photographic celebrity portraiture that, through careful staging and studio lighting, infused its subjects with formidable style and epic beauty. Film stars like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo were recast by photographers such as Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell into immortal icons and peddled in popular film magazines Movie Life, Motion Picture and Movie Star Parade. The notion that the agency of such visual glamour rested singularly with the studio photographers or filmmakers rather than the actors themselves, is revealed in director Josef von Sternberg’s claim ‘Marlene, that’s me.’
Standard techniques developed in the repertoire of glamour photography – dramatic lighting with licks of shadow sculpting the subject; plunging costumes whose metallic facets could catch and reflect light into a spectacle of shimmering surface; and the ubiquitous presence of the staged, eroticised female figure – are all apparent in the contemporary photography of Mina Young.
In its panoramic sequence of panels, however, Young’s work I always suspected I was watching TV instead of living life – a 1975 quote from Andy Warhol – shifts into the cinematic and the televisual. The large-format photographic panels, installed in a continuous band, now resemble celluloid ‘frames’ depicting on-set locales. A femme fatale in a metallic gown brandishes a knife in full view of the camera. An empty golf course is hatched by afternoon light. Such scenes exist to be threaded into hypothetical narratives; stylised backdrops to the speculative screenplay of characters’ follies and passions. Although the locations are all photographed by the artist in situ, the images are void of personal content and reconfigured into the language of cinema and advertising. The mis-en-scenes employ the tropes of futurism and luxury: Gattaca-like interiors flaunting dreams of hi-tech living, or the poolside decadence of Fellini-esque belle monde.
The first photographic frame depicts three female figures in a sleek interior of the Innovation Building at Digital Harbour, Docklands; a centre designed to endorse the digital media industries, and incubate its most advanced technology products. Is it a coincidence that the Australian Film and Television School should set up shop in the same ‘technology park’? Both media industries traffic in the rhetoric of dreams and reconstruct the parameters of ‘the real’.
The rooftop pool and designer deckchairs depicted in the third frame – starkly visioned in saturated cobalt blue – belong to the renowned luxury hotel, the Radisson SAS Es in Rome. A deluxe hotel feature, the pool is accessible only by privileged guests, who must surely revel in the ephemeral pleasures it offers in its reality/fantasy dissolve. The idea of the hotel as a locale for the construction of fantasy has its kitsch prefiguration in Morris Lapidus’ Fontainbleau hotel: a 1950s architectural confection that was designed and built to facilitate the experience of cinematic fantasy, modelled on the particular brand of glamour connoted by 1930s Hollywood film. Like The Fontainebleau, the Es Hotel exploits the use of colour and light in its design: its exterior glazing fitted with circuits which allow whole sections of the facing to be illuminated in massive squares of dazzling, electric colour.
As a guest of the hotel, Young witnessed this spectacular display of colour first hand, here displaced into the concentrated blue of her vacant pool scene. The phantasmagoria splits and refracts into successive frames in the sequence: orbs of coloured light speckle the three nocturnal figures in the second poolside scene; an expanse of faux gold glitters in the engorged disco ball; and a matrix of city lights pulse through the aerial view of Manhattan.
That such sites of glamour are plotted along the axis of desire and appropriated by commodity culture should come as no surprise. In fact, the Es Hotel rooftop pool makes an appearance in a current advertising campaign for the latest range of Nokia mobile phones. Each of the remaining frames in Young’s work similarly adopt the vocabulary of advertising and could conceivably be deployed for commercial ends – images presenting desirable objects, locations or lifestyles that function to seduce the viewer through strategies of identification and deferral.
Laura Mulvey’s famous theorising of the film spectator enacting a form of ‘scopophilia’ – a love of looking that subsumes the viewer into the filmic fantasy by means of narcissistic identification  – applies just as readily to the realms of advertising, television and fashion. In contemporary mass media the fictional narratives and codes of visual display become interchangeable, as high budget advertising morphs into mini-films and Hollywood cinema and soapies engage in product placement.
The reflective materials (mirror acrylic and high gloss enamel) of I always suspected I was watching TV instead of living life would be viewed by social theorist Theodore Adorno as the ultimate index of the commodity itself. ‘Gloss indicates the commodity form. Glossy is the hall of mirrors in the department store.’  But glossy too is the television or cinematic screen – the primary referent and encasing of Young’s multi-panelled work.
Although I always suspected I was watching TV instead of living life has the semblance of being extracted from the realms of luxury advertising, cinema or the tragi-drama of The Bold and the Beautiful, in the end this is a veneer. No commodities are being pitched, and no narrative script fixes the subjects into a predetermined place. The work’s staged artifice serves no purpose than to exist for itself.
In this way, Young’s work fits into a genre of contemporary photography that employs the language of the media still to create fabricated episodes that have all the pull of a screenplay in the absence of one. The deliberately staged frames may suggest heightened moments of narrative tension, but the scenarios are activated only by the viewer’s imagination. I always suspected I was watching TV instead of living life is bookended by blank squares of black and white acrylic, suggesting a range of metaphoric dualities. A spectrum of fantasies is contained within.
Diana Vreeland, Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design, quoted in The Future Has a Silver Lining: Genealogies of Glamour, Tom Holert, Heike Munderp, Migros Museum, Zurich, 2005, p. 78
see Tom Holert, ibid. p.72-74
ibid p. 78 and Jonathon Ringen, ‘Lapidus of Luxury’,
Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, quoted in Acting Out: Invented Melodrama in Contemporary Photography, Kathleen Edwards, University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa, 2005
Theodore Adorno, quoted in Holert, op. cit. p. 71
Mina Young, I Always Suspected I was Watching TV Instead of Living Life, 2006.