Have you ever lusted after a fitspo physique or Kim Kardashian’s (k)urves? Australian digital artist Tyler Payne’s works ask you ‘why?’ In this interview, Elizabeth Harris speaks with Tyler about why Kim Kardashian is her muse, our ever-changing fetishes and the power of the selfie.
Elizabeth Harris | Ed Peter Traynor | 4 April 2021
Tyler Payne. Brazilian Wax – Womanhours (2016) DSLR video, 18:40 minutes. © Tyler Payne Courtesy of the artist.
Woman Hours is a very personal view of what it means to be a woman and the societal expectations of womanhood. I was wondering if you’d be comfortable sharing with us how your personal experience of gender has informed your work.
My work is very much based in the foundations of queer, gender and feminist studies. I started to look at my own experience as a cis-woman in Woman Hours. I’ve always been conscious of the discomfort that I have felt personally in my own body and the focus of a lot of my art is looking at things that make me uncomfortable. But I can control the narrative by sharing those vulnerabilities, because I choose how they are shared.
In the Woman Hours series, I set out to relieve myself of those expectations and in some ways, it was really successful. I have a much more critical eye of cosmetic rituals and I think it’s important to demonstrate the ‘behind the scenes’ of these procedures. I’m not against anyone doing any type of cosmetic ritual. It’s just about the ‘why?’ Do you think you won’t be beautiful without this? Because if that is the case, then for me that’s the problematic loop that people get caught in.
On the other hand, with Woman Hours and other works such as Skinnyfat and SPANK also motivated my shift away from photography [to digital art]. In those two works, I edited my body down to be like the perfect, magazine-shiny, glossy size six, engaging with retouching and its dangers. When I was making the work, I was in denial about the snowball effect of an eating disorder. I had to turn my back on photography for quite a while because I was so aware of the negative power of retouching.
The muse of your most recent series, Keeping Time, is Kim Kardashian. Her story typifies the idea of controlling the narrative, as she shot to fame with the release of her sex tape. Could you talk about your choice of her as a muse?
The very peak of when I was unwell [with an eating disorder] was when I had a ‘fitspiration’ account on Instagram. One thing that I noticed in my experience of being in the fitspo culture was that Kim Kardashian was seen as the pinnacle of what to aspire to. Influencers and personal trainers were online selling their workouts or their diets saying, ‘If you use my squat technique, you could get the same ass as Kim.’ So, Kim became my muse because she was part of my own experience in this space and also because the Kardashian figure is so praised online. It’s idol-like, but it’s so unattainable.
Tyler Payne, Garden of KKW (2021) Electro-bri-collage animation, 0:21 minutes. © Tyler Payne Courtest of the artist.
What you’re describing is a progression through different fetishes. In Keeping Time, you place Kim among art historical tropes of mythology. In a way, you place her on that pedestal. But do you see these works as de-fetishising her by putting her in this broader context?
I think it’s more that I’m obsessed with pop culture and I find the relationship between the art world and pop culture divisive at times. I try to make work that’s very socially engaged and that’s available to not just artists, curators, or gallery folk.
I’ve had people say things like ‘Why would you make work about Kim Kardashian, you’re an artist?’, and I think, ‘Well, 212 million followers on Instagram…. that’s a lot of followers for the Kardashian clan.’ So, I want to acknowledge the fetishizing of her body, not celebrate it, because I think it’s such an unrealistic ideal.
This new fitspiration body that everyone is becoming obsessed with involves Olympian-level fitness. You’ve got this muscular physique that requires such a low body fat percentage that the standard person that works nine-to-five does not have the time to achieve. I know because I obsessed [about it] and I fell into an eating disorder. I have ten years of feminist reading and experience and knowledge behind me and I still fell victim. Since I have this critical eye, I use my works to acknowledge that fetishism and that unreality because a lot of people don’t know [that] what they’re looking at is unreal.
Tyler Payne, Fountain of Youth (2021) video Electro bri-collage animation, 43 seconds. © Tyler Payne Courtesy of the artist.
I shared your work with my mother and she said the question that came to her mind was ‘What happens when Kim Kardashian ages?’ She brought up the point that women are known to become invisible as they age. But she also said that can be a gift, in this world that is built around the male gaze and the hyper-visibility of the female form. Your work focuses on this visibility; could you comment on the flip side of that, of being invisible.
I’ve been so curious as to the direction that Kim would take now that she has reached this milestone of being 40. That’s why I made the work The Fountain of Youth. Because this desperate clinging to youth that I see is happening, how long can it continue for?
Watching the shift to end the television series, to move away from the screen and to be working in the criminal justice space… is Kim setting up a place for herself to exist away from the screen and the male gaze? Just thinking about what your mum said, I think that could be so liberating. One of the things I think a lot about is that it’s such a heteronormative lens as well. I came out later in life and it wasn’t until I entered the queer space as a queer person that I realised how intense that lens is in the heteronormative space.
Tyler Payne, Aesthetics (Woman in the Mirror) (2020) © Tyler Payne Courtesy of the artist.
To pick up on the metaphor of the lens or the frame, that’s a way of capturing things as having a set quality. Of saying, ‘This is the image and nothing extends past the edges of this frame.’ Your use of that metaphor was something I was really interested in when looking at your Aesthetics series, because I understand that you used handcrafted physical frames….
Yes, I had them custom-built as a frame for the iPad. I made that work for the exhibition The Image Looks Back. I was thinking a lot about the concept of vanity and how it’s directed predominately towards women. I was also doing a lot of reading about the selfie and asking myself, ‘Is it a threat to the patriarchal structures or is it just indulgent narcissism?’
I read this article that was discussing how the selfie is constantly aligned with the maturity of a 14-year-old girl. There was an example about when Obama a few years ago was at the Nelson Mandela memorial with David Cameron and the Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt. They took a selfie at the memorial and people wrote about it and critiqued Obama. They maligned him as acting like his teenage daughters. It’s an unfair alignment between the act of taking a selfie and gender. Then when I started researching paintings that were about vanity, I was coming across all of these paintings of women and mirrors and they were all done by male painters.
So, then I started to think about how I could play with that concept [in the Aesthetics series]. This concept of vanity is unfairly tied to women and the sociological studies I read acknowledge and prove that vanity – in particular in social media – is just as evenly exhibited by men.
Tyler Payne, Aesthetics (In Front of the Mirror) (Wladyslaw Czachórsk) (2020) iPad, moving image and timber, 0:35 minutes. 23cm x 36 cm. © Tyler Payne Courtesy of the artist.
Those works in Keeping Time engage so much with mythology, and of course, Narcissus was a man. It’s interesting, that shift in our society. Now discussion of vanity is so focused on women. Picking up on what you were saying about selfies and gender, I don’t want to ask the question, ‘Can the selfie be art?’, but we have touched on these dichotomies of high and low culture, and maturity and immaturity. Where do you see the selfie falling between those divides?
When I think that about the question of ‘Is the selfie fine art?’, I find that my art is positioned in a similar way. People ask, ‘How can you make fine art about Kim Kardashian?’, I definitely am open to contemporary forms of art practice, so I definitely see space for the selfie to be an engaging piece in the contemporary culture of an art practice. But then I also understand the reservation. Coming from a photographic background, because of the history of portraiture and what that meant, to capture someone’s essence – a lot of that is lost with the mass reproduction of selfies. So, I do think that there is quite a divide between self-portraiture and the selfie, and that’s OK. Anything can be art if you can explain it.
Taking a selfie is instantaneous and the contrast between that and having to sit for a portrait and to really try and capture a personal essence comes out so clearly in your Aesthetics series. In your commentary on Aesthetics you asked, ‘What are the moral consequences of women engaging in self-portraiture today?’ Do you think that the digitisation of self-portraiture has changed the morality of that?
I think that, in general, the photographic community is scrambling at the moment, because we’ve had such a change with the Instagram platform. Access to smartphones has meant that everyone thinks that they are a photographer. [But] this is the future of photography and so we have to engage in contemporary culture. Don’t fight it, see the value. You can still engage with the traditional mediums. I’ve had students say to me, ‘Oh, I’m not going to do my project on an SLR because my Android can do it.’ And I say, ‘Oh, we’re still going to learn traditionally, it’s good to know how to use an actual camera’. But I’m also thinking, ‘Well, maybe we don’t need to do this forever.’
Tyler Payne, Garden of KKW (2020) Electro bri-collage animation, video 21 seconds © Tyler Payne Courtesy of the artist.
Your Keeping Time exhibition at MaySpace Gallery is a series of three ‘electro-bricolage animations’. Could you explain this term?
I was introduced to the term ‘electro-bricolage’ by my colleague, the photographic critic Daniel Palmer, who was curating an exhibition I was in, The Image Looks Back. The reason I have continued to use the term is that once I researched it in more detail, I realised a strong alignment to my process and method of creating the works within my PhD (being KIMSPO, Aesthetics and Keeping Time). In short, bricolage is a method of creating works from various materials in order to reshape or assemble alternative insights. The Aesthetics series took three full days of going through Kardashian’s online content – social media, red carpet, behind the scenes, Keeping up with the Kardashians content – and downloading videos to then pair with paintings by men depicting vanity. The advertising materials are repurposed to support the position of my works.
Tyler Payne, Kimusa (2021) Electro bri-collage animation, video 1 minute & 18 seconds© Tyler Payne Courtesy of the artist.
I am really struck that you said your Aesthetics series took involved three days of going through online content. So your Aesthetics series involved three days of going through online content! Considering the intensity of that and your personal experience of looking at the form of the body, do you find the digital collage making process different to that meditative process?
I love the digital space and I actually find PhotoShop a really meditative place to be in. For the first part of my PhD, I created a series called Antibodies which is not on my website because it’s awful! I spent the whole year doing the traditional cutting out, and then I was scanning the figures and putting them into PhotoShop. But in the end, I’ve realised it wasn’t as necessary, for my process, to do the physical process. But I love collage because I love Hannah Höch. I love this idea of removing objectification when you cut up all the body parts and you put them back together. So, for me collage has been a nice way to create a bit of distance. For me it’s visual activism, it’s a way to reject this unrealistic body type that exists online and reject my own experience of that desire – it was very healthy.
I started off the PhD quite defensive and quite angry at myself for the situation I felt I had put myself in [with my eating disorder], but also just really frustrated. I would get up and talk about the reasoning behind my PhD and people would say things to me like, ‘Your works about eating disorders?’, and then they’d give me an up-down. So now as a joke, I say my PhD is about that ‘up and down’ look, because most people with eating disorders do look like me. So, collage has been a really great way to help me to push back.
Tyler Payne. SPANK (2016) Billboard installation. © Tyler Payne Courtesy of the artist.
What you have said presents a really interesting question of whether the online space actually is a more democratised space, because it privileges having that skillset. Although we all live in a digital age, not all artists have that skillset or they just, it’s not even a question of skillset, it’s just whether that’s the art they’re choosing to make.
And the interesting thing about digital art is you do still come up against those conservative values, like ‘but it’s not authentic’ or ‘it’s not real’ or ‘you can’t edition it properly’, things like that that I find very trite. And it’s funny, I face a lot of pushback from, in the diploma where I coordinate we have a core unit of PhotoShop that goes throughout the whole diploma and a lot of students ask, ‘Why do I have to do PhotoShop, I’m here to do painting or drawing or printmaking’, and I say, ‘Well, you have to know how to use these things as contemporary artists, no one gets around it anymore’. And there’s an expectation now that you’ll be able to get your imagery online to look a certain way.
Tyler Payne. Saltwater Cleanse – Womanhours (2016) DSLR video, 10:26 minutes. © Tyler Payne Courtesy of the artist.
If there was one text you could prescribe for our Agora community to read, what would it be and why?
At the moment, I’m reading All About Love – New Visions by Bell Hooks, and that’s a fantastic read in terms of critically analysing the concept of love and how that can explore and support intersectionality. I’m really interested in that concept for my own works because I think a lot about how in the digital space, the one downside is that people can become quite negative. I find the whole ‘keyboard warrior’ positioning of some people and their cynicism daunting and draining. So, I’m trying to engage myself to continue to push back against that.
About the artist
© Courtesy of the artist.
Tyler Payne is a Melbourne-based digital artist. She is a PhD candidate and university lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Her PhD focuses on de-festishing the objectification of the female body in social media. In addition, Tyler also holds a Master of Fine Arts and a first-class Honours Degree. One of her works was recently acquired by RMIT Gallery. Tyler has exhibited widely in Australia and internationally, including at GAFFA Gallery, the Brunswick Arts Festival, and Brightspace Gallery. She has written for The Age, The Australian, Art Guide and The Irish Times. She is currently represented by MAY SPACE Gallery, Sydney (@mayspacesyd), and her most recent series, Keeping Time, can be viewed on MAY SPACE Online.
Past Shows and Fair booths
2021, Keeping Time, MAY SPACE Online, Sydney
2019, Kimspired, Tinning St Presents, Melbourne
2018, Womanhours Video Edition, MAY SPACE Gallery, Sydney
2018, Womanhours, Red Gallery, Melbourne
2018, Womanhours, GAFFA Gallery, Sydney
2020, The Image Looks Back, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne
2020, Histrionic, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne
2019, PERFECTION, Science Gallery, Dublin
2018, Moreland Summer Show: Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne
2017, A Whole Different Animal, Brightspace Gallery, Melbourne