Sarah Eyre is a photographer whose fresh and innovative look on everyday objects is of ferocious intelligence. Her B&W photographs of wigs delve into the significance of women’s identity, in order to deliver an unblinkingly honest dissection of visual representations and to gain deep layers of meaning. Playful and absurd, her photographs are disturbingly melancholic portraits of a nation at loss with identity. Hunger TV caught up with her to discuss control, power, sexuality and identity. She replies to us, ‘Is there anything about our identities that isn’t a powerful symbol of something?’
TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOURSELF. YOU’RE A PHOTOGRAPHER, HOW AND WHEN DID YOUR FASCINATION WITH THE VISUAL START?
I’ve always been interested in the visual. As a kid I was always making things – particularly clothes, so I originally wanted to be a fashion designer, or a stylist. It wasn’t until I did an Art Foundation course that I realised that I could do, or say more with photography. I was also a magazine junkie from a very young age, I started early with fashion and style magazines such as i-D; I think these really helped form my visual education.
MY FAVOURITE PROJECT OF YOURS IS THE ‘WIGS’ PROJECT, AND THE WAY IT DEALS WITH SEX. YOU YOURSELF HAVE STATED THAT THESE ARE ‘SEX PORTRAITS WITH THE SEX REMOVED’. COULD YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT THAT?
Hair has been associated with women’s sexual identity for centuries -and the kind of wigs that I’ve chosen (actually, the range of off-the-shelf wigs is actually quite narrow, and they pretty much all conform to conventional ideas of femininity e.g. Long, full, either dark, blonde or red- but never mousey!) are in fact representations of sexuality themselves. The names of the wigs (given by the manufacturers) further reinforce that, as they are names that represent femininity, popularity, confidence, and sexiness. So in a sense, they are not portraits of individual women. The human person is removed: they are portraits of the idea of sexiness, yet they also suggest emptiness because they are also just a surface, flimsy, defined by a representation. There is nothing there really.
I LOVE THE WAY THE WIGS SERIES WAS SHOT. WHY HAVE IT IN B&W AS OPPOSED TO COLOUR?
I do have colour versions too, and some newer additions to the project, where I’ve used human hair pieces that will stay in colour. However, for the original WIGS project I felt that the B&W process introduced a feeling of emptiness and melancholia; in a weird way B&W made them more real. I was also interested in making a link to newsprint or cheap photocopying –which connects to the physical space of the sex industry. A previous project of mine explored one of the ‘red light’ areas in Manchester – so hair, posters; newspapers were things I commonly found in those spaces.
THERE IS A STRONG FEELING OF MELANCHOLIA, SADNESS AND EVEN EMPTINESS IN THE WIGS AND SPINNING JENNIES SERIES… IS THAT A RECURRENT THEME IN YOUR WORK?
Yes, it appears to be, but it’s never been a conscious decision as such. Mass produced Wigs and balloons are both associated with fun in some sense but I’m photographing them out of that context – which allows other meanings to surface.
I use them to draw out feelings of something buried or suppressed, they are common objects and I like the idea of the familiar turning on us and this point of transformation makes them almost uncanny. The Wigs relate to emptiness and the Spinning Jennies relate to loss – loss of control, and loss of form – and I think it’s very easy to make the connection with the human body. There is also a touch of humour in my work too, particularly the Spinning Jennies, they are totally absurd.
I KNOW A LOT OF YOUR PROJECTS DEAL WITH ISSUES OF POWER AND CONTROL. TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS THEME AND HOW/WHY YOU WORK WITH IT.
I’m dealing with representations: the identities that the wigs (and balloons) suggest are constructed from ideals; they are not real. As such, they need a viewer to be able to exist: in that sense the power is in the representation rather than the human woman. Perhaps the power is within the viewer too, the consumer who controls and buys into that representation.
Also, because they come loaded with such a powerful identity, they make us question our own identity, and how this is formed. A style of wig is a symbol, as is a red lipstick, we ‘put’ these things on, and become ‘them’ rather than the opposite. Is there anything about our identities that isn’t a powerful symbol of something?
YOU WORK A LOT WITH THE IDEA OF IDENTITY WITHOUT EVER REALLY SHOWING A FACE. WHY/HOW IS THAT SO?
I’m interested in how objects, particularly mass produced objects can have a powerful voice. Wigs and balloons both make reference to the body. Wigs are a representation of a representation. Hair, real or artificial, sends out signals about the wearer’s social class/sexual status. As such, wigs come loaded with their own identity – they don’t need a wearer to function as a signifier of something. We put them on (a little like a fake name) when we want to change our identity. The Spinning Jennies relate to the body, they mimic contorted limbs. As they deflate, they might appear to represent flaccidity; ageing, wrinkled skin. But, as you watch them they seem to find new spurts of energy and re-mould themselves into different things; with each new contortion and turn they gain a new identity.
WHAT ARE SOME CURRENT ISSUES YOU WOULD LIKE TO DEAL WITH IN YOUR WORK?
I’m interested in the idea of collapsed forms, and the grotesque (which could mean forms that are not behaving as they should). This might lead me to explore in a more abstract way ageing and identity, especially, but not exclusively, women. I’m interested in the body, and the differences between interiority and exteriority, and maybe using objects to represent that difference. I’m also interested in the concept of ‘looking like oneself’, which might become a portrait project.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY OBSESSED ABOUT?
I’m still very interested in hair, I think I have more to say there – I’m collecting a lot of long grey wigs at the moment. And ‘Exquisite corpses’, an old parlour game that was appropriated by the Surrealists; as well as collages.