The stuff of dreams and rubbery realities

Words: Janice Breen Burns.   Photographs: Gerard O’Connor, Marc Wasiak

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(This story first appeared in The Age arts magazine, Spectrum and the Sydney Morning Herald

Gerard O’Connor and Marc Wasiak’s photographic artworks are as darkly beautiful as they are enormous; tall as your average impeccably tailored Victorian wolf man, wide as any wigged dowager who ever rustled across a croquet lawn in lavender scented silk.

They’re also real photographs, though not exactly. They’re historically accurate, but not really. They’re digitally enhanced by a third artist, Matthew Ryan, but not so that their innate reality is compromised. Sort of. “They’re factual fiction,” says photographer O’Connor. “A modern fairytale response to history,” says stylist Wasiak.

What the creative duo’s crystalline (80 pixels, 280 megabytes) tableaux of Victorian-esque dramas most definitely are, is heart-swellingly romantic and especially useful to souls like me who are often struck by melancholy in the splendid emptiness of Melbourne’s historic National Trust mansions.

O’Connor and Wasiak address that lovely all-goneness that gets to me in museums like the exotic gothic Victorian Labassa, backdrop of their latest tableaux “Angels and Wolves”.

To me, the sense of absence is almost tangible in these strange, compelling places; no people, no voices, no clatter or pongs of everyday life in the 1870s, 1920s, 1970s, whenever. All gone. Only the murmur of tourists, squeak of sneakers and that oiled-oak, Persian-rugged, Do Not Touch quiet of it all. It seems the more operatic and physically lavish the history, such as the gothic Victorian era, the more hollow its echo rings in the present, and the sadder I get.

O’Connor and Wasiak get it too. But, while I might indulge in a little futile melancholy, they’re inspired to conjure a cure.

“Rather than just these empty, roped-off spaces,” O’Connor says. “We know people want to be engaged and amazed. We live quite sterile lives now, sterile homes, sterile jobs. People are intrigued by lush, decorative places, by art, craftsmanship. They crave things that make them feel something when they look at it. They love to be amazed.”

So this is their calling. In several years, the pair have produced an award-winning body of historic “factually fictive” work, digitally enriched (by Matthew Ryan) photographs set in or around local landmarks and National Trust museums. They have exhibited at world photographic forums in China, Buenos Aires and around Australia.

Among their better known projects are lavish Napoleonic battle scenes, a horrifyingly miserable Victorian reformatry tableaux, and last year, the extraordinary Victoriana Pleasure Garden party. It was staged on the lawns of Ripponlea mansion with a cast of dozens including a dozing dowager, her lounging faun lover and a rabble of naughty sprites and dark faeries flitting and slithering in the foliage.

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Wasiak and O’Connor begin every project the same way, thrashing out an historic narrative of sorts; a blend of real stories laced with complementary myths and a swirl of fantasy.

They pick Victorian historic co-ordinates and locations more often than not because, they say, it’s not hard to whip up narrative fizz without straying far from historic facts. “Fact was always crazier than fiction then,” O’Connor laughs.

According to Wasiak, the Victorian era was a unique, swivel point in history, so fraught with cultural schisms, collisions and contradictions it developed its own mysticism that fascinates even now. “It was an amazing era of advances in science, modern medicine, everything, but people still believed in the supernatural, in a spirit world,” he says. “It all co-existed; good and evil, dark and light.”

And angels and wolves.

He and O’Connor picked the opulent Labassa mansion to stage their newest narrative and photoart series, Angels and Wolves precisely because it captures this Victorian Gothic light-dark dichotomy so vividly.

They’ve used the mansion for shoot backdrops for years and felt the drama in its architecture and interiors before, in its handpainted and gilded English and Parisien wallpapers, elaborate plaster mouldings and fireplaces, theatrical sweep of stairs and hunched gargoyles fending off evil spirits.

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This time they also found essence of their angel-wolf theme in Labassa’s later incarnations, after the Victorian gothic period. For decades after it segued from mansion to flats, it was home to an historic jumble of new immigrants, retired socialites, the odd diplomat, lawyer, doctor, before evolving further into an offbeat, creative hive and home to hundreds of budding and full-blown creatives. Among the writers, poets, dancers, actors, playwrights, artists and musicians who lived in the partitioned flats from its front parlour to tower, were Hollywood silent movie star, Australian actress Louise Lovely in the 1930s, and fledgling comedian Jane Clifton in the 1970s.

“Labassa is almost unique in that its 19th century interiors are all still in tact though over 700 people have lived there,” says Vicki Shuttleworth, a National Trust volunteer and president of Friends of Labassa.

Her morning work commute took her by the mansion in the 1970s and she thought it “a very curious place” for the perpetual gaggle of hippies lolling on its grand verandah. “Most of the people who lived there in 1970s were very young and you might think they would be disrespectful,” she says, “But, they cared for it, were very protective of it. And they all left a little bit of themselves behind.”

It was Shuttleworth who filled O’Connor and Wasiak in on Labassa’s hotch-potch history, from its modest beginnings in 1862 and its extension to 35 ostentatiously tasteful rooms with fads and fancies from around the world in the 1890s by fabulously wealthy Cobb and Co. founder, Alexander Robertson. It was a lavish party venue and honeypot for Melbourne’s social elite before its sale and division into a wonky jigsaw of flats in 1920. Finally, it was acquired and opened by the National Trust of Victoria as a museum mansion in the 1980s.

“There was good and bad, there was amazing creativity, people lived and died there,” O’Connors says. “But the stories that stuck in my mind, were the elaborate parties, the play and poetry readings, and one dinner party where boys were painted gold and walked around and stood on the dinner table like human candelabra.”

That was it.

The story, essentially true, according to Shuttleworth, became the bones of the Angels and Wolves’ narrative. In months of pre-production, it was fleshed out by O’Connor, Wasiak and their collaborators including special effects makeup artist Lizzie Sharp, costumer Heather McCallum, florist Elizabeth Ricci and a crew of volunteer technical and creative professionals.

They nudged and spun it into an historic, kinda sorta, fairy tale in seven pictures that revolved around a regal “lady of the house” and her spectacular gown of a thousand living flowers trimmed with delicate, lace-like ferns.

The gown was constructed by McCallum, partly to an original Victorian bustled gown pattern, and partly to Wasiak’s fanciful elaborations. Six sections were cut in black rubber, heavy and thick enough to accommodate the fiddly fixing of real flowers and to form its more-dramatic-than-average leg-o-mutton sleeves, rib-clenching bodice, full floor-sweeper skirt and generous bustle.

Reversible zips enabled “The lady” to climb in and wriggle out of the gown for fittings, with assistance from at least two “maids”; “Just as she would have been helped to dress in Victorian times,” O’Connor says.

On shoot day, a refrigerated truck delivered the gown petal-fresh to Labassa from florist, The Flower Temple’s cool room where it had been trimmed during several freezing days by Ricci and the O’Connor-Wasiak production crew.

Meanwhile, another magnificent being, key to the narrative, a silvery angel with pale curtain of hair and raven wings, hovered protectively over “The lady” and her shadowy, impeccably groomed wolf man lover as a battalion of golden young men lit her way by the thick candles dripping wax onto their sweet and guileless brows.

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It was all lovely nonsense, of course, but enough poetic truth and echoes of what once was to offset that splendid emptiness, and my melancholy – perhaps yours too – on my next visit to Labassa.

 Angels and Wolves by Gerard O’Connor and Marc Wasiak, retouching by Matthew Ryan, runs until June 4 at Flower Temple, 18-22 Artemis Lane, QV Precinct, Melbourne, 1300 650 344. Later this year, it will slot into the curated arts programme of Melbourne Spring Fashion Week. For updates, follow gerardandmarc .