Curatorial Essay

Sometimes she would resort to her prescription lenses to take in the full force of the figure’s advance.[i]
At the outset of this project, Rachel O’Neill introduced the binoculars. They run as a red thread through the project. They offer a metaphoric lens through which to look, converse, research, and experiment. They became the viewing apparatus through which we looked at the project, the placeCourtenay Placethe world, and same sex attractions. They offered a view, both mediated and magnified, of whatever we looked at. So, what could these binoculars see? 

They couldn’t help but notice the world and its injustices—the unfairness; the prejudices; the international blind spots; the homophobia. But undeterred, the binoculars also uncovered imagery around some women of interest—Jessie Buckland, an early twentieth-century South Island photographer; Krista Burton who writes the blog, Effing Dykes; Katy Perry and her dubious song about kissing a girl; media madams like Ellen deGeneres; and artists like Sharon Hayes, Louise Lawler, and Yvonne Rainer. They also encountered the same-sex snog-mobs that gathered at each of Pope Benedict’s public appearances in Spain; the first girl-on-girl kiss on Home and Away; and brave Australian school girls who made a stand for their attractions to other girls. They read articles on objectification, domesticity, a version of Roland Barthes’ story about a bone, and another about a mysterious character called Beatrice Krill…

And it transpired that the binoculars not only saw things but imagined them too. They imagined how same-sex attractions looked as abstract images, how homophobia is internalised, what interlocking girl circles might mean, and what if the Topp Twins were to walk past the lightboxes? The binoculars tried to look at everything. They used their bino/binary qualities to great advantage—things could be looked at singularly, or doubly. Vision was never more useful. 

This act of looking also captured an experience of same-sex attractions. Being out-numbered in most populations, we look for signs of our otherness in others. This acute act of observation is of course our ‘gaydars’ in action. How would this be relevant to Courtenay Place? Could the lightboxes offer the passerby revelations of ‘…and gay!’

            And with all of this looking, the binoculars began to show us how visitors to Courtenay Place could be attracted to the lightboxes, and how the lightboxes might regard the visitors—they started to formulate imagery.


It was René Magritte who first articulated the problem of representation. His 1929 painting of a pipe, La trahison des images was, as its text claimed, [ii] not a pipe. It was a paintingof a pipe. Since then the possibilities of representation have increased in scope and media but have also become more contested, complex and mutable than Magritte could have imagined.

And, if a painting of a pipe could redefine how images could be read, for artists the problem of representation has become increasingly fraught. But the problem has also emerged as central to contemporary visual practice. Within this context of proliferated image production, how then to think about the representation of something as nebulous as sexual identity?  

The 2011 Asia Pacific Outgames presented just such an opportunity: to bring together a group of New Zealand artistsLiz Allan, Clare Noonan, Rachel O’Neill, and Marnie Slaterto ‘cruise’ contemporary homosexuality in the public space of the Courtenay Place Lightbox Project. 

Two of the artists, Clare and Marnie, currently live in Europe. This geographical distance was easily mitigated by the use of a blog and a series of Skype conversations. The blog became a repository and testing ground for the ideas and issues batted around in conversation, and the images that make up All the Cunning Stunts are an outcome of this intense six-month process.

Seminal to this process was the decision that this would be a collaborative work. The artists could have produced individual works, but they opted to work collaboratively—to address the project as a group. They were familiar with each other’s work, and knew each other as friends and colleagues. This made collaboration a smooth decision, as well as presenting challenges that would be addressed in the process. This decision also presented an opportunity to enter unmapped places. For not only has there never been a collaborative work in the Courtenay Place light boxes, but it is rare to find work overtly about homosexuality in the contemporary art context.

These artists are all of the same generationborn in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Liz and Marnie went to Massey School of Fine Arts, Clare to University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, and Rachel to Elam. Between them they have racked up an impressive array of artists’ projects, residencies, publications, and exhibitions. Their individual approaches combined them in an easy grouping for this project. Between them they share an interest in unravelling and rethinking the accepted singularity of language and text. 

They also grew up around the time of the 1985 Homosexual Law Reform Bill. When thinking about this project, I wondered how this had shaped their views, if at all. The Bill legalised homosexuality, which became more visible especially in the main centres of New Zealand with events like the Hero Parades of the 1990s. While same-sex attractions are still not universally accepted, discrimination on grounds of sexual preference is at least illegal, and problems with the police are largely a thing of the past. 

The artists’ response was to engage the media imagery and language around same sex relationshipsinternal to a notion of a gay community, but also external, historical, political, popularand then to repurpose and conflate this imagery and language into existing and imagined contexts. These contexts range through advertising, the Internet, fashion, popular culture, a safari, the bedroom, and more. By mixing up imagery and text from different sources, and repositioning them in the light boxes, this work subverts and undermines stereotypes. But it also looks for and imagines new territories for the representation of homosexualitythose binoculars surveyed the horizon for new lands.

And the result is All the Cunning Stunts, a multi-voiced work, which examines lesbian subjectivity through objectivity. It engages the potential of objects, images and language to linger on the seen, unrepresentative, notional, fictional, unmediated, idealistic, real, and confounding intricacies of female same-sex experience.

Mary-Jane Duffy

[i] Rachel O’Neill,
[ii] Ceci n’est pas une pipe is inscribed on the painting.