The representation of sexual awakening within bondage and confinement Ė be it physical, spiritual or emotional Ė was an often repeated motif of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. While it seems curious to find a connection between this moment of late Romanticism and the work of Australian contemporary artist Garth Knight, his bondage practice and photographs would appear to share some of its obsessions and concerns.
Knight appropriates some aspects of classical composition and medieval religious figuration within his images, suggesting not only idolatry but reverence for the people that he works with and depicts. But rather than wresting his subjects momentarily from the immanent clutches of madness or death (another popular 19th century fixation), the artist suspends them briefly and with care, from the everydayness of life. Knight creates tableaux of intricate, decorative networks that connect ideas of strength and pleasure with those of surrender and abandonment.
In this monograph, Garth Knight has compiled a selection of black and white and colour prints, beginning with work made in the year 2000 as he started to take intimate photographs of men and women in bondage. The book includes several exhibited series, digitally manipulated collages as well as contextualising images shot in the studio, forming a mini-retrospective of his practice.
The following text is the transcript of an interview made with the artist in September 2006 where we discussed some of his early influences and current approaches to bondage practice.
Originally you studied engineering at university (which I believe influences your work on a practical level), but when was it that you first start to take photographs?
I was twenty-one when I first picked-up a camera to take something that I thought would be aesthetically pleasing in some way. I remember it was a girlfriendís camera I borrowed, and I just started by taking some really random shots. For some reason I thought I was headed towards photography all along. I liked the idea of being a photographer since I was a little kid, but never got around to making that transition until I was older. Itís the quality of photography that combines artistic processes with the scientific that really drew me towards it as an art form, or a form of expression.
So in these formative years, what were you taking photographs of? Iím curious because some of your series have a pseudo-etymological, collecting sense about them Ė like you are pinning and tying your subjects into a display frame.
Initially I took photographs of things that caught my eye...objects, but not people. At that time I was attracted to natural and urban patterns and the way that the world was intersecting with me, I guess. I was always very interested in what I saw around me rather than manufacturing images - like pieces of broken mirror or grass stalks interlacing in the wind. At the time I was living in Hobart but I was always not too far from farmland and the bush, so I was taking pictures all over the place.
As far as collecting goes, Iíve always collected things. Mainly these have always been naturally discarded detritus like skulls, feathers and leaves or objects that indicate something beyond the thing itself Ė histories, stories and why things get left behind. I still keep stuff like this in boxes, or have them on display at home but I never really try to convert them into art. When Iím photographing people, I donít necessarily see myself as collecting them but rather that Iím taking some aspect or quality of them that appeals to me.
Did you have a boy-scout type interest in knot-tying that was re-ignited when you started to get interested in bondage? Your knot work is incredibly decorative rather than merely functional and you seem to invest equal energy into this side of your practice as you do with set-building, composition and the photographic process itself.
Yes, I was definitely interested in knot-tying. I grew up on a farm and my father had boats so ropes were always something I used. The thing with working practically with ropes is that you come to understand something about harnessing and transferring energy, and that kind of basic physics. On a boat you pull one rope that can entirely change the direction of where you are sailing. The day that I realised I could combine rope work with people and photography was pretty significant for me.
I met someone at the end of the nineties who was doing a show of rope bondage at a club in Sydney. The show itself wasnít highly erotic or sexualised, just really simple. He was tying someone to a chair and for some reason that really caught my imagination. Previously I had always found photographing people to be quite distancing, like thereís this great chasm between you and the person you are photographing. But as soon as I started to incorporate bondage into my work, it actually involved me physically. I found that this was quite a cohesive moment because Iím a sensual person and the act of photography Iíd always found to be cold and removed. So bondage really tied everything together!
I do study knots quite a bit, especially with suspension. You canít hold someone securely with a knot that is going to slip. I find that what I do relates more closely to weaving than knotting, but I do spend a lot of time looking at decorative techniques such as Chinese knot work as well as Western rope work and plaits.
Much of the bondage photography that Iíve seen, particularly on the internet seems to exist as pure documentation of an act rather than the final result of a cooperative process. And in the work of an artist like Nobuyoshi Araki for instance, there is a clear sense of the punitive or of the master/slave dynamic thatís a fairly common factor in a lot of sadomasochistic relationships. His girls look like theyíre trussed-up, basically. I donít find this hidden-third-party pleasure to be so evident in your work, though it would be stupid for me to suggest that the work wasnít erotically or fetishistically charged. It seems as though youíre more interested in the decorative arrangement of the body and the psychosexual experience of the sitter though.
Iíve certainly never thought ďI want to be a bondage photographerĒ. The sexual titillation thing is there. I mean, it canít not be there, but it isnít one of the main things about photographing bondage that interests me. On the whole, people who are interested in bondage think that people are more sexually arousing when they are tied-up, but for me itís not so much an erotic thing but about a process that involves a great deal of patience, trust and empowerment.
Thereís a lot of bondage that has a particular aesthetic that looks uncomfortable because it is used practically to immobilise people. I try to incorporate some of this into my work because Iím also trying to hold people still and suspend them for a while Ė take them out of their daily lives. There is discomfort in the process that can be empowering and also pleasurable. It sounds like a clichť but as humans, we often need to take ourselves outside our comfort zones in order to grow, and I think that this is what bondage can do on an extreme and time-specific level. Thereís a part of me that wants to immobilise peopleís bodies and minds and take them somewhere else. Iíve never been religious, but I find a sense of spiritual wholeness that comes together when Iím performing bondage on someone. The ropes form networks that weave and knot and fragment around the body and the whole web of the composition is charged with energy. Itís a powerful space to work in.
How do you find people to work with and photograph? Do you actively go out and look for interesting bodies?
I guess that there are two ways. People approach me because they have seen my work, but most often itís me who makes the approach. Sometimes it will come-up in discussion that a person is interested in bondage and sometimes Iím asked by someone Iíve never met before. Of course folks donít always say ďyesí when you ask them either. A lot of the people I work with are friends or they become friends after we have worked together.
I know that you used to devise live bondage performances for alternative clubs and fetish nights. Do you find that youíve accumulated part of the audience for your photographs from this period?
A few years ago I was probably more well-known for my bondage performances and this has definitely contributed to the audience that I have for my photographic practice today. I donít do so much performance now because I find it too stressful. Performing just came about because people asked me to do it. While thereís a part of me that doesnít want to let go, or relinquish something that Iíve made, thereís another side that likes the ephemeral side of bondage Ė so performing was a great way to work in a completely three-dimensional way in real time. Sometimes I forget that when I take photographs that itís only me and the person Iím tying-up that get to experience it live. In a club you could be performing in front of an audience of twenty, or a couple of thousand people.
In a performance environment I guess that you need to be quite prepared for what you are going to do in front of a crowd. Do you tend to plan all of the designs and compositions for the photographs you make before you start?
In performance I usually donít know entirely what Iím going to do before I start and largely itís the same when Iím taking photographs. I do make a lot of sketches and about half of the time the pictures I make come from a fairly well-determined drawing. Itís never exact though because things always change and you have to be prepared for that and the spontaneity of the moment.
People also really look different naked to the way that you imagine them when they are clothed. Sometimes you may want a person to perform a certain pose but they, or rather their body wonít allow it. They canít stretch or move into the position, so you try something else. Itís all part of the fun.
In terms of structure and composition my latest series has a definite overall narrative of a cyclical transformation that occurs over the series of shots. I used exactly the same lighting and the same camera angle for all the works, changing the backdrop and the sitter each time. I was interested in the idea of an individual going through a process of change - like traveling round in a circle that forms a spring, so that youíre always progressing forwards but always the same person in essence. For Leap of Faith I was working with a single point of suspension which has a dangerous aspect to it and also relates conceptually to the idea of a belief structure that canít be tested or proven.
How long does the photo shoot take generally? Do you ever have problems with sitters being unable to stand the pain or keep still?
From start to finish a shoot can take from four to eight hours depending on how many cups of tea you have before actually starting the work. Often itís the case that you need that time to get acquainted with a stranger and talk about what is going to happen, whereas others just want to jump straight into it. Some people find it difficult to keep still, or hold the same pose for very long so itís also important to work quickly. The shortest shoot I ever did was only three frames, but Iíve also taken photographs of some people for a couple of hours.
Do you find that some of your sitters reach the kind of meditative state that youíve suggested earlier of somehow leaving the body, or do you think in the context of a photo shoot that they retain a sense of self-awareness or self-preservation throughout the process?
Thereís usually a point with all the people that Iíve worked with where they find that the pain or discomfort theyíre feeling becomes bearable, or theyíre able to transcend it. My partner tells me that she always fights against the pain, the ropes and the claustrophobia they can cause until she realises that she canít do anything about it and that sheís not moving or going anywhere. Iím not very good at psychoanalysing her experience, but she often reports on taking marvelous trips inside her head once sheís stopped fighting.
Do your sitters ever shed emotional tears during the process of being bound?
It does happen, but not as often as you think because itís a photo shoot. As you said before thereís a bit of self-preservation going on because people are modelling. I think it would be different if you were alone, but it does happen. I get emotional too sometimes. Usually after a shoot we are both uplifted and energised, but also over-adrenalised and physically exhausted. For a lot of people that Iíve worked with, itís a new and intensely personal experience thatís completely out of the ordinary.