Zoë Croggon is an emerging artist based in Melbourne whose recent practice is characterised by sophisticated collages of deceptive simplicity. Drawing on personal experiences of studying ballet and dance, and how that informs her understanding of architectural spaces, Croggon’s photo-collages see human forms forced into visual dialogue with images of architecture and natural sites. Her disparate source images come from magazines, newspapers and books, and for her exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Zoë Croggon: Tenebrae, she has also created a video work comprising archival film footage spliced together. In both her still photography and film work Croggon invests a new currency in her selected images through the creation of dynamic visual and graphic synergies that have a profound sense of movement, energy and poetry.

Zoë Croggon spoke with Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator of Photography, NGV, about how she came to work with collage, her move into video work and her ongoing interest in the relationship between the body and the built environment.

Susan van Wyk: For a number of years you have been working with collage, creating either seamless photo-collages or unique works where the materiality of your practice is more evident. How did you become interested in collage?

Zoë Croggon: I discovered collage while studying Drawing at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), and was surprised to find I wanted to pursue it. When I first started playing with the medium, my work was composed of multiple elements cut-and-pasted onto a single surface. I found that the more I made, the less I used, until I found myself working with only a pair of images, one overlapping the other. I love the simplicity of that gesture.

SvW: More recently, you have begun to work with video. Can you tell me something about your shift from working with still images to moving images?

ZC: It is an entirely different skill merging still photographs that are fixed and absolute to working with moving images that occur over time, and I have had a lot more practice in the former. The two video works I’ve made in the past were movement-based pieces that I choreographed in collaboration with a dancer or performed and then filmed. I saw these as a way of animating the static, photographic body and introducing dynamism into a practice largely concerned with the kinetic body. My work for the NGV Festival of Photography will be my first video piece created from found footage.

SvW: Is your methodology the same for both aspects of your practice?

ZC: For this project it is identical, actually. Despite the considerable difference in medium, the process of collating and scouring found material seems to require the same combination of patience and neurotic meticulousness.

SvW: Your practice involves working with found images, archives and collections. It seems to me that the world is a hot mess of images which you make selections from and reorganise to create something cool and poetic. Can you tell me something about how you approach the mass of visual material and refine it to suit your projects?

ZC: I source imagery largely from second-hand printed material, and generally allow what I find to define the work and determine its aesthetic direction, which adds a rare element of chance and ease to a fundamentally compulsive and exact process. I am interested in using collage as an attempt to negate the magnitude of images that we are buffeted with daily; as a way of providing a way of channelling and processing aesthetic chaos and momentarily pausing the relentless rotation of image circulation.

There is an interesting division within the methodology of collage, which can be seen as an inherently violent medium: the destruction of an image, the aggressive theft of previously existing material, the slicing of the body, and so on. Likewise, collage can be seen as contemplative, delicate and incidental, even remedial. I see collage as simultaneously destructive and constructive, a way of distilling new forms and compacting the place and self. I think at the same time as this constricting and refining of material there is also a conceptual slackening at play, a loosening of the framework with which we view the world, especially the quotidian. At the crux of the work is the malleability of form and definition; as Proust says in Remembrance of Things Past (volume 3), ‘the creation of the world did not occur at the beginning of time, it occurs every day’.

SvW: For the NGV project you worked with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) collection; can you tell me something about that experience?

ZC: I spent several months viewing archival footage from the ACMI collection (which comprises more than 40,000 moving image works), ranging from digitised footage readily available at the Mediatheque to VHS tapes from the National Film and Sound Archive to 16 mm films viewed on the Steenbeck flatbed.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to see a lot of this footage, and perhaps the most challenging aspect of this project was being patient with the material: watching it in its entirety and looking closely for that moment or element that is singular in its beauty without being exceptional in its identity, that is open to the possibility of modification or appropriation.

ACMI were enormously forthcoming and tolerated me frequently requesting great swathes of material in multiple formats. Nick Richardson, Collections and Access Manager, sent me detailed catalogues, organised viewing sessions and assisted me unquestioningly throughout the project. I think what we sometimes forget is that ACMI is a public institution whose purpose is, along with the collection and preservation of moving image works, to enable public access to this eclectic and remarkable collection.

SvW: In recent series, and in the works showing now at the NGV, you have used images of activated bodies juxtaposed with quite severe architectural spaces. Can you tell me something your interest in both these elements?

ZC: My interested in the activated, or kinetic, body comes initially from my engagement with dance. I am interested in how dance can reformat and repurpose the body; it becomes depersonalised, an objective and metaphoric instrument. From this comes my interest in how the body navigates space, especially the correlation between the psychological and physical response to built environments, or a ‘psychogeographic’ reading of the body and space.

The inversion and collision of figure and landscape reduces the body and its environment to classically architectonic forms, questioning our agency within our environment. My work poises the human form and its built environment as precise equals – the body no longer occupying space and space no longer determining the body, but each existing only in relation to the other, completed by the other.

SvW: The NGV space in which you are showing your work is not a ‘gallery’ as such, but rather an area that people move through. Consequently, the architecture of the building is quite prominent. How did this inform your approach to this show?

ZC: The space is unconventional in that it operates not only as a gallery but also a thoroughfare. The architecture dictates the trajectory of the viewer quite strongly, and this supposed movement ultimately determined what manner of work was appropriate and where exactly it might sit best. In this case, whereas the video work installed on the large stretch of wall in the centre of the space gently imitates the movement of the viewer passing through the foyer, the alcoves provides a more intimate, still environment in which to view the handmade collage works.

The architecture of this area of the Gallery combines both traditional constructed elements from 1968 as well as more recent and contemporary renovations; we see past the clean glass railing that wraps around the elevator and the tidy row of concrete pillars down to the Ground Level foyer and through to the original Great Hall. This unification and separation is reflected in the two colour works that bookend the space, Kink, 2015, and Pound, 2015, which each see the depersonalised body wrestling with abstract, functionless, architectural forms that imitate, enable and disable the body at once.

SvW: Your exhibition is titled Tenebrae. In Latin this means ‘shadow’ or ‘darkness’, and in the Christian Tenebrae Easter services the death of Christ is signified by the gradual extinguishing of all light. Could you discuss your ideas about Tenebrae in relation to this body of work?

ZC: My grandparents are Greek Orthodox and I have always loved the ceremony of Tenebrae at midnight mass during Easter – especially how the gradual reintroduction of light renews awareness of our surroundings, as though this moment of darkness briefly resets our perspective. That is really what I am looking for in my work, a sort of illumination of the formal qualities of the familiar, a freshening of observation. This idea of light and dark also resonates with the anatomy of photography, as John Berger says in the Ways of Seeing (1972): ‘What makes photography a strange invention … is that its primary raw materials are light and time’.