"Take Me To The River", by Lydia Tebbutt.
Auckland, January 2017.
In Vermont, USA they have a law – it is illegal to be naked in public, unless you were already naked when you left your house. Nakedness as a state is fully permissible, but becoming naked, removing your clothing once you’ve stepped outside, is not.
It’s a distinction that requires the figures in Russ Flatt’s latest series, Take Me To The River, to have been committed to the naked state in which we see them, long before flesh was frozen in each photograph. What we witness is a declaration already made as each one passed through their door – the threshold between private and public, the point at which we all declare ourselves to the world.
The series was created during his 2016 Wallace Arts Trust Residency in Vermont. Unlike Flatt’s previous work, sitters were not cast for roles, but instead applied or approached him while at the residency. They come from a local community of writers, poets and artists and, as with his previous work, Flatt meticulously positions them in allegorical enactments. While these images might remind us of the clandestine interactions shown in his 2014 Cruising series, in Take Me To The River it is conflicts between vulnerability and protection, between the natural environment and the human-made, between utopia and dystopia that Flatt allegorises.
Nakedness can represent honesty, of something stripped back. It can also represent a certain ideal – how might our lives be without the cultural, social, and personal overlays we apply? These images seek out such ideals, but they also suggest how ungraspable they might be.
In Dafna, for example, a woman’s body mirrors the natural parameters of the space in which she has been placed. A tree on the right bends over her, wrapping around her head and extending down the other side as if following the outline of her figure: perfect spatial harmony between human flesh and terra firma.
And yet, other aspects of the image disrupt this harmony and suggest she is out of place. She stands on a path – a human-made incision within the organic environment. Centred, in three quarter view, with hand on hip she is formally posed. She could be a figure in a cameo or a formal portrait – a figure destined to decorate an interior, human-made environment, rather than the one she finds herself in. And while she might have left her house unclothed, tan lines tell us the sun doesn’t normally have such free rein on her flesh. Her coloured hair likewise references another physical context, another state of dress, and the layering rather than the shedding of social constructs.
In other images, figures are presented as extensions of the natural environment. The substance of solid earth is allegorised in the solid figure of Nicholas, where the shape of the hill, dipped in the centre and ascending either side is mirrored in the figure’s pose. Like the earth he looks to the sky.
Similarly, the standing figure in Dake mimics the vertical environment around him, while his physique - tall and set - enacts the tree behind him.
They hold forth a utopian ideal – people acting as extensions of the natural environment, rather than beings apart from it or in opposition to it. But neatly cut hair, garment-shaped patches of pale skin and perfectly positioned limbs suggest other states of being, reminding us that we are witnessing performances.
It is this vacillating utopia that Flatt compellingly articulates. Take me to the river was a song written by American gospel singer Al Green in 1974. In the context of Green’s gospel background, ‘take me to the river’ can be understood as a reference to baptism – the act of being dipped under the water and brought back up. It symbolises being cleansed by the Holy Spirit, leaving behind one’s old self, and emerging as a new person.
Take me to the river, drop me in the water
Take me to the river, dip me in the water
Washing me down, washing me down
Like the actions visualised and referenced in Flatt’s Take me to the River, baptism is a public statement and is an act carried out in community. It is significant, therefore, that these photographs were made during a period that coincided with the Orlando gay nightclub shootings and the 2016 US Presidential Campaign's charged (and often homophobic) political rhetoric.
Perhaps this request for cleansing - this search for Utopia - anticipates the hopes and dreams of many as we enter the stormy uncharted waters of 2017.