Juno Calypso knows how to set a scene. Even the mention of this month’s “woman of influence” summons up images of green, mud-caked goddesses, heart shaped baths, and infinite walls of mirrors. Calypso’s 2015 series ‘Joyce’, complete with it's exquisite colour palette jarringly juxtaposed with icons representative of oppression and destruction, catapulted Calypso into the public eye when exhibited at Photo London 2016, subsequently earning her the 2016 international photography award. A solitary exploration of femininity and the examination of the complex expectations faced by many women worldwide guided Calypso toward this aesthetic that is simultaneously pleasing yet haunting. Self-portraits suffocated by characterless masks, the violent incursion of needles into various parts of the body, and terrifying contraptions that hoist up legs are all present in her work. Combined with the sumptuous nightwear and vulnerable poses, the result is no end of dissonance in the mind of the viewer. Since taking herself to Pennsylvania, where she explored a couples retreat and its kitsch yet unmistakeable aesthetic, Calypso has become one of the most recognised names in contemporary art and photography; with representation at T.J Boulting. Rather than the traditional photography studio set-up, Calypso continues to use bizarre and unique hotel rooms all over the world as her backdrop. We met with the born and bred East Londoner on International Women’s day to speak about her upcoming event at one of London’s most ‘instagrammable’ cafes, Palm Vaults, and to find out why her most recent project took her to Las Vegas for three weeks.
You completed your Art Foundation at Chelsea School of Arts in 2008 and graduated in 2012 from LCC with a BA Hons in Photography. What drew you to the medium of photography?
I really didn’t want to do photography. I wanted to do painting. My dad did photography as a hobby and you don't want to do what your parents do! Initially I didn’t have the technical skills with the photography but I had strong concepts and didn’t know how to tackle them. Fine Art seemed more open, crazy and fun whereas photography seemed like the nerdy cousin. Regardless, I carried on with the photography and things got better and better. LCC was the game changer for me. Before I was just trying to be cool and crazy. Then I went to LCC and they were extremely intellectual with their teaching. My first term was tough. The teachers weren’t that enthused about me because I came in with all this crazy work and all of these rather unrefined ideas and they kept saying that it didn’t fit in with their programme. Luckily I had this one teacher called Ester Teichmann and she became a big role model for me because she lived and breathed photography and its relationship to the arts. Ester helped refine my ideas. I started reading everything, going to every lecture. I wanted to get a A* for everything - I had drive!
In 2015 you went to the States for the series ‘Joyce’ and then again in 2016 for ‘Honeymoon’ - where did this idea come from and how were you received as a single woman in a couples retreat?
The Joyce project started at Uni - I was doing it in a studio or at my grandmas or mums house. It was very low-key student work and then after I graduated I had a long first year of being totally unsure as to what I wanted to do. I had a few exhibitions but nothing massive and then in 2015 I thought that I needed to step up my game, be more ambitious and be more mature with my approach. For some reason the idea of getting on a plane and going somewhere new really spoke to me. I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone, which in hindsight is what I think made the work stand out. As soon as I found this couples retreat on the internet I knew I had found something good. So, I saved up and went. I am quite a nervous/anxious person but you know when you get something in your mind - that was that. The confident part of me took over. So I booked the ticket, booked the hotel and that was it.
Being a single woman at the couples retreat hadn’t really crossed my mind before I got there but it was definitely a thing! I was so exited about going I didn’t think about the fact I was going to be alone. It was a resort so it had communal areas; dining - the breakfast and dinner was all really open - tables for two.. In my head I thought I would be able to eat my food quickly and get straight back to work. No. It was a really formal occasion! Really cheesy - very Faulty Towers - trying to be silver service and giving all the couples a really ‘romantic’ experience. People would look at me and think I was with someone who had left me. This was a thing! Apparently it happens a lot at these places. People have arguments.. they go there for a make or break holiday and then sometimes the man or woman takes the car and leaves the now ‘ex’ other half! It was a couples safe space and I was a single woman so they were very unresponsive with me. I was always by myself. And funnily enough I never felt lonely. I felt awkward but not lonely. I was far too exited about the work I was doing.
How would you encourage womEn to alter their perceptions around body image and what society has deemed ‘conventional beauty’?
For me, I dont think I could single handedly change peoples perceptions. There are so many different women, it is so intersectional. There is no one size fits all and that counts for feminism, body image and so on. We are all so different. I think its more of a collective effort. I will do my bit and other women will do theirs. We will all do something together and hopefully we can change things. I read an article the other day called ‘The Kim Kardashian Effect’ which was about how conventional standards of beauty have changed in recent years. Before it was the blond, blue eyes craze, which was very hard for a lot of people to ‘fit into’. People would bleach their hair, fake tan, you name it but it wouldn’t look very natural. Now, it is the ethnically ambiguous woman - which feels like a step in a better direction. But at the same time it is still pushing us to conform to a particular standard! It is still restricting and unrealistic - the female body seems even more enhanced and tailored now.
Do you believe that in the future we will not be so obsessed with achieving a ‘conventional standard of beauty’?
I think social media is changing this as we see people representing different looks. I think as humans we will always have this weird obsession with how we present ourselves and how we look. It can be both positive and negative. At the end of the day we made the mirror and that was it!
Do you believe there is a particular area of the beauty industry that is most damaging for women with regards to their self esteem and body image?
I like this. I think the thing that affects everyone - because you could pick away at so many little things - is our fear of getting old. The crazy thing is that its going to happen, there is oxygen in the air, we are decaying. You almost have to applaud the beauty industry and how they have done this so well - put so much pressure on us to try and avoid getting old. It is the easiest money for them because it will happen to everyone so they can just continue to push all these products that supposedly prolong youth. Everyone is a target market now because everyone is terrified of it.
Would you agree that there is a fine line these days between being a female artist addressing the extremities of the beauty industry and really just exploiting the female form?
It's hard. Firstly I don't think women can exploit the female form. There was a book that came out in 2005 called ‘Female Chauvinist Pig: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture’ by Ariel Levy that critiques the highly sexualised American culture of the 90s in which women are objectified, objectify one another, and are encouraged to objectify themselves. Take for example women using stripping as a tool for self empowerment. Levy argued this was actually damaging to women. I just think “oh shut up”, let us do what we want. There is no reverse sexism, there is obviously a lot of internal misogyny but if a woman wants to do something then they can do it.
I do of course understand that if we don't know who is making the material there can be a grey area. Sometimes people come to my show and assume I am a man so they complain that the work is exposing women. Luckily I can be there to tell them that it is me, but sometimes they are still not happy and think I am being a chauvinist. You do have to appreciate that when you are putting the material out on the internet not everyone is going to appreciate it and know about the story behind it.
Do you think that attitudes towards female artists like yourself have changed in recent years? If so, would you say there was a particular turning point for this?
The net artists you mean? When I was studying and looking at women, photography, humour in the 90s I think a similar thing happened. There was an exhibition called Bad Girls and there were obviously the Guerrilla Girls - I feel like it comes in cycles. My mum always says that every generation has to pretend they invented feminism and that they have to pioneer it but in reality we have been doing this for a long time! The difference now is that the work from the 80s and 90s was very harsh and violent because it had to be - they needed to be seen and heard where as now we are celebrating and embracing more so the softness of femininity.
Would you agree that you are tapping into body modification and exploring surgical imagery?
I love surgery; pictures of women getting facials. I love the violence of surgical imagery - the things women put themselves through! I have been asked about the masks that I use in my work so I researched why society generally finds them so intriguing and scary. It boils down to the fact that you cant see the person behind it - the expressions. As humans we need to see ourselves reflected back in someone. Without facial expressions it feels like you are conversing with a monster so to speak. If you get no reactions back you feel invalid. Thats why I think the general public hate women with frozen faces/botox faces - its a selfish thing really, it's the fact that you cant work that person out. I blame the surgeons. Everyone says “it's such a shame what they have done to themselves” but the women didn’t do it themselves! All the surgeons are rich men - they are doing what they want! The women just paid the money and got the best they could.
This year you have already been included in Visual Normality: Woman Net Artists 2.0 at the Museum der bildenden - a group show that “explores the possibilities and restrictions of social media and questions female beauty ideals and gender stereotypes that have become standard in the attention economy of social media” - are there any artists included in the show (Signe Pierce, Molly Soda, Leah Schrager, Refrakt, Nicole Ruggiero, Stephanie Sarley, Arvida Byström, Nakeya Brown, Izumi Miyazaki and LaTurbo Avedon) whose work resonates with you most?
Firstly, the show is in a museum and was organised by two women which is the really exiting thing! I think Signe Pierce definitely. I love her work and how she looks at the female form and women in relation to digital culture. Also, the way she talks about her work - she lives and breathes it. Im very interested in this idea of the ‘Black Mirror Woman’ so her practice really appeals to me. And then there is Nakeya Brown - her hair project. It looks perfect. Like me, it is all about the props - fetishising the iconic black beauty products. I love it.
You will be hosting an event with Marguerite on 28th March at Palm Vaults, can you tell me a bit more about what you will be speaking about?
I will be talking about my work. I love the business aspect that comes with Marguerite - How things actually get done! A lot of artist talks, they just go on and on about their work - the symbolism and the meaning and I always think, ”yes but how did you get that job”. So thats what I like about Joanna and her style - it shows the hustle side! The business woman side!
Would you consider collaborating with other artists and/or photographers in the future?
Definitely yes. I said in the past that I really hate collaborating and now I take that back! I feel like there is so much collaboration going on now and I want to be a part of that. Recently I did in fact collaborate with an illustration/animation artistic duo from France - Geriko. I needed a video for an exhibition. We didn’t even Skype it was all over email. They told me they understood my vision and they really did! They sent me the video and i thought I need to do this more because it was amazing. I want to collaborate with people who work in different areas of the arts and creative industries, rather than collaborating with other photographers - I think it makes it more exiting.
What is next for you?
I just shot a new project in Las Vegas in January. I was there for 3 weeks by myself and am currently editing all of the pictures. This project is not so much about femininity and beauty. I feel like I have been commenting on that through my art for a long time now so want to change it up. I have moved onto another cliche, that being death. Ive done sex so thought what’s next?! It was rather creepy. I was working with Immortalists - people who want to live forever; freezing themselves, eating blueberries, you name it. I met people who had all sorts of ideas around how to make it happen. You have to actually die and then be frozen in order for the process to work, with the hope that in the future science will have figured out a way to unfreeze you and bring you back to life. I like how it links in with this idea of preservation. Interestingly this industry is far more male dominated. So that's what's next. It's still self portraits. The series will be exhibited on Tuesday, May 15 at T.J Boulting and then I will be showing at Photo London. I will also be in a show at Peckham 24 later in the year.
If you could invite four artists to dinner who would you chose?
I thought it would be good to chose 4 people that do that same as me - self portraits - so that we can all ask each other “what are we doing?! How did you cope?!” It would have to be Cindy Sheman, Francesca Woodman, Samuel Fosso and Frieda Kahlo.