Riding the night bus home from my first nightclub experience at the roller skating rink, listening to my Walkman (waiting to be noticed), hanging out with a best friend in a solitary patch of bush, my first crush (on a marching girl); photographer Russ Flatt’s work transports me back to the suburban hinterland of a 1980s teenage-hood.
But something is awry. As curator Ron Brownson notes, this is no easy nostalgia. Flatt’s constructed scenes are complicated fictions. They are both stagey and unflinchingly honest. Tender yet dangerous – wide open to different readings. These are in-between spaces, full of unspoken diversity. Spaces where identity starts to form. Where we learn to trust people other than our parents and teachers. Where we slouch in ill-fitting clothes.
Australian readers may think of Tracey Moffatt’s suburbia, or Bill Henson’s darkness on the edge of town. Flatt himself mentions the inspiration of American Cindy Sherman and another fashion photographer turned artist who made large fictional tableau works, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. In Flatt’s work, however, there is something refreshingly heartfelt and truthful – reflective of his own story.
Now in his mid 40s and a 2013 graduate of Auckland University’s ELAM School of Fine Arts, Flatt is a late blooming talent who has come to the art world as an outsider. Lighting, composition and a natural way with his actors speaks to decades of work in New York as a fashion photographer. But that background doesn’t prepare you for the ambiguities and tenderness in these works. He returned to New Zealand to come to terms with his own identity, after his father passed away and his mother and sister were diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“I would have these very lucid dreams or nightmares and they were always around family scenarios,” he says, “so I decided to make images that were coming out of my head. It was a therapeutic way to process what was happening. I made a body of work and sat on it for a few years. I needed to contextualise it, and that’s when I decided to go to art school. That’s why the work has been so personal. But as it grows, it’s becoming way more fun.”
That first body of work, Paper Planes, was finally shown at Auckland’s Pah Homestead in 2014. There have been two series since, Perceiving Identity, shown at Mangere Art Centre, and Nationals, shown at Tim Melville Gallery in August/September last year.
Flatt says a series starts from the questions: “Who am I? Who are we? Where do we come from? Why we’re here, I guess.” Autobiography is an important departure point, but it then “gets twisted around in my head,” he explains. The young lead protagonists in Paper Planes and Nationals are, like Flatt, Maori. And like his characters he grew up in suburbia, divorced from his mother’s tangata whenua roots.
In Perceiving Identity Flatt reflects the diversity of perceptions by working in a different genre, from reportage to black and white portraits. They were hung to evoke how pictures of ancestors hang on the wall of the wharenui (Maori meeting house). “There were things I guess reflective of me as a gay Maori male. Like the marching girl – I wanted to be a marching girl growing up. It was important for me to gather these things that were resonant for me when I was a kid and reimagine them; figure it out.”
With a narrative based around a national roller skating championship, for Nationals Flatt approached Auckland’s Mount Wellington Roller Skating Club. There were still people who remembered him skating there as a kid. Yet the scenarios depicted aren’t comfortable and while the location is real, none of the models were skaters. The work is entirely fictitious. “I really wanted to create something brand new,” says Flatt. He likes to work with actors who haven’t done anything before, building a relationship with them and their parents and often working with them across series. He gives them characters and they become part of the story making.
In a recent powerful work, Half a Person, a pair of twins are photographed, one comforting the other. They are pictured in bush close to where Flatt lives, where he likes to go with his own son. The emotion feels very real and open to different readings: the one being comforted may have suffered deep trauma, or simply fallen over. Their close relationship is difficult to define. “I was thinking about puberty and those friendships we form and bond, says Flatt. “Holding your friend closely when it’s not in a weird sexual space.” Flatt’s next series Night Bus will be the story of a young boy in suburbia, coming of age, going underage nightclubbing.
As I write, Flatt has discovered he is the winner of the Auckland Festival of Photography’s annual commission. Mid year he travels to Vermont in the United States for a residency as one of last year’s winners at the Wallace Art Awards. “I won’t have my people with me,” he laments, but he looks forward to the new challenge. “I’ll have to think creatively about how to make work that comes from a similar place, but is somewhere else.”
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 76, APR–JUN 2016.