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Heather Straka is tickled by the irony of being isolated in Auckland and unable to attend her own Isolation Hotel exhibition in Christchurch. She gets on the phone with What's Hot New Zealand to talk art, life and staring at chickens.
Tell us about the Isolation Hotel photo series. This is the second series in a storyline. The first was ‘fire’, Dissected Parlour, and I wanted the second series to be the concept of ‘air’. It’s a 1930s-style dishevelled hotel. It’s the same characters from the previous series, looking as if they’ve just stepped off that set and have been sort of inhabiting the hotel and using it as a place of sanctuary. In the time of Covid, hotels have taken on new roles. You know, as well as a place you go on holiday, they are isolation facilities, or accommodation for people in need of housing.
What story are you telling? There is an implied plot to the series, but because I’ve worked with some of these models since 2012 I’ve also incorporated some of their own stories, and they’ve inspired me. Lennon, who was the incredibly flamboyant figure on the bearskin rug in the 2012 Bloodlust series has now transitioned into the beautiful Genevieve. As part of her story, I’ve named the work in Zimbabwean Shona language, Mambokadzi Tsvarakadenga, which means Queen The Beautiful One.
What’s behind the set construction? Basically, the set was constructed in a warehouse in Henderson. It involved a drive to Whangaroa to convince art director Alistair Kay to join in. It’s a big set and needed someone with architectural knowledge to make it happen. It’s been designed to be pulled apart and put in a container. I have a background in film and sculpture, so I know what’s needed for a project like this: you just get a team of experts in to help. It was quite a big thing. I really wanted to get that sense of isolation in the shots, so I needed the wide camera angle.
What is your exhibition at Canterbury Museum about? The Isolation Hotel set is going to be reassembled as it was, for people to interact with in the museum. I’ve always been interested in the idea of a diorama. People can go in and, instead of being isolated, be visible. They can do their own take of themselves in the set, take a selfie or a video. We’re all in this together, in this pandemic. We’re used to seeing TV and film, but we don’t often get to see the set. People will enjoy having a play in it. I can’t go down there, but I would like to encourage different groups to even do readings and things in the space. I’m just working on a video component at the moment, a moving still or something similar. SCAPE Public Art offered the art to Canterbury Museum. The photos will be in the gallery space.
Did anything unexpected happen during the shoot? We were in between shots, doing makeup. We got an overcooked chicken and put it on the floor and a young boy, the child of one of the models, he just walked onto the set and stood there and looked at the chicken. I was like “Oh my God, what an amazing shot.” He wasn’t self-aware at all.
How has isolation treated you? My life is pretty isolated anyway because I have a studio at home and I live by myself. But I find Covid to be an uncreative space, it brings you down with Zoom meetings. I’m a bit old fashioned. I like to meet people and discuss ideas. I got lucky with the timing, with most of the shooting for this exhibition happening in June.
If you could photograph or paint anyone, who would it be? Of course, Tilda Swinton. Averill, one of my models, looks a bit like her.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you want to be? Probably a production designer in film, which is almost the same thing.
How do you relax? Walking my dogs. I’ve got six of them. I’ve got a lifestyle block and there’s plenty of room for them.
What’s next for you in 2022? I’m back to painting again. I’ve got a show in Christchurch. I just think it’s really important to move around a bit in different media, otherwise you get a bit stale, you know?
Fri 26 Nov – Sun 20 March