deborah paauwe

tuesday's child
Sutton Gallery, Melboume

In the exhibition Tuesday's Child at Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, Deborah Paauwe has positioned her photographs within the context of nineteenth-century sentimental, social and aesthetic codes. During the nineteenth century in Britain, there evolved a pervasive, and highly codified, symbolic system for the expression of emotions and social relationships. Influenced by Romanticism, Victorian motifs provided a discreet shorthand for what was usually a religio -sentimental expression: different flowers had different symbolic meanings; the cross, anchor and heart signified faith, hope and charity; a single hand meant friendship while two hands clasped meant faith. Victorian England gave us the nursery rhyme that begins 'Monday's child is fair of face ... ' and which continues on to ascribe different attributes to children according to the day of the week on which they are born. This rhyme, like much social and cultural phenomena from nineteenth century Britain, represents a synthesis of superstition and sentimentality. lt marries religiosity to sentiment by saving the biggest bumper load of desirable attributes for Sunday's child, born on the day of the Lord.

Paauwe's images of deliberately and solemnly posed child subjects uphold the sense of gracefulness that the Tuesday-bern child in the nursery rhyme is said to possess. Where the nursery rhyme represents a litany of character types, the photographic series is a litany of postural role-play. In addition to a series of passive standing poses the photographs recreate a number of stereotypical child hood rituals: curtsying, praying, playing dress-ups, having a 'sleep over'.

Depicted in the photographs are images of either two girls of different age, or a girl and a young woman (their faces are not shown so the age of the second figure is ambiguous) wearing lace-edged petticoats or night dresses and presented against a background of pink synthetic fur, either standing or enacting simple ritual gestures. Paauwe cannot be unaware of Lewis Carrell's photographic portraits of young girls, such as his 1865 photograph of Mary Millais, aged five, wearing her nightgown and seated on a fur rug. However, Tuesday's Child makes no overt acknowledgment of a precursor and certainly no inclusion of ironic reference, quotation, or parody. lt follows that a viewer must accept Paauwe's images at their own face value.

Although the photographs reference the childhood game of 'dress-ups' these two girls have not raided their mothers' or even their grandmothers' wardrobes, for the slips they are wearing are far too old fashioned for that. Reminiscent of the nineteen-thirties, the garments have the deliberateness of costume as opposed to dress. In wanting to construct an image that is in some way timeless, artists and filmmakers often clothe their representations in the trappings of sixty or seventy years ago. lt is a curious convention that this is the amount of time that has to pass before something has the look of timelessness. When people say something is 'timeless' or 'classic', they are often (paradoxically) saying it looks the way they know, or imagine, things appeared about sixty years ago. Too much older than this and something simply becomes archaic and too much newer and it merely looks 'retro'. Paauwe's use of the old fashioned petticoats and her inclusion of the outdated social gesture of the curtsy thus locates some aspects of the photographs in a timeless past. Because only the bodies of the two figures are depicted, and not their faces, they also operate as allegories for childhood rather than as portraits of individuals.

These photographs have several obvious features of the typical sentimental image or story: a female child as the central figure, an overwhelming solemnity, a tendency towards allegory, an emphasis on the child's vulnerability as an incitement of the viewer/reader's pathos (expressed by the child being dressed in a petticoat that is too big for her, and by the scar and sore on her foot and leg, respectively), emphasis on touch (in some of the photographs the two girls are touching one another and in all of the images, there is a focus on the tactility of fur, cloth and skin), and finally what in a sentimental narrative operates as the payload, an image of a girl on her deathbed (as is suggested by Paauwe's photograph Silent Night which portrays the girl from the neck down, laid out corpse-like on her back, with her petticoat tucked around her like a shroud). There are hints of religiosity as well in the depiction of hands clasped in prayer and in the titles Silent Night, and Cross My Heart, the latter expression invoking a Christian symbol (cross) and a sentimental symbol {heart) as the guarantee that a promise would be made good.

Sentimental narratives typically portrayed a girl poised between childhood and adulthood and their function was to highlight the difficult moral terrain that the girl must traverse in substituting the protection of her father or guardian for that of either a suitor (good) or seducer (bad) while lacking the worldly experience that she would need to distinguish between the two. In her artist's statement, Paauwe implies that the photographs in this series link childhood games with adult rituals in a fatalistic trajectory. Just as the motivation for various adult practices is sometimes obscure to a child (and vice versa), the logic behind the girls' games in these photographs remains mysterious, hinted at, but hovering just outside the viewer's field of vision. The theme of bridging adulthood and childhood is especially elaborated in the game of dress-ups. In this game, a child usually acts out her future adult appearance and rehearses, sometimes using exaggerated stereotypes, features of that projected adult role. Typically, dress-ups both provides a practice run for being a grown-up while at the same time the oversized clothes, haphazardly applied lipstick and so on, highlight the gulf that exists between the child and the woman she will later become.

Interwoven with the sentimental !ropes in Paauwe's photographs are some unexpected details. In several photographs pink ricrac braid, a type of haberdashery trimming, has been wound around the child's body; in two others, bobble braid is wrapped around clasped hands. In one photo, much is made of a small wound on the child's leg and a scar on her foot and in another, the pattern on the girl's briefs can be seen through the nightgown she is wearing. Elsewhere, a jumble of brightly coloured plastic alphabet letters dominates an image that otherwise is simply various subdued shades of flesh and pink. Without these eccentric details, each image would lack a focal point. Moreover, in the quaint, nostalgic, timeless allegory of the images, the details have an insistent particularity that rescues the photographs from being twee. Each detail operates according to the logic of the supplement as it is both an integral part of the image yet somehow foreign to it-it brings to an otherwise generalised image a destabilizing specificity.

Paauwe's artist's statement which accompanies the exhibition indicates that the power of childhood games is their capacity to bring together secrecy, danger and pleasure, a theme reminiscent of the 'Bad Toy' movement that dominated art overseas and in Australia during the late eighties and throughout the nineties. This movement was so named because it drew out sinister meanings in children's toys, images and games and by extension childhood itself, as well as the various institutions that constitute it. The sinister undercurrents and the sense of menace produced by Bad Toy artists was most commonly linked to violence or sexuality. The Bad Toy genre in fact reworked the well -worn opposition that dominated 18th and 19th century debate on childhood : an opposition between the view of childhood as a state of innocence, wherein the child was seen as a blank slate (as expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile) and the contrary view that children were polluted with original sin and this corruption and evil could only be expunged through the control, discipline and punishment of children by adults (as affirmed by many clerics including John Wesley).

Bad Toy art notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine an artist creating a photographic image that combines Paauwe's own declared themes of fantasy, role play, dress-up, pleasure, danger, childhood and adulthood, more compellingly and disturbingly than the mass media did, about four years ago, in its production and dissemination of images of American child, JonBenet Ramsay, in heavy makeup, bouffant hair and pageant costume. JonBenet was a successful contestant in children 's beauty contests before being found murdered, aged six, in a case that has never been resolved.

JonBenet's participation in beauty pageants may or may not have been related to her murder, but the photographs of her as a triumphant child-beauty-queen have come to seem prophetic and foreboding regardless. Here is a child, the photographs seem to say, who played the fantasy game of dress-up too convincingly. Rather than her dress-up being that of a childish role-play with oversized dresses falling off her tiny frame, thereby emphasizing the gap between the child and her projected adult self, the scaled-down costumes, slick make-up and professional hairstyling did not merely bridge but effectively closed that perceptual gap and perhaps by so doing precipitated the child into an adult world she was not otherwise equipped to enter. Indeed , the tragic story of JonBenet has several of the hallmarks of the typical sentimental narrative, except that the protagonist was a good ten years younger than is the rule.

In Paauwe's use of synthetic fur (this being a favourite material of Bad Toy artists) and in her desire to create sinister undercurrents and complexities around innocuous childhood games, the artist flirts with some Bad Toy motifs, but it would be easy to make too much of this fact. In truth, the images are much more benign, especially when contrasted with the mass-media's foray into similar territory in its representations of JonBenet. In Tuesday's Child the invitation to pleasure is present in the luxuriousness and sensuousness of skin, silk and fur, but there is no real threat or danger in the images; not even a sense of foreboding. The photographs' real themes are mystery, privacy, secrecy, hints and half-made connections-the frustratingly slippery world of adulthood that is just beyond the grasp of a child or a sentimental heroine.