Half of My Whole Life Was Just a Dream at Woven Projects 2022

Book available for purchase here x

Essay by Matt Siddal

It was a crisp Monday afternoon when I visited J’s studio to chat with them in depth about their photobook, ‘Half of My Whole Life Was Just a Dream’. Following a lengthy period of lockdowns where virtual catchups and communicating through email threads became the norm, it’s refreshing to visit studios again. J’s studio faces a southern window in a large, warehouse-style building. A mélange of imagery and writing is nailed, tacked, and framed on their studio walls. The content ranges from the explicit – cut-out pages of personal advertisements or casting calls from Y2K-era gay-porn magazines and a couple of jockstraps hanging from nails, to the personal. I see thank you notes from models and collaborators, love letters, and prints from their impressive body of work. The walls reflect the reality that J presents within their book: a queer dreamscape of curiosity, vulnerability and care that champions the strength in softness and the subversion of heteronormativity.

‘Half of My Whole Life Was Just a Dream’ is J’s first published book, published by Melbourne and Los Angeles-based collective Pure Nowhere. All images in the book were taken from 2017-2021, and apart from publishing a series of zines, J says the book’s publication is their first succinct and cohesive project as a photographer. The book’s pages depict a plethora of interactions that J documents between either themselves, their relationship to the outside world or between their subjects in front of a camera lens. The pages reveal intimate moments in J’s world to the readers, we view glances, kisses, touches, gestures, and flickers of lust. The relationships J has with their subjects derive from years of trust and friendship, which is evident in the willingness of their subjects to be photographed in various stages of nakedness. In J’s own words, it would be inauthentic to work with people that they don’t have an established relationship with: “I don’t want photos of people that I don’t give a shit about”. Flicking through the book’s pages, I see images of contorted bodies that mingle with photographs of suburbia, leaving the viewer to wonder about the stories behind discarded objects left on sidewalks and street corners. Bodies in states of embrace from the candid to the choreographed juxtapose with photos from J’s travels, images of decay and destruction, and glimmers of social interactions, heaving dancefloors, serendipitous encounters, and tattooed skin.

The opportunity for J to have a book of their photography published by Pure Nowhere came by chance. If they’re not being censored by Instagram’s absurd ‘community guidelines’ (posting nudity on Instagram is prohibited, even in an artistic manner – yet depictions of nudity in paintings and sculptures are allowed), they try to interact with their followers in meaningful ways. J often posts questions to their Instagram stories and posting answers to following slides for viewers to engage with. This ranges from ‘ask me anything’ posts to giving followers the chance to discreetly submit stories about their wildest sexual encounters or desired sexual fantasies, in line with the celebration of sexuality that runs so deeply within their creative practice. A follower asked J to describe three career goals, with one of them to publish a book. J was then approached by Pure Nowhere with the intention of publishing a book of their work.

The book was Pure Nowhere’s second publication, their first being a book of poetry. J says it was a learning curve for Abby and Kyla from Pure Nowhere, and themselves. For J, it was a challenge that they’ve never faced before. The task of choosing images for publication in the book was a departure from the casual nature of publishing a zine with the specific purpose of circulating them to friends, followers, and their extended circles. It took J a while to decide on the book’s title and to align images together to make sure they’d appear aesthetically pleasing when printed onto pages next to one another. J has accomplished this seemingly daunting task of assembling and compressing hundreds, if not thousands of images into a book of photographs that appear thematically consistent in a manner that the maturation of J’s practice has allowed them to experiment with. Some of my personal highlights include a hazy image of an suggestively posed backside paired with a destroyed car windscreen; both portals of pain, pleasure, and mystery, the gangly branch of a gum tree paired next to a tender embrace, an arm resting on a shoulder bathed in soft afternoon light; entangled limbs and pierced bodies coupled with a smashed car bonnet, and two vulvas photographed under the warmth of a shower preceding an image of rain sprinkling onto a valley, where long grass rustles in the breeze.

The book is peppered with poetry and prose between J’s images, recalling feelings and memories of heartbreak, love, lust, and loss. The idea to publish their writing alongside their photography in the book enables readers to sit with the work in a more nuanced manner, instead of the book solely existing as a collection of smutty images for sexual satisfaction, which has been leveraged against J as a criticism of their creative practice. J writes about significant sentimental moments, sometimes about themselves, and some about different people and periods in their life. As J says, the lack of individual markers for people in their writing can sometimes lead to confusion, yet J argues this is purposeful to make their writing meaningful for all readers. As J states, “In some cases, when people think I’m writing about my ex, I’m actually writing about my mum”.

‘Softness (As A Weapon)’ recounts the restoration of a fractured relationship and the insecurities associated with bringing old flames into your life once again. ‘Water Like You, Rain Like Me’ is an ode to making space for oneself and placing the needs of the self above the needs of others, as terrifying as that can be. Home (Away From Home) is an emotional ode to finding connection in queer spaces. ‘Tiaki (To Take Care Of)’ describes finding glimmers of beauty in experiencing the end of a relationship and how friendship as a saving grace in navigating the immediacy of the unknown can be healing. In ‘Your Fingertips’, sharing intimacy in new-found love is an antidote to the anguish of existence.

An interesting detail in J’s writing is that none of the poems are dated. I find that the only reference to linear time in J’s writing is the mention of a wintry Saturday evening in reference to the migratory patterns of bats. J says that they’ve never had a good grasp of time, and that they use their photography as a tool to ground themselves in time. Their photographic practice also exhibits a disconnect to notions of time, with their images emphasising subjects first and foremost that lack all signs of contextual references. To delve into the linkages between J’s photographic and writing practices and notions of time, it is worth noting the connection between J’s Māori identity and the differences in cultural conceptions between how Māori and Pākehā (European New Zealander) perceive time, and how this influences non-linear time as a trope in J’s practice.

In Māori culture, constructions of time are based around events, which differs from clock-based time as traditionally, linear time organises itself around Western values of individualism. In this context, ‘time’ is organised to further acculturate the individual within a capitalist agenda. Time exists in a forward flow and is then categorised around the accumulation of capital and leisure for the self-fulfilment of the individual to further participate in an industrialised society. This is diametrically opposed to event-based time, as Kevin Lo and Carla Houkamau write that in traditional Māori culture, one’s existence is betrothed to caring for their environment where one must be attuned to the rhythms of the natural world, and community, where activities are conducted for the benefit of the collective instead of the individual. Time is organised around activities that promote collective harmony and an interconnection between oneself and one’s community. such as the maintenance of socialisation between people and seasonal indicators of time that can be observed in nature, such as the migration of fish and the blooming of a flower, which is knowledge that is passed down through oral tradition. Therefore, temporal differences between both groups mean that a European-based construct of time is more linear and Māori conceptions of time are more fluid and elastic. For J, non-linear time is indicated through the length and depth of relationships that J shares with their subjects, which are details that viewers cannot ascertain upon a first glance of their work.

Indications of events through photos in the book are loosely defined, yet I am curious about the emphasis of images depicting debris and wreckage. For J, it’s an allusion to the trauma they experienced following a life-threatening incident, when a tree branch fell onto them during work, resulting in a split face and an extended stay in hospital. Their period in hospital gave them the time to step back and process their photographic practice. Naarm/Melbourne was in the grips of a COVID-induced lockdown during their stay in hospital, so they weren’t allowed to have any visitors by their bedside while they were convalescing from their injuries. Due to the strict restrictions surrounding hospitals in this period, J’s parents were unable to deliver anything to J in person. Luckily for J, a sympathetic nurse hatched a cunning plan to deliver their camera to them. This involved their parents smuggling their camera in a bag of their belongings, which was delivered to J as food. Their hospital stay is depicted in the book as a single photo of a green curtain with a bottle of sanitiser in the foreground. This is juxtaposed with an image of a sunset J took in Oporto, Portugal, while on holiday with their ex-boyfriend. One image offers escape, the other depicts entrapment.

J had to undergo trauma counselling after the incident. During this period, they made gratification journals under the guidance of a counsellor, where they formed the realisation that one of the only things in life that gave them any sense of gratitude was creating art. Trauma counselling gave them a new perspective on life – which has altered how J documented life unfolding around them. J pulls out a journal and shows it to me to flick through. Almost all the images in the journal have been altered with bandages. Through bandaging and taping focal points in these images presented in the book to create new focal points can be seen a metaphor for the new lease on life that the recovery from the incident has blessed J with. The incident has ultimately acted as a significant turning point in their life. They credit their long recovery period following their hospital stay where they were rendered unable to work gave them the time to apply for a studio, funded projects, and exhibition opportunities. The gift of time also allowed them to meticulously collate the images required for the book’s publication, which has been a blessing.

‘Half of My Whole Life Was Just a Dream’ is a dedication to the ephemera of the everyday and the people, moments and experiences that have shaped J as a creative. The book cements J as an artist who dedicates their practice to shattering pre-conceived presumptions of what queer sexuality appears to look like and reimagines a world where queer people can find utopian flickers of hope through their imagery. J and Pure Nowhere have conceived a compelling and earnest body of work that documents contemporary queerness with a romantic, yet radiant confidence. The book takes us on a journey through remnants of intimacy, delicate fusions of flesh, the significance of affection and the grittiness of urban decay that signifies how connectivity is central to the queer experience and emboldens readers to treat others with empathy and compassion.

On the cover, J holds a camera lens to the mirror. As we look directly at them, ‘Half of My Whole Life Was Just a Dream’ invites you to experience J’s inner sanctum; you may find glimpses of yourself through their inquisitive eyes.

1. Kevin D. Lo, Carla Houkamau. Exploring the Cultural Origins of Differences in Time Orientation between European New Zealanders and Māori. NZJHRM. 2012 Spring. 12(3), 108.

2. Ibid., 112.

© J Davies