At the level of sensation: Honey Long and Prue Stent communicate through the body
by Harriet McKay
The work of Honey Long and Prue Stent is a sensuous world of skin folds, flaps and protrusions; where forms merge and touch is privileged.
Nowhere is this truer than in Phanta Firma; a series of photographs exhibited at ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne (2018). Here, material is swathed over nude female forms that lay poised in ocean pools or writhe on rock formations. Their carefully composed body’s appropriate the classical aesthetics of oil paintings past, predominantly depictions of the mythological creature of the Nymph. Found within the natural world, the Nymph was a highly sexualised creature that acted as a dangerous and erotic lure into the wild unknown. Unlike historical depictions where the sexual agency of the Nymph was demonised, the sensuous nature of the subjects in Phanta Firma is liberated because it is their own.
Both aesthetically and conceptually Phanta Firma is inherently fluid. The materials, textures and the luxury of colour dissolve barriers between landscape and subject, solids and liquids, body and material. This co-mingling of matter is revealed similarly through the slumping of glass over rock, which was displayed alongside the photographs in the gallery. Sitting somewhat harmoniously, we are reminded that both materials are made of the same essential material despite their visual tension, nudging us toward the ever-present themes of interconnectedness and impermanence found throughout the work.
I sat down with Prue Stent and Honey Long to talk about the powerful visceral quality of the photographs and how the pair has renewed a sense of agency and fluidity into their nude female subject:
Harriet: What I love about your work is that it creates an immediate bodily response within your viewer. One of the reasons for this I feel is the distinct visceral quality of the work – is the emphasis on texture something which is intuitive to your process?
HL & PS: The emphasis on texture very much comes from an intuitive place. We’ve always been very drawn to working with materials that elicit some kind of bodily response, I think mainly because we find it so satisfying within ourselves.
Harriet: In Ways of Seeing, John Berger says, ‘to be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be seen as naked by others and not to be recognised as naked. To be nude one has to be seen as an object not to be seen as a nude.’ Would you say that these figures are naked or nude?
HL & PS: I think the sense of agency in the subjects comes from them being directly engaged and interacting with the landscape as opposed to ‘part of the scenery’ which I think is what you get in more traditional nude portraiture. So yes, I would say they are naked as the camera is there purely to observe a process which is being led by the desires of the body. The body, as a means of connecting to its surroundings, is responding to the physical sensations of an environment and letting that dictate and guide its movement. The subjects are not confronting the viewer as they are not trying to convey something through representation, rather it is about the viewer being able to observe an experience.
Harriet: The body’s connection to its surrounding is described visually through a fluidity of forms and colour. Does this reveal itself naturally through your process of making?
HL & PS: Fluidity is definitely an important part of our practice. Naturally through our process of making we seek it out. At first it wasn’t thought out why we were so drawn to capturing fluid shapes and blurring different fields together, we just found it satisfying. As our practice has developed however I think we’ve come to understand it as an inherent desire to convey the interconnectedness of matter and the impermanence of any given state it takes.
By providing power to their subject and privileging a tactile form of knowledge rooted within the body, these artists empower the amorphous body and urge the viewer to observe its connection to environment. In doing so, Honey Long and Prue Stent’s nudes are not so much consumed by the eye as they are understood by the body.
Gilroy-Ware, Cora, Bodies of (Human) Nature: Nymphs in British Art 1780–1840, 2014, curatorial essay for TATE Britain