Smith, Aliki. “Hazel Dooney”, She Shoots Film Issue No. 3 Metamorphosis, December 2018: (pp. 76-85 and back cover). Please scroll down to read the interview in full.
“It's important that we have a wide range of stories about women, by a wide range of women... It's time for us to tell our own stories..." – Hazel Dooney (printed on the back cover, below left).
You can buy Metamorphosis and previous issues of She Shoots Film at sheshootsfilm.photography.
Hazel Dooney Interviewed by Aliki Smith.
For more than two decades Hazel Dooney has been recognised as a force to be reckoned with in the art world. Her work has been described as “strong, well-crafted and yet accessible”, and she has been described as “a select breed of artist who, for the benefit of all concerned, cast[s] a somewhat critical and even destructive eye over their artwork.  “ For eleven years, she sustained Self Vs. Self, a blog that is now an archive of her essays and diary entries from 2006 to 2017. In September 2017, she wrote “The expected life story of a woman like me is simple: burn bright and go down in flames, consumed by insanity. The End. I refuse to accept this as the story of my life. Dooney Lives is a defiant declaration of intent and a voyeuristic invitation to watch me.”
Please tell us about the transition from your blog to Dooney Lives.
Although I made Self Vs. Self using a blogging platform I see it as a conceptual artwork. I wanted to publicly challenge roles traditionally assigned to women in the art world and reveal the raw experience of a woman artist.
During its creation, Self Vs. Self was a form of unscripted performance art. I documented the risks I took in my life and career and presented them in a public forum as they unfolded.
As a finished work, it’s a collection of overlapping narratives told in writing, paintings and photographs. I wrote essays to critique ideas with which I disagreed and to propose viable alternatives (that I implemented in my career to test and to demonstrate their efficacy). The diary entries document my tumultuous personal experiences during this time and touch on my troubled past.
To be specific, the primary narratives are: pioneering independence as an artist by connecting directly with the audience for my work by using the internet; a woman artist’s experience of the archaic, unregulated, misogynistic system of the traditional art world; predicting – and arguing for – its disintegration while demonstrating a viable alternative; how my art developed over those years; and the story of living with a madness historically linked to creativity, genius and tragedy.
After eleven years Self Vs. Self came to a natural conclusion because I managed to resolve the primary narratives: I liberated myself; the traditional commercial gallery system disintegrated; others, including those in the traditional art world, are now using strategies I pioneered; by making public some of my experiences with sexual discrimination, assault, abuse and harassment, I contributed to social change regarding the treatment of women and girls (via entries in my public blog and my essay Broken, which was published in Women & Power, Griffith REVIEW Edition 40; The Best Australian Essays 2013 edited by Robert Mann; and as an edited extract, retitled Bad Education, in Good Weekend Magazine, an insert in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, 14 April, 2013); I learned how to manage bipolar without medication; and my psychiatrist concluded my treatment in March 2017.
As a simplified narrative Self Vs. Self records the rise of a smart, talented, spirited woman artist and my fall due to mental illness – and, perhaps, due to the strain of accumulated experiences specific to being a woman at a time when our everyday reality is yet to catch up to the equality and protection promised by our legal rights.
My re-emergence – and the beginning of my next ongoing, autobiographical series, Dooney Lives – comes at a time when women are collectively in a process of transformation.
Where does Dooney Lives sit in your larger practice of art?
Dooney Lives continues the exploration of a woman as both artist and muse. I use myself as a model in photographs that are paired with text revealing a thought or experience. I want the way we view women to expand and have greater depth – to give the viewer a glimpse inside a woman’s mind as well as at her physical self. I also want to present a record of a woman’s life that is more cohesive, refined, tangible and easily recognised as art than Self Vs. Self.
The handwritten artworks are poems. Their format is influenced by haiku, advertising slogans, inspirational quotes and my long engagement with social media. I’m interested in direct, potent communication.
I think of the photographs as evidence: captured fragments of life. When it comes to making art about female identity I find the lived experience more powerful (and unpredictable) than fiction.
The works are debuted on Instagram alongside digital photos from my life – some of which are later re-created as a one-off Polaroid photograph and included in the series. In the tradition of poetry I’m developing the text as a spoken word performance, which I’ll do when there’s enough material for a show.
There’s also a practical component to the Dooney Lives series. I’m rebuilding financially after many years away receiving medical treatment so I wanted to make a series of collectible artworks I can sell. They are small pieces and the profit margin is modest so I’m also painting studies in gouache on paper. I use the profit to buy more materials. I’m working toward making large scale paintings again (this time in matte acrylic and artists’ oils rather than high gloss enamel) and producing my own exhibitions.
You have been publicly documenting your lived experience since 2006. This has enabled you to speak directly to your audience for some time, effectively short circuiting intermediaries acting as gatekeepers to your work. In large part, you were at the forefront of pioneering this method as a tool to reach out and provide access to your work that would not otherwise be possible. This method of reaching out, this personalisation, this bringing the other into your world, is now widely used by others and has proliferated. As a pioneer of this method, what do you think this means for women who identify as artists in 2018 and moving forward, and can you talk to us more about the collective process of transformation that we are experiencing as women?
Virginia Woolf wrote that in order to create, “a woman must have money and a room of her own.” When women artists make a personalised space online, we create an extension of our ‘room’ – the place where we create – in a virtual, public space.
This is a new opportunity for women. Traditionally our domain has been the private space of the home while public space was the domain of men. Over the last decades women have joined more and more areas of the workforce and public life. However the culture of both was developed for men, by men, so it's still adapting to the involvement of women and the needs of women.
In contrast, the internet presents uncharted territory. The terms of online engagement are still being figured out by its users – and the 'net is open to everyone. This offers women an unprecedented opportunity to create our own public spaces and to shape the culture and terms of engagement within these spaces. It also enables us to share our work and tell our stories directly to our audience, bypassing middlemen (and women) and traditional cultural gatekeepers.
In our virtual ‘room’, we reveal ourselves: we show what we make and how we make it; we share our thoughts and experiences. Our online presence becomes both a record of accomplishment and a woman’s story, told in our own voice and unfolding as our life develops. It’s important that we have a wide range of stories about women, by a wide range of women. Historically, representations of women have come from a male perspective. They are limited because they offer an observed rather than lived experience – and they reflect the limited range of women with whom the creators came into contact. It’s time for us to tell our own stories and that’s inevitably intimate.
As a consequence of women sharing our stories in public we are collectively reassessing our experiences of sexism and strategies for dealing with it. Listening to other women's experiences has enabled us to better recognise sexist and abusive patterns of behaviour. In the past, some of these issues seemed isolated but we can now see they are widespread. Other issues, like the gender pay gap, could seem abstract. However through anecdotal evidence we have a better understanding of our position.
The core issue is about updating our culture – and the way we behave within it – to reflect the changes that come from women’s increased participation in all sections of society.
In 2013 you created a 15 metre text-based mural, located in an inner city laneway in Melbourne, Australia. You called this City of Melbourne commissioned piece, the ‘Ten Dicta For Young Women Who Are Artists’. During that same year, you expressed that “the work is derived from my own need, as a young woman, for someone to give me unvarnished advice about how to be successful as an artist, as well as how to deal with the particular challenges women face in the art world. Although it’s directed at young women artists, it is designed to have broader relevance. The ten dicta within my mural could just as easily be applied to other professions.” You identified that you wanted this piece to be broadly accessible. This theme of accessibility to any of the work you create, regardless of medium (painting, photograph, writing, mural, etc), ensures that your art speaks to people everywhere. When did you consciously decide that you wanted your art to reach people from all walks of life?
I made the conscious decision during my brief stint at art school. The course had a heavy focus on conceptual art and critical theory. I found the ideas exciting but the language boring, unnecessarily complicated and self-referential. I feel the same way about ‘art-speak’ – it's a real passion killer. It never made sense to me to create something that has a barrier between idea and audience.
I grew up in a household of books and read widely from a young age, including from my mother’s library. There were titles by Oliver Sacks, Edward de Bono, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Franz Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Marilyn French, Erica Jong, Germaine Greer and so on. Long before I began to make art, reading taught me that bold, complex and even esoteric ideas could be made accessible.
If you could pick one or two defining moments in your life, what would these moments be?
If I had to choose, I’d say when I dropped out of art school and made a promise to myself to succeed in art regardless of the obstacles. At different times since then I've reassessed my definition of success and recommitted to my decision.
That said, I've come to think that we are defined not by significant moments but by the accumulation of small moments: our habits and routines; the decisions and actions that reflect our values.
You previously mentioned that there’s a practical component to the Dooney Lives series. One where it’s assisting you to rebuild and make your way toward making large scale paintings again. Here we see your decisions and actions reflecting your values, your resilience, your commitment, your steps to rebuild. You are known to paint large works depicting sexy action larger than life women inspired by advertising and entertainment media. Will you be returning to Dooney women?
Definitely. It's important to me to create powerful, iconic imagery of women using a visual language that's globally accessible. I also want to further explore our more complicated internal experience. So I'm evolving Dooney women and also developing stream-of-consciousness watercolours to be painted as large-scale works.
Cindy Sherman once expressed “The way I see it, as soon as I make a piece I’ve lost control of it.” Can you relate to this or is your experience different? If no/yes, please tell us about it.
I'm not interested in controlling others' experience of my art. I understand that the viewer's interpretation is filtered through their experiences. So even if they are able to 'read' my intent, my work will inevitably hit other nerves that I couldn't predict. I see this as part of the beauty of art.
Speaking of hitting nerves, we love work in the electronic realm, but also work in reality! Do you plan to exhibit, and if yes, how do you imagine this might work?
Yes, I’ll produce my own exhibitions at various locations and be there to present my work in person. I can’t wait to show you!
Type of Photography
Preferred Film Stock
I’m an artist who takes photos, so I don’t love cameras the way photographers do. I use whatever camera works best for the idea I’m exploring at the time.
Photographers who have influenced me
Lee Miller, Cindy Sherman, Tracey Moffatt, Diane Arbus, Chris Stein, Helmut Newton, Allen Ginsberg (though I was more influenced by his diaristic notations than his photos) and Don McCullin.
Photographs that have affected me
Cindy Sherman’s series Untitled Film Stills 1977 – 1980 and Lee in Hitler’s bathtub by David Scherman
The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer. Specifically, Chapter 3. Oil Painting. It’s almost a hundred pages on the history and technical application of oil paint. I enjoy autonomous learning and always research a medium that’s new to me because I like my artworks to be well-crafted.
The podcast series WARDROBE CRISIS with Clare Press and Générations Rap Français (an internet radio station that plays French rap).
On the web
1 Michael Reid, ‘Contemporary Artists To Watch’, The Australian (Correction: Michael Reid, ‘Sketching out a scorched canvas policy’, The Art Market, The Weekend Australian, 2001).