Art

Normalizing + Celebrating the Body: In Conversation with Isabella Connelley

The Melbourne artist and director discusses the holistic cycles of the female form and making puberty less awkward.

Normalizing + Celebrating the Body: In Conversation with Isabella Connelley
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The first Isabella Connelley image I ever saw was a shot of a bright, rigid cactus, next to a breast hovering tenuously, vulnerably close. It made my skin crawl, but it was whimsical and titillating, too, like itchily waiting for a balloon to burst. For the Melbourne-based Connelley, the body–particularly the female body–is both canvas for play and keeper of history. The figures in her colorfully-designed photographs and video work–whether in collaboration with friend and fellow photographer Bethan Mooney or solo–are draped with their own wet hair, leaking bubblegum-colored fluid, adorned with bowls of eggs or sheathed in plastic and folding in on themselves. At a time when the ability for women to decide for themselves what, exactly, they want to do with their own uteruses has become questionable, Connelley simultaneously normalizes and toys with the strong-but-soft capacities of our bodies

Her current project with Mooney, Bits and Bods, is a platform of interviews and other content that’ll help foster an inclusive–even celebratory–dialogue about sex, bodies, puberty, and everything that is gross and fantastic and totally normal about all of it. (Watch the hilarious trailer.) While we anxiously await the full-length version of these interviews, we spoke to Connelley about her process.The first Isabella Connelley image I ever saw was a shot of a bright, rigid cactus, next to a breast hovering tenuously, vulnerably close. It made my skin crawl, but it was whimsical and titillating, too, like itchily waiting for a balloon to burst. For the Melbourne-based Connelley, the body–particularly the female body–is both canvas for play and keeper of history. The figures in her colorfully-designed photographs and video work–whether in collaboration with friend and fellow photographer Bethan Mooney or solo–are draped with their own wet hair, leaking bubblegum-colored fluid, adorned with bowls of eggs or sheathed in plastic and folding in on themselves. At a time when the ability for women to decide for themselves what, exactly, they want to do with their own uteruses has become questionable, Connelley simultaneously normalizes and toys with the strong-but-soft capacities of our bodies

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"Squish with Prue Stent" by Isabella Connelley

Where are you from, and what do you do?
I grew up in Sydney and moved to Melbourne four years ago to pursue my studies. I studied a Bachelor of Media and Communications, majoring in Photography at RMIT University. Since graduating I’ve been working as a freelance photographer and filmmaker. My mother and grandmother are both painters, so art has always been a significant part of my life. My interest in photography started in high school, when I took an after school class in dark room photography. I’ve always been intrigued by the power of mise en scene, so my progression into constructing sets was natural. This collided with my natural interest in the female form. Now much of my work explores different aspects of femininity by placing the female form into constructed moments.

Your heavily staged photographs and videos showcase the weird tenderness of the body–somewhat grotesque, always kind of delicate. When did you start “exploring” the body?
I first started experimenting with photography and my own body in my final year project in high school. I created a series of semi-nude self-portraits which experimented with the movement of my own body, depicting it against different landscapes. I was drawn to the shape of the female form, and how it blends into nature so easily, reinforcing the holistic and cyclical nature of the female body. These were just some ideas churning in my mind at the time, it was also part of my own process of understanding my body placed within a society where we are faced with unrealistic bodily norms. At this time I was playing around and experimenting, but it definitely set the groundwork for my body of work since that time.

I continued unpacking different aspects of femininity and the female form at university, expanding on the subject and conveying the pressures society places upon women to live up to a certain bodily norm. I further explored  this when I began collaborating with a good friend and fellow photographer Bethan Mooney in second year. Our work in collaboration often depicts the female form in a surreal and slightly humorous way. We often focus on evoking emotion from spectacle through our work. Through highlighting what society portrays as “imperfections” of the body, we aim to normalize pubes and general body hair, stretch marks, pimples and the list goes on.

How did you meet Bethan, as well as your other frequent collaborator Prue Stent?
Prue and I went to high school together in Sydney, but didn’t get to know one another until we both moved to Melbourne. I met Bethan at University in first year and we have been collaborating on different projects ever since…Collaboration is

a vital part of my art practice. Bethan and I have expanded our work together through the exploration of video, where we have combined our stylistic approach with an often humorous undertone. Film has enabled us to evoke an emotional response from the audience on a whole other level from photography.

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"Playdough" by Isabella Connelley and Bethan Mooney

Through highlighting what society portrays as ‘imperfections’ of the body, we aim to normalize pubes and general body hair, stretch marks, pimples and the list goes on.
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"Lady Love" by Isabella Connelley and Bethan Mooney

How did you meet Bethan, as well as your other frequent collaborator Prue Stent?
Prue and I went to high school together in Sydney, but didn’t get to know one another until we both moved to Melbourne. I met Bethan at University in first year and we have been collaborating on different projects ever since…Collaboration is a vital part of my art practice. Bethan and I have expanded our work together through the exploration of video, where we have combined our stylistic approach with an often humorous undertone. Film has enabled us to evoke an emotional response from the audience on a whole other level from photography.

Are you inspired to work with the surreal and subconscious in your work?
My work experiments with the surreal and subconscious to the extent that it strays from a direct depiction of life or documentation of the female body–I intend to create something visually intriguing that portrays the surreal, whilst still presenting the familiarity of the female body.

Tell me about how you and Bethan began working on Bits and Bods.
Bits and Bods started as a final year project at university, as we both wanted to explore similar themes within femininity and felt there was something lacking during the vital years we experienced puberty. Sex education–from what I can remember–was awkward, scientific, vague, and accessible only in the classroom. Bits and Bods you can look at from the comfort of your own home. It started out as just the short film series and has now expanded to an online platform with articles, Q&As, and artworks.

Our aim is to start an inclusive conversation about puberty, sex, and all the awkward bits in-between. Working on the film series has taught me a lot about how vast the human experience is and how it is so easy to feel like you’re alone when experiencing puberty. I constantly find myself realizing how normal my experience really was, to the extent that there is no “normal.” Everyone’s experience of puberty is different, even if only slightly, and that’s what Bits and Bods tries to explore and normalize.

Why is it important to normalize and share the icky truth about bodies and sexuality especially for women?
The truth about bodies and sexuality shouldn’t be taboo because we are living it every day. Puberty is a time when everything can feel uncertain at best, and everyone’s experience is different. The short film series, “Boobs Bumps Blood,” [part of Bits and Bods] aims to provide an inclusive space where a vast collection of individuals have been sharing truths about their experience of puberty that don’t get enough coverage in mainstream discourse. In sharing the personal and shifting it from the private to the public realm, we hope to provide a space that normalizes what we’ve been taught to believe is “icky” about our bodies.

What else are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a series of photographs as well a short film for a group exhibition in 2017, which will be curated by the talented artist Clare Longley. The exhibition, titled Massage Therapy, will explore the ways we are exposed to experiences and fabricated intimacy in everyday life, in particular in artificially constructed spaces and situations. I’m also in a soon-to-be launched photo and film collective called ILK with a group of friends from uni.

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"Pigtails" by Isabella Connelley and Bethan Mooney

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