Juno Calypso loves food, as in: Not eating it. Food is a powerful visual metaphor for the London-based photographer, one that allows her to deconstruct our society's dysfunctional relationship with women. At 26, Calypso has already been compared to the likes of Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing and won the Visitor Vote at the 2013 Catlin Art Prize. Her work has been exhibited in London, New York, and Miami; she's back home to open her new solo show at 71a Gallery in the UK later this week.
Calypso makes self-portraits as a character called Joyce. If Joyce were a food, she'd be a sugared almond: Pastel-pink and perfect to the eye, an initial sugary burst yielding something tougher and bitter within. Eat too many almonds, and they'll poison you.Calypso drives at this idea through her work. Underneath Joyce's saccharine exterior, there lurks a sense of something darker—something full of despair.
For her most recent series, Calypso travelled to a Pennsylvanian honeymoon hotel, where she holed up in a hotel room for a week taking pictures, ordering room service, and trashing her bathroom trying to wash off green body paint. As Joyce, Calypso explores the physical structures of femininity, showing how beauty is constructed through waxing and seaweed body-wraps and not-ever-really-eating-quite-enough. As part of her show, she will be exhibiting kitschy found photos, shown exclusively on Broadly, alongside her own self-portraits.
"One of my favorite titles for work is called, '12 Reasons That You're Tired All The Time.' I got it from a women's magazine lying around my grandma's house, Marie Claire or something. It stood out because that was how I was portraying Joyce at the time. Tired. I remember reading the article, and all the reasons seemed so trivial, so obvious. Things like, 'Drink more water!' and 'Get more sleep!' It felt like it was just scratching the surface, and it made me think, Why are women really tired all the time, and why is it always just women?"
As Joyce, Calypso explores the pressures that women are subject to—and place themselves under—by external social forces. "I felt like maybe there were deeper issues exhausting us. Like, we're treating the symptoms for our tiredness, but not the cause of it." I mention how her work reminds me of a famous Naomi Wolf quote: A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Is this what she's implying in images like "12 Reasons That You're Tired All the Time"?
"It's funny you mention Naomi Wolf—I discovered her as I started this project, and The Beauty Myth became my Bible. One thing that really inspired me was the irony of how women are taught not to nourish ourselves from within by eating, but we're marketed beauty products that emulate food—body butter, mango mousse, skin caviar—rich indulgent foods for our bodies, but not for our mouths."
The complex relationship that women have with their bodies is at the heart of Calypso's work. In an earlier work, Popcorn Venus, Joyce emerges from a grotesquely oversized pink cake, balanced on a table groaning with finger food, including cheese straws, pineapple skewers, and jam tarts.
"Food always seemed to come up in my work subconsciously. I just loved the texture—sticky, sweet, phallic sausages and stale sandwiches. Then I started to draw the similarities between women and food. The way we photograph women and the way we photograph food. Or the way both women and food are pumped and plumped with preservatives to keep them from natural decay."
Joyce is always alone in her photographs, and rarely faces the camera. I ask Calypso about Joyce—who is she? What's her story?
"Joyce is a fictional character without a story. I'm resistant to giving her a narrative—not that I'm against it, it's just never been an urge. I prefer to leave it to the imagination of the viewer. Despite being called Joyce she's clearly not very joyful. But I'm not sure she's unhappy. I think she's just disappointed, really, by everything."
In order to photograph the series, Calypso spent a week by herself at the honeymoon hotel. "I love being alone, especially when I'm working. Having that room to myself for a week was utopia for me. It was only awkward leaving the room and chatting to the staff or avoiding the four-eyed gaze of couples passing by. I'm fascinated by the things people think about or do when they're truly alone."
Somewhat inevitably, all that time alone in a honeymoon hotel led Calypso to consider her own love life. "Love, monogamy, commitment, devotion were constantly on my mind. I'm very cynical about everlasting love but at the same time I'm fascinated by it—and the things you're cynical about are usually your secret desires. I've been single for three years and it's got to the point that I've forgotten how relationships work. How do they start? What do you do? What's their purpose?"
It's said that all good art needs to be a little controversial. Calypso recently got her first taste of controversy when reading negative comments posted under a recent Guardian profile, accusing her of having a 'porn aesthetic'.
"Telling women that they're not being real feminists or artists by copying porn is just a new way of policing women's sexuality. Jeff Koons made photographs of him having sex with his porn star wife. I'm taking pictures of myself. Alone. No one is being penetrated. Is it porn? Does it matter if I like the aesthetic of porn?"
"I'm just a young woman exploring herself, being introspective while understanding my place in society and the expectations placed on women. I'm still learning.