A toilet block, a seaside clifftop, a lamp-lit street: The scenes photographed by Sean Coyle don't immediately give away signs of a dark past. But all are the sites of horrifying violence, inflicted on gay men in Australia and New Zealand since the 1970s.
Many of the locations have had their violent histories erased or forgotten, but Coyle's new exhibition, Cruising Wonderland, acts as a memorial to the notorious sites of homophobic hate crimes across Australasia. We spoke to Coyle about his project, his work, and his hopes for the future.
VICE: Can you tell us a little about the "Wonderland" that lends the title to this latest body of work?
Sean Coyle: I was looking at the history of New South Wales in Australia, which has a horrific history of homophobic violence, especially in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. I was looking at where that had happened, and the cliffs of Bondi were one of the significant sites. A number of men were thrown off the cliffs, and it was ignored by police or just treated as a suicide. Multiple men this happened to, and they didn't think to connect the dots. It was a particularly tough time in New Zealand and Australian history because it was in the height of the AIDS epidemic and the panic about AIDS by society, and that sort of fueled these groups of youths that took it on themselves to dish out violence to men and treat it as a sport, "poofter bashing." Anyway, in looking at this particular site, Bondi, I did a bit of research about the surrounding area and discovered that for about five years an early colonial theme park had existed there called Wonderland. I felt, having done the research about the site, it was quite a poignant historic reference: Wonderland.
And some of the other locations that appear in your photographs, are they each historically significant for acts of violence? What are their stories?
Yeah, the different places are. I photographed this toilet block in Hamilton, where a man was stabbed in the back by another man. The attacker also stabbed another man in a different toilet block as well. In court, he said he wanted to rid the world of homosexuals. And the other photo is Inverlochy Place, which is a Wellington Street where the 14-year-old Jeff Whittington was bashed and left for dead a number of years ago, because he was wearing nail polish on his way home one night. [Editor's Note: Whittington died from his injuries].
They are really dark and heavy subjects to be dealing with. How's it been for you, the experience of making the work and engaging with the stories as well?
The work is dark, and it's dark on purpose. Not just thematically dark, but the works are actually dark to see—so that they sort of just appear out of darkness, and I think that's really important for the work and in thinking about it. For me, lightness means clarity, and because I don't have that much clarity on the reasons behind why these things happen, the darkness is a really important aspect of it. Highlighting the dark history, for me, in particular the queer dark history in Australasia, I think is important. They become memorials, and it's important for us to remember. To remember our histories and move forward.
I imagine that these locations aren't memorialized in other, more formal ways, like the cliffs at Bondi and so on. Is this a way for you to begin that?
Yeah, it is. The tricky thing is trying ways to memorialize without sensationalizing as well. The work is somber and reflective in content, and actual material surface as well. Most of the work you see, they're printed on metal, so it's an incredibly glossy surface: When you are looking at the work, you're also seeing yourself in the work reflected into it. They're self reflective, and the somber nature of the content does allow for us to think and remember.
You're exhibiting as part of pride festival. Do you have any particular hopes with how people react with the work? Or what they take away from it?
I hope that people see beyond the images and are aware of the history and the place that it comes from. In the writing surrounding it, I hope that I've been clear about that. It is an opportunity to reflect on some of the dark history that queer people in New Zealand and Australia have been subjected to, and continue to be around the world, so while it's dark, I hope that people leave with some sense of hope, as well, of where we're moving to, and there are some works in the exhibition that do speak of hope, and are not hopeless.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cruising Wonderland is running until April 2 at TSB Wallace Arts Centre in Auckland as part of pride festival.
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