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Portraits of Suburban Hell

Artist Juno Calypso turns food, fake tan and baby oil into metaphors for female isolation and the hopeless fight against time.

Popcorn Venus. All images courtesy of the artist

Juno Calypso once spent three days on her mum’s dining room table, standing in a cake, surrounded by sweetly rotting prawns and pineapples on sticks. The artist, art director and film-maker uses her alter ego, Joyce, to create intriguing, unsettling scenes of suburban frustration, female isolation and the hopeless fight against time, often surrounded by food, masks and saturated soft furnishings.

Of course, the silent pastel fury of suburbia has inspired artists ever since cities started to creep out of their urban womb in the 1930s. From Philip Larkin to David Lynch we’ve long been fascinated by the strange modern hinterland of twitching curtains, empty streets, tarmac-paved silence and hidden domestic mystery. But in Calypso’s pictures the viewer is invited into a world on the border of suburbia, science fiction and S&M. We go behind the curtain and we’re not sure we like what we find.

I spoke to the 25-year-old London-based artist to find out what the hell is going on.

VICE: Pork, prawns, pineapple: Why do you use food in your work so much?
Juno Calypso
: I’ve always been attracted to the texture of food in photos. I suppose it all began with Popcorn Venus – the photo where I’m popping out of a cake. I started to think about how we photograph women in the same way we photograph food, as these very glossy, artificial things pumped full of preservatives. We’ll do anything to stop both decaying.

In Popcorn Venus there’s a very prominent sliced sausage in the foreground – was that intentionally phallic?
In the 70s they served a lot of platters and they always had these big sausages – the kind of things you find in Turkish supermarkets. I love how obscene, huge and pink they are. They’re seen as disgusting and fake.

Joyce’s expression is so at odds with what she’s doing. She’s jumping out of a cake and yet there’s no joy in her face.
There are all these ideas about how you’re supposed to look into the camera to be sexy; make your eyes droopy, your mouth pouty. But if you exaggerate that just a bit, you look ridiculous, tired and pissed off.

She looks almost sedated, disorientated – like she doesn’t quite realise what’s happening.
She looks tired because I was tired. I felt like I was trapped in that cake. All that food was laid out for three days and nothing changed, nothing went mouldy. Even the prawns. Eventually it just started to smell sweet – like the sweet smell of death.

In Reconstituted Meat Slices the tin of meat is both horribly flesh-like and yet completely artificial. Did you intend for it to be the same colour as your skin?
I wanted to exaggerate that colour. I found the tin of meat in a supermarket and it looked like something straight out of the 50s. It stank. A lot of people think she’s dead in that photo, and the food looks dead too – artificial, canned, processed. She’s the embodiment of all that. I wore a lot of fake tan that day.

Reconstituted Meat Slices

That image, that pose, is echoed in a new photo where you’re wearing a silicon mask. But this time you’re staring right at the camera. What changed?
I feel like she’s getting more powerless. I want to be submissive and tired. The eyes are red like she’s been crying. I found the mask on eBay – it’s a Japanese silicon sauna mask. You feel completely disgusting, trapped behind this hot, sticky piece of plastic. It’s supposed to make you look younger, preserve you, stop age and time.

It reminds me of Twelve Reasons You’re Tired all the Time, where you’re wearing a weird pink plastic mask in what looks like a front room.
That mask is called the Linda Evans Rejuvenique Facial Toning System. On the inside are all these gold metal pins and when you turn it on it electrocutes your face. These things are all on the border between beauty, torture and science fiction. I thought it was historic, but it actually came out in 2000 and they’re still being produced now.

Twelve Reasons You’re Tired all the Time

These products aren’t just about making you look young – they’re also trying to hold back death, aren’t they?
Oh, they’re all incredibly morbid. They’re designed to make you mourn your lost youth but also be scared of the future. So you’re never really just living inside your body, you’re always thinking about either the past or the future. They’re selling you these products through terror and sadness.

It’s like we – well, men – are trying to confront their own fear of death by stopping women age.
The scary old woman is a universally horrific image – from The Exorcist to Snow White – because she is the opposite of sexually attractive. There’s so much decay under women’s bodies but we have to hide it, keep it under wraps. A few months ago I went to The Anti-Ageing Show – a convention at Olympia – and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever been to. They gave you a discount on treatments if you had them there, so when you walked in there were all these women lying on beds, having treatments. It looked like a morgue. It was like walking into an embalming centre, with dead bodies everywhere.

Artifical Sweetener

Oh God. When you look back at an image like Artificial Sweetener, where you’re three years younger, how do you feel about the woman in that picture?
I can’t tell if I look young or old. I just look grotesque. But I love inhabiting the grotesque. I’d love to learn prosthetics – at the moment I’m just using fake teeth, eyelashes and make-up, but I’d love to give myself huge lips, something that’s not quite believable.

The Eternal Beauty image where you’re standing behind the door – where is that?
I shot it in my friend’s studio. They’re actually film stills. I thought it would be fun to film, rather than taking loads of pictures. It’s meant to be this imaginary beauty clinic – you’re not quite sure what they’re doing to women but you know it’s sinister. There’s no narrative or script; the pictures are just there for people to imagine around.

I put cling film around my hair. It was sweaty and itchy. Like when you’re in a salon and having your hair bleached, but instead of trying to make myself beautiful, I’m enduring all the discomfort to make a picture.

I started it at night time. I drank loads of coffee and worked through the night, until the sun came up. That’s the sun coming through in the background.

It feels like the decline of Joyce. She’s gone from jumping out of a cake to being laid out on the floor like an autopsy.
Yes, it’s like she’s been incubated.

Cyril Connolly called suburbs “incubators of apathy and delirium". 
Suburbs are creepy. And yet they’re supposed to be this dream of the perfect life, perfect home, husband and sofa. I grew up in London, I’ve never lived in suburbia, but they seem like a doll’s house. The house that I shot Artificial Sweetener in was my ex-boyfriend’s parents’ house. His mum had decorated the whole thing, sewed the curtains, picked the wallpaper. She made it all match.

There’s also a sexual frustration bubbling under a lot of the images. In Modern Hallucination you’re lying on a bed, on your back, like you’ve just had a wank.
I love the twin beds in that image. Twin beds: that’s just sexual frustration in bed form. Is it for children? Or just a couple who don’t have sex any more? So she’s lying there, completely frustrated and defeated.

Has your process changed much since you started the Joyce series?
I’m now very aware of the process. There’s less showing off. I started this project while I was still at uni and I wanted to make people laugh, make myself look ridiculous. But now, working by myself, there’s no big cake. I’m just making work for myself. 

@NellFrizzell 

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