An interview with photographer Natalie Wardle by Redeye's Jo Slack.
Modern History Vol. II is a group exhibition, guest curated by internationally respected curator Lynda Morris, who has selected new commissions and existing works by national and international contemporary artists based in the North West. By taking the theme of ‘Modern History’, the exhibition offers perspectives on cultural, social, and political change, from artists across different generations, with works reflecting on local and global issues, largely post-1969 to the present day.
Fresh out of University, Natalie tells me she is working various jobs (vintage store assistant, club night photographer and bartender), playing in her band Freakout Honey, and looking to collaborate with other artists in the city. Her degree work looks at the modification of the female body through 'shapewear', tight garments designed to smooth, and flatten the body. The most prominent piece in the series, Control Pant Symphony which is currently on display at The Atkinson, is a short film showing faceless women pulling and tugging at beige 'control pants' to form an unlikely melody. It is an awkward but amusing display that playfully depicts a more serious issue; the pursuit of the perfect body image, and the lengths women go through to attempt to achieve it.
Over a drink, I chatted with Natalie about her inclusion in Modern History Vol. II and delved into some of the ideas behind her work, as well as finding out what's next in store.
Jo Slack (JS): Why did you choose photography for your medium, how did you get in to it?
Natalie Wardle (NW): I always wanted to do it from when I was younger. It annoyed me that at my school, there was a system where if you didn’t do well at science, they’d pull you out of regular classes and put you on a course where you were encouraged to do photography. I found myself dumbing down so I was able to take photography. It seems a little ridiculous that was the only way you could get to study photography at high school – by being bad at science.
But yeah, I’ve always been interested in it, and found myself regularly using photography in my art throughout school and college. It is probably because of David Hockney, I remember seeing a David Hockney photography collage piece when I was eleven that I thought was grotesque but was completely obsessed with it. One day I’ll buy that.
JS: You've recently graduated from MMU with a BA in Photography. How did you find the degree course?
NW: I did really enjoy my degree, but I didn’t think that I should have been on the photography course. I felt like my work was very performance-based, and I often felt my photography wasn’t quite there – I’m quite lackadaisical in my photographic practice.
JS: Where do you take your inspiration from?
NW: I love Yoko Ono, Marina Abramović. I’ve always admired Francesca Woodman and I take inspiration from her work, but also the things that happen around me. I usually take inspiration from myself; I like to take the mick out of myself. I like to look at things from a female perspective and ask ‘why do we do this to ourselves’ which is what I’m doing at the moment in my follow up project from Control Pants Symphony.
JS: Can you tell us anything about the project you’re working on at the moment?
NW: It’s a little bit of a secret but it follows on from the control pant work to look at other things women do to misshape their bodies to feel good underneath clothes.
JS: For your degree show, you explored ‘shapewear’ through a series of images and also a short film. How and why did you make the move from still to moving images? What inspired you to do so?
NW: I’ve always been interested in video work, because as a photographer I’m not as technical as some are. A lot of people are obsessed with making the perfect image; I’ve never been like that. Then I thought, maybe I should make the transition to film. I was going through a bit of a block, and I had this rubbish little video camera and started to film my legs for a sustained period just walking around the room. It came out really grainy and it was just my legs, walking around, sat on the bed, but I got a really good reception from it. So that pushed me in that direction.
JS: Do you think it’s fair to say the work that you are doing is political? Particularly the work you did for your degree show, and the Control Pants Symphony?
NW: I guess so. It wasn’t the intention. Originally, I just wanted to make some work. But then afterwards, you have to look at yourself and ask why am I drawn to this? There’s always a reason, so what is my thought process behind this? I’ve always been interested in the desired ‘female’ image, and how women portray themselves within that image.
JS: So what was your ‘reason’, as you put it, for the Control Pants Symphony?
NW: With my video work, I like to make people laugh. I want to people look and interact and giggle. It obviously does have a deeper message though. I like to make people think too. I think when you create something really shocking, sometimes people don’t look at it, but if you make them laugh they will. I think that’s the best way to get the message across.
With Control Pants, I want people to walk away and ask ‘why the hell do we wear these?’ One day, I went back to my parents' house and my Mum and I were getting ready together as mothers and daughters do, and I saw these pants she was wearing and asked 'what the hell are they? They're really ugly, why do you have them on?' She told me they were ‘control pants’ and they ‘sucked’ her in, and made her feel good. Then I was like, well, maybe I should get a pair. And I did. Then after a while I realised these are disgusting. They’re so tight, they're hurting me. I can’t eat because my belly will expand and there isn’t room for that. I wanted people to see the absurdity of them. We’re moulding and pushing in our bodies to look and feel good. But we don’t look good, and we don’t feel good.
JS: Your work is currently on display at The Atkinson as part of Modern History Vol. II curated by Lynda Morris. Can you tell me how that came about?
NW: It was through my degree, Sophia Crilly came in to meet with our year group, and passed us on to Lynda Morris, then all of a sudden I was meeting with Lynda over coffee and showing her all my really old work and she seemed to really enjoy it and found it funny. She told me ‘I’ve never met an artist who's so much like her work’. I just peed my pants when she said that, it was the best compliment, I thought ‘she must think I’m funny!’ Modern History is the first exhibition I’ve been in out of university so it means a lot to me. It’s something that I’ve been included in because I’ve been noticed. And now it means lots of people are starting to see it, which is great.
JS: So what's next?
NW: At the moment I’m just taking things as it comes, I’m juggling a few jobs. It’s hard. Once you graduate you just think ‘what the hell am I going to do now?’ I want to collaborate, make the use of people around me. But yeah, I'm just taking it as it comes.
By Jo Slack, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Redeye, the Photography Network
Natalie Wardle's piece Control Pants Symphony is currently on display at The Atkinson as part of Modern History Vol. II until Sunday 8th November.
You can hear Natalie talk about her project at Open Eye Gallery on the 22nd October. Book you free place here.