Outer Space: Jessica Enkera

STABLE director Alexander Kucharski engaged in an email conversation with recent Outer Space resident artist Jessica Enkera after her exhibition at Wreckers Artspace entitled '11 Rarely Seen Images of Princess Diana'. Enkera's multimedia art practice has explored feminist themes, viewing personal experience through popular signifiers using text, soft sculpture, video, and hand-formed processes like embroidery and ceramics. During her residency at Outer Space she prepared work with these hand-made processes regarding her personal reflections on her mother and the celebrity of Princess Diana, resulting in the work exhibited at Wreckers Artspace.

AK: Thanks for sharing this email conversation with me, Jess. How did the timing work with the show at Wreckers Artspace? Did you go into your Outer Space residency knowing you were preparing an exhibition or did you organise the show as a result of your residency?

JE: I applied for the Outer Space residency before the exhibition with Wreckers was confirmed, but the timing worked out well as I was able to use the residency to develop ideas and create work for the show.

So by the time you had commenced the residency you were aware of the upcoming exhibition?

Yes, when I commenced the residency period I was aware I would have an exhibition shortly after moving out of my studio at Outer Space. I planned to use the time, space and guidance of peers in order to develop my practice outside of university, and to produce work for the upcoming exhibition.

How did this affect your residency experience? Did it make you feel pressured or did it improve your focus for example?

The looming exhibition deadline added some pressure to my residency experience, and also provided me with a focus for my learning and making. One thing I discussed with Caity [Reynolds, Outer Space Director] during my residency was the difference we have both observed between the works that I produce with deadlines for their completion, and the ones made in a less structured manner. We agreed that the work I produce when I am playing with materials more casually was unsurprisingly produced more easily. The ease of making in this mode definitely impacts the forms and meanings of resulting works. I feel there always has been a definite distinction between these two working styles that I use. I would like to bring the two closer together, but am not sure if my practice could function without this divide.

That's interesting. Can you give an example of how your less structured work might differ in form and meaning?

My less structured work tends to explore rambling and random forms and texts, which I generate more spontaneously and think about in further depth later on. My knitting experiments are examples of this work style. They playfully explore composition and materiality, and might appear less ‘finished’ than work I produce under more pressure.

I know that Caity and Llewellyn [Reynolds and Millhouse, Outer Space Directors] were very actively involved in mentoring you and the others during the residency. How did this affect your output for the show?

Caity and Llewellyn workshopped my ideas for the show with me, encouraging me to start by making the works I had planned, without being overly critical about them until I had produced them. I discussed my ideas and works at weekly studio group meetings with Caity, Lew and fellow resident artists. Talking about my progress with the group and listening to others speak about their projects helped me to build confidence in my own ideas and abilities. I think the mentoring and group discussions helped slightly ease the fear of failure that I find can be particularly detrimental to my process of producing work.

My initial ideas for the show started with my inexplicably strong interest in Princess Diana and her representation in popular media. Caity and Llewellyn steered me towards finding what personal significance Diana held for me as an individual, which led me to investigate my relationship with my mother as a role model, who had a likeness to Diana, particularly in photographs from her wedding day in '94.

Following on, what did you discover in your exploration of Diana vis-à-vis your mother? Did the artwork end up saying more about you or about the world, in the end?

I began by conducting general research about Princess Diana on search engines and found a lot of literature analysing the huge public response to her death from different perspectives. I thought a lot about this broader picture of sensationalised grief and celebrity status, which led me to reflect on my life and the things I know about the lives of people around me. I considered our relationships to celebrities and role models and how we may or may not use their examples in forming our own identities. I feel that after all the work said more about my interpretation of the images of Diana and my mother, than it did about larger world issues. One of my favourite parts about this exhibition was the conversations I got to have with various friends, family members and strangers about Diana and celebrity/royal culture more broadly. I wish that I could have captured that part of the process in the show somehow.

While you say that, I think the interactional process is represented in the artwork. The idolatry implied by the work combined with the diverse media you explored in creating it seems to represent a broad range of views of Lady Diana. Coincidentally, my own brother, for instance, has an ironic but joyful shrine to Diana in his sharehouse, and, intentionally or not, you’ve faithfully recreated the aesthetic and referenced multiple levels of meaning inherent to shrines and Lady Diana. What conclusion do you think you came to when considering Princess Diana and the public response to her death? Does your work glorify her, like the media, or is it critical of celebrity? Or maybe is it like my brother’s shrine, neither glorifying Diana nor openly criticising her, and really just having a laugh at her celebrity, but ultimately using her image to cultivate happiness? Then lastly, what does this say about your relationship with your mother, and the way you see her as a figure in your life, like Diana in the life of the public?

I don't think I've come to a singular conclusion but there are a few that I keep circling around in my thoughts. The scale of the media coverage and public response to Diana’s death led me to wonder what factors might have contributed to the vast response. I have concluded that I believe a woman of colour in a similar public position to Diana during the same time period would not have received anything close to the amount of media coverage that Diana did.  

I also wonder a lot about the possible consequences of idolising a person so publicly and intensely. I am suspicious of Diana's representation in popular media because of how it glorifies many aspects of her life.

I think my work may be read as glorifying Diana, but I also hope it might encourage critique of the ways we represent and talk about public figures. The work stems from a mixture of my admiration for her, my interest in failed representations of celebrities (for e.g. look up the Chesterfield well-dressing memorial), and my concerns about limiting and idealistic representations of celebrities.

My mother was my number one role model throughout most of my childhood, followed closely by people I saw and admired on TV. I still look up to my mother a lot but through growing up I have realised the ways that I differ to her and my other role models, which has caused me ongoing distress. For example feeling not white enough, not thin enough, feeling a need to do a very good job at being feminine. I think the work is about taking a playful and light hearted approach to identity while being critical of the ways we as a society can limit ourselves and others through representation.

Yes, there’s something sinister in the white, thin, beautiful historical image of Diana, but your playful approach helps to satirize this image. An example of this playful and light hearted approach is your use of different media. How did you find exploring the topic through painting, drawing, embroidery, and their subsequent installation? Has this given you any idea of where to from here?

Using various media to create pictures of the subjects felt like an intuitive way of contemplating and reimagining them. I find the repetitive processes of sewing, painting and drawing to be meditative, analytical, and cathartic at times as well as quite frustrating and isolating.

This iterative making process is something that I feel I could continue to do endlessly, providing I had the time and resources. I am using a similar approach while making work for an upcoming group show I will be a part of at Outer Space this month. I have been thinking through links between popular ideas and media, and my personal identity, for many years now and I can see myself working these topics out in my practice for many years to come.

This conversation is part of a series of studio visits with recent Outer Space studio residents. Read more about the project here.

Jessica Enkera graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Queensland University of Technology in 2017, and has exhibited with DRIP collective, Post Datum, and Wreckers Artspace. See her new work at Outer Space this month to see the ongoing results of her residency process.

Alexander Kucharski is a freelance arts writer, directs STABLE, and consults for Brisbane Powerhouse's visual arts program.

Images courtesy Sarah Poulgrain, Wreckers Artspace, and Jessica Enkera.