Best in Show: Yvonne Todd interview

Auckland Art Gallery News, 2004


A collective gulp accompanied the announcement of the winner of the first Walters Prize two years ago. Harald Szeemann chose fledgling photographer Yvonne Todd because her work was “the most irritating”. Todd rode the wave of stardom, producing four new bodies of work in quick succession. She’s become a key figure in New Zealand art. Art critic Anthony Byrt recently called her “the best New Zealand artist of her generation”.

I remember you said you wanted to crawl under the table and hide when you realised you had won the Walters.

I was being overly dramatic, but it was an intense moment. I feel completely normal now though.

What are some of the highlights from the past two years?

It’s been exciting to be able to indulge my whims like flying to the Mt. Cook National Park to photograph the mountains (Gortha, 2003), or to have a miniature iron lung constructed (Lung, 2003) simply because I felt like it. I also went to Europe for two months last year, which certainly had an impact on some of my more recent images.

Your vivid descriptions of Russia made it sound like something out of The Shining.

The hotel I stayed in was huge and cavernous, with endless corridors like a mental hospital. I saw a solitary young woman on rickety wooden crutches and one leg, her hair in a babushka, standing outside the Metro with a drink and a cigarette. She planted the seed for my image Fractoid (2004). It has the same sense of sinister debilitated anonymity.

I love Fractoid. In that pink 1950s dress she reminds me of an Avon lady gone wrong. What recent work are you proudest of?

The disillusioned fragile Alice Bayke from Sea of Tranquillity (2002) and Methylated Puddle (2004) from my series 11 Colour Plates. Methylated Puddle is the beginning of something new that relates to my interest in the petrochemical, coal tar, ethyl alcohol and anti-freeze industries.

I saw John Cumin’s retrospective at the Serpentine a couple of months ago and was struck by his paintings of girls lying in bed, the covers pulled up to their chins. In their oblique pastel tones, they seemed to have a very Yvonne quality.

Those bed portraits are my favourite works of Currin’s. To me they speak of melancholia, but more intriguingly, hypochondria, and I can relate to this because I fabricated illnesses as a means to get attention until I was about 13. This included making fake vomit, feigning short-sightedness, and using typewriter ribbon to create black eyes and bruises. I also tried to break my leg by repeatedly jumping out of a tree and trying to land awkwardly.

What inspires you these days?

Regardless of the subject, I think it’s important that the work has an element of surprise. That’s what I strive for. Much of my time is spent drawing in my workbook and listing made up words, many of which become titles. Often a word will generate the idea for an image, “Bo-Drene” for example. My current interests are quite diverse and obscure. Next I’m going to work on fake product brochures filled with useless meaningless merchandise of my own invention.

What’s been the hardest thing about winning?

Probably the weight of expectation that I’ve felt while making the images for each subsequent exhibition. The annoying mantra “failure is not an option” in a quasi-military American robot voice seems to plague me whenever I’m working on a show. I’ve always had this tinge of hysteria to my working process, but now it’s amplified. I think I secretly like it.

image: Yvonne Todd, Fractoid, 2005.