The Widening Gyre: Interview with Pia Johnson

Melbourne-based photographer Pia Johnson’s new exhibition The Widening Gyre explores the fluid and ever-changing state of being ‘in between’. Using herself as a model, Pia’s emotive new body of work shows the body moving through deep, darkened space. We caught up with Pia to find out about her ideas and process for the exhibition, which opens in Melbourne at Stockroom Gallery on Saturday 13th February 2016.


Hi Pia, tell us about your new exhibition The Widening Gyre?

The Widening Gyre is my most recent series of photographic works. It is made up of 9 large images, which capture a figure moving and turning within a dark space. The title is inspired by W.B Yeats’ famous poem The Second Coming, and muses upon his writings on things falling apart and becoming loose, through a more personal lens.

Your works respond to various notions of being ‘in between’. As a photographer, how do you approach depicting the ‘in between’?

Yes, the series looks at a number of different notions of being ‘in between’, in terms of one’s identity and the push and pull of different roles that we play everyday as ourselves. I guess I didn’t create the series thinking about how to depict the in between, but more about how to express the emotions that I have felt when thinking about being in between, whether drawing from experiences as having a mixed cultural background – Chinese Italian Australian – or more recently becoming a mother. When actually making the work, I found myself trying to explore different ways of expressing these feelings and themes. For The Widening Gyre it began quite organically, and then was refined into a single concept around the body and movement.

Do your works respond to a history of depicting identity in photography, in Australia or elsewhere?

Photography and the dynamics of portraiture have always been linked to the gaze and the interpretation of the self. Therefore I feel it is a natural medium for my work, and the main issues that I explore including cultural difference and identity. In particular, I tend to use myself as a model, thus engaging in the realm to self-portraiture also. It began mainly as a practical solution to not having models readily available, but it has grown into a much more deliberate choice to use myself within my work. That said, in returning to your question about a history of depicting identity in photography, my work draws inspiration from other self portraiture photographer’s works such as Francesca Woodman or Elinor Carucci, however in terms of depicting the Eurasian identity, I feel there is little artistic work in Australia that explores this in photography.


Your works show a body turning, without focusing on a face. Why did you feel it was important to move away from portrait conventions in this series?

That’s a great question. Within the series, there is one portrait that does show my face but it is mid movement and very blurred. I guess normally we read many emotions from our faces, but for this series I didn’t want to concentrate on the face, I think that the emotions came from a fuller body experience – a sum of many parts of the body. The movement and turning for me also signifies something more interior.

How do hope viewers will respond to your works?

I hope that viewers of the work will be able to connect to their own feelings of being in between – whatever they may be. I think the search for our sense of identity, place or belonging is universal, and I think that the emotions that are part of that can be found here in the series.


The Widening Gyre is on display at Stockroom Gallery, 98 Piper St Kyneton, Victoria, from 13th February – 27th March 2016. Official opening: Saturday 13th February from 4.30pm.

Pia Johnson is a photographer and visual artist whose practice investigates issues about cultural difference, diaspora and identity – themes inspired by her Chinese and Italian Australian ancestry. Her work is collected by the National Gallery of Victoria and she has exhibited throughout Australia and internationally. For more on Pia Johnson, visit her website.

Images: Pia Johnson The Widening Gyre 1, 2 and 2015, archival pigment inkjet print, 81.0 x 54.0cm, limited edition of 5


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