© Gerard & Marc, The Coronation 2019 from the series Queen of the Pubs
Regal, statuesque (and bald beneath her pot-scourer crown), the Queen of Pubs fixes you with a steely eye, her magnificent gown fashioned from flattened beer bottle tops. Around her, courtiers and choristers, subjects of her demimonde, cavort and carouse. Could this really be Melbourne? Or has some powerful magic summoned up this phantasmagoria? Perhaps both, for this is the creation of two wizards of the photographic art known simply as Gerard & Marc. It was to be their last enchantment.
© Gerard & Marc, Queen George 2019 from the series Queen of the Pubs
Gerard O’Connor and Marc Wasiak met in the mid-nineties while working in a bar. Gerard had graduated from art school, and Marc had just completed his course in graphic design. They found that they shared a passion for cinema and photography, so when Gerard began getting photographic assignments, he turned to Marc as the stylist. Their sharp, satirical images began to attract a cult following, and soon they were spending more of their time making art than shooting ads.
What the two artists shared was an eye for the detailing of character and costume, and the layering of plot, which transformed each tableau into a grand melodrama with all the twists and turns, tears and laughter of a classic yarn. Whether it is a day at the beach or the din of battle; an aristocratic garden party, or a Victorian funeral, it is all coming unstuck in a deliciously alarming way. Theirs is a raucous, irreverent grandeur that brings to mind the diverse traditions of William Hogarth’s eighteenth-century etchings, nineteenth-century history painting, and twentieth-century cinema.
© Gerard & Marc, Beach, 2009
An early work that remains startlingly fresh is simply called ‘Beach’. Set in St Kilda in the 1960s, it has all the seaside shenanigans of a saucy postcard, given a distinctly Aussie twist. The beach is a great leveller where everyone has a place. It’s funny but also sharp, full of detail that repays careful scrutiny.
“There is a freedom in laughter.” Gerard told me a few years ago. “I think coming from a world where you don’t fit in makes you more observant. Both Marc and I came from stiflingly safe suburban backgrounds and couldn’t wait to leave. The inner city was a melting pot of humanity pushed up close; rough, culturally diverse, full of danger … fantastic danger. When a patchwork of people interacts like this, it touches on the complicated layers that lie within us all. Nothing is ever quite what it seems… Thank God!”
© Gerard & Marc, Funeral, 2010
That work was shot in the studio, but moving forward, they began to make larger and even more ambitious works set in real locations. The Victorian funeral was shot in the Old Melbourne Cemetery, and the authorities who granted access were so pleased with the result they later waived their facilities fee. The same satirical eye is at work here, as many different narratives play out in a single image. But beneath the comedic melodrama lies a darker intimation of social, cultural, and moral chaos.
These increasingly large-scale narrative tableaux involved many performers, as well as technicians, dressers, make-up, and lighting. With around forty actors in costume in the cemetery and a full supporting crew, images like this involve a lot of organisation. Although the finished result is stitched together in post-production, the naturalistic effect is achieved by capturing as much as possible on camera and in situ. The falling water droplets are real, provided by an industrial-scale rain machine. As Marc pointed out, for the image to work, the clothes – and the actors – had to be actually wet. And it certainly brought the scene to life, ensuring the screaming and wailing were authentic.
© Gerard & Marc, Battle, 2011
© Gerard & Marc, Triumvirate, 2016 from the series Angels and Wolves
Over the years, drawing on different historical periods and storylines, they sent up but also stripped down the hypocrisy of the pious, the corruption of the powerful, the violence seething below the veneer of civilisation, the calamities that befall the most rational of plans. The wedding cake explodes as an aged invalid groom, and his gold-digger bride marry amid the padded shoulders of the 1980s. In hand-to-hand combat, soldiers from the eighteenth century let rip the dogs of war. Angels consort with wolfmen. And then there’s China...
© Gerard & Marc, The Factory, 2012, from the series Inside the Factory’
Shot in a Shanxi factory dating back to the Cultural Revolution, a protective spirit floats over the chaos of workers, slackers, and supervisors in an image created in a single day before a live audience at the Pingyao International Festival of Photography. It was an intense day, but it did not end there. Later that evening, they were presented with the festival’s top international artist award.
© Gerard & Marc, The Pleasure Garden, 2015 from the series Victoriana: Pleasure Garden
© Gerard & Marc, A Watchful Eye, 2015 from the series Victoriana: Pleasure Garden
© Gerard & Marc, Shooting Victoriana: Pleasure Garden at Rippon Lea Estate
Perhaps their most ambitious project was Victoriana: Pleasure Garden. A lavish production with over ninety actors and fifty crew, it took four months of intense pre-production and a further three months in post-production to complete. Shot over four days at Rippon Lea Estate in Elsternwick, Victoria, it is a gothic-romantic blend of social manners and the supernatural. The scale of the enterprise becomes clear in a short video made to document the process. It was this exhibition that the Festival de la Luz selected for presentation in Buenos Aires. The show was a remarkable hit with Argentine audiences and Australian diplomats alike. Works from the exhibition were acquired by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Australian Embassy. The then Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, who was on an official tour of South America at the time, visited the exhibition and was so impressed by the work that he arranged for several pieces to enter the Parliament House collection in Canberra.
© Gerard & Marc, Los Ventrílocuos [The Ventriloquists], 2016 from the series My Milonga: the Dance of the Heart
© Gerard & Marc, My Milonga, 2016 from the series My Milonga: the Dance of the Heart
While in Argentina, Gerard & Marc became fascinated by the tango and its predecessor, the milonga. Returning home, they planned a new series, which was later shot in an old meat market, as Melbourne was transformed into a steamy Argentine dockside with starlets, matrons, gigolos, and marionettes taking to the cobbled dancefloor.
While Gerard & Marc were enthusiastically lauded overseas and enjoyed a supportive relationship with the National Trust, many of whose properties were used as locations, they had few gallery and museum shows in Australia outside of the Australian Centre for Photography. In many ways, their focus was wider than the art world. Their exhibitions were staged in other, more egalitarian spaces, often theatrically styled to suit the theme of the work. Openings were a production in themselves, with characters from the latest series mingling with the guests. One of the most beautiful installations saw Victoriana installed inside the conservatory in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens, recreating the Pleasure Garden complete with its gentry, servants and assorted faery folk.
© Gerard & Marc, Victoriana: Pleasure Garden, View of the exhibition installed in the conservatory of Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne
Everything Gerard & Marc did was full throttle. It looked like a lot of fun – and for those involved, much of it was – but behind the frivolity was a serious foundation of hard work and dedication. As Gerard put it: “Art is not a destination; it’s a communication… and sharing the things you are passionate about makes it fun! It’s a process that never ends. You aren’t good at everything, and listening to the input of other people makes you better.”
Gerard [left] & Marc in front of one of their exhibits presented by The Art Hunter in Melbourne during the Covid-19 lockdown, early in 2021
Tragically, on 30 June 2021, Marc Wasiak died following a brief, intense battle with pancreatic cancer. He was one-half of the most outrageously talented artistic teams with whom I have ever had the privilege to work. We gather in Melbourne this July to celebrate the man and his magic. His flame burned bright, and its radiance will stay in the memories of all who knew him.
In the last video they made together, Gerard & Marc talk about the ideas behind ‘Queen of the Pubs’. The video was made for the opening night of the exhibition in Sydney, when Covid-19 travel restrictions prevented them from attending.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Alasdair Foster is a writer, researcher and award-winning curator who works worldwide. He is an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University, Ambassador to the Asia-Pacific PhotoForum, and publisher of Talking Pictures – interviews with photographers around the world. He has twenty years’ experience heading national arts institutions in Europe and Australia, over thirty-five years of working in the public cultural sector and, until recently, was Professor of Culture in Community Wellbeing at The University of Queensland.