Bodies of Work /

an invitation to dance

Gold rush (white rose), 2021. Pigment print, 840 × 1119 mm.


an invitation to dance

Radical. Courtesan. Legend.

The life of Lola Montez, like much contemporary photography, transcends truth and slips into desiring myth. A radical and mercurial figure Montez surpassed the prescribed parameters of femininity and disobeyed the limits of existent systems controlling women’s bodies through medicalisation, religion, social structures and technology. Montez, part con-woman, activist, courtesan and mixer of truths, toured outlying Australian towns during the 1850’s gold rush, performing her enigmatic and tarantismic ‘spider dance’ before bars full of miners channelling the chance of riches. Tarantism is a so-called illness characterised by an uncontrollable urge to dance and allegedly affecting only women. Montez (actually Irish but purporting to be Spanish), seized on this cultural phenomenon, normally at home in the south of Italy, adopting it as part of her signature stage routine, ‘milking’ it for its theatre and its sexualised undertones. Shelton’s artwork originally commissioned for Photo 2021 was installed as 100 meters of photographic billboard in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. Each image featured botanical arrangements that reference the bold signature ear blooms Montez wore behind her ear.

The work is accompanied by an instagram feed (@elizagilbertandlolamontez), and Lola Montez well understood the authority of the image, indeed she was the subject of the first known photograph of a woman smoking which she herself circulated, exploiting the way this act contravened accepted notions of femininity and the notoriety it gave her. Her clear understanding of photography’s reproductive potential means the visual trace of her and her spider dance have been preserved in numerous portraits and cartoons. Instagram as a platform provides a fitting vehicle to extend Montez’s desire to promote her self-image and an apt dias on which to engage our “habits of vision” in the age of social media and at the very zenith of photography’s power.

Commissioned by Photo Australia and the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for PHOTO 2021.

Bad eyes (yellow rose), 2021. Pigment print, 840 × 1119 mm.
She dragon (orange rose), 2021. Pigment print, 840 × 1119 mm.
Flash dance (red rose), 2021. Pigment print, 840 × 1119 mm.
Selfie (pale green rose), 2021. Pigment print, 840 × 1119 mm.
Spider woman (dark pink rose), 2021. Pigment print, 840 × 1119 mm.
The vapouriser (pink and white rose), 2021. Pigment print, 840 × 1119 mm.
Smoke sham (pink variegated rose), 2021. Pigment print, 840 × 1119 mm.
an invitation to dance, installation view, Photo 2021, Metro Tunnel Creative Program, Melbourne. Photograph by James Henry.