I want to create discussion and dialogue around inherent cultural beliefs.
Storytelling has a long history reaching back more than thirty thousand years. It was a way to integrate experiences to create meaning, a way to connect past with present and imagine the future, a way to explain the inexplicable. Stories are the root of cosmogony (how the world was created), history (where we came from), religion (the things beyond explanation), science (how things work), philosophy (how we should live), politics (how we should organise ourselves)… It is only relatively recently that those strands have separated out into different disciplines. For many millennia they were woven together, clothing a persuasive if patchy world view. As we moved from hunter-gathers to farmers and citizens and on into urban industrialism, our narratives evolved with context.
Stories work powerfully on the imagination. The beguiling impetus of their plot can deflect a more critical appraisal of their logic. That apparent coherence can also make them seem older and more established than they are. A structuralist analysis of many of the ancient Greek myths and legends suggests that they were a form of political propaganda by which new leaders established their legitimacy through the promotion of stories in which their own identity was blended with those of the gods and heroes. In the oral culture of the general population, where no one could quite remember when they first heard it, such a narrative rapidly became established as tradition. We see the same kind of revisionism in today’s politics where, in less than half a century, neoliberalism has radically reshaped the very foundations on which we think of society.
The Canadian artist Dina Goldstein creates satirical reworkings of these established narrative tropes through a process of inversion: turning the story on its head and giving it a good shake to see what falls out. Disney princesses, deities, and US presidents tumble into the real world like Alice in reverse. The figures are familiar because they are iconic, they are known through their narratives. The contexts are familiar because this is the world in which we live. Bringing the two together is like combining matter and antimatter, destabilising. The icons shatter to reveal the inconsistencies beneath.
In her more recent work, the process of inversion is applied in a rather gentler way in portraits of punks who have stayed true to their anti-establishment subculture well into middle age. Here, it is not the core that is revealed as false, but the superficial assumptions we make about age and identity. While her earlier series employ humour in the unmasking of incongruity, it is this later work that echoes back to remind us of the humanity that drives the satire. These are telling tales that reveal a truth rather than betraying a secret.
What is it that draws you to photography?
As a medium of communication, it is diverse and creatively limitless. When I moved from photojournalism and editorial work to a more constructed methodology, I discovered that I could still bring attention to subjects that mattered to me, but with a different approach. The process is more involved, closer to filmmaking; it’s making pictures instead of taking pictures.
What kind of subjects do you address?
I want to create discussion and dialogue around inherent cultural beliefs, to voice my ideas and opinions. The subjects that interest me most are archetypes and icons that have entered the collective unconscious and live in the common imagination. I try to make a point within a single frame. It’s not unlike capturing someone’s attention through advertising, but more nuanced and with the intention of highlighting the human condition.
[Left] © Dina Goldstein ‘Rapunzel’ 2008 from the series ‘Fallen Princesses’
[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘Snowy’ 2008 from the series ‘Fallen Princesses’
How did ‘Fallen Princesses’ begin?
This series was my first attempt at casting fictional characters and creating a conceptual narrative. Like most of my work, it came about unexpectedly, intuitively. My daughter Jordan, a toddler at the time, came back from day-care obsessed with Disney Princesses. At the same time my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The collision of these two events had me thinking about Disney’s portrayal of female characters. Before that, I had not been very familiar with the Disney Princesses. I did some research and found that while the original tales were often dark and gruesome, it was the Disneyfied version that had become the standard. Feminists had begun to question these narratives, which often portrayed the female characters as victims in need of a saviour. Disney’s adaptations of the original fairy tales were sorely outdated, as were their happily-ever-after endings. I didn’t want my daughter to be influenced or misled by these narratives.
My first princess in the series was Rapunzel, best known for her long blonde locks. In my version, she undergoes cancer treatment and loses all of that hair. She sits motionless on a hospital bed, her wig beside her. The image was an homage to my mother and all that she was dealing with.
[Left] © Dina Goldstein ‘Jasmine’ 2009 from the series ‘Fallen Princesses’
[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘Belle’ 2009 from the series ‘Fallen Princesses’
In contrast, I wanted to capture Jasmine as a strong female fighting on the front line alongside male soldiers. I cast the model in Los Angeles and, together with my makeup artist and an assistant, we set everything up in the middle of nowhere in the Californian desert. The small purple flowers growing in the sand were really there… I couldn’t have asked for a better location. One disappointment: I rented the fake machine gun at a prop house but later found out that the bullet belt was not an authentic match. Lesson learned!
What ideas did you want to bring out in this series?
I wanted to explore various issues and challenges that women face in the modern world. I adapted stories to each character, in each case subverting the Disney version and leaning more towards the dark and cautionary sensibility of the original folk tales. Cinderella struggles with alcoholism. Snowy finds herself in domestic hell. Little Red Riding hood is obese. Sleeping Beauty is surrounded by elderly people who have been marginalised in society. Belle is having cosmetic surgery to hold on to her youthful beauty. With Princess Pea, I wanted to highlight waste and environmental degradation while Ariel, like so many other beautiful creatures, has been caught and on put display.
[Left] © Dina Goldstein ‘Ganesha’ 2014 from the series ‘Gods in Suburbia’
[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘Buddha’ 2014 from the series ‘Gods in Suburbia’
From fairy-tale princesses to deities… How did ‘Gods in Suburbia’ begin?
In 2012, I was awarded a residency in Mumbai, India. There, while there is a lot of poverty, I observed the great reverence shown towards various personal gods within the Hindu tradition. I have always been fascinated by the deep connection human beings find in religious narratives and figures. The reverence and blind faith afforded to gods survives and thrives, even in this modern world with its advanced science and technology. While there are times when religion leads to division and war, my main interest is in the collective imagination and the consensus that sustains these iconic figures. As with the princesses, I took these religious figures out of context, placing them in our world where they are challenged by life, just as we are.
For example, Ganesha, the god of obstacles, is ignored and mocked in the school yard, just as I was teased and bullied as an immigrant child in Canada. I didn’t have to contend with an elephant head, but I didn’t speak English, and my culture isolated me from the other children.
[Left] © Dina Goldstein ‘Mohammed the Prophet’ 2014 from the series ‘Gods in Suburbia’
[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘Lord Xenu’ 2014 from the series ‘Gods in Suburbia’
How did you go about planning and realising these shoots?
This series was photographed over a two year period, mainly because I work with small budgets and rely on volunteer help. My challenge was to find the people who would embody these gods. I searched on casting sites and on the street. Then I brought in special-effects makeup artists. The alien head for Scientology’s Lord Xenu and Ganesha’s elephant trunk and ears were made by professional prop makers. My priority was to find people who were skilled and excited to create these iconic characters.
Location was particularly important and for this I reached out on social media and drove from place to place to find the right setting for each scene: a high-end kitchen for Lakshmi, a backstreet in which to recreate The Last Supper, an upmarket grocery store for Buddha, a classroom for Mohammed, a suburban street for the tow-trucking Satan.
Since I am depicting supernatural characters there are post-production considerations. I try to shoot everything within one frame but sometimes I want to add elements to strengthen the narrative. It’s a bit of puzzle-piecing, matching perspective and lighting. And then there are the holy auras and other godly effects that had to be created from scratch.
[Left] © Dina Goldstein ‘Easy Grow’ 2016 from the series ‘Modern Girl’
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[Centre] © Dina Goldstein ‘Planet Earth Water’ 2016 from the series ‘Modern Girl’
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[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘Revenge Agency’ 2016 from the series ‘Modern Girl’
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How did ‘Modern Girl’ begin? What drew you to modernist Chinese advertising images as a vehicle for satire?
‘Modern Girl’ is a critique of excessive commercialism and environmental waste. These faux advertisements were inspired by iconic promotional illustrations from Shanghai in the thirties. It was a period that saw the emergence of Asian women as individuals, breaking away from the Confucian traditions that demanded total filial piety alongside crippling beauty practices like foot binding. However, while on the surface they may seem to be an expression of gender emancipation, the posters also sowed the seeds of a new form of exploitation: the use of images of young women to sell consumer products.
What are you satirising here?
As women we are bombarded with images of unachievable perfection showing models warped by digital enhancement to an unattainable beauty. We are encouraged to feel incomplete without the latest clothing, accessories, cosmetics: a promise of ‘fulfilment’ that is always just out of reach. This has got worse with the advent of social media. Today my daughters have to contend with a world of ‘influencers’ flooding them with unhealthy messaging. Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms are harming young minds. I’m interested in how this phenomena stifles self-knowledge and undermines self-confidence with illusions of a ‘better life’, and how in turn, this contributes to unnecessary waste and environmental degradation.
[Left] © Dina Goldstein ‘Commandment 1, TRUMP, You shall have no other gods before Me’ 2019 from the series ‘The Ten Commandments’
[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘Commandment 2, REAGAN, You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything’ 2019 from the series ‘The Ten Commandments’
What first gave you the idea of making ‘The Ten Commandments’ featuring various US presidents?
One word: TRUMP! While I have always looked upon America as a nation to emulate, inspired by its work ethic and dedication to democratic principles, I found the unravelling of progressive principles gut-wrenching. The Bible continues to play a significant role in American public life, as politicians, candidates, and activists cite it in support of a variety of positions, programs, and policies. By setting some of America’s most famous presidents within the context of the Ten Commandments, I want to highlight the incongruities and inspire discourse into the ways in which I believe American society has gone so astray.
[Left] Dina Goldstein ‘Commandment 5, WASHINGTON, Honour your father and your mother.’ 2019 from the series ‘The Ten Commandments’
[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘Commandment 6, LINCOLN, You shall not murder’ 2019 from the series ‘The Ten Commandments’
How has this work been received in the US?
While the work has been published in a variety of media in Canada, Europe, and South Africa, it has not been well received in the States. Although I am disappointed, I can understand why this critique of the USA might seem offensive, even to more liberal thinkers. It is most likely that the series will be exhibited in Europe before it is shown in the States.
How has your mode of working – your way of creating a visual narrative – evolved over the past fifteen years?
I research into each subject much more intensively now. Every detail is thought out carefully, sometimes obsessively. I have very small budgets and each project depends on grass-roots support to make it happen. Thankfully, the success of past projects helps attract the interest of all sorts of talented people with whom I collaborate. Post-production is more intense, and I demand perfection with the special effects. In all, I am also a lot more critical and discerning with every detail.
[Left] © Dina Goldstein ‘Chris Walter – Author, Publisher’ 2021 from the series ‘OG Punk’
[Centre] © Dina Goldstein ‘wendythirteen’s collection’ 2021 from the series ‘OG Punk’
[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘wendythirteen’ 2021 from the series ‘OG Punk’
The newest work I would like to discuss is ‘OG Punk’. [OG meaning old-school or authentic] On the surface this is quite different from the previous works, not least because these are portraits of real people. And yet I can see a continuing of your interests in the inversion of popular cultural stereotypes – in this case punks who get old but retain their punk identity.
Thanks for recognising the common thread…
This series was unplanned and came about during the pandemic. I first met the artist Mad Dog in a park beside my studio; he lives close by. By then, I had been pretty much isolated for almost a year and a half and really wanted to pick up the camera again. I invited him to my studio for a portrait. He had great stories about the Vancouver punk movement in the early eighties and offered to connect me with some key figures in the punk scene. He introduced me to the artist Rob Punk, the musician Myles Petersen, and to wendythirteen, who had been booking and promoting punk bands for decades.
By this time everyone was vaxxed and I felt safe enough to start an impromptu series. Wendy was not well so I offered to go over to her place and set up a studio in the garage. Her place is adorned with lots of punk memorabilia and is absolutely amazing! The large mural you see when you enter the exhibition is her shelf of curiosities. However, I decided early on that these should not be environmental portraits and placed each participant against a plain backdrop. I wanted the individual to be central, and to allow the viewer to appreciate every detail of their customised leather jackets, spiked hair, tattoos… at large scale.
[Left ] © Dina Goldstein ‘Mad Dog’ 2021 from the series ‘OG Punk’
[Centre] © Dina Goldstein ‘Chris N’ 2021 from the series ‘OG Punk’
[Right] © Dina Goldstein ‘The Cretin’ 2021 from the series ‘OG Punk’
The passage of time changes both people and contexts. How did you find your sitters had coped with aging and with the embrace of punk’s anarchistic intentions by the mainstream, at least musically?
From the start, I decided that all the participants would be over the age of fifty. Then, to find out more about them, I asked them all a series of five quick questions, which helped me learn more about their past, and how they view the punk movement today. As one of the sitters, known simply as ‘The Cretin’, put it: “As long as there are marginalised people struggling to fit in in a world that just wants to reject them, there will be an audience for punk rock bands.”
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these various series?
Making this work has given me a voice, a way to encourage dialogue and discussion, an opportunity to shed light on important social issues, and stimulate critical thinking through the medium of photography.
I have learned that I can pivot from documentary to conceptual practice and still able to use my camera to create complex messaging and social commentary. That my decision to give up commercial assignments with large payouts was worth it. That it is possible to make high quality work with small budgets. That, more than anything else, determination, dedication, and work ethic have been key to my success. And I have learned that it is possible to be a spouse, mother, sister, daughter, friend… and still make time to create important work.
Dina Goldstein was born in Tel Avis, Israel, in 1969, emigrating to Canada in 1976. She graduated in art history and photography from Langara College, Vancouver, in 1993. From 1993 to 2000, she worked in photojournalism and documentary, moving to editorial and advertising from 2000 to 2009. She began her artistic practice in 2009. Her work has featured in thirty-five solo exhibitions and twenty-six group and festival presentations in Africa, Asia, North and South America, Europe, and Oceania. Her work is held in a number of public and private collections including the Ian Potter Museum (Melbourne, Australia); the Women’s Museum (Quebec, Canada); FOTOMUSEO National Museum of Photography in Colombia; and JuMing Museum (Taipei, Taiwan). She was special prize winner at Arte Laguna (Italy 2011), received the grand prize at Prix Virginia (Paris, France 2014); and was awarded first place for a fine art print from Applied Arts (Canada 2016). Dina Goldstein lives and works in East Vancouver.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.