Luke Hardy: The Limen of Love and Loss

© Luke Hardy ‘Votive X’ [detail] 2009

Loss gives love a signature.


Myth and legend were born of the urge to make sense. Faced with the random filaments of experience, the ancients wove stories that gave a comforting sense of purpose. Comforting even when that purpose was unhappy. For a melancholy purpose is more tolerable than a meaningless chaos. In time, the need to make sense branched into separate streams that pursued the spiritual, temporal, and imaginative tributaries of being: religion, science, and the arts. And yet the prototype myths and legends retained their hold on the imagination, clothing new insights in the amiable garb of familiar trope. Thus, the constituents of the starry heavens took their names from the deities of old, while the flawed protagonists of ancient legend lent their foibles to the syndromes of modern psychology. The dreams of the past live on like a deep pool into which we peer, still seeking sense amid the eddies of personal experience.

For the Australian artist Luke Hardy, myth and metaphor are the means by which to reflect upon the ebb and flow of affective attachment. In his work, each has its own psychological palette and emotional temperature. Myth stands at a distance, looking to a culture far removed from his own – that of Japan – infusing traditional tropes of spectral destiny and honourable imperfection. Meanwhile metaphor glows with its own shamanistic heat amid a visceral darkness. The former finds solace in the cool appraisal of Japanese narrative irony. The latter leans inward to the residual heat of a departed intimacy as it hardens like cooling bronze or dissipates like smoke from fading embers. A complementary double helix of myth and metaphor tracing the ever-evolving genome of love and loss.

In juxtaposing personal and culturally distant narratives the work finds a delicate balance. Tales of Japanese folklore, while referenced, are not simply retold. Elegies for loves now unrequited are not simply confessed. The artist stands on the threshold between paradigms, between remote ghosts and recent memories. Finding purpose in imperfection, poetry in melancholy and, in the void of loss, the hushed echo of a lingering affection.

Alasdair Foster

© Luke Hardy ‘Patina XX’ 2019


You draw much of your inspiration from Japan. What is it about Japanese culture that attracts you?

It began in childhood with anime and Japanese TV dramas. I think what stuck was the sense of a different world with its own rules. A culture that for better or for worse seemed highly resolved compared with Australia at that time. While I shed religion growing up, I retained an interest in ritual. Buddhist and animist cultures provide a rich space for all that. But my aesthetic inspirations are not only Japanese. I like square and cinematic formats and use symmetry, all of which are rare in Japanese art.

In 2009, you made two series of work which were to lead you on two parallel but distinct paths: ‘Yuki Onna’ and ‘Votive’. The former is narrative, drawing on a Japanese folk tale. The latter is more sensual, involving a subtle use of symbol. How did each begin?

The inspiration to create the ‘Yuki Onna’ images came first. In Japanese folklore, Yuki Onna is a spectral snow woman. She has long black hair, wears white robes, and leaves no footprints. Grandmothers tell children to rug up in bed so that Yuki Onna does not cross the threshold and freeze them to death. She exists folklorically outside narrative, like the bogeyman, and it was tempting to make portraits of her.

A popular Yuki Onna story was transcribed by the scholar Lafcadio Hearn around 1900, part of the Japanese narrative tradition of Kwaidan (tales of the uncanny). It tells of two woodsmen taking shelter in a hut during a blizzard. The younger one wakes in the night to see Yuki Onna in her white robes leaning over the elder one, freezing him with her icy breath. She turns on the witness but spares him because of his youth, warning him to tell no-one what he just saw lest she return to kill him too. The following spring, he meets a woman on the road to Edo [now Tokyo]. They fall in love and marry. They have many children. She never seems to age. Spoiler alert: she’s Yuki Onna, but he hasn’t recognised her…

…That is, until one windy night, when he catches sight of a different face in the flickering of a candle – a kind of photograph, if you like – and feels a sudden frisson. She asks him what happened. He is reticent, recalling the curse. She asks again (which intrigues me) and he mentions the blizzard and the most beautiful, terrifying woman he’d ever seen. Wrathful, Yuki Onna reveals herself. She spares him because he is the father of her children, but disappears forever, leaving him bereft… A perfect cameo of love and loss.

This work is very personal; I am not simply attempting to illustrate that narrative. I made it coming out of a long relationship. I usually identify with the woodsman and his fate, but making these pictures helped me consider the plight of Yuki Onna: she achieves humanity in two acts of mercy.

…And how did ‘Votive’ begin?

‘Votive’ grew out of my travels in Bhutan in 2005 and a series of portraits of monks. The monks were very spontaneous, in contrast to their more ascetic Theravada brethren in Thailand and Laos. Buddhism in Bhutan consciously embraces the thin line between the spiritual and the sensual. In one temple fortress, I witnessed monks engaged in votive dancing and was invited to photograph them. At another temple, there was a festival in which naked youths and novices improvised a priapic dance around a courtyard bonfire. Local wives were encouraged to accompany their husbands with a view to inspiring more babies. This felt like the kind of Buddhism that Chaucer would have appreciated. Understandably, photographs were not permitted.

I wanted to describe this fearless pairing of the earthly with the sublime. Something missing from my own education. I pared things down to votive media: threads, phalli, ritual bathing, tattooed sutras. Dedications to gods and spirits in pursuit of worldly advantage. Hence this tangent of images: dancing monks and nude males, linked by red robes. All a bit of a fever dream…

Your next series, ‘Shadowings’, also draws on a Japanese folk tale…

Ghost stories are usually about unfinished business, emotional baggage. ‘Shadowings’ was inspired by another story transcribed by Hearn, ‘The Reconciliation’, which is also part of the Kwaidan. It tells of a samurai who becomes a ronin on the ruin of his lord and tells his wife, a silk weaver, that to restore his honour he has no choice but to seek station in another domain. The wife reluctantly forebears. The ronin finds a position under another governor and marries his daughter, who is vain and unloving. A samurai again, he dreams of the wife he left. Men’s stuff, but there we are.

On the governor’s retirement, the samurai returns home and finds his former wife at her loom. She embraces, bathes, and feeds him and takes him to bed. He feels forgiven. Come morning, he awakens beside an old kimono, some flaky bones, and a length of black hair. The reconciliation was illusory. I chose to call this series ‘Shadowings’, after the name of the anthology in which it appears. It nicely suggests haunting.

Hair plays an important role in the visual language you developed in this series.

Hair is only mentioned once at the very end of the tale, but that one mention gives us the story’s eerie denouement. I made it my main motif: hair as a tangible manifestation of memory and longing. The somnambulist caressing his own hair is lost in nostalgia and self-gratification, two major dynamics in the story. Then came the more melodramatic images, some quoting different modes of Japanese theatre. The samurai, a man of action, assumes a passive role in a tug-of-war between his wife and three black-clad bunraku puppeteers. A Noh mask disguises mischief. Hair is being spun into thread. Few of these images depict specific episodes in the story. Hopefully, they have a life of their own.

Tell me about ‘Foxfires’. First, what is a foxfire?

Foxes (kitsune) are notoriously solitary. However, in Japanese folklore, they gather in the dark – to what ends we do not know – and when they do little lights appear in the distance. These are called foxfires (kitsune-bi) and much strange-apparition lore (yokai) speculates on them.

What did you want to explore in this work?

The liminal. In Japanese lore, foxes are ambivalent creatures: loyal protectors of crops and also notorious trespassers. They are poets of beguilement. Possessors of souls. They can inhabit your lover and you might never know unless you discover a tail… I love all that.

There is no specific narrative. The series starts with images of sleeping foxes. (I think there’s nearly always a dreamer in my work.) It then mutates into more anthropomorphic portraits and, separately, depictions of almost sinister nocturnal encounters involving strange concord with Heian maidens and Shinto acolytes. I wanted to suggest a breach of the membrane between the civilised world and the wild.

Where did you make these various folkloric series and who are the human and animal actors in your images?

Some ‘Yuki Onna’ images were created in my home studio with help from friends. Others incorporated material shot in Japan with a lot of digital manipulation. I kept things simple. Plausible fictions… The faces of Yuki Onna are composites involving a nuanced image layering, which I hope lends them an otherworldly look.

With ‘Shadowings’, everything was created at home either in camera or in Photoshop. Mostly with the help of friends, though there were some professional models. I shot all but one of the dusky backgrounds out of my studio window.

All of the visual elements for ‘Foxfires’ were shot in Japan, with the exception of the occasionally anthropomorphic eyes. The foxes live in a sanctuary in the north of the country that I have visited several times in different seasons. The human faces are again composites.

[Left] © Luke Hardy ‘Patina XXXIX’ 2015–2022
[Right] © Luke Hardy ‘Patina XI’ 2015

Returning to the theme of the sensual male nude juxtaposed with minimal but highly symbolic objects and materials, we come to two interconnected series: ‘Patina’ and ‘The Waking Dream’. What themes are you exploring in this extended series?

Again, liminal states. Ephemeral things. Imperfection. Impermanence. Illegible calligraphy was a frequently recurring motif. The notion of writing that disappears before it can make sense came to me quite early. A dream distorted in the attempt to recollect it.

In much of this work, the skin of your subjects has been given a metallic sheen. Why is this?

There is a practice in Japan of repairing ceramics with gilded resin. It is called kintsugi. The presence of the gold highlights the beauty of imperfection and decay. In this work my instinct was to keep the metallic effect quite rough and unfinished. I called the series ‘Patina’, a word with generic connotations of beauty in decay. With ephemeral calligraphy and patinated skin I felt I had two strong visual elements that would draw the series together. On the skin, tantalisingly legible fragments appear to be emerging on or vanishing into the body, as if corroding. I chose the Heart Sutra because, subverting the intimacy and eros at play, it is about letting go.

© Luke Hardy ‘Patina XLIII’ 2018–2022

The work was made over a ten-year period. How did your ideas develop in that time?

After I exhibited ‘Patina’ in 2015, I began work on ‘Foxfires’. I was on a creative high. Then in 2020 the pandemic hit. I couldn’t shoot new work, but I had a lot of unused material that I had put aside. So, I made use of what I had. The process not only became a remedy for isolation but also gave it purpose.

As another relationship went its way, my thoughts turned to the fleeting nature of intimacy. The idea of a dream in which memories and might-have-beens haunt our waking life. I evolved the gold screen as a liminal element on (or through) which intimates appear as shadows of differing density, suggesting moments of illusory connection. But ‘The Waking Dream’ is not just about personal relationships; I’m also thinking about the creative spark and the frustrations that arise in trying to give it expression. The figures with their hair ablaze seem to be on the brink of inspiration. The obsession is strong but the fire can’t last. I hint at this with one of the figures seeming to weaken under the ordeal. Literally burning out, perhaps.

© Luke Hardy ‘Patina XXIX’ 2014–2021

Although these images are sensual and quite mysterious, for me there is also a mood of melancholy about them. A restraint that hovers somewhere between desire and difference. Is that an accurate reading?

Entirely apt. I aim for restraint. Visible quiet. I want my subjects to hold the viewer at an intimate distance. As a genre, portraiture aspires to glimpse the subject’s inner life. Intentionally, my work is conscious of never quite comprehending it. And I really appreciate your sensing the melancholy. People say there’s no love without loss. That might be wabi sabi in a nutshell. Love is illiterate. Blissfully ignorant. Loss gives love a signature.

What have you learned about yourself through your artmaking. What have photography and Japanese culture taught you?

I think I’ve discovered that my work is not interested in the moral. Art that purports to be about race, space, and gender seems tethered to moral assumption. I’m not in that struggle. For the most part, Japanese culture is the more confident for its strict moral codes. Yet, for all my fascination with things Japanese, I am happy to remain an outsider. I am intrigued by karma, though, but I would be pretending if I said I were Buddhist. Photographers probably make terrible Buddhists … in the sense that we hold on to sensations and then try to perfect them.

© Luke Hardy ‘Patina XIII’ 2015

Biographical Notes

Luke Hardy was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1957. He has a bachelor’s degree in English and Australian literature from the University of Sydney and a master’s degree Latin American studies from the University of New South Wales. He has lived and worked in the United Kingdom (1979–80), Thailand (1983–84 and 1991–92), and Indonesia (1992–93). In the 1980s, he made an extensive documentation of the Indochinese refugee diaspora for a number of UN publications. He was a writer, consultant, and stills photographer on two television documentaries, in Laos (1989) and in Iran (1991). His first exhibition, which documented Iraqi Kurds border-crossing into Iran, was presented alongside work by the Japanese photographer Masanori Kobayashi in Sydney Opera House, before touring to Canberra, Melbourne, Wellington, and Tokyo (1991–92). Since then, his work has featured in eleven solo exhibitions and more than a dozen group shows in Australia. His photographs are held in a number of private collections in Australia, Canada, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the USA. His images have been included in a number of art publications, including ‘Burma: Art and Archaeology’ [The British Museum 2002], and ‘Australian Photography and Gallery Compendium’ [Daylight Productions 2012]. He lives and works in Sydney.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.