Stefa Panoschi, Untitled, Pampas butter puff pastry; apples; walnuts; black peppercorns; green sichuan peppercorns; sugar; cinnamon, 2023. Photography by Elena Hogan.
Prompted by un Magazine’s General Manager, I attended a screening of Interview With The Vampire at ACMI with an introduction by critic and historian Dr. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. In her introduction, Heller-Nicholas contextualised this queer coded film with the zeitgeist of the 90s and the oeuvre of Anne Rice. She also touched on the apocalyptically bad sequel Queen of the Damned and shared how the film features a range of local sites. This is where I need your attention because one of these locations is Werribee, a suburb 32km south-west of Naarm’s CBD.
“Werribee?” I thought to myself. “What the fuck did they film in Werribee?” Heller-Nicholas resolved my intrigue by playing a scene of the vampire Lestat lip synching to Korn on a faux stage erected in Werribee, populated by a mass of extras in goth makeup. She paused it right before Lestat takes a break from the nu-metal to slash a bunch of trad vampires in half, who are attacking him on stage for revealing ancient secrets in his lyrics. I lost my shit so hard. This proved that my vampire community is thriving in this city since our landmark event Queen of the Damned in 2002, motivating me to find their legacy in art.
Ah, yes. There is a rumour going around that in my mind, I am a real-life vampire (people have been asking me for years and I answer yes depending on my mood). So, sure. I am a fucking vampire, and I have been since the 16th fucking century. That is why I am into horror figures, just basic old me fantasising about a tight cape around my neck. I have never noticed the complex encoding that engulfs the morbid bodies of vampires, as evolving anxieties inscribe their undead flesh with a surplus of meaning. It’s like my little brain is incapable of appreciating the relevance of a media text charged with myth and disease. I am just trying out fangs for my eternal quinceañera. That is why I am writing this feature on two emerging artists working with themes related to vampirism, to take you on an earnest journey guided by a vocal fry monologue. You bet.
Like Jonathan Harker reaching the Carpathian Mountains on his way to meet Dracula’s castle — inciting the panic of locals who are aware of the sepulchral horrors that lie behind its musky walls — my first encounter is with Stefa Panoschi’s crucifixes called Untitled. Panoschi is an emerging artist working across various mediums to look at their Romanian heritage, often referencing early cinema to create makeshift images that oscillate between post-emo irony and genuine nostalgia.
Earlier this year they had a show at Seventh Gallery called Bine Te-am Gasit (Touch is my Love Language), which looked at the concept of home by drawing inspiration from a recent trip to Romania. As part of this exhibition, they baked pastries in the shape of crucifixes that they hung on the wall next to gothic-ish pictures and videos, inviting the audience to eat them. Inspired by a traditional Romanian recipe and memories of their grandmother, the pastries had apple, walnut and peppercorn amongst sweet spices. These scrumptious crucifixes later curved from the walls as they progressively lost their freshness to time throughout the exhibition period, which became a testament to impermanence but also resembled a body drained from life.
During an Interview With Panoschi (ba da boom tss), they explained how they dealt with the audience like a vampire, inviting them to their home to consume their work. On the other hand, they also related a diasporic impostor syndrome — passing as Romanian or so called Australian — which echoes with the Strigoi (who comes across as human). The notion of a “knockoff” or bad copy also permeated the materials in the show, noting that the peppercorns that adorned the crosses were a stand in for jewels.
It is notable that Panoschi focused on how the audience is consuming their ethnicity, as we often have the tendency to concentrate on the “institution” and its modes of display (clearly because the institution rewards this enquiry). Rather than the public demand that drives these spectacles, since the time of ethnological expositions. One could say that the naming of the work as Untitled reflects an absence or unnameable state, which speaks to the uncertainty of a binational heritage. The so called public — caught in an eternal game of shapeshifting and infinite variance — simply loves gazing or taking part in this process of naming something other, which accounts for the popularity of identity themes across programming. On the other hand, we also love identifying with something that is like us (and who knows what else this mass of strangers wants or needs). One could say that Panoschi captured this ambivalence by feeding this demand with appetising objects that they purposely allowed to rot on the walls, speaking to the fetidity of this model.
For a more literal depiction of this monster, we have Neve Curnow who directed the short film undead instinct (2022) to show the transformation of a vampire. Told with B-grade aesthetics reminiscent of underground filmmaking, she employs medium close-ups to convey this humorous narrative in fragments. The film opens with a femme presenting head (presumably the artist) bleeding on the ground followed by a montage of cemeteries and references to cinematic bloodsuckers. We follow this protagonist as they hysterically begin to wonder if they are a vampire, searching for answers on the Internet and books (one of them is Vampires: The Occult Truth written by a paranormal researcher who claims they are real... and has been a guest on MTV). Shots of sheep and a hysterically out of context ‘doggo’ interject this quest for self-knowledge, followed by blood falling on a cup in absurd quantities.
The claustrophobic quality of Curnow’s film reminded me of early lifecasts such as JenniCam —who broadcasted her life on the internet from 1996-2003 — and Sadie Benning’s PixelVision films from the 90s, where she recorded inventive video diaries as a teenager. This is due to the one camera in one bedroom quality of undead instinct as well as the trivial approach to vampirism: just a regular person, turning into a regular vampire. This creates an energetic gothification of earlier video art and its attempts at decoding identity through the lens, by sinking into the psyche of the artist. One meets a campy monster rather than a postmodern or underrepresented self, which falls in line with Curnow wider preoccupations, such as the experience of queerness in rural areas. It is a coming of age mediatised by the gothic and complicated by its environment, showing how tropes of horror continue to speak to a contemporary experience.
Keep fighting the good fight, comrades.