SUMMER, VOL. 6, NO. 3, P.14-15


In The Clown Said No, a 1962 children’s book written by Mischa Damjan, a clown named Petronicus runs away from the circus because he’s tired of being laughed at. The book made a strong impression on at least one young reader: Rhona Bitner, now an artist living in New York, who has travelled extensively to attend performances by Circus Oz, the Shanghai Circus, L’Ecole nationale du cirque, and other players in the three-ring world, both large and small, old and new.

For ten years beginning in 1990, from her position in the audience, Bitner photographed acrobats, clowns, aerialists, and other circus performers in the spotlight of the ring. The results have been described by critics as exquisite action photographs, studies of the “naked confrontation between performer and audience, and “tiny personifications of our own selves working desperately to please.”

Bitner furthered this work in 2001 through a series of formal, life-size studio portraits of that beleaguered circus staple, the clown. Standing almost awkwardly in their dazzling Harlequin costumes, impossibly red wigs, and enormous checkered ties, Bitner’s clowns are both vulnerable and defiant. They call to mind the plight of Petronicus – and all other reluctant, though heartily applauded, “fools.”

A work from this series appears in The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown, showing at the National Gallery of Canada from 25 June to 19 September. Bitner spoke to Vernissage from her home in New York. – Anita Lahey

The catalogue for The Great Parade mentions that a children’s book called The Clown Said No contributed to your interest in working with circus imagery. Why that book?

I loved that book. I have very fond memories of it, and the concept of life inside the ring versus outside the ring stayed with me.

Some people fear clowns.

That wasn’t my own experience, but you’re right. I realized how common the fear was with the earlier CIRCUS series. Many people looking at the work had peculiar responses to the images of clowns. One or two didn’t even want to touch the photographs. Some just said, “I don’t like clowns,” and dismissed the work. In the ring, the buffoonish behaviour, the extreme makeup and the colours can be disconcerting to some people, especially children, as they never see what’s underneath. That is what the CLOWN series grew out of. I am trying to understand the relationship between the viewer and the clown, examine that process – stare it down, in a way.

Do you understand it better now?

I can empathize with it. The world inside the ring parallels the world outside the ring – that is part of the basic structure that makes up the idea of the circus. The clown is the character that represents us in the ring. The portraits are meant to function as mirrors, confronting the viewer with this alter-self, this anti-self. They are life-size for this reason. As the viewer approaches the image, he wonders who is looking at whom.

Have you encountered people encountering the images?

Yes, it’s interesting. One person jumped. Some people look away quickly or won t look at all; some just stand and stare; many grimace or grin.

It’s unsettling.

Yes. I’m not trying to frighten anyone, but confronting the discomfort is a basis of the work.

After ten years, did you get tired of going to the circus?

No. Each one had something new to see, to learn from. I never lost that sense of wonder I had when I began the project.

I’ve read that you’re more concerned with the audience than the performer. Is that true?

Of course, I am a part of the audience. I work from that perspective, not from the perspective of the performer. The performers are inscrutable. I may look at them, but I don’t know them.

Do you prefer not to know?

If I get to know them, my anonymity vanishes. I view them from a distance; that’s enough.

This is why you chose to work from the perspective of the audience rather than doing something like going backstage?
The work is not documentary. It is not about the experience of being a circus performer. It is about looking at the character in the spotlight – what he represents, and what the act of looking at him represents. I must remain the outsider looking into the ring. That tactful gaze is vital to this work – indeed, to much of photography. It allows me the power and discretion to select the monuments that comprise the work.

Did you ever see something in the photographs themselves that you didn’t see watching the actual circus?

Working with the circus, you have to work very fast. So, yes, sometimes there were surprises when I processed the film. The individual performances aren’t very long – only a few minutes – and they go by so quickly. The photographs allow me the luxury of contemplation.

You mentioned a sense of wonderment. Is that one of the things about the circus-?

That’s one of the things about the world. Photography necessitates a trust in the world. It gives you your work. The wonderment is in how you approach it. Either you hope to be thrilled or you don’t.

How is taking clown portraits in your studio different from the work you did at the circus?

Besides the obvious physical and technical differences, it removes my anonymity and gives me control over the process, like the ringmaster. I can suggest a pose or gesture that will elicit more or less of a response.

Like what?

When we started, I explained the premise of the work and gave the clowns some specific direction to look directly at the camera and not to smile; we worked together on the poses based on those ideas. Inherent to the concept was that the makeup was smiling, but the person behind it was not. Ironically, the image that the National Gallery chose for the exhibition (p. 16) is the only one with a smile. This particular smile, however, is inseparable from the character and the man behind it, and is more of a challenge – saying, “Look at me!” – than an innocent smile. In this case alone, the smile embodied what I was trying to do.

Are you doing other work?

I began a new series of images about six months ago. The images are made in the theatre at the moment when the lights dim and the curtain just begins to rise. It is a moment of expectation and dread, on the side of both the performer and the audience – once again, a parallel to human experience.

Why do you think we are so fascinated with spectacle?

It is everywhere, isn’t it? Relentless. I don’t really know. I think we are searching for an alternate experience to our own everyday lives. Our culture allows us to create all kinds of artificial worlds for ourselves; I guess we get carried away sometimes.

What really draws you in the most at the circus? Is it the clown?

Yes, the clowns. I empathize with them. All the other characters in the circus are beyond us. We’re not going to get on a trapeze and fly through the air. The clowns are getting knocked down and picking themselves up again. They’re doing what we do.