by Jo Latham

Jo Latham has a crush on contemporary performance artist Hannah Raisin.

When I first meet Hannah Raisin, she’s sitting in the gutter outside Rearview Gallery off Smith St, a long skirt dipped between her legs. I hop off my bike, nervous and excited, pencil between my teeth and grab out my notebook. She smiles and fobs off the boy she’s with to show me ‘round.

Her studio is like a cramped basement cupboard, boxes and tools and fabric all over the floor. One wall is completely covered in small, framed pin up girl pictures. I wonder if she’s a lesbian, and how that affects my reading of her work – of her. But it’s not sexual gratification that drives Raisin’s obsession with women and femininity, but self-knowledge. What does it mean to be – what can she do as – this pretty white girl?

She shows me through some albums of her work, saying she doesn’t know art history, critical theory – but I spy Marina Abramović on her book-shelf. There are pictures of her running around naked in the Botanic Gardens. I’m glad I’m looking over her shoulder and not driving the page-turning; I can feel the sweat on my fingertips. This sweet, gorgeous young woman beside me flicks through stills of her chomping into a huge hunk of red meat, a collection of meat figure porn – in which she sculptured almost life-size figures from raw meat into various sexual positions, culminating with their decay, wrapped around each other in an open refrigerator. Next she shows me a video that is, well, a strawberry coming out of an anus; and it’s beautiful. “I like embarrassment,” she says and oh I am really feeling it, “I’m interested in that awkwardness of social expectations jarring against individual desires, especially for women.”

After seeing her showcase Sugar Coated, twice, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer amount she produces. Sugar Coated is a revolving collection of short videos interceded with live performances by the artist, all choreographed to her own music. Sugar Coated captures Raisin’s understanding of the conflicts and anxieties which surround contemporary femininity and women’s sexuality. One piece that I can’t get out of my head for days afterwards consists of her smacking herself in the face while regurgitating skittles to a merry-go-round theme tune that, to me, is the most candid and poignant portrayal of child abuse I’ve ever seen.

Raisin is nothing if not frank. Her work is honest and at times heart-wrenchingly so. Nothing is off limits and the explorations in her art are clearly the artist’s coming to terms with the world around her and her position in it. “Getting my period at 11 ruined my life,” she tells me, “sometimes I find being female really hard. I was always number one or two in all the sports in primary school and used to beat up the boys.”

There’s something playful, yet deadly serious, in each of her pieces. And they’re exhilarating to witness. Her work investigates this ambivalence: about herself; about young, white women’s positions, opportunities and restrictions in contemporary Australia. Frigid Ego tells of the loneliness and confusion she experienced during the time she spent – engaged – living in Daylesford in regional Victoria. “I guess I went crazy,” she staunchly observes. There’s a whole series of projections of her lying in various isolated places, the only movement that of trucks on a distant highway – she looks dead. “That’s how it felt,” she shrugs.

Raisin was born in Upway, in front of the fireplace in a house her dad built. Growing up in the semi bush of the Dandenong Ranges, she attended Steiner schools but spent her adolescence at an “awful private girls school” while living in Melbourne’s trendy inner city suburbs.

When we meet up again it’s a Friday afternoon at a rooftop bar in the CBD. I’d forgotten what a peak drinking hour it is when we made arrangements. Of course it’s packed and I have to shrove through businessmen with their collars unbuttoned, beer swilling out of their glasses and onto my shirt. I’m flustered and without a drink when I reach the back corner where she waits patiently. I smile awkwardly. Her glass of beer is half full and she looks completely serene. Unlike me, she doesn’t look out of place. Looking around at the men with their ties loosened and throbbing necks exposed she remarks, “I’m fascinated by meat. I like it because it’s the stuff were all made of. In my next work I’m going out to shoot bunnies in the bush with some Aussie cowboys. I’m going to go all English hunter macho-femme bunny killer…”

But it doesn’t quite work out that way. The exhibition is a group show unimaginatively titled Play With Your Food. Raisin’s intention was to shoot, skin and prepare stew from a wild rabbit to feed an audience as they watched a film of the event. However Raisin, a lifetime vegetarian, was left devastated by the rabbit’s death. “I thought I’d seem real manly,” she explains, “but it was just horrible.” Instead of the stew there’s a salad of rabbits’ favourite greens, and a video homage to a life she loved too late. And Raisin isn’t precious. She tells me she once lived in a refurb-ing house without a bathroom.

In Follow The White Rabbit, Raisin plays out the failure of Play With Your Food’s bunny killing. So much of Raisin’s work challenges the impossible and ridiculous expectations of femininity through Raisin’s actual physical consumption. And what she did in White Rabbit was not eat it. Instead, she bought a replacement bunny as a pet.

Louis hops around her apartment, sniffing and nibbling at the dresses and jumpsuits. “I like ugly that’s ugly, you know?” she says as she pulls a lavender onesie on over her jeans, the wrong way ‘round. “Not ugly ironic or ugly cool, I mean there is nothing flattering or cute about this”. She looks at me for confirmation but I’m distracted by the rabbit. He’s a real life, not ‘for art’ – whatever that might mean. The question on everyone’s lips at the opening of White Rabbit “The rabbit died for art?” Not that animals don’t die everyday for various unimpressive reasons, but Raisin is humble in her response. “I was asked to make a meal along with a work related to the meal’s production. But when I had the dead rabbit in my hands, well, I just couldn’t do it. I felt so guilty.”

Raisin picks Louis up and he cosies into the nape of her neck “We’re pretty good friends,” she reflects, holding him close to her breast. For her, I think this outcome is quite wonderful. She’s incredibly dynamic: never stubborn or set to one way of seeing or thinking or doing things. And that is only going to refine and strengthen her future works.

Raisin’s most recent exhibition was Separation Anxiety at Blindside Gallery. Here Raisin continued to explore the relation between human and animal, and especially that of her and Louis. The rabbit in this exhibition perhaps played a livelier role than the artist herself: where he moves, she remains still, herself mimicking the dead rabbit of her previous show.

Separation Anxiety is showing throughout 2012 at Hares & Hyenas Bookshop and Café, 63 Johnston St Fitzroy, Melbourne. See you there.

Check out