During her formative years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Zahalka absorbed a stock of critical ideas which continue to influence her practice even today. Guy Debord’s notions of the society of the spectacle, for example (which he defined as “a social relation between people that is mediated by images”, and “the image of blissful unification of society through consumption”) could serve as epigraphs for her Leisureland .
As a student, Zahalka’s developed a critical perspective on the hitherto little-questioned relationship between documentary photographers and “the Australian archive”. The archive (containing, first and foremost, “stereotypes and national icons”) was far from being a neutral, benign, inclusive, democratic commonwealth, according to this new understanding. On the contrary, it was skewed by a host of untenable assumptions and prejudices. In general terms, it was a stock of images serving as propaganda: it was normative, coercive, authoritarian and inherently ideological. To avoid the ideological co-option of their work, “those dissenting like myself, turned away from the real world and constructed their own within studios, often referencing the outside indirectly through popular culture or art history”, Zahalka explains.
Her initial non- or anti-documentary stance would appear to be contradicted by her works in this exhibition – but then, so too, aspects of contemporary Australia life have come full circle during the past thirty years, and, paralleling the way of art, have created touristic epiphanies that are the shadow images of advertising and mass entertainment – and, yes, of art history too. Among the signal events of Postmodernism, Frederick Jameson tells us, were “the industrialization of agriculture and the colonisation and commercialization of the Unconscious or, in other words, mass culture and the culture industry.” Zahalka’s images commemorate this Postmodern turn and enrich the Australian archive with their testimony.