Entering the weird underground bunker of Avon cosmetics founder Gerry Henderson, Juno Calypso found a morbidly glamorous location exactly fitted to her interests and aesthetic
Under the back garden of an unremarkable family home in Las Vegas is an extraordinary 16,000 sq ft, all-pink, bomb-proof bunker. Inside are decadent bedrooms decorated with crystal chandeliers and baby pink wallpaper, and a bathrooms with a hot-pink toilet, white marble hot tub, and opulent golden fittings. Surrounding the house is a hand-painted mural of the countryside, and an underground garden with a swimming pool and fake trees growing out of a carpet that stands in for grass.
“It’s basically a house within a house,” explains Juno Calypso, who spent three days of solitude in the bunker, for her project What To Do With A Million Years. Designed to be safe from any disaster or intruder, the bunker was built in 1964 by Avon cosmetics founder Gerry Henderson and his wife, who were terrified of a potential nuclear breakout in the advent of the cold war.
Calypso exhibited her series at London’s TJ Boulting gallery, and transformed the basement space into a version of the garden, complete with fake plants, eerie mood lighting, and a soundtrack of soft romantic rock that plays against the continuous sound of running water from a stone fountain in the corner.
“It fits the mood of the photographs,” she says as we sit beneath the arches of a white garden arbour, fake ivy dangling above our heads and Lady in Red by Chris De Burgh playing in the background. “All the songs are about pining after someone. It’s sad but bittersweet, there’s an extravagance to it”.
After seeing an article about a “time-capsule home” that had been sold to a “mystery group”, Calypso tracked down the owners and organised a visit. “It’s weird, I clicked on a link and then I was actually there,” she says. Because it is completely underground, the bunker has adjustable lighting controls that set the scene from dusk to dawn.
“Sleeping down there was creepy,” says Calypso. “When you turn all the lights off it’s pitch black, by the end I just kept all the lights on, all the time.” After three whole days of working on her own, Calypso took a break to travel, and on her return decided to stay in a nearby hotel instead.
What she didn’t know before arriving was that this “mystery group” was a collective of scientists who study the preservation of human life. After arriving at the bunker Calypso discovered pamphlets and magazines about the latest advancements in cryogenic freezing, immortality and preservation, details of which she has printed in her limited edition A5 zine of the series, which also includes information on the bunker’s previous owners, newspaper clippings, and Calypso’s own photographs.
“It was perfect – I’ve done beauty and gender roles, so let me just move onto another cliche, death,” jokes Calypso, who won BJP‘s International Photography Award in 2016 with a project called The Honeymoon on the construction of femininity. “In a way, it’s all connected because it wasn’t just about technology but it was about eating blueberries, being healthy, and anti-ageing”.
Eternal life became the central theme of What To Do With A Million Years, resulting in a series of dreamy photographs that occasionally slip into nightmare. The shots are distinctly voyeuristic, featuring Calypso’s legs wrapped in tin-foil, her face concealed behind a sinister beauty mask, and several images shot through the windows from the garden.
The final compositions are perfectly framed and lit, but making them was less glamorous, involving Calypso “in a dressing gown, hunched over with a wig on, going back and forth from the camera to the spot like a grumpy old woman”. She says the work would be easier, and less lonely, if she had a team, but has never wanted to work that way.
“I’ve never done this around another person,” she says. “I read somewhere that isolation and solitude is the only place that fantasy can take place. Being alone is the only time you can set off that inner cinema.”
The finishing touch to the installation is a pit of pebbles spelling out “SEX” in pink stones – apparently, the second owner of the house was a man called Tex, who added a similar feature to the Las Vegas house. In fact, if you type the address into Google maps and zoom in on satellite mode, you can still see SEX written in the sand, right outside the steps to the bunker.
BJP’s International Photography Award 2020 is currently open for applications. Apply now: www.bjpipa.com / Deadline: 8 October 2020 – 23:59 (UK Time).