Peterborough Presents Writing Commission – Alistair Gentry
Peterborough Presents and the Wash Your Dirty Linen in Public artists commissioned writer Alistair Gentry to write a mini-essay on their work. Here are his words:
Wash Your Dirty Linen in Public
Peterborough City Gallery’s first exhibition of live art raises the same question we have to ask of all live art, especially durational live art: if a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to hear, did the tree make a sound? In other words is live art real without an audience, as live art so often is either by design or by circumstance? There is an audience for this exhibition, by the way, because I’ve seen them… but the question remains. Live art is real to the artist at least, but then so are the private making or cleaning rituals of an individual with obsessive compulsive disorder, whose self-imposed tasks often bear an uncomfortable or even blackly comical and ridiculous resemblance to the things some artists do voluntarily in the name of live art. So what makes an act performance art instead of just an expression of a personality disorder?
One possible difference is commitment; all three artists insist that their work goes on even when nobody is looking, and again I can from personal experience confirm that it does indeed go on when nobody but me is looking. I believe them when they say that it does at other times too. On the other hand, without casting any aspersions whatsoever– quite apart from the fact that seating myself in the gallery so I could monitor all three put me in the loaded position of a male overseer of female drudgery, albeit self-imposed drudgery, a scenario which would frankly take a whole other essay to take apart– possibly they were only working in the way that I saw them working because I was watching them. They are in the same position as all live artists who work outside the parameters of the polite, seated auditorium; if nobody saw you, as a live artist you can potentially tell anybody you did anything and to a certain degree it doesn’t really matter if you did, provided that your listener believes you. Convince them that the tree fell in the forest and bingo, your work exists.
There is definitely some production here, though, evidence of the artists being in a kind of prison; domesticity and futility and the need for a performance all add further layers of imprisonment. It makes me rethink many other live art acts I’ve seen as just other forms of donkeywork, including but not limited to the ones on show here. Chapattis are cooked (occasionally burned) and jars are filled with permutations on the theme of chutney, embroidery spreads across white cotton with the aimless determination of a cancer, painted walls begin to look disgustingly unwholesome from being scrubbed far beyond the point of cleanliness. These are aestheticised but no less laborious versions of tasks stereotypically assigned to the female; to cook, to clean, to sew. The studious blankness of the performance artist and the prohibition on talking makes live artists oddly akin to the servants who should preferably not be seen and definitely should not be heard in hotels or the homes of the rich. It also takes these performers into the fairytale realm where Cinderella or Rapunzel traditionally, ritually informed girls of their likely fate as either downtrodden domestics or prisoners of luxury, or a weird combination of both. Even the supposedly escapist fairytale is rarely free of female drudgery and disempowerment as a subtext, just as labour saving domestic devices don’t necessarily reduce the number of jobs to be done, just as the need to devote time and labour to tasks of supposedly reduced labour clearly still falls disproportionately to women.
The environment created for Gaganpreet Gill Kaur‘s Chapatti Wife character obviously refers to traditional wifely activities and the usual settings in which they would be expected to take place, but in a white cube environment the low budget Homebase orientalism of the small stand of tiny houseplants and the neatly arranged, gleaming mason jars on shelves remind me unavoidably of the fetishised upper-middle-classness of the so-called domestic goddesses who on television, in magazines and on the internal lifestyle goal Pinterest boards of their own egos are free to enjoy as and when they wish what other people– especially other women– have no choice but to endure as work. The artist herself quickly found that even in such a patently unreal kitchen the pressure of being Chapatti Wife takes a toll. Her answer to the question of what “work” is going on while nobody else is looking: Yes she is most definitely, constantly doing the physical and the psychological work of coping with the surprising (to some) logistics of simply (again, simply to some) being ready to feed people whenever they want to be or need to be fed, without question and without excuses. Lest we forget, or lest we never have really taken it on board to begin with, this state of eternal matriarchal readiness to leap into action from a state of habitual invisibility is exactly what has been and continues to be expected of many women in this country and all over the world.
Above the stifling near silence of an empty house being maintained with soft treads and gentle rearrangements, a noise or a non-noise amplified in its awfulness by the rarely less than dreadful aural and visual sterility of the white cube contemporary art gallery, Charlotte Barlow can occasionally be heard before she is seen, either through the thud and swish of a scrubbing pad on a wall or via the sound of a droning Hetty Hoover being horribly misused as a means of sucking up clumped washing powder that has ended up on the floor as a result of Barlow’s very unclean acts of cleaning. Hetty, being a “she”, is of course pink and has eyelashes. “She” is yet another addition to the pantheon of pointlessly, normatively but bizarrely gendered products which become “for” female consumers merely by virtue of being pink, delicate and sparkly… or “for” men because they come in butch colourways like navy blue or matte black, or because they have rugged styling. Apparently Hetty was conceptualised as a wife to the well-known Henry, whose friendly male face sucks up dirt. Now Hetty’s grinning, doe-eyed visage does the same, although the dodgy or even obscene semiotics of her carrying out this act apparently passed her makers by. Or maybe they didn’t. Somehow Henry and Hetty have even produced a miniature vacuum cleaner offspring, although the logistics and imagery of the copulation, gestation and birth involved in such an event are mind boggling and unpleasant. A nearby blackboard asks “How does housework make you feel?” and invites responses, but Barlow’s cubic cell within the monochrome blankness of the gallery itself already expresses eloquently the way many of us feel about housework. Knowing that the construction of this prison for the artist came about because of health, safety, conservation and cleanliness concerns about washing powder spreading unchecked through the whole gallery is conceptually perfect and ironically amusing– albeit not entirely intentionally– for Barlow’s work and for the whole exhibition’s theme of labour imposed upon uncomplaining and semi-invisible women. Perhaps uncomplainable is a better word than uncomplaining, even though it isn’t officially a word, because housewives and servants are like artists in the sense that they’re rarely consulted or listened to on the subject of their own workloads and capabilities. Washing powder all over the gallery is not OK, but an artist stuck in a box with the same washing powder for hours at a time, getting the rash-inducing, caustic material on her skin and her hair and in her clothes… “well, it’s her job, isn’t it?” is strongly implied as an attitude. Seen in this context, the messes Barlow makes in her acts of “cleaning up” could be seen as a clean(ish) counterpart to a genuine prisoner’s dirty protest, undertaken for similarly defiant and exasperated reasons.
Penelope Harrall‘s “luxury” dress made of several thousand unravelled and sewn tampons is ready to be embroidered for hours at a time. Despite the onerousness of this task and the irony of the work’s title (‘My Luxury Item’) which is inspired by the absurdity of the UK government imposing VAT on female sanitary products because they are “non-essential”, she says that she experiences a genuine sense of freedom in having nothing to do but sew while not being spoken to and having nobody making any other demands of her time. This quite clearly mirrors the oft-repeated wish of all artists to have the time and space just to make their work without all the peripheral and mostly banal administrative activities and placatory negotiations that attend the life of a working artist. It also makes explicit the frequently underestimated, undervalued and under-remunerated real labour involved in the making of art works. If the whole dress were to be embroidered in red thread, as is the intended result, Harrall will by the end of her time in the gallery have invested dozens if not hundreds of hours of her labour into the dress. If on the other hand it were simply exhibited in its finished state, it would not only be likely but probably inevitable that few gallery visitors would reflect for very long upon how much work was involved in what might seem to them a simple act. Several of them would probably (and completely wrongly) say that anybody could do it, which is one of the most frequent slurs levelled at contemporary artists, doubly so at performance or conceptual artists. Anybody can potentially be an artist, but not just anybody can make any particular art work. Anybody can clean a house or sew a dress, too, but the fact that certain people do so, or are expected to do so, is not by any means a neutral fact. Some viewers may also react with disgust or concern to the work involving tampons, even though they are “clean”, which in this context is another loaded term of which Harrall is certainly aware.
And so we return to the tree falling in the forest with nobody to hear, the question of whether it can be said to make a sound. All three artists, individually and together, have chosen to amplify the hidden labour of women to an unavoidable level of volume. This might be why some visitors seem wary, even to the point of enacting odd performance art acts themselves: the head projects into the space, but the body somehow remains outside some invisible boundary or around some internal, conceptual boundary they’ve erected. People are also a bit scared of performance art and performance artists sometimes, but I don’t think this is the real reason. My first proposal is closer to the truth, I think: It makes people uncomfortable to see how uncomfortable the people who serve us have to make themselves. From cleaners to mothers, the labour of certain people is always supposed to be invisible although who decided so and why is usually less clear. That’s why live art on the subject of domesticity and drudgery is here and live art on the subject of domesticity and drudgery is necessary. You won’t truly believe or accept how much work is involved unless you see it with your own eyes.