My involvement with, The Museum of Object Research, is giving me the chance to explore how an object works within my own art practice. I wanted an object that would relate to previous work, and fit in with the idea of a of the possibility of a feminine, phenological response to materials. I chose the handbag, partly because of a mild obsession but also because for me it works as a perfect feminine archetype.
“The handbag is one of our most debated, most gendered cultural artefacts. It can be a powerful status symbol, and is a universally recognised indicator of femininity.” Sandra Mardin. Semioticist
My own preoccupation with them began in childhood, standing at a stall at a Bring and Buy sale, and the dawning realisation that I could buy nine used handbags with my pocket money, equivalent to the price of a Mars bar today. They were all shapes and sizes in different materials; leather, moc croc, plastic and textile. The thing that stuck though and remained with me throughout my life, was the used-ness of them, what today would be described as being, pre-loved. The surface of the bags bore graphic traces that evidenced the previous owners/wearers, their scent and their very battered-ness, resonated and hinted at, other lives. And I loved them all.
In retrospect, I think this early, multiple-bag exposure, set in train, a heightened perception of and material sensitivity to old bags. I would give anything to see them again. And this has made me think of the long succession of bags that followed, I remember them all in graphic detail, I could even draw them for you…
“…handbags are in some way linked to the feminine and one would have to see a direct link with the womb…” Rosalind Mayo
The idea of the handbag performing as a cipher for the womb in dream analysis, was started by Freud and continues to seep into the culture today. It seems I have chosen an object which carries multifarious, perceptual and literal baggage and so this stage of the project: to identify and define possible areas of work, has not been easy. During this research phase, I began to notice certain commonalities to do with, bag behaviour. At a party, the hostess noticed that I was carrying a small shoulder bag. She joked with me about this being a safe place to put it down and seeing my reluctance, ushered me to a point under the stairs where there was what seemed to be a whole flock of women’s bags all clustered together forming a circle. There was something so tender about this and memories of being in busy clubs and saying to strangers, “could I leave my bag with yours?” came to mind. Safety in numbers perhaps, but I find it hard to imagine a parallel situation with men and their briefcases or man bags, of which more later.
I couldn’t bear to end up as an Elvis Presley and sing in Las Vegas with all those housewives and old ladies come in with their handbags. It’s really sick. Mick Jagger
Interested in the physical evidence of wear, I began a series of bag portraits starting with my own, I treated it exactly as if it was a human sitter. I side-lit the model and placed it on a white background. Then asked friends to come with their bags and sit with me as I drew, while we discussed their bag behaviour. At this point, the project took on an identity of its own, complete with illuminating anomalies, tangents and emotional projections. One friend was “traumatised” when she put her favourite bag in the post, another was so conflicted, she became unable to choose between two of her favourites. The husband of another woman insisted on her giving me a particular bag that he “loved”, but she herself did not and had barely used. There were times when I found myself cheating and breaking self-imposed rules. Each bag seemed to demand it’s own medium, also, I wanted the bags to face me, all in the same position, to do that, I had to pack them out, to make them stand up properly and found myself filling them with whatever came to hand, glasses cases, candles, baked bean tins…Putting my hand inside another woman’s handbag felt decidedly weird.
“Bags also serve as the portable manifestation of a woman’s sense of self, a detailed and remarkably revealing map of her interior, an omnium-gatherum of myriad aspects of her life…”
And then, talking and simultaneously drawing the model, something I have always managed before, now became difficult, as I was forced to turn my head away from the subject. When I did have a bag to myself, (contrary to expectation) I was able to engage more deeply and with no constraints, would work for hours. But insights from the feedback given by the bag-owners, kept coming and helped me focus. One participant recounted fetching her mother’s handbag and having to hold it at arm’s length, not wanting it to touch her body as it would have made her uncomfortable. This brought up something I have often encountered, bag awe, most noticeable around your mother’s handbag, but in a lesser way, an indefinable aura pertaining to all women’s handbags.
“Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag.” Margaret thatcher
With all this talk of handbags, a memory surfaced, of being at a late-night party and a slightly squiffy friend, unable or unwilling to find an ashtray, found an unattended handbag, opened it, flicked her ash into it and casually carried on smoking, occasionally tipping her ash on the rim. Finally, she ground out the butt with the heel of her shoe, flipped it into the bag and snapped it shut. I have never got over the shock and sense of transgression, how could she…? When I recently recounted this story to a friend she looked suitably shocked and said,
“Yes, that’s like spitting in someone’s face.”
Part II follows.