http://www.helenbarff.co.uk

Belongings give a sense of belonging. Clothes are spaces we inhabit. They encase us, wrap around us, give us physical edges. They help define our identity – our sense of self. When we move from elsewhere we pack our clothes, they give a continuity of self in a new space. Clothes contain memories and also contain us – in that way we inhabit our memories.

I am currently exploring connections between autobiographical memory and clothing, working with neuro and cultural psychologists. This research began with informal chats with Dr. Catherine Loveday (neuropsychologist at Westminster University). These chats gained momentum and Catherine’s PhD and undergraduate students have conducted studies to explore its scientific interest and significance as part of memory formation and identity.

My recent work has involved casting the inside space of clothing. Sometimes incorporating sticks (found in the park or metal) whose lengths refer to the dimensions of my body.

Image: Big Stick (hip), 2015, jesmonite and found sticks, 124 x 50 x 10 cm

I am interested in how clothing contains both physical ‘body memories’ as well as ‘autobiographical narratives’. As memories are often recalled verbally, I am keen to see how verbal narratives can be integrated into my very tactile work.

I am currently recording a series of ‘wardrobe interviews’, where I ask volunteers to choose and discuss 4 items of clothing that have a particular memory of place, time or person. Participants include friends, colleagues and those who have experience of ‘displaced memories’ – where they might be disconnected from the memory, for example through age, mental health or emigration from their home.

My next blog will reflect on these interviews and the reading I am doing along side material investigation.

Image: Folded, work in progress. 2017, jesmonite (cast of the inside of a child’s trousers)

 


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Last week I heard that my Arts Council Grant application has been successful!!
The project is to work with writer Suzanne Joinson, exploring Worthing Museum’s (extensive) clothing collection and linking with stories / memories from residents in a local care home for the elderly. We will look at how these connect to the local landscape, to land and sea.  Resulting in exhibition of sculptural works and podcast early next year.

Photo: Worthing Museum’s clothing collection storage boxes.


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November:

Forthcoming seminar: RSVP essential – see below.

Dear All,Dr Catherine Loveday (Principal Lecturer in Neuropsychology at University of Westminster) and I would like to invite you to an informal seminar event presenting and discussing our current area of research exploring Memory and Clothing.The seminar will take place on Wednesday December 13th 2017 at 10am till about 12.30pm, at University of Westminster, New Cavendish Street, London W1W 6UW (nearest tube Warren St / Goodge St / Great Portland St).This seminar is an opportunity for us to share this project – rather than being a concluding event our intention is that it will form part of our ongoing research. Catherine and I will each present an outline of the research we have undertaken so far, exploring ways in which clothing is linked to autobiographical memory through scientific, material and cultural research. We will outline how science and art have influenced each other and how the trajectory of the project might develop. I hope there will also be a couple of short presentations from other artists working in this area. This will be followed by an informal discussion. Attendees are encouraged to bring (or wear) an item of clothing that has a particular memory of person, place or time. The item will be photographed and a brief audio recording made of your memory. This is of course entirely optional! Tea / coffee / biscuits will be served.

RSVP is essential as we need to put your name on the door to get in the building – [email protected]


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September:

I have started to explore museum collections of clothes and memories. So far these include the Foundling Museum, London; Worthing Musuem and a forthcoming project with Market Hall Museum, Rugby.

The Foundling Museum is an amazing place with its heart breaking stories of orphaned children and the philanthropy that surrounded them. There’s the tokens left by mothers unable to look after their child as a means of identifying them should they ever be in the position to take their child back, most never did. In a time when many were illiterate this token was an object, a coin, button, a ring – a tactile thing that the child themselves was never aware of.

Foundling Museum booklet. Janette Bright and Gillian Clark, printed by Lamport Gilbert Ltd, 2011.

At one stage in the school’s history the token system used small swatches of fabric cut from clothing or a scarf. The mother kept one half and the other remained in a sealed envelope at the Foundling Hospital. A postage stamp sized remnant of a bond. Then there are the uniforms they children wore, quite military for boys and more of a nurse like smock or apron for girls; for many preempting their future vocations. The museum has recorded oral histories from former pupils at the hospital. As part of my research I am looking forward to going through these transcripts listening for references to clothing and associated tactile memories.

Foundling Museum postcard, ‘London Foundling Hospital, girls’ schoolroom.

Worthing museum has the third largest collection of clothing in the country. Behind the scenes, the room they are stored in is stacked to the ceiling with rows of boxes. I loved that the itemized number for each item of clothing is logged and filed in drawers categorized by the body part they adorn.

Behind the scenes at the museum

In this room of boxes it was difficult to know where to start, but during one afternoon with local writer Suzanne Joinson, items we carefully unwrapped include shepherd’s smocks from the 1800s, various black Victorian mourning shawls, 1920’s woollen bathing costumes, a collapsible opera hat, nylon stockings from the 1930s and WW2 uniform from the Women’s Land Army.

Shepherds Smock from 1800s

1930s stockings, early use of nylon

Of particular interest where items that relate to the location. Worthing, the seaside town, has for many years been a place ‘to take the sea air’. Seaside towns it seems are depositories for memories; sandcastles on the beach, fish and chips after a braising swim. Worthing also has a large population of elderly people, making it a place where people bring their memories. Over the years the coastline has continually shifted, the land been used for mining flint, farming and fishing. The clothing in the museum that connects to these particularities of place is something we would like to explore more.

1920s woollen swimsuit

WW2 Womens Land Army trousers

I am excited that in forthcoming weeks I have been selected to work with Market Hall Museum and Heritage and Culture Warwickshire to lead a series of workshops with an Asian’s womens group to explore recent migration stories and co-create new artwork for exhibition. Within these workshops we will explore memories associated with participant’s clothing and other keepsakes, as well as making connections with items in the museum. During the workshops participants will be interviewed for new audio recordings of oral histories to be included in ‘Our Warwickshire’ website. These stories and histories will feed into the ‘memory spaces’ each participant will make.

What seems important in all of this is are the people, their memories of place and how the physicality of clothing can connect the two.

 


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July:

For me drawing has always been a vital space or place to be and think. Drawing allows an exploration of abstract thoughts as spatial and tactile. Although I am a sculptor, drawing is always there as a continual studio activity behind the scenes. I have been drawing items of clothing from my life. Clothes hanging out to dry, folded clothes and a lot of sock bundles. They are trivial, but I like the way these handmade bundles are part of routine, domestic ritual and how drawing can bring that everyday activity into my thinking space.

Sketch of Sock Bundles, 2017, Charcoal on paper

I have a dress that I wore to my Dad’s funeral. I didn’t buy it for the funeral, but hadn’t worn it before and decided as it had little birds on it (my Dad was a keen bird watcher) that it was appropriate. In the days between his death and the funeral I fixated on what I should wear, it was a way to cope and make the forthcoming event manageable. I have never worn the dress since. But six years later I decided to draw it. The first time I did a small sketch, I could hardly let the pencil touch the paper. Then I drew it bigger, just focusing on the little birds. But somehow this was too distanced from the fabric of the dress. So I painted over it and instead drew it using my fingers in crushed graphite dust. The drawing doesn’t represent my Dad or show the little birds. But it does I hope suggest that enveloping bodily grief; how an object can become that emotion.

The Dress I Wore to My Dad’s Funeral (drawn with fingers in graphite dust), 2017, 145 x 67 cm.

In ‘The Book of Skin’ (Reaktion Books, London, 2004), Steve Conner talks about the organ of skin as a manifold space, a topology, similar to a mobius strip or klein bottle. He says the closest example of this continual space would be a membrane or fabric. This understanding of skin and fabric suggests a close relationship with clothing. In addition there are parallels with the manifold space of memories and self – a continual shifting membrane between then and now, inside and outside, there and here. Clothes become these inhabitable memory spaces.

Sketch tracing the inside and outside of a pair of shorts, 2017.


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June:

I have been conducting a series of interviews where I ask people to choose items of clothing that have a particular memory of person place or thing. They usually have the item of clothing with them, but sometimes talk about an item they no longer have. Each of these interviews has given me a fascinating insight into how memories of clothes contribute to the construction of a person. The neuro psychologist I am working with, Dr Catherine Loveday, has been doing her own more scientific enquiries. She has looked at how clothing compares to objects, image and music as a memory prompter and it’s significance in the formation of identity. She has told me how we all have a period of time from teenage to young adulthood where our memories are particularly significant, called a ‘memory bump’. In her research Catherine has found memory of clothing follows this pattern. Maybe significantly, there was a general pattern for women’s ‘clothing memory bump’ to start slightly earlier than men’s. The shape of the ‘clothing memory bump’ links most closely with music. It makes sense, from the time I was listening to Jesus and Mary Chain and discovering Bob Dylan I was also developing my wardrobe and these memories I would choose as significant in the making of myself.

In my interviews I have heard stories about what it feels like to wear an abaya in Saudia Arabia or school uniform in a 1950’s boarding school. I heard about choosing a first bra in Paris, the influence of mothers or making your own clothes without a mother. I’ve heard from a couple that still have the jumpers they wore when they met at art college in 1958; and the political power of t-shirts in 1980s South Africa. It’s a privilege to hear it all.


Image: 1958 Jumpers, Memory and Clothes Interviews

Something that links it all is the significance to place. The memories are always located in a place, whether geographical or architectural, home or institutional. Ishiuchi Miyako has beautifully, photographically described this link. In her work skin and clothing are interchangeable. She photographed her elderly mother’s skin and at an earlier date interiors of buildings that were used as brothels frequented by American soldiers in her hometown of Yokosuka in a post war period. Whether skin, clothing or architecture, the intimate scars, stains and creases from having been inhabited or worn suggest a story.

 


Image: Ishiuchi Miyako, Hasselblad Award 2014, published by Kehrer Heidelberg, Berlin. Pages 24 and 25. ‘Hiroshima #21, Hiroshima #5, Hiroshima #9. Preserved clothes worn by victims of the Hiroshima atomic bombing.


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