continued from above
I imagined and described the three interweaving themes in my dissertation at art-college as a plait spilling down a woman’s back. One of my favourite film-sequences is in Tarkovsky‘s The Mirror: that moment when the mother washes her hair over a basin, slowly comes up and for long long seconds we see the streaming flow of wet hair and no face. Sensual and monstrous. Other. Beautiful. Then there’s Charlotte Mew‘s poem The Farmer’s Bride where you fear for the girl up in the attic when he cries ‘her hair, her hair!’. Medusa. Samson. Rapunzel. Lorelei. Pre-Raphaelite obsession with luxurious tresses and Ruskin’s shock in the wedding night. Centuries of painting where the female nude was depicted bare of body hair. The coverage a few shop window mannequins with publicly pubic hair got the other week. The perm I had at 17, and the changing wigs of my Ghanaian neighbour, all with straight hair. Orestes cutting off two locks and placing them on his father’s grave. Women in France who were found guilty of relationships with German soldiers during WWII having their hair shorn and being paraded round town in punishment. Hair under veils and under wigs. I’m not claiming that all these instances, from banality to cultural burden, are enmeshed and enfolded in my work, but they are at the back of my mind.
I love the dresses’ different textures, the stitches dense and tight, almost scratchy, contrasting with the softness of the strands’ ends. One dress has been embroidered with a lip-like shape, a crossing between a bun (buns make me think of spinsters, which I want to reclaim as a positive term – one day I’ll tell you the story of my dad’s two spinster aunts) and something fleshy, sexual. Two are turned inside-out and have hair sewn in to make their surface furry, others sprout hairy bits (and twigs) from underneath their skirts, hair-formations dangling like entrails. An additional sense of unease stemming from the permeable borders between inside and outside, natural and controlled.
There’s another set of larger, almost child-sized dresses, called They dance at dusk, they dance at dawn. They make me think of wood nymphs, and of the kind of garment a girl slips out of in order to become a good girl for a little while. Remember those tales where seven sisters dress up at night and sneak off to balls through a trapdoor in their bedroom? They dance, flirt, play, run wild, and, charged by the glorious secrecy of it all, return flushed and sweaty. As I write I wonder about the innocence of these dresses. Do they belong to another generation?
Apropos generations: Grey-brown is my favourite mottled shade. The colour of years turning, of old age catching up with childhood while the hours press forward. Hair greying and thinning on head and body, slowness and sagging of body but hopefully not of mind. It’s also the tint of an old winter-coat that has kept its owner warm over the years. Of speckled bird’s eggs and the nest they lie in. Of ashes, which takes me to flames, the flames that consumed. The fire that may still rage within.
Maybe those fairy-tales are a way of withdrawing from history? If I speak of golden hair, of ashes, as an adult, I have to consider more alarming aspects than I’ve mentioned so far. There’s no escaping. Hair hangs between heaven and hell. Idealisation, contamination, degradation. Auschwitz. With Moult I returned to making work from hair last year in order to explore this more. Let me quote myself now, from an earlier post: “A child’s bodice, crocheted heirloom, like one found among delicate garments wrapped in tissue-paper in an old chest or drawer – the only one not eaten by moths. Hair-work, fair work, fairy-tale work. Such a shirt will scratch your skin no matter how many layers you wear under. Any aspiring saint would want one. Little animal pelt, lanugo never shed, blond and with connotations before you even start to think – did that chest hold zigzags sharp as knives, folded in grey cloth? Big leaps: beauty myths, Aryan ideals, Auschwitz… Suddenly I think of Ashiepattle, sorting through ashes. Die guten ins Töpfchen, die schlechten ins Kröpfchen. No spell to be uncast, but a history to be carried.”
They danced at dusk, they danced at dawn (2006/7)
Crocheted from artificial hair, twigs
Each dress 30-35cm wide and 45-50cm high
Five perfect maidens (2010/11) Crocheted from artificial hair; double-pointed knitting needles, twigs, wire
Each dress 20-25cm wide and 25-30cm high