Following on from the previous blog entry I wanted to write about why I am resurrecting an idea for a piece from 1994.
Christmas 2014: I went to Germany to what was meant to be a family reunion and that turned out to be, instead, a “season in hell”, followed by a final, liberating rupture between myself and my Mother. Our relationship, in it’s dysfunctional miserable glory has been a constant source of inspiration in my work. After seventeen days with her over Christmas and New Year, where she brought me and my girls to tears on numerous occasions, she told us to never come back. That she never wanted us in her life again. It may seem perverse but that was the best Christmas present she could have given me. Over the years I have tried to protect myself from her vicious verbal assaults on every aspect of my character but it took her “laying into” my daughters that made me realise that only by withdrawing from the situation completely and permanently and facing the fact that my family consisted of solely my girls and me, that I could move forward with my life.
So, to much relief we came back to our life in England, where everything seemed warm and welcoming and precious. And we snuggled up and watched our usual DVDs: mainly David Attenborough, some “Wonders of the Universe” and yet more Nature documentaries. And it was there that I saw the striking imagery, again, of a dragonfly emerging out of its chrysalis. And the violent triumph of its breakthrough into a new life resonated with me and mingled with my feelings of anger and grief.
And I thought about “Angel’s Nightie”, about a chrysalis-body bag, that I had once wanted to make. And I felt that it was time to begin.
How wonderful to give birth to oneself; to finally cut the umbilical-apron-strings of being born of a Mother into a physical body, and move through transformation into another state beyond the purely physical/biological.
Angels as human butterflies/dragonflies. The light at the end of a tunnel.
One of the first pieces I saw when I walked into the Alexander McQueen show on Friday was a white sleeveless top made from polyurethane. “So that’s what that material looks like,” I thought and remembered back to a tutorial I’d had concerning an earlier incarnation of “Angel’s Nightie”.
The idea for “Angel’s Nightie” first came about whilst I was on my MA at Chelsea in 1994. I wanted to make a Chrysalis-Body-bag with that willfully child-like title. The Boy who was the love of my life had made a nigh-successful suicide attempt after I’d ended our relationship.
I perceived his suicide attempt as an act of aggression, a retaliation, ultimately as a way of holding the trump card, of having the last word. And I was angry. Angry that he could throw away his life so easily. Angry that he would use his suicide as a way to pass his suffering on to me, not letting me get away.
So I dreamed up “Angel’s Nightie”, it’s title so ironically sweet and irreverent, covering over a cesspit of rage and hurt; a place I continually return to in my work.
“Angel’s Nightie” is death (and suicide) as a violent rupture from life; suicide committed in the white heat of the moment, as an act of aggression turned inwards.
It is also about metamorphosis and transformation. In my grief in those following months I discovered the work of the Jungian James Hillman. His book :”Suicide and the Soul” had a strong impact on my re-assessment of it. Anger was replaced by understanding.
The book helped me again, when I referred back to it eight years later, when the Man who had been the Boy that I loved more than anything in the world, did succeed in killing himself, at the age of 33.
Over the past two weeks working on the “small comfort” piece has become obsessive and on Sunday afternoon I had managed to get this far in the “Up and over vest” that I am making in hand-dyed yarn from YAK (in Brighton).
By Monday Lunch-time I was about 2.5 inches away from completing the piece when I noticed my ribbing, the last bit that I needed to do, was looking wrong. Slightly, towards one of the edges. With great trepidation, because unraveling scares the hell out of me, I watched some youtube videos on the subject and read up about it in my “Knitting Basics” book (did I mention I’m a beginner?) and then pushed a slightly smaller knitting needle several rows below the mistake through what I hoped were the right loops and along the correct row.
What a disaster! I can’t describe the mess that I ended up with: weird loops and stray ends of yarn appearing all along the mess of a row I now had. After looking at it and trying to puzzle it out for two hours, with the kind of grim determination that these catastrophes bring out in me, and my 9 year old daughter saying to me: Give it to me, Mummy, I can do it for you and me: much cursed mutterings under my breath, I acknowledged that it was time to put the knitting to one side and that maybe it was nature’s way telling me to do something else for a change.
So after putting the children to bed I blogged about the Alexander McQueen show that I’d seen on Friday (see previous post) and focused my attention on “Angel’s Nightie”: bought modroc and aluminum wire online and watched youtube videos about CAD for Costume construction and pattern cutting.
This morning, after school drop-off, I then took my ravaged knitting to Brighton’s wonderful YAK store in Gloucester Road (www.yarnandknitting.com) and to it’s owner, the equally wonderful Kate Metherell, who was able to salvage my knitting in no time at all, whilst I sat there in the calm of her shop, listening to the ticking of the clock, feeling anxious and eternally grateful.
So it’s Tuesday, the sun is shining again. I’m in my favourite cafe surrounded, on my right, by a man making notes on Henry Miller, and on my left, by a Woman making notes about the Vagina Monologues.
Tomorrow I want to write about the background to “Angel’s Nightie”, but I just needed to get the tangled wool out of my system today.
On Friday I took the train up to London to go to Soho and buy fabric for the vintage 1917-ish knitting bag that I plan to make for my performance/installation piece “small comfort”. I was looking for fabrics in black, for both the outside and the inside of the bag. I spent a good deal of the train journey researching “moire silk” as that was one of the materials mentioned in the advertisement for the bag. I’d already made up a pattern for the bag on Thursday and managed to get the basic measurements from the same advertisement (which stated the bag was 17.5 inches in length).
And then, on the train, I got sidetracked into looking at other possible vintage fabrics, for quite some time, but I was intuitively sure of what I wanted. Something that definitely said mourning to me. But also something with texture. And in natural fabrics. Also, as I envision myself all in black, I wanted the fabrics of my skirt and blouse and bag to have very particular variations in texture and weight.
I’d also found out that morning that the Alexander McQueen show at the V & A was opening on the Saturday and that every single day was completely Sold Out.I was devastated to say the least. But I’m not so easily put off, and so my first mission of the day was to go to the V & A and become a member. Members get into the shows free, with no need to pre-book.
When I got to the V & A and became a member I discovered that I could attend the Members-only preview of the show that very day.
It was mind-blowing. I am an absolute fan of Alexander McQueen (in fact Angel’s Nightie is dedicated to him, for several reasons, more of which became apparent as I walked round the show). I knew almost everyone of the pieces visually that were on show as I own and often drool over a fantastic monograph of his work, and I spend long into the night watching youtube documentaries about him and his catwalk shows; he is one of my most beloved heroes. But to see the pieces up close, just inches from my face really, was amazing. And when I got there it seemed as if his pieces were answering so many of the questions that I’d been asking myself about “Angel’s Nightie” that I had to begin making notes. Mainly on fabrics. I was learning so much walking round.
Then the music and the beauty and the affinity of it all became too overwhelming and I cried. For quite some time. it felt good , cathartic and warm. A blessed release. And a home-coming to a part of myself that I’d lost touch with.
It was so moving to be there, and the crowds were not too much and there was a sense of a shared experience; I wasn’t the only one that cried. That I found out in the bookshop afterwards. For the rest of the day I felt on a high and emotional; my floodgates were down and so were my defenses: I felt in a beautiful raw place.
During the Residency my plan is to develop and work on two different projects. One is a piece called “Angel’s Nightie”, a human sized Chrysalis-Body-bag. I’ve already written about this piece a bit on my website: www.walkintomyparlour.com
The other piece, “small comfort”, had its starting point in the fairy-tale “Wild Swans” (but it has diverged significantly since then). “Wild Swans” is about a girl who, in order to restore her eleven brothers back to their human form (they have been turned into swans) has to make eleven shirts for them. These shirts are knitted from nettles that she has to gather from graveyards at night and during this time she is not able/allowed to utter a single word. Often in fairy tales Swans are a metaphor for death. And how can she bring them back to life? Her brothers? Her men? Through this act of making.
I decided to set this piece, which I envision as a Performance/Installation, during the time of WW1. The more I researched this the more I realised that I wouldn’t be making eleven shirts out of nettle yarn or fabric but that I would be knitting, as for the Soldiers on the Front, making “comforts” for them whilst they were in the trenches.
At first, whilst looking for authentic patterns, I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find a pattern for a long-sleeved knitted top. One which I could knit eleven times. Instead I found patterns for balaclavas, rifle mittens, chest protectors and so on. And then it suddenly dawned on me: The very fact of this lack of wholeness, this fragmentation was like a metaphor for the explosion and mutilation, the blowing apart and scattering of the human body into separate body parts across a muddy field. And so “small comfort” consists of knitting: 11 Balaclavas, 11 Chest protectors, 11 Body belts, 22 Trench hoses/long socks, 22 sleeves and 22 rifle mittens. Not in nettle. And not in Khaki or any kind of army colour, but in white. White for Peace.