“Collaborate: to work with someone else for a special purpose”.1
I used to find dead insects in your pockets, assembles a fluid archive of objects that are connecting devices in my relationships. These objects; ferns, curtains, containers and the things within them, such as hair, shells, insects, are gathered, cared for or re-created by me, forming a kind of catalogue of traces which connect me to my past. They are also a medium for moving forward. Relationships are enacted, memories are conjured up in the process of handling, organising and being with them, shifting through time together. Boundaries of lived experience and fragments of memory become blurred, it is as though I am collaborating with my Nana while I work with my children, that we stand here together at the same moment in time.
My interest lies in the power such images as objects have in forming identities, the stories one may foreground in response to a visual, text, or oral archive. These responses also seem to connect and reinforce social bonds, where I work back and forward with my Nana and my children, within my network of friends. These objects become part of our vernacular exchange.
Maureen Lander’s Flat-Pack Whakapapa, a touring exhibition from 2017 – 2019 explores connections between whakapapa or genealogy and raranga, flax weaving.2 Coming from mātauranga Māori, a Māori world view, Lander plays with a contemporary understanding of relationships. Where family, kinship and networks are mobile, shifting and expanding across time. The work consists of installations of woven objects that can be added to, packed down, and reinstalled in each gallery space. The result of an ever expanding collaboration, the woven objects have been created by various groups, via workshops and under Lander’s guidance. The act of collaboration extends the life of the work, the potential is for the project to be ongoing, connecting and reconnecting with each new iteration of Flat-Pack Whakapapa.
Lander designed the project, providing instruction in the form of workshops, then outsourcing the making of the work to other weavers. Then Lander, in turn drew all the work of many hands together in an installation. During an interview with Priscilla Pitts at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Lander places value on relationships, stating that is what interests her. This may be relationships with her materials, her whanau and the various communities she engages to work with her.3 This seems to add a durational quality to the work, not only in the process of making and installing each new iteration of the work, but that these relationships do not necessarily end when the project ends. In Flat-Pack Whakapapa there is the sense that the dialogue continues, some of the connections formed may be strengthened, while others may well slip away.
The objects in I used to find dead insects in your pockets are quite ordinary. They speak to the everyday routines, everyday needs and activities of a household for example, the blankets in Keep Care. Despite their vernacular language, they seem extraordinary to me as they relate to the work of care and attention to the needs of family, and the memories that I call up with these objects. Opening up long closed cupboards and deep drawers led to the discovery of eleven blankets that my nana had made in the 60s and 70s for the beds in her home and in a family bach. She had given me one, years ago, and there was one on my bed whenever I stayed with Nana and Poppa, so I knew of these blankets. I didn’t realise she had made so many, and I can feel the work in them, the weight of them. They are the embodiment of care of my family history, they have been on the beds of other members of my family, they will have felt the weight and warmth of these objects. On close inspection, most of the blankets are marked and stained, some with holes, one has been seriously damaged by sunlight. This reveals something of the lives they’ve lead.
The domestic interior is often a location where these relationships play out. Relationships that happen within this space and the stories that can be told through these everyday objects inform the dialogue I wish to foreground in I used to find dead insects in your pockets.
I also see tangible, but invisible work; the maintenance, that Mierle Laderman-Ukeles focuses on in her performance work:
clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again—he doesn’t understand, seal it again—it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young.4
The relationships I have with the objects are specific to members of my family and circles of kinship. The original fern in this installation was cared for by my mother and now lives with me, my children and our friends. The fern is a stand in for our connections to one another, we share the care of and live with them, collaborating with tips and knowledge and regular care of the plant;
they are not as sensitive as you think, just keep them moist, give them a sunny aspect, but out of direct sunlight.
Working with my Nanas shells, and those collected with my children, I collaborate with Nana and my children on a shared project, the outcome of which is still a mystery, but a part of our everyday lives.
Is this way of working, a model of collaboration and exchange, that can exist in the physical absence of another person? Creative practice often involves working with, or from existing research and ideas. The body is present even if in disguise: Tracing the Trace in the Artwork of Nancy Spero and Ana Mendieta, charts a body of work I consider an unconventional, collaborative social project.5 The conversation between the artists appears to exist across time, and despite Mendieta’s death, I interpret it as an exchange. It is also unusual in that the homage is made by an older artist in response to the work of a younger artist. This is a reversal of the usual ways that artists relate to one another, based on the patriarchal hierarchy of mentor/student dynamic.
Mendieta’s performance, Body Tracks (Rasrtos Corporales) 1982, was described as an intimate event, with a small audience that consisted of the New York art community, including Spero, who were given minimal information about what would happen.6 The audience was positioned facing three large, blank pieces of paper in a softly lit space. Accompanied by the sound of beating drums Mendieta dressed in plain clothes, entered the room, dipped her arms into a bowl of animal blood and tempera, her hands thoroughly coated in the pigment, she stepped up to a sheet of paper, pressing her hands and arms against it. Mendieta dragged her hands and arms down, leaving behind blood red streaks which still held the hand-print trace, this process was repeated two more times, leaving a series of drawings on the wall for the audience to view, after which Mendieta walked out of the room, leaving the audience with the drawings.7 Spero made a series of works in response to this performance, described as “…re-tracing, re-presenting and re-telling.”8 These works incorporated the image of the handprint and text, one work, The Ballad of Marie Sanders, The Jew’s Whore, included a spontaneous action that became an homage to Mendieta’s Body Tracks (Rasrtos Corporales) performance.9
Spero was present at Mendieta’s performance of Body Tracks (Rasrtos Corporales), and her work in response continues the dialogue, even after Mendieta’s death. In a similar process, painter Kirsten Carlin regards working with a series of Francis Hodgkins paintings to be a kind of social practice, connecting Carlin with Hodgkins across time.10 This relationship forms as Carlin studies Hodgkin’s visual language, process and content. Then by finally producing a collection of paintings in response, bringing Hodgkins work into a conversation with the contemporary field of painting. It is a similar kind of exchange or conversation when I work with and re-create objects in I used to find dead insects in your pockets. Revisiting memories and places, I learn more about the people I’m working with. This may result in new understandings, re-establishing those bonds when I re-perform actions with people in my life now, like the dead dragonfly my daughter brought me.
1. Collaborate, Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.
2. Pitts, ‘Maureen Lander’.
4. Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!
5. Walker, The Body Is Present Even If in Disguise.
10. Carlin, Kirsten. Navigating Art Contexts.