Mother Material: Handle with Care

If you visited the White Lab Gallery in Madrid in 2019, you would find an enormous sculptural installation sprawling down the staircase of the gallery’s multi-storey building. With its pink tentacles wrapping around the staircase’s railings and settling into soft curls on the ground, it seemed as if the gallery had been invaded by some amorphous, primal substance: mother material. A closer look at a discretely placed label would confirm this impression, warning the viewer that this was ‘Mother Material – Handle with Care’, as the piece swayed gently against the viewer’s descent down the stairs. Reaching the ground floor, the viewer could even walk through a canopy of tentacles, allowing themselves to be surrounded in the work. 

Installation view,’Mother Material’

‘Mother Material’ was made by the British, Madrid-based artist Barbara Long in response to the declining health of Long’s mother, Joan. Each tentacle is made up of textiles once belonging to her mother, found as Long was clearing out her mother’s house. Rags of old pillowcases, towels and dishcloths had been so lovingly folded and stored away that Long decided to memorialize these typically transient reminders of domestic life in her work. Some of the pieces had been stained pink by a cleaning fluid used for polishing silver; this inadvertent colouring would form the basis of the work, as Long dyed the materials, in combination with other found textiles in her studio, a series of pinks. 

The process of assembling the work required an intricate enmeshment of other found materials. The tentacles were re-enforced by electric wires, then wrapped in packaging material and finally finished with film used for covering haybales and plastic wrapping. Having been given some pink disused plastic by a farmer near where Long was staying, she describes starting to notice the abundance of pink wrapping for industrial and agricultural products in Spain. Their hardiness was an apt partner for the disintegrating pieces of cloths.  Some were simply building materials, found abandoned on walks through the streets of suburban Madrid. Tubings and wirings are stitched together with the most intimate of domestic materials in the work. In an artist’s statement accompanying the exhibition, Long described her work as ‘integrat[ing] life’s detritus…a tireless process of making, tearing apart and re-making’. This time-consuming process can be observed up close in the neat rows of stitches running down the spine of each tentacle. None of this intricacy is, however, obvious at first glance. The whole length of the sculpture has to be traversed in order to realise its full irregularity, a process which itself reveals the labour-intensive process of hand-assembling the piece. This unassuming nature calls forth the forms of silent labour traditionally required of motherhood, so that the craft of construction mimics the craft of care. 

Mother material speaks to a long tradition in craft in complicating ideas about authorship and use. In a sense, Long’s mother may be seen a co-creator of the piece, generating the product that would be incorporated into the work. On a trip to England, Long brought a mini version of mother material for her now blind mother to hold. Slowly moving her hands over each bit of the tentacle, Joan was able to identify the cloths and towels that she once owned, fingering the rows of stitches and complementing Long on the neatness of the technique that she had once taught her daughter. Mother material appeals to the strength of inter-generational alliances, memorializing techniques and materials handed through generations, and literally reconciling the geographically distant mother and daughter through the recombination of textiles from studio and home.

Mother Material has also had a second life as a piece of performance art. Drawing on her work in art therapy, Long riffed on Donald Winnicott’s notion of the therapeutic space as a space of containment and support to transform mother material into a living cocoon. She wrapped herself in mother material, and performed a slow wiggling dance for the camera, uncannily blurring the boundaries of artist and artwork. Long, now, was mother material herself. In the context of the severe confinement policies enforced in the Madrid area during the performance of the piece, cocooning seems an apt metaphor. Suddenly it seems not so much about therapeutic containment but bodily confinement. The piece entraps its creator, wrapping itself round and round with tightening tentacles. 

Installation view,’Mother Material’

Much of Long’s work has been concerned with the ‘maternal’ shapes of vessels and cocoons. Her 2019 series ‘Mother Baskets’ is a close precursor to mother material, drawing on previous work twisting willow branches together into baskets, but here twisting strands of crafted tubes together. The path to mother material can also be traced small scale, in bundles of tiny stitched parcels, little offerings of devotion framed on the wall. Most recently, Long has produced a piece called ‘Kitchen Sink Keepsake’. It beautifully encapsulates many of the themes of ‘mother material’ in miniature. It is an old dishcloth reworked like an eighteenth sampler, with ‘NO PLACE LIKE HOME’ and ‘KITCHEN SINK DRAMAS’ emblazoned across it. The dishcloth, a symbolic piece of home with all its fraught relationships, is carefully laboured over, every hole darned and decorated. Again, the throwaway object is celebrated, frozen to become the kitchen sink drama that represents ‘Barbara Long’, ‘aged 59 years’ at the time of making. 

‘No place like home’, Barbara Long

I visited the gallery to see ‘Mother Material’ in its final week with Barbara and her family. Watching them play with the positioning of the tentacles (which seemed more like umbilical cords now), it was clear that the work couldn’t be seen as a finished piece as such. It was constantly in motion, being touched and repositioned; watching the performance on Instagram, its transition to a fully living piece made perfect sense. ‘Mother Material’, from its conception as a pile of rags to its animation on screen, stretches seamlessly across three generations, celebrating the many forms and materials of motherhood. But this all comes with a warning: a reminder to handle with care. 

Words: Frankie Dytor

About: Frankie Dytor is a PhD student in the art history department at the University of Cambridge. Her work looks at the legacy of the Italian renaissance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly focusing on its reinvention in dance, fiction and travel writing. She is especially interested in theories of agency and human-object entanglements. She is a regular contributor to Lucy Writers, a platform for female and non-binary creatives, and is also the social media co-ordinator for the Centre for Visual Culture, based in Cambridge.