A response to ‘Alexi Marshall‘s ‘The Party’ by Jess Payn.
and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of strangers my most tender feelings writhe and bear the fruit of screaming. — Frank O’Hara
I enter a room where the walls don’t make sense, and there’s a girl with her head underwater in a bath of limbs and lines. There is no colour in this place and there is no third dimension. Someone is staring and the eye contact is between inquisition and indifference: Who are you?
This is The Party. Close up the spaces between thighs, heads, arms and throats. No one is leaving and the room is squeezed and asquint and only getting more full. Everyone else’s eyes are trying to be immune to one another. They’re unmindful of you: this is the enclosure of intimacy, aware of itself as a scene.
I look for her, and she’s down there. Crying tears of boys and men until these sadnesses puddle on the floor becoming a pool and it could be tears or it could be blood (I killed you; this is killing me) but maybe it’s just spilled wine.
Sat on an absent chair, she is blowing fuming faces to the ceiling and their shapes stick out, telescopic; a snake unfurls by heads and over thighs and some malevolent or at least mischievous many masked party-spirit sits, nibbling its nails.
She is coiled around him, fist in the air. Someone is retreating behind a curtain or perhaps he is looking to enter the fray.
Beneath, she is leaning into her eyes: I want my time with you.
This angling that could become a kiss.
But there’s also the full weight of flush flesh slumping on top of fur, cheeks puffing and eyelids heavy: now astride a dead-eyed fox. Her scratched nakedness makes her a blank siren in the dark.
Upstairs, she’s taking the charade too seriously: I want to be silly, nearing Halloweeny. Put on a mask: this is she-devil coquettish. Watching the shower tiles with a focused frown, she’s got stuck-on wings, a bedroom of stars and a grainy dusting of ash. That cherub giggling and everywhere there’s black and white paint.
You always have to have something to do at a party, whether it’s performing or hiding. (I’ll try out my wink.) The final detail is a single hand, coy and destructive, pulling the walls apart.
Jess Payn is a freelance arts journalist based in London. She read English at the University of Cambridge, where she wrote her Master’s thesis on the ‘cuteness’ of Stevie Smith, and now reviews for the Arts Desk. Her writing has been published in Splice Magazine and The i Newspaper. She tweets @jess_payn.
Find more of Alexi Marshall’s work over on Instagram
‘I grew up working with my hands’, recalls Johanna Unzueta. ‘My mum always said I learned to weave and knit before I learned to read and write. Hands are tools for me and I can’t disconnect that.’
Unzueta’s work is the product of the artist’s lifelong commitment to that connection between the body and processes of making. Unzueta (b. 1974, Santiago, Chile, lives and works in New York) explores the impact of labour on the human condition. Tools for Life, a new exhibition of her work at Modern Art Oxford, is the result and embodiment of this research.
Suspended from the ceiling of the first gallery is a nine-metre-long interlocking chain, a magnified piece of industrial machinery, recreated in natural felt. Each part is based on the measurements of Unzueta’s body. Surrounding it are sculptures of piping and taps, also in felt, hand-dyed with indigo. In a culture of excess, where human labour and natural resources continue to be exploited to further an unsustainable future, Unzueta encourages us to consider processes of production and the people that participate in them.
Calling her art practice her ‘trade’, Unzueta offers her work as a process of manufacturing. She continually re-adapts works, such as Related to Myself which, in a first iteration, she scaled on the measurements of her hands. Curiously and respectfully re-manufacturing, she physically enacts on a small scale the wider-scale labour-reliant processes she is exploring. She says of the often-natural materials she uses: ‘how I manipulate these materials is as important to me as what is being represented. In this sense the notion of labour does not only exist in a social and historical context, it is present in the fabrication of each artwork.’ Her hands the tools of her labour, she ‘crafts’ her own body into each work, an embodiment she suggests occurs in all labour processes. The humanity – the organic integrity of the maker – is absorbed into the product.
Taking apart hardware and machinery to study their structures, Unzueta recreates them precisely using organic materials. Hand-cut and hand-sewn by the artist, the felt is sourced from a 200-year-old family company. Unzueta shapes the links and hinges of industrial components with her hands, using pattern-cutting techniques leaned from the women in her family, and the natural dyeing processes of craftspeople in Chile and Guatemala. Her sensitivity to raw materials in the context of examining machinery draws attention to the humanity in the industrial, the products of her hands alluding by extension to the hands of unacknowledged producers generally. Far from simply critiquing mechanisation, Unzueta suggests that people, incorporated into the machinery she recreates, make an active and permanent human mark on the products of their labour.
Using natural materials and craft techniques, she challenges our expectations of the structure, texture, and weight of mechanical objects. She destabilises distinctions between human and machine, function and aesthetic. Distinctive to Unzueta’s work is her emphasis on the co-existence of function and vitality. The chain, like the once-mobile skeleton of a prehistoric creature, or the pipes which promise the possibility of running water, pulsate with the potential for life. Unzueta’s works are dynamic, emanating the life incorporated into them by the process of their production. Her own vitality is absorbed particularly by her freestanding drawings – a colourful forest of abstract geometries – which constitute the marks made by the movements of her body.
Having danced as a child, Unzueta notes her awareness of the shapes created by her gestures. Without the use of a ruler, she uses embroidery hoops for the composition of her drawings, and her forearms, hands and fingers to measure distances. The drawings’ titles specify the time incorporated in their production. Spending months completing just one drawing, waiting for multiple washes of dye to dry, Unzueta humbly and happily surrenders to the natural pace of her materials. Held between sheets of perspex fixed into bases of recycled wood, her drawings are encountered three-dimensionally. Visitors discover a manufactured object, to be walked around and looked through, the beautiful and intricate product of simple (organic) processes of dyeing, carving, and intuitive drawing.
Again, the literal incorporation of her body into each work suggests that the embodied experience of any maker, even working on an industrial scale, might also be incorporated into every item that passes through their hands, even for a moment. A Garment for the Day is Unzueta’s tribute to the child labourers, the often unacknowledged shame of low-cost global manufacturing. It is Dedicated to Ellen Hotton and to so many more children in the world that we will never know their names, where they spent and spend their days in the shadows of a factory, plantation, captivity… desolation.
A series of garments, reminiscent of factory uniforms, hang on a simple clothes-rail. Dutifully in line, they are handmade using up-cycled denim sourced from a factory in Guatemala. Hanging empty – disembodied – they suggest a haunting sense of what is missing. The gallery context challenges us: we are drawn to touch the clothes, we imagine trying them on, but cannot, because of a distinction conveniently created between process and artwork. We have become removed from the human labour required in production, while continuing to rely on it.
But through a process of ‘activation’, Unzueta closes this distinction. Designed to fit gallery staff, these garments were worn on opening-night. The warmth and movements of human bodies remain present in the stretched fibres and loosened button-holes of the clothes as they now hang, signalling a process of re-embodiment, perhaps a metaphorical re-humanising of the anonymous workers they represent. The wearers in this process became secondary makers, symbolically marking the works with their own humanity. We are drawn to consider if this kind of ‘activation’ leaves its lasting mark within all that is manufactured, from an ‘artwork’ to a metal tap. Celebrated or criticised, through Unzueta’s work the human experience of labour is acknowledged, and given concrete presence.
Unzueta’s ‘trade’ was revealed in the making of this exhibition. Watching her surrounded by natural materials in this ex-industrial space (the gallery was formerly a brewery), sewing-machine clicking, oil pastels in hand, was to witness artistic production as physical performance. These subtle, often ephemeral works, leave their mark on Modern Art Oxford as they carry the traces of her hands, gestures, physical presence.
Jewellery touches the body in curiously outward facing but intimate encounters. Xuan Ma offers new perspectives on the ways in which the human body interacts with design and craft. By using mirrored metal surfaces and straight lines that run alongside the curves of the body, abstract parts of the human body are reflected and made visible. The inside of elbows, the upside down refracted gum line shown in the inside of the mouth, the underside of the chin – these ‘private views’ all illuminate the ‘hidden beauty of the body’.
For me, jewellery is a creative language to communicate my personal understandings and design ideology to others. After numerous trials and failures in the workshop, I was able to transform all the ideas that seem impossible at first into reality. Thus, I was fascinated by the incredibly enjoyable working process. Another motivation for me is to explore more possibilities in jewellery by applying the newly discovered materials or new effects to my work.
My collection of jewellery uses reflective surfaces to see and rediscover our bodies emphasising a new, meaningful way to appreciate and understand ourselves. I realise in our everyday life, reflective, shiny surfaces are everywhere and the notion of reflection and positive self-reflection is complex and is too often experienced in a comparative, judgemental way – a selfie is not in fact for oneself even if taking one is a private act. Our obsession with self-image and comparisons with others is everywhere. I realised the strongest reason why we take photos is not just about memories, it is about getting familiar to ourselves—to record and see different views of ourselves.
To create a more meaningful way of looking, I started to develop serendipitous ways to appreciate the uniqueness of our bodies, especially by highlighting the parts that we can’t directly observe ourselves which in my opinion can be found a true sense of self-beauty. Using my metalwork skills, I have made wearable personal mirrors, which help capture these hidden beauty spots, momentarily or just long enough to instil in us a positive act of self-appreciation rather than of judging oneself.
Each piece of my collection reveals a part of the body you can’t see yourself such as the inside of the mouth, the teeth, the armpit, bottom, top of the head, elbow, chin and the private parts. I have designed the pieces so that when they are not being worn or used, they can be placed on a table or hung on a wall, as you would with an ordinary mirror. This collection allowed me to rediscover how beautiful the unseen body can be and how a mirrored jewellery object can be empowering.
In the United States’ poor excuse for a health care system, a ‘pre-existing condition‘ is a medical condition that began before a person’s health coverage went into effect. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially known as Obamacare, was passed into law in 2014, insurance companies were often legally allowed to deny coverage to those with a pre- existing condition – that is to say, those who most needed health insurance in order to afford treatment and prescriptions. As the conservative branch of our government regularly works to break down the tenets of the ACA, the fate of those who most need treatment remains to be seen.
Amongst those most in need of affordable, reliable, and accessible healthcare are women. The list of women’s reproductive health concerns, as published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), is lengthy, but many are preventable, treatable, or curable, when healthcare is provided. Clinics, such as the contentious Planned Parenthood, have been able to offer no- and low-cost treatment, care, and counselling to patients. However, as they also provide family planning services and abortion, they are under attack by (mostly) white, cis, male conservative lawmakers who are working diligently to retract its federal funding and close facilities. In 2019, nearly 50 years after President Nixon signed Title X into law, guaranteeing affordable birth control and reproductive health care to women with low income and stating that ‘no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition,’ we are still fighting to retain these rights. Forty-seven years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision to nationally legalize abortion, that right is in danger of being reneged. In 26 states – to put this in perspective, more than half of the US – women who choose abortion are currently required to undergo ultrasounds and, in 3, are obligated, rather horrifically, to listen to the foetal heartbeat while looking at the image on screen.
As our right to sane, affordable, and comprehensive healthcare, or lack thereof, seems to be the zeitgeist of all times in the US, feminist artists have long dealt with the subject. Most notably for me, the artist collective Sister Serpents comes to mind, having been birthed as a direct response to the 1989 United States Supreme Court decision allowing for states to withhold public funds to run facilities and hire employees to perform, assist with, or counsel women on abortions. But, as the 1980s now seem ancient history, it’s shocking that art on this subject is anything more than a dated remembrance of the dark ages. Instead, it’s revitalized in all forms. Margaret Atwood has released The Testaments, the sequel to her dystopian and frighteningly possible story, The Handmaid’s Tale this year because, as she put it, ‘for a while we thought we were moving away from [the book]. And then we turned around and started going back toward it’.
Since the Trump administration took office, I think women have felt the need to band together in protest for protection and support. I have come across many feminist communal arts projects and collectives doing just that. The Exquisite Uterus Project is a notable and ongoing example. The art piece is meant to ‘articulate [the] outrage at recent increased restrictions to women’s full access to good sexual and reproductive health care and growing limitations on our ability to determine our own reproductive choices’. Participants in the project are ‘urged to have fun with it but to consider how our ability to take control of our own personal uterus (and health care decisions) is a very serious and, now, political issue.’
While I find Fourth Wave Feminist activism, community, and art exciting, and contextualize much of my own art practice within it, I wish I didn’t find it necessary. As Catherine Morris, curator at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum said about an exhibition called A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism held shortly after the first – and most hopefully only – Trump election, ‘[w]e might have been thinking more about a celebration, and now we have a sense of urgency’. Sadly, and ironically, as this cause is already tired and storied, there is a sense of urgency to do something, to make art, to be heard and listened to. But haven’t we already tried this? Frankly, I’m tired of waging the same war so many generations before me have already fought. Why must I earn the freedom of choice and rights to the body I inhabit when the male gender is granted these rights at birth? Why do those, who are already imbued with rights to their own bodies, want rights to mine, as well?
As a woman, I am a pre-existing condition. Only I am not covered under the caveat in the ACA currently protecting those in need. And so, the fight continues.