Essay by Lily Baxter as part of Contextualising Practice course.
My installation Watching clothes dry (2021-2022) (Figure 1.1 & 1.2) explores the workings of the domestic realm. Through slow and thoughtful making and arranging, the works direct attention to the overlooked and the mundane of the everyday. Installed in two adjacent cupboards within a gallery space – one containing shelves, the other a clothes hanging rail – the works highlight spaces that are generally hidden and used for functional purposes. In the first cupboard, paper, textile and wool works are clipped onto clothes hangers and hung from the cupboard rail, as if they were clothes themselves. In the second cupboard, small oil paintings, ceramics, wool knitting, plaster slabs and found objects are arranged, emulating the way food in a pantry or books on a bookshelf may be placed. Watching clothes dry speaks to the value we place on domestic experiences, objects and feelings, and explores how, through installation, the deeply personal and relatable can be revealed.
Being confined to my home during COVID-19 quarantine, I looked to my immediate surroundings to make art. In turn, my home became part of my work. Within the walls of my studio apartment, I rearranged my belongings into assemblages and installed sculptures amongst the furniture. My home and art were truly blended. Concentration on the domestic allowed for the everyday to filter into my artwork. Revealing the cupboard spaces behind the gallery walls was an intentional choice to help bring the domestic realm into the gallery setting. Having the works sit on shelves and hang from coat hangers on a clothes rack allowed me to recreate the physical domestic setting that the works were made in and about. In Ellen Wright’s discussion of her work Wardrobe (2015), Wright asserts that ‘the wardrobe as the absent body is a container, holding a haphazard collection of objects from an individual’s daily life. The wardrobe is a confined, sensory, concentrated experience of one person’s collection’ (2019, p. 21). It felt important for my work to be ‘housed’ in the structures of a wardrobe and shelves, spaces that contain our most personal items and reflect our everyday experiences and routines.
The seemingly small and common moments of domesticity wove their way into my work. I paid attention to smudges on the windows, and how the light bounced around from wall to wall. I developed an obsession with shadows and their cyclic nature. I see shadows as paintings on the pavement that evolve through the day – and disappear at night – only to come back the next morning. During a day at home, I took a photo of a shadow on the pavement cast by my clothes drying on a clothes horse. This shadow shape presented laundry as the materiality of the everyday (Pink, Mackley & Moroşanu 2015) and became a recurring motif in my painting and textile works. The capturing, replicating, and preserving of a moment in time, something as ephemeral as a shadow cast on concrete, allowed me to bring weight and attention to the fleeting and mundane moments of everyday life. Katherine Stewart (2007, p. 19) writes that “a still life is a static state filled with vibratory motion, or resonance. A quivering in the stability of a category or a trajectory, it gives the ordinary the charge of an unfolding”. I performed and examined repetitive domestic routines such as hanging the washing out, making a morning coffee and washing the dishes. I thought about labour and rituals, and the work involved in the smooth running of home life. In the foreword of At Home: An anthropology of domestic space, John Rennie Short (1999, p. ix) contends that “rather than looking for the familiar in the exotic, [urban society] searches for the exotic in the familiar. Objects that are taken for granted, like the window, the hall, exterior and interior decoration, and the familiar activities like laundry and the family meal, are looked at anew”. Watching clothes dry celebrates and preserves the ordinary and monotonous moments that are overlooked.
Understanding the personality of the objects around me informed my process of making Watching clothes dry. Collecting materials and objects became a form of research. Jane Bennett (2010, p. viii) discusses the “vitality” of objects as “the capacity of things — edibles, commodities, storms, metals — not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own”. I regarded each object or material I came across as having its own life that was outside of my relationship to it. I related to Patricia Townsend’s notion of the ‘hunch’ as expounded in Creative States of Mind: psychoanalysis and the artist’s process. Townsend (2019, p. 7) examines the “hunch [being] not a clear idea or image of a possible work. Such an image may or may not emerge later, but at this stage the lack of definition allows the artist space for her imagination to play unfettered by the restrictions of detail”. Often, simply the texture or colour was enough for me to know I wanted a certain object or material to be part of the work.
The found objects in my installation were collected from my home, found on the street or passed down to me from family members. A significant object in my installation is a wooden picture frame that had belonged to my Pop. It was found in his shed after he had passed away and I had held onto it, knowing I would do something with it one day. Involving the picture frame in the installation spoke to the connection to the objects we keep, and how certain objects can change their meaning once a loved one has passed. Song Dong’s overwhelming installation Waste Not (2005) consisted of the contents of his mother’s home: bars of soap, empty toothpaste tubes, bird cages. Gill Perry (2014, p. 36) suggests that “the installation positions an obsessive accumulation of domestic junk within a public framework of art and display, applying museum taxonomies and classification to the most banal everyday objects. Waste Not reminds us of the sheer materiality of domesticity – objects transform the house into the home”. The work displayed Dong’s mother’s compulsive hoarding tendencies and displayed how a life can be categorised through material objects. The found objects in my installation communicate the attachment that is formed towards objects that are part of our everyday.
In her discussion of art in the domestic, Imogen Racz (2015, p. 2) contends that, “we chose objects and decorations, negotiate with others about these, make and mend, and gradually build a place that reflects the way we feel about ourselves”. I tend to regard the making of this installation similar to the making of a home. Objects are collected and arranged to create a scene that reflects accumulated experiences and feelings. The installation presents a series of individual objects, but also highlights the negative space between each entity. This negative space holds the overlap, “like the air that exists between them transmitting influences that connect them but do not constitute them” (DeLanda, 2016, p. 2). Megan Sherritt (2019) examines Haim Steinbach’s works and argues that the thoughtful and intentional arrangement of objects creates a space where objects can exist outside the preconception’s humans place on them. Sherritt (2019, p. 352) states that “not only does the silence provide a space for objects to speak, […] but also predisposes (or encourages) the human who encounters these objects to listen”. My installation brings domestic motifs and objects into the gallery setting to hold space and command attention for the overlooked and mundane.
The portability of my installation speaks to the notion of home being a shifting state – perhaps not a house, rather objects that one affiliates with feelings of security and familiarity. Looking to Do Ho Suh’s work Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home/Baltimore Home (1999), the evolving and impermanent nature of the home is discussed. The dreamy, translucent silk house shaped structure is hung from the ceiling and is representational of Suh’s childhood home in Korea. The portable structure can be disassembled and folded into a suitcase to be transported to its next location, which speaks to the nomadic life of a travelling artist and immigration. The work “memorialises a cultural and personal attachment but in such a pared-down, emblematic way that private narrative disperses” (Richard, 2002, p. 116). Through installation, Suh speaks to movement and transportation of the home, and how home may not necessarily be a physical place, but a collection of portable objects to be assembled wherever one travels.
On a different and smaller scale to Suh’s work, my installation speaks to the mobility of the home, and presents the objects, colours and shapes that signify home to me. The works were made in the first house that I moved into from my family home. Moving away evoked reflections on my childhood. I thought about the domestic labour my parents performed to bring my siblings and I into the world, and in turn the domestic labour I would now perform in my new home. Gaston Bachelard (1958, p. 15) examines the family home and contends that “the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme”. Creating a happy home that emulates the warmth and security of my family home is of great importance to me. The process of making and installing Watching clothes dry seemed to mimic the process of moving house. It began with the making and collecting of each individual work at my home, then transportation of the works from my home to the gallery (for which I used a shopping trolley), the arranging of the works on the shelves and in the cupboard in the gallery space, and finally the packing away of the works to be brought back to my home. The work speaks to the changing states of domestic life, and how installation can be a process to communicate these changes.
Watching clothes dry includes two stretches of wool knitting: one wrapped around a painted canvas, the other still attached to the knitting needle and clipped onto a coat hanger. I regard the act of knitting as a mode of diary writing. Each day I add stitches to the stretch of knitting, channeling the frustrations and thoughts I had during that day through the needles. The repetitive nature of knitting emulates the relentlessness of housework and daily routines. A woven diary. Waters (2012, p. 71) presents the term “repetitive crafting” which refers to the “dexterous laboriousness, where the relationship between the body and material is bound by long periods of concentrated time”. Craft is a process for hands to manipulate materials, and consequently memory is woven into what is created (Ingold 2013). The knitted pieces in my installation are windows into my every day and centre the slow and insular nature of the domestic setting.
Much like household routines, crafts are perpetual and arduous, and historically undervalued. Laura Price (2015, p. 84) contends that “women’s crafts have historically been a source of pleasurable creativity and self-expression; but at the same time, their production may be negotiated around oppressive circumstances”. Recognising it’s historically oppressive nature, I offer my personal connection to craft: an imaginative and meditative act that exists within its own rules of time. The knitted works in my installation emerged from an embodied domestic practice, further linking the installation to the rhythms of the everyday.
My installation work Watching clothes dry is an ode to domestic life and way we regard the mundane occurrences in the everyday. Through slowing down and noticing the seemingly insignificant pieces of our day to day, a reflective and poetic installation was formed. Arranged to mimic a domestic scene, the installation blends the lines between life and art. Like a series of diary entries, each component of the installation tells a story, encouraging the viewer to look inward and treasure the everyday.
Bachelard, G 1958, The Poetics of Space, Orion Press, New York.
Bennett, J 2010, Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C.
DeLanda, M 2016, Assemblage Theory, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
Ingold, T 2013, Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture, Routledge, London.
Mackley, KL, Moroşanu, R & Pink, S 2015, ‘Hanging out at home: Laundry as a thread and texture of everyday life’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 209-224.
Perry, G 2014, Playing at Home: The house in contemporary art, Reaction Books, London.
Price, L 2015, ‘Knitting at the City’, Geography Compass, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 81-95.
Racz, I 2015, Art and the Home: Comfort, alienation and the everyday, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.
Richard, F 2002, ‘Home in the world: The art of Do-Ho Suh’, ArtForum, vol. 40, no. 5, pp.114-117.
Sherritt, M 2019, ‘Silent Spaces: Allowing objects to talk’, Open Philosophy, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 347-356.
Short, JR 1999, ‘Foreword’, in I Cieraad (ed.), At Home: An anthropology of domestic space, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, N.Y, pp. ix – x.
Stewart, K 2007, Ordinary Affects, Duke University Press, Durham N.C.
Townsend, P 2019, Creative states of mind: Psychoanalysis and the artist’s process, Taylor and Francis, England.
Waters, S 2012, ‘Repetitive crafting: the shared aesthetic of time in Australia contemporary art’ , craft + design enquiry, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 69-88.
Wright, EJ 2019, ‘Come to Your Senses, Remember Belongings: A pedagogy of making, memory and the haptics of the home’, PhD thesis, York University, Toronto.