Essay By Alex Cairney for Contextualising Practice
The final product will never be as satisfying, as filled with power and potential, as the process of its making. (Grant 2017)
Thank you for clothing, feeding, and nurturing me into the woman I am today. I am so grateful that you are such a guiding light in my life, and I consider you one of my best friends. Nevertheless, I have come to realise that I have been shaping my arts practice to seek your approval rather than prioritising sincerity. It has taken some time for me to realise that our artistic tastes differ significantly, but that is okay. This letter is designed to establish my intentions as an artist. Through detailing the creation of Virginia, I aim to explain to you the way process plays a significant role in my practice, revealing elements in my work that I struggle to articulate verbally.
I wanted to crochet a human because I knew that the finished product would be slightly unsettling. I knew you would love the idea but hate the aesthetic. The concept was simple; crochet a life-sized human, yet I knew there was something more to it that I could not coherently identify. I just knew it had something to do with you, and my desire to play with the semblance of maternity between an artist and their work. I did not anticipate the extent to which this project would redefine my practice, placing it in a realm of both actualisation and ambiguity.
On March 1st at 8:23pm I had a head. It could only be identified as such after I sewed on the eyes. Before this addition, I joined my friends, throwing the head around in a humorous game of catch. As soon as this object had eyes, however, I became protective. I wanted people to be more careful and had to resist the urge to snatch it out of people’s grasp. When I took this head home to you, the horror on your face came as a shock to me. I am used to you treasuring my creations, praising me for my dedication and execution. While I was aware of the unusual appearance of the head, I thought you too would be able to see Nan in it. For me, Nan presented herself in every loop of the wool. I was honouring her craft by adopting the skills she had taught me growing up, but I was taking these skills forward in my own way, establishing myself as an individual. I feel a sense of power bringing the craft of crochet into the art sphere and ‘breaking’ as Vannier argues, ‘[societies] traditional codes’ (2018:6). Crochet implies notions of protection and matrilineal care as the skill is often handed down between generations of women – as it was for me. These natural connotations that crochet ‘implicitly evoke[s]’ travel with it when it is used to create. (Vannier 2018:6).
On the 15th of March, 3:48pm I had a neck and hands. They were pinned to my wall against a faint outline of the human body, establishing my intention to grow these parts into a complete human. This disjointed yet viscerally familiar stage brought to light the power of the ‘uncanny’. Freud, an Austrian neurologist best known for founding the discipline of psychoanalysis, describes the uncanny as belonging ‘to the realm of frightening’ (1919:123). He details this fright as the uncomfortable feeling that arises from ‘what was once familiar [‘homely’]’ (Freud 1919:151). While objectively still just crochet, yellow, and stuffed with cotton, its resemblance to the human form was becoming more and more prominent. In addition to the physical resemblance to the human form, there seemed to lie an intrinsic connection between myself and this object through the actualisation of every second, minute and hour spent looping the wool. This eerie sense of myself trapped within its form created a bond between myself and the object that I perceived as both artist-and-artwork and mother-and-child. Nevertheless, I could see you distancing yourself from it more and more. I felt bad for making you uncomfortable, I really did. But I couldn’t stop. This human had to be made. And in a sense, it was your repulsion to it that had me needing to explore these emotions further.
On the 27th of March at 12:27pm, ‘it’ became ‘she’. Simplistically, this thing is biologically feminine due to the addition of breasts. Regardless of physical form, the materiality itself has strong feminine ties. As Turney has noted, ‘[w]hen one first thinks of knitting, one thinks of women’ (2009:8). Partaking in such a canonically feminine activity felt like a tangible connection to Nan and, in extension, every single woman who has dedicated her time to textile craft. There was something very powerful in being a woman, creating a woman, and using a craft taught to me by a woman.
Additionally, the inclusion of a torso brought my creation to life. The chest and abdomen suggest a heart, lungs, and stomach. They imply that my creation exists as something more than wool and loops. Unfortunately, I soon came to realise that this sentiment was not shared by everyone. This point in creation marked her first experience of true criticism. Interestingly, the moment I began to establish a true connection with her, you deemed her ‘inappropriate’. Mum, I know that she made you uncomfortable, but for me her free form serves as a truth. As Ferrari et al. articulates, ‘[w]hat the nude reveals is that there is nothing to be revealed’ (2014:2). The ‘truth’ in this circumstance should not be so uncomfortable for you to observe. There is power in her honesty. She is who she is, and we can see it all.
According to English writer and scholar McDonald, ‘[n]akedness is the most potent visual sign that a body is available for sexual encounter with another body’. (2001:1) McDonald sees this as the most influential factor that deems nudity as inappropriate. The sexuality associated with nudity was unintentionally perpetuated by me at times. I would grope her breasts, originally to properly stuff them and give them shape, however this progressed into touching for comfort and curiosity. I began battling feelings of shame when touching her, feeling inappropriate for doing so. I could not decipher whether my appreciation for her was one of sexual gratification, or objective fondness for something I had tirelessly worked to create. Whilst I could not define my relationship with her exactly, I knew that it made others feel uncomfortable, and this intrigued me enough to pursue it further. Once again, mum, I feel a need to explain myself to you. Writer, art critic and curator Lucie-Smith argues that ‘[a]rt which deals with sexual matters is ipso facto considered ‘advanced’ – provocative and uncompromised by the demands of society’ (1991:263) this view empowers me to embrace the discomfort that her sexuality creates. I see the disgruntled, and often disturbed, attitude toward her as a challenge, provoking me to explore the ways in which art can be both inappropriate as well as profound.
The 19th of April is Virginia’s official birthday. This was the day that she became whole, and I felt compelled to properly name her. You laugh at her name, knowing I gave it to her for its similarity to the word ‘Vagina’. Yet you don’t see what this name represents. It is me addressing something uncontrollably hers, and universally understood yet so socially taboo that one must disguise it to be seen as acceptable. It was such an odd experience to be so proud of Virginia, whom I had made from scratch, whilst knowing that I could never show her to someone without it being seen as a joke. She will always need to be explained, and even then, she will not always be accepted.
Lucie-Smith recognises that ‘our body is a battleground’, for we have tirelessly fought for freedom of expression, yet ‘from the dawn of history, it seems, we, too, have colluded in the cover-up’ (2007:1). I found myself guilty of this myself, experiencing moments of regret for producing an unfiltered depiction of the body rather than opting for a more appropriate ‘Ken doll’ depiction that De Keijzer employed in her work My Knitted Boyfriend. In this piece, her knitted boyfriend serves as the ideal; a ‘pillow with a personality” (Vannier 2018:218). For this reason, her ‘boyfriend’ is featureless. He has knitted into his face the black markings of eyes, mouth, and hair; however, the rest of his body is a blank slate. For De Keijzer’s this is an effective way to make her knitted boyfriend accessible to others. For Virginia, however, to censor her, to reduce her to less than her biological make-up, would be giving in to societies expectation that women are to be suppressed, hidden, or altered to be deemed valid. You once asked me why I insist on having so many vaginas in my work. To this I say that it is not about having them in my work, per se, but instead not excluding them from a work for the sake of being appropriate.
The power of Virginia lies in her ability to communicate with others and reveal complexities in craft and society without any living components. She is simply wool and fibre, yet she is powerful. She doesn’t need to be alive to live. French philosopher Foucault saw ‘[t]he body [as] the inscribed surface of events’ (1884:83). In reference to Virginia, her body has been crafted with Nan’s wool and by my hand. She has experienced bus rides, train rides, classes, and lectures. She has endured criticism and received praise. All these interactions have made her who she is today and have left a mark. Both physically, in dust particles she has collected and smells she has adopted, as well as the way my peers don’t startle at her anymore. She has established her presence in the studio as much as I have. This is further supported by philosopher and theorist Grosz (1994: 190), who describes the body as ‘blank or already encoded surfaces of inscription’. She sees them as ‘infinitely pliable’ objects that take form as much from their experiences as from their physical form. Virginia embodies this described malleability, portraying the ability for a body to become an entity through engagements with external people and environments.
Whilst Virginia is a piece that has been a smaller element of larger works, I see her as a complete work in herself. The complexities that she reveals about myself and my relationship with myself, you, and every woman I have ever interacted with is so substantial that I cannot see her as anything less than human in her own right.I am sorry, mum, for being so honest in this letter. I have struggled to write this for fear of what it’s content reveals. I needed to write it anyway because I am not you. I came from you, and I will always be indebted to you for nurturing me and showing me love, but we are different. And if I am going to progress in this world, I need to make what is right for me. I need to make more Virginias; that is, more art that is conceptually rich and personally true, regardless of aesthetic taste.
I don’t make this work to spite you. I make it to establish myself.
All my love,
Ferrari , F & Nancy, J (2014) Being Nude: The Skin of Images translated by Anne E, Fordham University Press, New York
Freud, S (2003) The Uncanny translated by McLintock D, Penguin Books, New York
Grant K (2017) All about Process: The Theory and Discourse of Modern Artistic Labor, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA.
Grosz E (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.
Hung S and Magliaro J (2007) By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art, Princeton Architectural press, New York.
Lucie-Smith, E (2007) Censoring the body, Seagull books, London
Lucie-Smith, E (1991) Sexuality in Western Art, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London
McDonald H (2001) Erotic Ambiguities: The Female Nude in Art, Routledge, London.
Turney J (2009) ‘The Culture of Knitting’, Journal of Design History, Volume 23(3): 326-327, https://doi.org/10.1093/jdh/epq014
Vannier C (2018) Unravelled: Contemporary knit art, 2nd edn, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London