Annette McKee and Helen Fuller Jam Factory Gallery Adelaide SA 16 May- 5 July 1998
Uncomfortably cosy. This installation is staged, appropriately, within the luminously intimate gallery space tucked into a back corner of the Jam Factory Centre for Contemporary Craft and Design. Helen Fuller and Annette McKee have simultaneously re-enacted and deconstructed the domestic crafts and rituals of homemaking. They chart a journey through a narrative of routine, detail and skill: a story which covers a subtext of feminine repression, emptiness, sacrifice and secret poetic yearning. Both story and subtext are executed with a poignant combination of reverence and frustration, empathy and rejection. An ambivalent exploration of territories occupied by a generation of mothers. A preoccupation with tendencies which echo still among their daughters.
The narrative begins as the gallery space is entered. A line of text is printed onto the glass walls of the display cabinets which comprise the space. The text leads the viewing from left to right around the walls in an orderly fashion. The story is told in single words: bold plain font alternating with romanticised script: "wash hope darn drip-dry nag scrub thread measure scour gripe ruffled polish..." Evenly spaced and placed on a neat straight unending line, the text flattens and equalises. It is descriptive of lives where all experience, no matter how trivial or profound is seemingly given equal weight.
Displayed thoughtfully at eye level for easy reading, a pleasant border. Nothing is messy, or untoward : the words, some of which could speak worlds, are presented as decoration which will be looked past - seen but unseen, spoken but not communicated. They operate, unpunctuated, as fragments stitched together, forming one long sentence. A life sentence?
Behind the glass a series of domestic artefacts is installed. These have been collected, assembled, or meticulously constructed by the artists. They seem to be arranged to be read as story, from left to right, or perhaps as chapters: a visual text. In the foreground to the left and right are Annette McKee's series of elaborately presented and absurdly decorative metallic cosies. They are designed to cover and glamorise various functional, absent shapes. These artificial covers are named/identified as women in the catalogue. They personify a notion of the feminine as all artifice, all decorative surface.
Substance, function and fleshy female presence are either absent, or invisible under these uncosy covers. The materials used provide further symbolic resonance. Metallic mesh is, in function, more suited to straining tea than to keeping it warm. Instead of operating as cosies, the objects become inverted strainers, or cages. Women trapped, or perhaps hiding within cages they have constructed themselves in a strained effort at keeping up appearances.
McKee has displayed these strange constructions in a manner which triggers multiple readings, layers of meaning. They could be crowns, or hairdos (one has hatpins piercing into shapes resembling hair rollers.) Some are elevated on cake stands making them warp visually into inedible wedding, or elaborate teaparty cakes. Some are further elevated on plinths perhaps suggesting an uncomfortable correspondence between feminine artifice and the nature of museum, or gallery display. Empty plinths bear folded doilies, lengths of decoratively gathered ribbons and place cards naming awaited guests. Careful and painstaking preparation and a sense of poised expectation are evoked, as well as a weird combination of whimsy and menace.
Suspended from clothes lines directly ahead of the viewer are Helen Fuller's 7 Teatowels. Red and white gingham checked teatowels are pegged stiffly out to dry behind the continuous line of text on the glass. Each of these has a series of cross shapes cut and removed from its fabric. Some of the holes are edged with black horse hair pinned on strand by strand and some have been folded back to enclose box-like shapes. Female servitude and self-sacrifice may be aggressively suggested by figuring the teatowel as female body: a body whose only ascribed value lies in the operation of service, its only sanctioned function the regular and monotonous mopping-up of domestic mess. The hair evokes the horsehair shirts of Christian self-sacrifice, as does the cross shape cut into the towels. This shape is not cruciform however, but traces instead the form of the Red Cross, a motif which evokes a more specifically female mode of service. Books are pegged open below the teatowels and display in picture and text the ideal image of the 50s model housewife. The box-like shapes hidden in the fabric of the teatowels however, are identified by the catalogue as contemporary remedies for domestic mess and pain: Panadol, tampons and Mickey Mouse bandaids. A sly reminder of tendencies still unspoken, sacrifices still made. Hopes of redemption through sacrifice still secretly nourished?
Next on Fuller's catalogue of artefacts are 20 Lip Buttons. These are huge, handmade and wall-mounted in groups. Fastened onto these objects with smaller commercially made buttons are slim and wafer thin strips of paper bearing sentences in tiny curvaceous typed script: she would get up cranky & go to bed cranky/ her garden was her temple/ the school holidays drove her nuts/ she was pregnant/ once she took it out on the lemon tree/ she said we will be sorry when she is gone/ she gave us castor oil and a good hiding for swearing/ she saved the seeds and wishbones... Are these fortune cookie messages, labels, or reminder notes? Attached as they are on buttons which supposedly fasten lips together they appear as untold stories, inaudible and suppressed: wishes perhaps, angrily muttered statements, or prayers. Just far enough away to make reading difficult if not almost impossible; the messages whisper out of a female silence which is both self-imposed and socially inscribed.
The closing chapter of this story is constructed from the material cut out of Fuller's teatowels. Named Gingham cut moths, these are tiny, curiously lively, geometric shapes. Composed of red and white squares; they slant, warp, group, dissipate and regroup in surprisingly various combinations. Silently musical, are these the moths which escape from pursed lips too rarely opened? Coming as they appear to from the empty cross shapes, I found myself wondering whether a Red Cross-shaped motif would appear among the cutouts: perhaps indicating some sort of mutual, or self-nurture.
Looking around the installation past a group of uncatalogued empty teacups (one stuffed full of measuring tape) and a huge unwieldy pair of scissors, I noticed one tiny Red Cross-shaped cutout. Set apart from the rest of the installation (the last word?) the shape is pinned like a museum collection moth above a solitary teacup. The shadow cast by the little cross, lengthens and is identified in the catalogue as a "caste shadow". Artfully misspelt, does this naming figure a social class destined by birth to have care returned only via the solace offered by a cup of tea?