1997

Instrumental

Thompson Gallery, Johannesburg in collaboration with Read Contemporary Art.

Major solo exhibition comprising 26 sculptural and wall-mounted works, accompanied by an abridged catalogue with text by Hazel Friedman.

In the works on Instrumental, I examine how, in historical and contemporary representations of women within a western paradigm, bodily excess and marginal bodily matter is contained, controlled and suppressed within the boundaries of the skin. These representations span the discourses of medicine, psychiatry, fashion, art, aesthetics and popular/media culture.

In the work, I interrogate how such images of ‘seamless’ physical perfection are constructed.  Using pigmented wax, I transform the surfaces of garments historically associated with femininity such as corsets and bodices into tactile, intricately decorated skin- and body-like constructions. Impregnated, and painted over with wax, the fabric of the garments suggests both the fragile protection of the outer skin and the raw vulnerability of exposed inner flesh. Distinctions between inside and outside, private and public, inner and outer body elide, so that the objects infer both bodily presence and absence.

These interventions are mimetic of, and metaphorical for, discursive and commodified constructions of femininity; skin becomes a site of control – an external fabric crafted in ways that mimic the fabrication of ‘femininity’ according to the dictates of the heterosexual male gaze. Sewing and beauty implements (historically associated with ‘women’s’ work) and surgical instruments (traditionally associated with the masculine domain of science) are the primary mechanisms of constriction and control. Fastening, piercing, penetrating and zipping together skin and flesh simulacra, they draw parallels between the seamstresses’ ‘craft’ of tailoring a garment to fit a specific body size, and the cosmetic surgeon’s ‘art’ of modifying malleable female flesh in ways that conform to idealised measurements.

The body-garments are displayed as specularised objects for the scientific, medical or ethnographic gaze. Confined behind stainless steel and glass cabinets like museum pieces, they appear frozen in their own femininity, representing crystallisations of patriarchal fantasies. The cabinets literally ‘show-case’ the body-garments within western cultural and scientific master-narratives, drawing attention to femininity as a construct of phallocentric language, representation and ideology.