People have been combing it, cutting it, styling it, dying it, covering it up, extending it, and shaving it off, since the beginning of recorded history. It clogs up our drains, smells pretty awful when set alight, and lasts longer than our flesh. I am, of course, referring to hair.
Curly or straight, buzz cut or ponytail, our hair is one of the primary signifiers about who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Historically, particular hairstyles have indicated rites of passage into adulthood, denoted piety, social status, and even been reserved for specific people. There were all kinds of rules in the Japanese warring period about who could wear what kind of topknot. Often overlooked in the maelstrom of personal identity issues is the fact that hair is also a natural material used by crafts women and men to make stuff. Most commonly, of course, these are hairpieces or wigs, and in the Horniman Museum anthropology collection alongside a number of wigs, there are also objects that are not wigs, that use human hair for decoration.
As the anthropology galleries are shut for renovation, it was back to the stores, where Helen Merret, Collections Officer, had very kindly laid out some objects that I was keen to see, on an archive table.
This is a mid-19th Century man’s wig from Fiji in Western Polynesia. ‘Ulumate’, literally translated as ‘dead head’ were worn for a number of reasons: to cover natural hair loss, or heads shaven during mourning. They were also in some instances a ‘badge of office’ for men with specific tasks to perform. Human hair is woven into coconut fibre strands.
This sperm whale ivory and human hair necklace, or lei liho palaoa, is from Hawaii. Literally a whale (palaoa) tooth (niho) necklace (lei), these distinctive pieces of jewellery were worn by both male and female chiefs. It is likely that an entire head of hair went into making the intricately woven braids that form the body of the piece. They are especially rare because Hawaiian people did not hunt whales. Only drowned, beached, or washed up whales could provide ivory for niho palaoa lei.
The whale tooth has been carved into the shape of a licking tongue.
And the detail of the braided hair, tied together with twine, is extremely satisfying.
This ceremonial hat or helmet is from India, possibly from the Naga culture. It is made with thin cane strips that have been woven in the diagonal. The plume of dyed red hairs has been identified as ‘possibly human’.
It really is a gorgeous object. The inside shows the deftness of the intricate twill.
The date is uncertain, listed in the catalogue as ‘before 1949’. It looks barely 70 hours old, let alone 70 years.
Perhaps the quirkiest thing in this little human hair line-up is this man’s costume tail, also from India, possibly from the Angami, a tribe of the Naga people. It would likely have been used in a ceremonial dance. It was donated to the museum in 1916.
This piece inverts the way in which we use materials from animals to adorn our bodies. Here it is human hair that goes to make us become animal. A cane loop at the top of the tail allows it to be strapped to the body.
Close up you can see the plaited basketry and way the human hair has been woven into the cane.
I am using my residency at Horniman Museum to take inspiration for a series of false noses, and I have wanted to make one that uses human hair in this ornamental way. For the last 30 years, I have kept my mother’s ponytail, which she had woven into a secure weft when she decided to have a short hairstyle.
My plan is to use this hair to make a hairy nose. I carved a form out of oak onto which to mount the hair.
The next step was to look for a wig maker who would take on the task of knotting a nose wig. (Actually, my initial plan was to see if I could do it myself but the investment of time and money into a wig making course proved a bit too much of a stretch for a one-off hairy nose. Of course, if I were to make a series of hairy noses, it might be a different matter.)
Founded in 1899, Raoul is the oldest wig-making company in the UK, and was the first to offer wigs through the NHS in 1949. As it is so labour intensive, a lot of knotting is subcontracted to countries with cheaper labour costs, but Raoul does almost everything in-house at its studio in Paddington, London. Their client list is long and illustrious. Up until her death in 2002 they made the hairpiece for the Queen Mother.
The odd thing about a wig maker is that their customer base exists at polar ends of the spectrum of human need, from desperate people who have lost their hair when their life is in jeopardy from illness, to someone needing a period ‘do’ for a play or film shoot. I was a little apprehensive about approaching them for a nose wig but I shouldn’t have worried. Liz Finan, who owns and runs Raoul reassured me. “We love a challenge and anything a bit different.” So there we were in one of the private client rooms discussing how to best make a wig for my oak nose with the ponytail my mother had cut off when I was still a teenager.
Even for those of us with a full head of hair, these protein filaments growing out of the follicles on our scalp are a cause of emotional instability: of satisfaction, of upset, at the very least of bad hair days. This emotional instability has to be increased dramatically if you are in the position of loosing your hair, or you have a condition that means you simply don’t grow any. Liz has set up Raoul to be as much like a normal hair salon as possible, with the kind of public shop at the front that you would expect on any high street. A series of private client rooms sit down one side of a central corridor, at the end of which is the studio, where the making happens.
The basics of wig making haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. You need hair, something to knot it onto, and a hook to do that. Most of the tools fit in a little box. The things that take up room are the client files showing precise colours and styles, and the head blocks.
And then it’s a case of knotting in the hair, one or two strands at a time. It requires precision, skill, and focus.
The first step on the way to making my nose wig, was to undo the wefted ponytail of my mother’s hair, without breaking it, and keeping the length. As I peered over her shoulder Liz, confidently inserted a thread picker with the precision of a surgeon, and soon the coil unravelled.
Four hands were needed at times, to safely untangle hairs that were caught around the securing wire.
Liz then handed over the hairs, let loose after 30 years, to Anselme Bonson, known to her Raoul colleagues by the pet name ‘Pressy’. She whips the hair against a hackle, a board that looks like some sort of medieval torture machine, and which Liz said could well be as old as the business. This process combs out the hair while leaving behind the short ends, which are no good for knotting.
And then there we have it: an untethered lock of auburn hair ready for knotting.
A few days later I returned to meet Karen Werther, the woman who will be doing the actual knotting. A net cap has been made following the shape of my wooden form, and, as there are not generally wig blocks in the shape of noses, the same structure was created out of plastic film stuffed with tissue paper, to give a solid but pliable body to knot into. This was then mounted onto a more conventional canvas block as a base to work on. So we were in the rather surreal situation of looking at a large nose shape pinned to the top of a head.
And then Karen was off; one hair at a time. “She’s an extremely neat knotter,” Liz says cheerily.
So the hairy nose begins to take shape. It is painstaking work. I drop back in some days later to check up on the progress. It’s not hard to see why wig making is an expensive business. It takes a long time.
The effect is already uncanny as I see my mother’s hair take a new shape.
I return to Raoul to pick up my nose wig. Karen proudly knots the last few hairs.
There is still plenty more to do before it becomes the object I want it to be but thanks to Karen, Liz, Pressy and the team, the hard graft has been done. As Liz says, “What’s left is for you to personalise it. You can style it the way that you want. You could braid it one day and curl it the next.” I leave Raoul my head full of possibilities for nose wig styles.
My personal opinion is that all people can be divided into two categories, those who collect, and those who do not. As a collector myself I am interested in people who collect. Frederick John Horniman (1835-1906) was a collector in the Victorian tradition and on an epic scale. It is of course his collection that forms the bedrock of the Horniman Museum.
In what used to be the main reception of the museum, but is now the staff and goods entrance, perched on a pedestal, is a bronze bust of Horniman.
Nobody seems to know much about it. My hunch is that it was created at the same time as the building, which opened to the public in 1901. It fits too perfectly into its nook to be a later addition. One option is that it is the work of sculptor Frederick William Pomeroy (1856-1924). Pomeroy made a bronze bust of Horniman’s daughter-in-law in 1898, and also a memorial tablet for the museum. I’m still in pursuit of some solid evidence that confirms or contradicts this theory. (If you know something, get in touch!)
As part of my residency, and in tribute to the man that endowed this fantastic museum, I want to create a Horniman false nose. And what could be a more fitting material for a tribute, than gold? After discussing my plans with the conservation team, writing method statements, and making patch tests, I was given the go ahead to make a cast of the nose and moustache area of the bronze bust.
Ready for your trim sir?
Despite having used the alginate and plaster bandage technique literally hundreds of times to successfully cast faces (most recently on the life mask of another Victorian and Edwardian collector, Henry Wellcome) the process failed. Perhaps I had been over cautious about what materials to use, not wanting to affect the patina of the bronze, but still, I thought it would work. The alginate can sometimes ‘go off’ but the batch seemed fine to me. Anyway, for whatever reason, possibly the cold temperature of the bronze, it wouldn’t release without tearing.
I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty embarrassed. After all the efforts to secure the permission and cordon off the area, I felt a bit incompetent. Luckily for me Lindsey Bruce, Exhibitions Officer, and my main point of contact at the museum, was unperturbed. “We will make it happen,” was her refrain.
It was back to the 4D model shop in Whitechapel to see what other casting agents I could safely use. Armed with a pack of Gedeo Siligum, a silicone based moulding paste, I returned to the museum to run a test on a bronze scrap. It seemed fine, and Julia Gresson from the conservation team, gave me the go ahead for a second attempt.
Poor Frederick looks a bit miserable having his nose cast.
This time, success! A very good cast that also picked up some dirt, which must have gathered up his nose over the years. Once the cast was off, Julia gave him a good clean.
Taking the mould back to my studio, the next step is to make a wax template. Yes, I know this looks like a school project gone wrong, and yes, that yellow stuff really is Play-Doh. Play-Doh is a great way to build up the sides of a wax mould. It’s cheap, washes off easily, and can form a tight seal.
After a couple of hours leaving the wax to cool and harden, I stripped back the Play-Doh, and removed the mould. The Horniman nose and moustache wax template stands proudly before me.
Now that I had at least one good wax copy, I made a plastic polymer version from the same mould as an insurance.
The next step was to take the template to a metal workshop to have it copper electroformed. Electroforming is a process that builds up a metal surface through electrodeposition. Because wax is not conductive, the area to be electroformed has to be treated chemically with a conductive layer, something like a metal paint. The technical term for the template is ‘mandrel’. The mandrel is then put into this crazy electrolytic bath with a copper solution in it. The copper crystals then slowly form around the conductive pattern.
A couple of days later I returned to the metal workshop to collect the mandrel. The wax is now covered with a beautiful layer of copper.
To get rid of the wax, I simply popped the thing into the oven (130 degrees Celsius for 40 minutes) and let the wax melt out through a wire grid into an aluminium take-away carton.
Back in the studio, I cut out the shape I wanted, following the natural line of the moustache, punched out the nostrils, and drilled some holes for the thread ties.
This is the final shape.
Then it’s back to the metal workshop for the golden jacket. The copper nose-moustache-combo has to be polished and thoroughly cleaned. The first bath is just washing-up liquid and water; the second running water; the third acid, in which you can see the dirt fizz away!
Then Mr Horniman’s nose is plunged into a bath of gold. In fact, it is just gold dust in a solution, and the process of gold plating is similar to that of electroforming, only much quicker. I tried to distract the technician, asking questions for as long as possible, so that an extra thick layer of gold would make its way onto the surface (only joking). In reality, it’s only a few microns deep. If you rough handle gold plate, you will see what’s underneath.
And there we have it. One gold Horniman nose and moustache.
However, I’m not sure it’s quite finished yet, and I want to give this nose some kind of totem, that makes it more of an object worthy of the taxonomic principles that not only form Horniman’s collection but also which that collection helped to create.
There are several species to which Horniman lent his name. This happened when entomologists were invited to survey Horniman’s collections. Although Horniman did go on big world travels later in his life and brought crate loads of stuff back to the UK, most of his early collections were purchased through intermediaries. Someone goes off to Africa and collects a bunch of specimens, brings them back to London, and Horniman buys them at auction, for example. He would then welcome experts to look at what he had amassed. Specimens include a moth, Eusemia hornimani, (now Heraclia hornimani), a true bug, Tesserotoma hornimani, and the ‘Horniman beetle’, Ceratorhina hornimani (now Cyprolais hornimani), from Cameroon, described by naturalist and explorer Henry Walter Bates in 1877.
Perhaps the most beautiful species named after Horniman is the ‘Horniman Swallowtail’, Papilio hornimani, known only from the northern forests of Tanzania and the southern hills of Kenya. As Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural explained to me, it was identified by Victorian entomologist W L Distant in 1879, when he was looking through Horniman’s vast collection of butterflies.
This is the original specimen that Distant ‘discovered’.
As an aside, if you’ve ever wondered how all those Victorian insects were pinned at just the right height, Jo showed me the entomologist’s ‘Pinning Stage’, a metal block that is used to set the specimens and their labels at a consistent height on the mounting pin. You pin the specimen, pick which height you want, and push the pin into the stage. By using the same hole each time, the specimens will always be at the same height.
Here is the defining Papilio hornimani on its original pin, with two labels beneath the butterfly.
Although almost always it is the open wings of the butterfly that we see pinned up, because they are traditionally seen as the most pretty, the reverse side, which is, I suppose, more commonly seen in nature as the butterfly sits on vegetation, have their own muted beauty. The Papilio hornimani is made up of soft dusty browns, greys and creams.
As you might expect, over the years, the Horniman Museum has acquired many examples of its lepidopterous namesake.
Where does all this fit into Horniman’s gold nose? Well, I’m thinking of giving him a Swallowtail nose ring, in the spirit of anthropology. I have drawn out the shape and will soon laser cut a piece of 0.5mm steel, which I will then have plated in gold, to match the nose.
Horniman fell in love with Japan (as in fact, have I) and so I have ordered a length of ‘kiki himo’ (literally ‘gathered threads’), 100% silk braid made by craftsmen in Uji, Kyoto, which is being sent over from Japan, as the string to tie on the nose. Soon I will be able to reveal Nares hornimani. Watch this space.
The three main collections at the Horniman Museum are: natural history, anthropology, and musical instruments. As part of my residency, I’m planning to make a series of false noses which respond to these collections. This gives me the opportunity to engage, to some degree, with all aspects of the museum.
The Music Gallery has the tricky task of creating a ‘no touching’ visual display of what are foremost sonic objects. Unusually for a museum there are many opportunities to play instruments that are in the handling collection but the core pieces need to be protected. The room contains floor to ceiling glass cases packed with musical instruments that emerge from the darkness.
It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. You have to peer through the reflections and focus, in order to separate out each individual instrument from the mass.
Despite being more or less a flat display in a series of long cases, the feel is incredibly three-dimensional. Instruments are positioned and different heights and depths.
They are arranged in classification, for example this collection of concertinas folded and clipped back but ready to spring into action.
Many of the instruments, like this 3 valve compensating cornet, seem to hover in mid air, as if the musician had suddenly disappeared and gravity forgot to take hold.
Objects are not collected solely for rarity or value. This popgun (c.1990) categorised under ‘Plosive aerophones’ is exactly the kind I had as a child. It was great to see it there amongst the wind instruments, sitting right up front.
Across the Horniman Museum, but perhaps especially in the Music Gallery, the object mounting is exceptional. The curatorial team work closely with the technical staff to coordinate the display.
At the moment the African Worlds Gallery and the Centenary Gallery which housed the anthropology collection are closed for a major refurbishment. A new World Gallery and Studio will open in 2018. The anthropology collection is among my favourite at the Horniman Museum, so I miss being able to walk through these galleries on my weekly visits. However, I’m very curious about the plans for the new presentation and particularly in how the objects will be mounted.
In the Music Gallery, iron rods, barely visible from the front of the case, hold the instruments in a shaft of light. You have to look at an angle and do some visual gymnastics to pick out these batons.
From the side of the case you see just how intricate and numerous they are. Each one devised and created specifically for the instrument it holds.
You don’t have to just imagine the sounds, as most of them are available on an interactive audio-visual screen which corresponds to the display. Here are some conch shell trumpets, played on the Admiralty Islands and by the Maori people in Aotearoa New Zealand. In the second of the two shown below, notice where the hole is. It would have been side blown.
This 17th Century French flageolet is displayed with its adorable case.
And this beautiful porcelain ocarina from Meissen in Germany. (On the top left of the photograph you can see an ocarina made by Guiseppe Donati, the former Italian brickmaker who invented the instrument.)
I’m particularly interested in the wind instruments and to think about the craftspeople who made them. Here are a pair of Nigerian whistles.
I’m also interested in the way some of the instruments are shaped and decorated to represent other things. This vessel rattle in the form of a killer whale, for example. (The Bellabella people, Vancouver Island, Canada before 1892.)
Or these two sonaja, vessel rattles, one with a cowboy head and one with a devil head, from Celaya, Mexico.
Or most brilliantly these fantastic hand clappers which are from XVIII Dynasty Riqqeh in Egypt, making them about 3,500 years old. Amazing. To have a pair of hand clapping clappers seems like an entirely contemporary post-modern idea, and yet here they are from an ancient civilisation.
Seeing so many musical instruments together allows you to explore the variety of shapes and materials used. This Native American rattle from the Great Plains of South Dakota is strung with spent cartridges. What were the bullets shooting, I wonder?
This mid-20th century Nigerian side-blown horn has an impressive twist.
I love this woven bell thing but I’m not actually sure what it is. I’ll investigate further on my next visit.
A clay figure of a satyr playing the auloi, probably from provincial Greece, in the first or second century AD, offers evidence for instruments that no longer exist.
Other objects aren’t musical instruments in their own right but form part of the musicians kit. And this polishing mop is particularly handsome.
What to make of all this? Well, I’ve set my heart on creating some kind of false-nose-nose-flute. I went to the Horniman library to do some research. The librarian, Helen Williamson introduced me to the holdings. There has always been a library as part of the Horniman. The original collection was formed of about 10,000 objects and 2,000 books. The library tells the story of the museum and follows the collection as it has grown under the auspices of individual curators, their predilections and areas of expertise.
The current library is housed in a grass roofed building next to the museum and holds approximately 30,000 books. It is open to the public on the two days a week that Helen works (generally Monday and Tuesday) but is mostly a reference collection for the curatorial team.
Dotted around the shelves are individual books or series of books that have yellow labels sticking up from their pages. These are the volumes that formed part of the original collection of Frederick Horniman.
Helen showed me this one inscribed by Frederick Horniman, and his wife Rebecca, to his father John Horniman (the tea magnate who originated the wealth upon which the Horniman collection is founded).
I found a few references to nose flutes, including an illustration of one made of a jaguar bone (figure ‘e’ below) from British Guiana. I also listened to a CD which included some nose flautist recitals on the fangufangu nose flute from Tonga. The recording was from 1978 and the CD notes made it clear that with the introduction of the guitar and the ukulele, the Polynesian nose flute traditions declined.
I also read about the toomerie and the poongee, which are nose flutes used by snake charmers in India. The thing about the nose flute is that you are creating the sound while breathing through your nose. It somehow feels connected to the breath in an organic way.
So, now I’d like to give it a go at making some kind of false-nose-nose-flute and I have discovered a whole online nose flute culture as a result. A key resource for those minded to explore the potential sounds their nasal passages could induce, is noseflute.org which focusses on the contemporary iterations of the instrument. It’s well worth a browse. From there I discovered the Boccarina, a contemporary mass produced plastic design by a South African ceramicist, Chris Schuermans. They are very affordable, so I ordered a couple. (The next edition, the Boccarina Pro, is currently in prototype phase.)
I am not a musician (by any stretch) but I wanted to give this a go. So here, with some trepidation, I offer you Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. I have not managed to create a nice sound but it’s the first step in my foray into nose flutes.
If you got through that, well done. And if you want to hear the Boccarina being played really well, check out Will Grove-White’s great nose flute cover of The Beach Boy’s classic, God Only Nose.
For the last quarter of 2016 I am lucky enough to be artist in residence at the Horniman Museum.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens was established by Tea Trader and philanthropist Frederick John Horniman, who began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’ from around 1860.
The collections of this wonderful museum are held in four main categories: anthropology, natural history, musical instruments, and the gardens. My plan is to use the Horniman collections as inspiration to create a series of false noses. There are many places to look. The most obvious is perhaps the anthropology collection: dance, devil, carnival, and ‘ugly’ masks. Equally, I could turn to the natural history collection: the spoonbill’s beak, the paleomastodon’s nascent trunk, the nine-banded armadillo’s curled protective shell. Less obvious, but no less inspirational, is the collection of instruments: an orchestral horn false nose, a concertina false nose, of course the nose flute already exists.
I collect false noses. I have hundreds of them. Most are human noses, but I also have witches noses, clown noses, animal noses, and other oddities. I even have a plug nose and a socket nose.
In 2013 I showed a series of 452 self-portraits wearing my false nose collection at the Wellcome Collection in London.
The thing about this collection is that there is a rapidly decreasing pool of noses to collect. As cosplay becomes commodified and the means of costume production more affordable, people are dressing-up more ‘authentically’. The false nose, alas, has probably seen its day.
In an effort to try and add to my own collection, I have started making false noses myself. I have made painted noses, papier maché noses, brass noses, clay noses, cardboard noses, crochet noses, and gold noses. I have recently started a digital Nose Museum on Instagram.
Bang slap in the middle of our faces, the nose is often overlooked. There are odes to beautiful eyes, sonnets on the perfect shape of lips, hair practically has a strand of literature to itself. The nose, however, is often cut off. The nose has a rich narrative potential for the absurd, the comic, the mysterious and at the same time, the entirely knowable. We all have a nose after all. As Dr Seuss reminds us, ‘They grow on every kind of head’. For example the moose above, whose giant nostrils sniff out from under a tyvek sheet, or this great crested grebe poking its beak out of its puppet theatre archive box.
As my introduction to the Horniman Museum, Lindsey Bruce, Exhibitions Officer, took me on a trip to the collections store in a semi-secret former school building in South East London. It is here that many of the hundreds of thousands of objects that are not on display in the museum are kept. The annual acid-free tissue-paper bill must be enormous. It’s nice to see a recently accessioned lute lounging on some pillows.
You can imagine the scene. Corridors of boxes, strange shapes undercover, colour-coded labels. Helen Merrett, Collections Officer showed us around.
This is the room where textiles are stored, rolled up under canvas, their hidden treasures all the more enticing for not being seen.
Spears from the Solomon Islands each have their own specially cut storage mount inside an archive drawer.
Mummies lie, not quite in state, their coffins inside coffins, another layer added to their mummification. Scribbled on the side in marker pen, is the weight of each box: 56kg, 106kg…
“What are those?” I say, pointing to some amazingly long single piece wooden struts. “Mongolian yurt poles,” Helen replies in a matter of fact tone.
A rather pouty Mars ignores our gaze as Helen lifts the dust sheet aside. It is unclear whether he’s attention seeking (‘About time too! I’ve been ignored for too long.’) or genuinely annoyed for having been disturbed.
A sample box is removed from a shelf. Inside an exquisite sharkskin covered chopstick carrying case. ‘What else is in this place?’ I wonder to myself.
An armoured mannequin stands ready for display at a moment’s notice.
There are ominous reminders of the experimental history of museum conservation. Warning signs of toxicity sit alongside accession labels.
It struck me that one of the pleasures of touring the collections store is that you don’t get to see everything. As opposed to the museum where access and interpretation are at the forefront of curators’ minds, here the objects are constantly escaping you. The more you see, the more you realise what you aren’t seeing. The pleasure of this ‘not knowing’ is also contingent on the fact that the general public don’t get this access. There is some satisfaction in recognising that you are in a privileged position, and equally discomfort that it can’t be experienced by more people.
Helen handed over to Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural History and we delved into some taxidermy.
Everyone I have met so far at Horniman loves their job. Jo is no exception. You can see the fire in her eyes and hear the delight in her voice, as she opens a box of say, disarticulated lizard skeletons.
This is the skeleton of an owl. The bones around the eye-socket are like a stone setting for some precious jewel.
Jo pointed out these ‘nose bags’ that are tied around the mounted skulls of different beasts. Although it looks like they are feeding, the bags are actually to capture the odd bits of fine nasal bone that might might fall off.
No such bag is required for the magnificent nose of the warthog.
Noses are, quite naturally, to be found everywhere in the natural history collection. It was quite overwhelming. This ‘twice prepared’ cutie, which the collections staff call Patches (to Jo’s cheery disapproval) is quite something. Possibly a teaching aid from the 1930s he evokes the cuddle instinct, revulsion, and wonderment all at once.
Here are some rather startled puffins.
The term ‘taxidermy’ comes from the Greek ‘taxis’ (meaning arrangement) and ‘derma’ (meaning skin). When the derma hasn’t had its taxis, it is a ‘study skin’. These are gutted birds that have then been filled with cotton wadding to give them some volume. They were used as specimens for the study of the plumage rather than anatomy. They have a melancholy beauty, the colour of their feathers bleeding through the polythene sheaths.
Many have their original labels; this one is from 1897. The handwriting is something to be admired. Part of the preservation of these objects is now necessarily also the preservation of their particular archiving over the years.
Jo opens another drawer. There in the centre is a box of beaks. For a collector of noses, this was something of a magic moment. A hastily scribbled note sits on top: ‘Not catalogued’. Clearly this box of beaks has not been considered of prime importance. Up until now.
AND: The Workshops in People’s Homes program is launching in just under a month. It’s been nearly a year since your first visit to Cumbria with the AND team. What was the inspiration for this new work in Cumbria? How has the project changed or developed from that first trip? What are you most excited about?
Joshua Sofaer: Travelling around Cumbria last year and meeting residents, I was struck by the number of people who were using their home as the site of creativity and as their business base. Perhaps this is something to do with the non-metropolitan, rural, and sparsely populated nature of the county. Homes serve a number of different functions: living space, studio, office, and store. People were also incredibly hospitable, inviting us in for tea, encouraging us to try a local speciality, and sharing their stories with us. It’s both enriching and humbling to be a recipient of that kind of hospitality. It puts you in an attentive and generous mood yourself. It makes you give respect and pay attention. That’s what Workshops in People’s Homes is really about: finding a way to create community through shared experiences.
In many ways the project has remained true to the initial proposal. We wanted 10 workshops in 10 homes, and that’s what we’ve got. I was looking for an emphasis on storytelling, insomuch as whatever the workshop is ostensibly about, they are still as much about meeting individual workshop facilitators and stepping into their home, as they are about learning a new skill.
What I’m most excited about is becoming a participant in the workshops myself.
AND: Your work seems have moved from performance to participation in the past decade. Can you tell us more about your process of art making through participation and collaboration? And is there a particular reason or significant work that inspired you to start working in this way?
Joshua Sofaer: I’ve been making artworks for over two decades, and it’s true that in the first decade my output was largely a kind of solo performance. I think that was a rite of passage for me. I suppose the truth is that I became exhausted with myself. Now, I’m still interested in stories, only not so much mine. What I’m doing at this point may seem quite different but there is continuity. It’s just not my story anymore; it’s the story of those that I meet. And in the same way that I found that first decade of making work about myself very useful in terms of understanding my own identity and my own place in the world, that’s what I have tried to offer, or facilitate for others. So it’s a flip side of the same coin. I’m also genuinely interested in what other people have to say about their experiences.
AND: From observing the development of the project we can see how communication and coaching skills, and your own generous approach to sharing these, play a major role in the development of these types of projects. Can you tell us more about how and why these skills play an important role in your work?
Joshua Sofaer: I fell into coaching almost by accident and I wasn’t prepared for how transformative I would find it, and what it enabled me to do in terms of holding the space for others to speak, both personally and professionally. We can all benefit from these skills, and I think we should move, as a society, towards a ‘coaching culture’. Coaching skills are invaluable in participatory art settings, when asking people to go on a collective journey while maintaining their own independence and answering their own needs.
AND: Working with other people in this way can be complex, with a lot of unknowns, meaning you and the project format need to be flexible and responsive to the participants. Can you talk about some of the challenges and rewards from working in this way?
Joshua Sofaer: The challenges are the rewards insomuch as you are asking people to go on a journey with you and you are offering them permission to do something they might otherwise not do. Some requests that I make of people can at first appear a bit bonkers. The reward is that people take that permission and run with it. I believe in the transformative potential of art practice. It’s a phrase that’s bandied around a lot but I still believe it. These kinds of participative projects aren’t for everyone but if someone makes it their own they can find it immensely satisfying. One of the specific challenges for me in Workshops in People’s Homes has been trying to find a common way of engaging people with a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds. Some of the workshop leaders are very experienced facilitators and for others this will be the first time they have done anything like it.
AND: Is the move away form performance a deliberate one, or something you will return to?
Joshua Sofaer: Performance still underpins pretty much everything that I do. In fact I would like to make more large-scale performance in the role of director and facilitator. It’s true that I’m not so interested in making solo performance work myself right now. I do get asked to do it occasionally, and I’m in the luxurious position of being able to say ‘no’. When I’m offered a commission, I think: ‘Do I really want to do this?’ That’s an amazingly privileged position to be in. It’s not that I won’t ever personally perform again, but I’m not seeking it out.
AND: This is not the first time that people’s homes have become the site of your work (Opera Helps, Tours of Peoples Homes, etc.) Can you tell us more about why the place of ‘home’ continues to be a source of inspiration or a site for your work?
Joshua Sofaer: The home is in many ways positioned as the opposite of the institution. There are the museum, or the art gallery, or the theatre, or the opera house, and then there is your home. You go between the two. You leave your home to go to the gallery and you leave the gallery to go back to your home. I think we’ve reached an understanding at this cultural moment, that everything is ‘performative’ and that art could be ‘anywhere’ and by offering the home as a site of art, you emancipate art from the institution. It’s not that I don’t believe in institutions, I do. I love art institutions. I love spending time in them, and I love working in them. At the same time, I would like to flatten the hierarchy between the home and the institution as the site of art. In fact I would like to flatten the hierarchy across the creation, appreciation and interpretation of art in general.
Homes are also places where, hopefully, we feel comfortable and relaxed. We set the rules, albeit within the confines of our resources and the law. We are also curious about going into other people’s homes. It’s always fascinating to visit people’s homes, and to experience different ways of living. The home is about comfort but it can also be about adventure. It is both entirely knowable and continually new.
AND: Finally, if you could deliver a workshop in your home, what would it be?
Joshua Sofaer: I think it would have to be something to do with my collections. I have a lot of collections in my home. I have collections of disposable ice cream spoons, airmail stickers, Polaroid photographs, postcards of the Mona Lisa, flipbooks, Finnish bread tags, photo-booth portraits, fake noses, to name just some of them. Although I occasionally use these in public artworks, really they belong in the domestic space of my home, where they are stored and displayed. So I think I would do something with the domestic collection.
Seoul-Incheon International Airport is one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. Since 2005 it has been rated the best airport worldwide every year by Airports Council International. (It has also been listed as the world’s cleanest airport by Skytrax.)
On the return from New Zealand the layover in Incheon offered a much appreciated rest. Although those of us continuing to the UK the following day were put up in a very nice hotel over night, there is plenty to do in the terminal building itself. The airport has its own golf course, private sleeping rooms, an ice-skating rink, a casino, indoor gardens, and a Museum of Korean Culture.
On the main concourse of the shopping arcade a string quartet play live Western classical music. Elsewhere Korean janggu drum and daegeum flute are played by musicians in hanbok (traditional Korean dress).
On my way to find a good source of kimchi to take home, I was met by a recreation of a Joseon period royal progression.
I felt a weird kind of doubling when, jet-lagged, tired and in between time zones, I witnessed this parade from a different age. For a split second, I imagined that perhaps I had arrived at a place where two time zones could exist together. It was simultaneously magical and ridiculous.
New Zealand, or Aotearoa as I have come to think of it, using the Māori name – the land of the long white cloud – is both familiar and foreign. Arriving into the Auckland summer from the UK winter is a sort of time travel. The seasons speed up. For the first few days it was not just the weather that was confusing me; I had a kind of existential panic: what am I doing here?
My trip was an opportunity to research the long history of pre-colonial performance in Māori visual culture, under the auspices of a British Council and Arts Council England fellowship: the Artists International Development Fund. From the outset, my hosts Auckland University and Auckland War Memorial Museum had warned me that it is both difficult and potentially discourteous to simply drop into an investigation of Māoridom. With a lived experience and history of racism and oppression, tangata whenua – the people of the land – are necessarily wary about outsiders coming over to ‘study’ them. There are also taboos against sharing knowledge with strangers. As Cleve Barlow states in Tikanga Whakaaro, his book which explains key concepts in Māori culture, ‘I have pondered for a long time as to how best to disseminate this knowledge to others without revealing too much (as I was taught in my own training), but still being able to offer a useful basis from which others could achieve greater understanding.’ [p.xvi]
It was certainly not my intention to pursue some sort of anthropological investigation, to appropriate, or even to fully understand Māori ritual. As much as anything I was interested to see how Māori culture operates alongside, without and within, contemporary pākehā (foreigner, white New Zealander) culture. A starting point for the research was to consider the pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), whakapapa (statement of ancestry and belonging), and haka (war cry and celebratory). These ceremonies and rituals are what are superficially familiar, and in the case of the haka, internationally exported, but in terms of their rationale and context they are by no means familiar to those who have not spent time on a marae (the space of Māori community).
It was a good time to be in Aotearoa New Zealand, as discussions of national identity were everywhere.
The 1st February was Auckland Anniversary Day, a controversial commemoration, celebrating as it does the arrival of William Hobson, later the first Governor of New Zealand in the Bay of Islands in 1840. For the first time this year a dedicated Māori Festival ran alongside the regatta, funfair, circus and general merriment on a hot bank holiday weekend. Tāmaki Herenga Waka Festival maintained a separate identity (and a separate venue) to the other activities of the day. There was no attempt to conjoin cultural celebrations.
There were wood carving workshops, traditional healing, classes in the use of medicinal plants, food and craft stalls, and both contemporary and traditional entertainment on the main stage.
To a casual observer it may have been easy to dismiss the festival as a kind of historical cultural performance of the kind ‘put on’ for tourists at Auckland War Memorial Museum. At the museum I had sat in the auditorium feeling slightly uneasy at the 30 minute ‘Māori Cultural Performance’, which is staged 3 times a day for visitors. The performers appeared to relish the opportunity to share their music and performance traditions and they did so with skill, gusto and humour, but in the museum setting, robbed of any wider context, it was difficult not to be reminded of the way in which museums and collections have made a fetish out of human display, and reduced the ‘other’ to exotic savage.
At the Tāmaki Herenga Waka Festival however, it was not the same. For a start the audience was different. Friends, family and neighbours, had come to support Te Waka Huia performance group. On at least one occasion, a member of the audience sang a lengthy response from where she had been watching, and those on stage stood patiently waiting for this unplanned but not quite unexpected intervention to finish.
The song and dance were entertaining and enjoyable but to someone (like me) who doesn’t speak Te Reo Māori, it was very difficult to understand what they were singing and dancing about. This shifted dramatically when the the group leader, came to the front of the stage and vehemently protested the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) agreement that the New Zealand government was committed to signing in the following few days. He talked passionately about his belief that the TPP threatened Aotearoa New Zealand sovereignty and the rights afforded to Māori iwi (tribes) by the Treaty of Waitangi. He then announced that the Te Waka Huia had created a new protest haka, which they then went on to perform.
It was an forceful form of protest, full of emotion, and it also made clear that any casual understanding of the haka as a historical cultural performance, was untenable. The power of the moment was undeniable.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was signed on 4th February, against a backdrop of mass protests in the streets. Auckland is an extremely diverse city, perhaps a bit ghettoised, with communities sticking together separately, but at the protests it really did seem like the population was represented. Māori writer and political commentator Morgan Godfery commented, “Personally, I haven’t seen Māori society this politicized in at least five or six years.” One of the main grievances is that the Treaty of Waitangi states that the government must consult with iwi before entering into international accords, and this did not happen. (Other concerns, shared by many, include corporate companies being given the right to sue the New Zealand government under the investor-state settlement clause, which many fear would result in big business being able to hold states to ransom, and profit being put ahead of national decision making.)
Waitangi Day, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 followed on two days later on 6th February. Although it is the national day, it is a day that has been marred in controversy since the treaty was first signed. There are differences in the English and Māori versions of the treaty, which has led many to conclude that the Māori chiefs were subject to fraud. Indeed not all chiefs chose to sign the treaty in the first place. The treaty has been observed or ignored by successive governments since its signing, but in 1975 the Treaty of Waitangi Act gave it contemporary legal standing.
I spent the morning of Waitangi Day on the Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei marae at the open invitation of the community. Marae are on private land and it is common for there to be open days, where people are welcomed. These events are treated with formality and respect, in a similar way to an interfaith dialogue meeting.
The time-honoured protocol sets out a series of customs and rules. The pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), includes the karanga (welcome call), whaikōrero (formal speech-making), and hongi (salutation of the pressing of noses and foreheads). After reading and discussing so much about Māori culture it felt both an honour and quite emotional to be welcomed onto a marae.
The difference between looking at a whare whakairo (carved ancestral house) and pataka (store house) in the museum close-up, that are being painstaking restored and the one at the centre of the Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei community, is like the difference between the dinner service mounted on the wall never to be used, and the plates you eat your off.
Both have value in different ways.
The current Prime Minister John Key has faced direct and personal protests on Waitangi Day, over several years. This year was no exception. Denied his usual speaking rights in protest at the TPP by the Ngapuhi Te Tii marae where the celebrations usually commence, Key refused to attend.
Key was also widely ridiculed for what many saw as an opportunistic and self-aggrandising attempt to change the New Zealand flag. Throughout my time in Auckland, there was ongoing consultation, debate and reporting about changing the flag ahead of the second referendum in March 2016. Alternative versions of the flag were seen flying on masts around the country.
Although many of the people that I spoke to agreed that it was inappropriate to have the Union Jack on their flag, they also felt the way the process of change had been handled was at best messy and at worst simply a way for Key to try and assert his own legacy. In the end the people voted not to change the flag. For many the real change that needs to happen is for the country to ditch the UK monarchy and become a republic. (What would happen to the Treaty of Waitangi, formed as it is between the ‘crown’ and the ‘iwi’, if Aotearoa New Zealand were to become a republic, I’m not sure.)
My impression over these weeks was that Aotearoa New Zealand is a politically active democracy with opportunities for public debate and an accepted convention of disagreement and dialogue. But as more than one of the many people I met told me, “It’s not normally like this. You’ve come at a very particular time.” It was extremely lucky, given my research interest, that there were these public conversations during my visit. It meant that the ‘performance of nationhood’ floated to the surface of social interaction.
Before I left the UK, I was invited to participate in a group show at the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi in West Auckland. Knowing that my time in Aaotearoa New Zealand was going to be taken up with my project, I wanted to create a work that I could easily export without it reducing the time I had for my research.
The title of the show was ‘They Come From Far Away’, and I decided to take that literally. What does it mean for an artist to be shipped in from across the world and to enter into the aesthetic, artistic, intellectual and social complexities of a different land? My ongoing investigation into the anatomy of the nose, led me to a particular interest in the Māori hongi – the pressing of noses and foreheads. So I created a ‘golden hongi’: a gold-plated double false-nose, cast from my own.
My plan was that a wooden packing crate would stand in the Te Uru gallery, the kind used to transport art and precious objects across the world: to export culture. My head would comically poke out of a hole cut in the wooden case. Strapped to my face would be the ‘golden hongi’, a double sculpture of two noses touching.
This golden hongi is not the warm touching of flesh, of nose and forehead together. It is a cold metallic offer, waiting for the perfect fit, a Cinderella hongi, perhaps. My aim was to press questions about cultural appropriation and the role of the artist in international exchange.
But having actually been welcomed onto a marae myself, having experienced the pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), whakapapa (statement of ancestry and belonging), haka (war cry and celebratory), and having pressed my nose and forehead along a line of 20 or so members of Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, I became increasingly unsure and uncomfortable about my plan. On the one hand I remained clear about my intentions. On the other, I was unsure about how the piece would be (mis)read. I felt uncomfortable representing a living tradition of a marginalized people, albeit that the representation was itself trying to raise questions about misrepresentation through meaningful engagement. I perceived a gap between my intention and the potential reception by an audience.
In the end I decided not to show the ‘golden hongi’. Instead I had a single golden nose that I had made sent express from London. The gold nose is at once a kind of protective armour and an ornamental piece of jewellery in a precious metal that is nevertheless still comical. Peering out of the packing crate, as if just shipped in from abroad, I still hoped to press questions about international cultural exchange, while purposefully making myself a comic curiosity.
In a way, my self-censorship – the removal of the ‘golden hongi’ – is symbolic of what I discovered from my research trip in general. I have left with more questions than answers about what it is possible to ‘know’ about another culture. I’m also not sure exactly how I can ‘use’ what I have learnt. Perhaps there will be no direct outcome but I have made many connections to the people and land of Aotearoa New Zealand and contributed to my thinking about the role of performance in the production of identity and nationhood.
In the words of the narrator of The Bone People by Keri Hulme:
‘I salute the breath of life in thee, the same life that is breathed by me, warm flesh to warm flesh, oily press of nose to nose, the hardness of foreheads meeting. I salute that which gives us life.’
(First published 1984 by Spiral, Wellington. 2001 by Picador, p.321/2)
Deoksugung (Deoksu Palace) just opposite City Hall, is one of the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ of Seoul, inhabited by various royalty in the 5 century long Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). The changing of the guard is reenacted for tourists. This is quite different from the changing of he guard at Buckingham Palace, which however archaic and for the benefit of visitors, is nevertheless the actual changing of the actual guard. At Deoksugung actors play the part.
The musicians are real enough and I loved the piercing sound of the double reed taepyeongso, which you can imagine as a very very loud oboe.
For the most part, however, the beards were stuck on.
This was my first full day in Korea and my first introduction to the plethora of hats in their social and cultural history.
The guy on the left here (another stuck-on beard) is wearing a ‘Samo’ (translated simply as ‘official hat’) which was a formal hat worn with the normal-duty uniform by government officials from the late Goryeo period to the late Joseon period. Over 500 years and it never went out of fashion!
Here is one in a glass case in the National Museum of Korea.
And here, rather beautifully, is the ‘hat box’, or rather the ‘case of official uniform, official belt, official hat’. You put your uniform in first, then your belt, and your hat on top of that. Closing the lid everything fits perfectly.
On scrolls in the National Palace Museum, you can see lines of rather comical officials, parading around on various duties. The ones at the back are wearing Samo.
This is a portrait of Bak Mun-su (1691-1756) a Royal Secret Inspector, famous for protecting the Korean people from corrupt royal officials. No doubt he deserved his Samo.
In the National Folk Museum (one of my favourite museums in Seoul) there is a recreation of a traditional upper-class Joseon period wedding. The groom here seems to be wearing a Samo but without flaps (flaps indicated rank). The bride is wearing a Jokduri (women’s ceremonial coronet) which is the formal bridal hat worn during the Joseon period.
In the background several men are wearing wide brimmed Heungnip, a formal hat made of horsehair, worn when conducting rituals.
At the 10th Anniversary Special Exhibition of the National Palace Museum, a series of Royal Portraits are exhibited. Many of them have been damaged over the years, but are nevertheless considered, if not quite sacred, then kinds of national treasure. (There were plenty of ‘intact’ portraits but I actually preferred the imperfect half visible fire and water damaged ones.) In this portrait, the King can be seen wearing a Heungnip with a very high cap, so that the brim sits almost on top of the head.
Here the King is wearing an Ik Seon Gwan, which was reserved for royalty.
That is also the hat worn by King Sejong the Great (reigned 1418-1450) in the 9.5 metre bronze statue in central Seoul. King Sejong the Great profoundly affected Korean history with his introduction of hangul, the native phonetic alphabet system for the Korean language. Prior to its introduction, Korea adapted a version of Chinese characters but it was cumbersome and difficult to learn. Hangul is supposed to be one of the simplest and most effective alphabets in the world, and transformed a largely illiterate population into a literate one.
A few more horsehair hats. On the left is a Sabanggwan and on the right a Jeongjagwan, a three-storied hat. Both from 18-19th Century.
And I’ve thrown this one in but I don’t know what it is.
Back in the Folk Museum and we can see some hats of the less wealthy, including this hardcore rain gear.
And these beautiful straw hats which are amongst my favourite.
Here are ‘Three Koreans’ in hats in a print from 1934 by Paul Jacoulet (1896-1960) a French woodblock artist who was known for a style that mixed traditional Japanese ukiyo-e and techniques he developed himself. Born in France, Jacoulet spent most of his life in Japan (right through the Second World War, where he survived in the countryside by raising chickens and growing vegetables). He must have made this after a short trip across the Sea of Japan.
In the National Museum of Korea there are some very early examples of pretty splendid headgear: crowns, diadems, ornaments.
These gold diadem ornaments for the Baekje queen feature symmetrical scrolling vine patterns and flame motifs. They were most likely attached to a silk hat worn at official ceremonies.
And here are a similar set for the king, only his have spangles! One of the Three-Kingdoms of Korea, the Baekje ruled the South West of Korea from 18BC to 660AD.
Wearing this thing on your head must have caused quite a stir at court.
This gilt-bronze cap is of a type normally found in the tomb of rulers. A current reproduction proposes how it might have been cushioned on a red silk lining.
Another gold cap from the Three-Kingdoms period is this 5th Century Silla example, composed of several gold plates engraved with symmetrical patterns. Experts suggest that it would have been part of a larger ‘crown ensemble’, again probably on some kind of silk base. It looks so contemporary to me. More like something from modernist abstraction than a 1,500 year old hat.
And then there are the crowns themselves. The stories of the people they adorned maybe lost but it is easy to imagine the impact they would have had.
This gold crown, excavated from Geumnyeongchong in Gyeongju is decorated with standing ornaments made in twig and antler shapes, symbols that mediate between heaven and earth.
And from the Hwangnam-daechong Tomb in Gyeongju, this Three-Kingdoms 5th Century Silla designated National Treasure: A gold crown with ornamentation in the form of tree branches and deer antlers attached along the headband.
It really is a beautiful and impressive construction.
Hats were clearly a sign of status in Korea. This has, of course, been the case all over the world, with crowns, laurel wreathes, mitres and so on, all of symbolic significance. Personally I haven’t seen such an array of headgear in other historical cultures as I did in Korea. Only a tiny proportion of which is represented here.
I leave you with this 19th Century portrait of Buddhist Monk Cheongheo Hyujeong (1520-1604), commander of the monk army during the Imjinwaeran, the Japanese invasion of 1592. His extreme piety and humbleness is depicted by the complete lack of hat. His bald head a symbol of his duty to the nation above his personal ambition.
Seoul is freezing. It’s well below freezing. Today it is -15 degrees celsius. In these temperatures even the trees and the ground need to wrap up warm. I have seen these kinds of winter wrappings before in Japan, although I’m not sure I ever saw the ground itself wrapped. There is a kind of perfect meeting of utility and aesthetics in this practice. The bare trees are made accidental sculpture. (Perhaps not so accidental.)
Metal pegs and a lattice of ropes keep matting in place, giving an almost button-upholstered effect.
Rows of pots have straw hats on.
Dead plants protect living ones. In a country where ancestor worship has been a fundamental part of the culture, this seems very fitting.
‘A House for Essex’ created by Grayson Perry and FAT Architecture is unlike any other kind of art experience that I have had. One of a series of houses built for Living Architecture that you can rent outright, it is nevertheless different from the other buildings insomuch as it is a kind of total artwork, a narrative conceit that you can inhabit.
To rent ‘A House for Essex’ you need to enter a ballot with your preferred dates, hope that your luck is in, and then pay upfront. You are then sent a bunch of paperwork with a considerable list of rules, an inventory, and links to local sites. The house is on the edge of Wrabness, a village on the Stour estuary.
It is a kind of fairytale. Like a matryoshka doll, or a series of nesting tables, the structure fans out in a series of repeated shapes that grow in size. Both outside and inside are decorated by a series of tiles which depict details in the life of Julie Cope, the woman at the centre of the fictional narrative, which is the ostensible reason for the building’s existence.
‘A House for Essex’, we are asked to imagine, was built after Julie’s premature death (she was knocked down and killed by a motorbike courier delivering takeaway curry). It is a tribute by her husband Rob, sited a short distance away from their shared home. A kind of contemporary Taj Mahal, the house then is a love token, albeit by a man who never existed, for his fictional late wife. Apart from her unusual death, Julie Cope’s life is ordinary. Born in Essex in 1953 we learn that she fell into a relationship with Dave and for want of a better plan she became pregnant, giving birth first to Daniel and then to Elaine. Dave has an affair and the two split. Later she enters University as a mature student, meets and falls in love with Rob, and becomes a social worker.
While the narrative is radically unremarkable, the treatment is not. The house is a series of ‘reveals’. Hidden doorways in the tiled kitchen wall…
…lead through to a double-height chapel-like space.
The chandelier that hangs above the space is the bike that killed Julie. (It is also the mount for disguised CCTV cameras which are focussed on the artworks which are worth thousands. Fair enough.)
The room is full of Perry’s work and is, at the same time, an artwork in itself. The larger than life-size figure of Julie (as a kind of secular saint) dominates the space. There are also two large pots, the type for which Perry is perhaps most well-known, which also depict key moments in Julie’s story.
The narrative unfolds most literally in two large tapestries, which face each other. The first depicts Julie’s birth, childhood and young adulthood.
A narrative poem in the form of a booklet left on the kitchen table, presents the tale. You go between reading and looking. Details emerge. Julie is holding a bunch of flowers, presumably from an apologetic Rob. The card reads: ‘I am so sorry’.
The other tapestry depicts scenes from Julie’s later adulthood and her untimely death.
A map charts key locations in her life journey across Essex: Canvey Island, Basildon, South Woodham Ferrers, Maldon, Colchester, and Wrabness.
We also see her sprawled out, dying on the street in Colchester not long after having a drink (of Chenin blanc), the motorcycle courier beside her, her council lanyard tumbling to the front of the frame.
In the bedrooms two further murals dwarf the rooms; double portraits, first of Julie and Dave, probably on their wedding day.
It’s pretty incredible to get up so close to the artwork, and to wake up with it too.
I particularly enjoyed lingering my eye on the 2D representations of fabric. There’s some kind of weird duality when one textile depicts another.
In the other bedroom Julie is with Rob.
In a premonition of his sadness to come, Rob is crying. And you can study that tear for as long as you like.
Walking through the bedroom closet takes you out through a mirrored door onto the balconies in the main space.
There are several playful features: reveals, secrets, conundrums, that are never overly tricksy. One particularly enjoyable space is a mirrored corridor that is reminiscent of another home museum: Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln Inn’s Fields in London.
What is important to convey is that you are living in this space for as long as you have rented it. You do domestic things: cook, chat, play games, cuddle up, do a poo, have a bath. And the domesticity of your actions mirrors those of Julie’s ordinary life. Yet it is all presented in such a way that you slip in and out of the fiction and the celebration of the quotidian in all of us. It’s difficult not to celebrate when you are having a bath in this:
And stepping into the garden you are reminded of your own mortality. Somehow it manages not to be macabre.
Outside is Julie’s tomb. A fictional character, in a fictional grave.
And then you say goodbye to Julie and you say goodbye to ‘A House for Essex’. It is unlikely that I will ever stay there again. It is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of a thing. A magical journey into a building, inside a story, through the eyes of an artist, that puts the heart into the everyday.