Alex Michon is an artist, writer and co-director of the Transition gallery in East London. She is editor of The Critical Friend (art review) and is a regular contributor to Garageland and Arty magazines.
The Lost and the Found
'Let me have my copper cooking pots, let my rouge pots
Bloom about me like night flowers, with a good smell
They will roll me up in bandages, they will store my heart
Under my feet in a neat parcel
I shall hardly know myself it will be dark.' (1)
Tabitha Kyoko Moses is a collector, a rag and bone archivist of the peripheral. Her studio in the aptly Victorianesque sounding Bridewell area of Liverpool is full of the faded ephemera and unwanted residual fragments of material existence. Dolls dressed in nuns' habits, faded froufrou petticoats, mother of pearl buttons, taupe and cadet blue stained silk dresses, old parchments and starched white muslin pleated bibs jostle with more psychologically potent relics such as her collection of human bones and newspaper cuttings of real-life grisly murders. This dichotomy is central to Moses's practice; it is the nature of the contradiction, which is at the heart of her work. For these real objects culled from flea-markets and charity shops are re-configured to incorporate the darker narratives to which she is drawn and which disrupt any nicey-nicey connotations which her exquisitely crafted realigned artefacts may at first suggest.
'Pattern, and lace in particular, has an oddly double-edged set of associations,
though, from Victorian uprightness and indigenous handicrafts to sluttish ostentation.
So already the ambivalent cultural history of decoration and body adornment leaves
us a little unsure, perhaps, and heralds further complex transgressions.' (2)
Moses's work includes many encounters with sites of transgression. Her work echoes the darkly gothic writings of Angela Carter, part fairy story, part fable and part morality tale. In her recent project The Care of Hunting Boots Moses spent an afternoon in a country house, polishing a pair of hunting boots in the traditional manner: using boot polish, beeswax and a stag's shin bone. This activity was not only an exploration of the contemplative nature of making hand crafted objects but also a site-specific historical response to a powerful sense of place and history. It was also laden with sensual connotations, which Moses readily admits made her reflect on the eroticism of wealth and thrill of subservience. "Actually, " she says " I found it quite sexy!"
The artist's historical interventions both physical and psychological are mementos culled from extensive research. From a world of far-awayness she sees the latent context of experience, only thinly buried beneath the surface, as a legitimate site of artistic potential. "I create artefacts from material which bears the weight of memory and the marks of time". This work, however, is no reactionary manifestation of happy-clappy past times recreated, the fragments her art archaeology digs up are often weighted with melancholia and misdemeanour.
'A memory can interrupt the actual present only because memory is real and
exists virtually alongside the present.' (3)
Frock for Tape Catalogue No.113 is based on an oral history archive. Intrigued by the poignant account of an elderly lady who had been the cleverest girl in her school but was too poor to own a dress and had been forced to borrow one for a party, the artist has made her own imagined version of the dress out of a 1940s silk nightgown. Moses's making of the dress is a work of darkly romantic re-imagining - an attempt at shoring up sadness.
Misdemeanours and criminality are a recurring theme. The artist recently spent some time teaching needlepoint to lifers at the high security Walton Prison. She never knew what crimes her three prisoners Mac, Joe and Bim had committed. To her they were just "regular young scally fellas". Despite Walton's gruesome history (sixty men and two women suffered the death penalty there) her main impression was how much the place resembled the television programme Porridge. With her natural curiosity in strange collections, what Moses found most intriguing was a small display of home-made weapons retrieved from the cells, in particular a piece called three in a row which consisted of three razor blades bound onto a piece of plastic with old string. She was struck by the horrific potential of this object (three slashes make the wound harder to stitch up) mixed with the hand made delicacy of its manufacture.
Bridewell Studios where Moses works, built in 1846, were originally a police station, and still show evidence of their original function: the sign 'Detective Office' at the foot of a staircase leads down to a row of cells. The reverberations of the building may have influenced her recent work Greetings from the Seaside, a series of postcards detailing morbid murders. This new work (not on show in the current exhibition) is an interesting departure for Moses as here she is not so involved with the physicality of making. The work's potency is derived from the text, from the 'rustle in the hedgerow' implications of something nasty lurking beneath the candyfloss comfyness of little Englander pleasure lands. These postcards have, nevertheless been carefully designed, the paper they are printed on, the choice of lettering and a single embossed black line perfectly suggest both old postcards from the 1930s and funeral announcements.
The headless torso
of an unidentified young woman
was discovered in a locked trunk
at Brighton Station's left luggage office.
Her killer was never found.
'Greetings from the Seaside, 1934'. (4)
There is a connection between the artist's contemplative experience of many hours spent in her studio "making and thinking through my fingers" to the enforced solitary existence of prisoners in their cells.
In Untitled (Human Hair Sampler) Moses has expertly embroidered a series of tiny cross-stitches onto the faded blue cuff of a workman's shirt, in the manner of a Victorian sampler using real human hair (each line took over an hour to stitch). This piece has been made in response to her research with The Galleries of Justice in Nottingham where she read about a sampler stitched by one of the inmates Annie Parker in the 1880s using a sharpened mutton bone with her own hair in place of thread.
The delicate workmanship of Moses's sampler, the implicit weight of time and effort taken in its making is another central tenant of her practice which stands as a resistance to a throwaway culture. Although she is acutely aware that in contemporary art practice a cack-handedness or studied amateurism can be employed as a positive deskilling of hierarchical positions, Moses chooses to return to a craftsmanship of making. The conceptual nature of her work demands it, for Moses's sampler requires a double take. The work exists within labyrinthine dualities encompassing post historical references and contemporary permissions. In the last decade many contemporary painters such as Claire Pestaille and Paula Rego have re-appropriated historical styles woven through with their own darker disrupting narratives. In an interview with the artist Dexter Dalwood who uses the term history painting in reference to his work, the writer and art historian John-Paul Stonard notes the contemporary relevance of this post historical borrowing:
'What you are doing is really what painters have done throughout history, to take
images from the past and reinterpret them, which can be a powerful way of making
a point about the present.' (5)
The sampler throws up a frisson of the uncanny; there is something profoundly disturbing about a hair found in the wrong place. However there is also a more prosaic reading of this piece, using a single hair to sew on a missing button is an old seamstresses' trick often employed when the required matching colour of thread is unavailable.
'Like a fetish, hair can be used to represent loss: it has been used the world over in
rituals of fertility and mourning ...Knotted in bracelets and lockets, it also pledges
indissoluble love...' (6)
The ambivalent and fetishistic nature of the use of human hair is further explored in Moses's gothic Hairpurse. This iconic object defies easy categorisation. The correlation to Meret Oppenheim's 1936 fur lined teacup and saucer is inescapable. Oppenheim's Object forces the viewer to imagine the disagreeable sensation of what it would feel like to drink from the cup, and invites associations with domesticity, sensuality and femininity. Hairpurse takes on different meanings because of its placement within the museum context. As with many of her pieces, it seems unimaginable that this object has been recently hand-made. It appears to spring totem like from some far off time fully formed and inexplicable.
In comparison with the artist Louise Bourgeois, whose work Moses admires, she likes to keep certain pieces as 'open ended puzzles' determined by her own secret 'psychic drives and aesthetic principles.' (7)
Moses prefers to keep her meanings fluid and open to the viewer's individual interpretation. Although she does admit to wanting to seduce her audience to be drawn in by the decorative and beautiful appearance of the work but on closer inspection to be forced to consider the deeper implications which the work contains and which are implied by some of the more repellent materials such as hair, stains and bones. "I use certain materials deliberately" she says, "Because I know what connotations these will bring about but I also like to subvert this too".
The Lost and The Found exhibition came about as a result of Moses's previous residency at Bolton Museum. In 2004 the artist focused on the Egyptology collection and made work in response to the small mummy of a young girl about 6 or 8 years old, which lay on its own in a glass case. The nine dolls, which Moses made at that time "for the girl to take with her to the after life" are reintroduced here in their own specially designed glass vitrine. Each one of the artist's 'swaddled sisterhood' was specifically selected for the particular resonance they suggested to her. From the Milly Molly Mandy English looking doll with her 1930s moulded on hairstyle, here encased in a translucent green plastic covering reminiscent of organic leaf matter and resembling a pupa; the African doll in her bright floral fabric; to the antique looking porcelain doll wrapped up in a rose sprigged fabric delicately tied up with a wisp of real hair; to the Inuit looking doll in moulded leather; the blue eyed Sindy with her faded ersatz white blossom and wedding veil and funereal black shroud, to the little Manx girl complete with cat badge mimicking the Egyptian custom of placing jewellery into tombs as good luck tokens for the afterlife. These dolls stand in as generic non-specific cultural representations. Lying side by side tagged for identification and encased in their glass mausoleum, these dolls throw up many difficult but inescapable associations.
When I first saw these dolls, our television screens were filled with scenes of the bombings in Lebanon and they immediately brought to mind images of small wrapped bundles lying in rows near recently bombed buildings. However, Moses made her dolls long before these bombings, and these events had not influenced the work, her intentions were rooted in an emotional response to the child mummy in the museum.
Her work often provokes strong reactions, which fall into two camps, between those who find it poignant and beautiful and those who find it repulsive. This is an inevitable consequence of the paradoxical meanings which can be found in Moses's representations. The wrapped dolls may mimic funeral shrouds but as the artist is keen to point out, swaddling is an age-old technique for making a baby feel secure. Although it's fallen out of favour in the Western world, many Eastern cultures and tribal people still use it. Any discussion about the use of dolls in contemporary art invariably leads to Freud's essay on the uncanny. He asserted that dolls provoke an ontological anxiety because they are neither dead nor alive:
'Uncertainty whether an object is living or inanimate, which admittedly applied to the doll
The Olympia Freud is referring to is the mechanical, living doll from the Tales of Hoffman, more doppelganger than discarded toy. Similarly Hans Bellmer's twisted life-size re-creations, which he used to play out his often violent sexual fantasies, have become the tabula rasa of dolly art connections. A faint whiff of the sexual has never since been fully erased from the use of dolls. The domesticity of Moses's dolls evade both these readings. Her dolls have no limbs; their bodies tightly wrapped and hidden preclude any notion that they may at any time spring to life. There is no doubt that they have a sinister quality but Moses has re-fashioned them as objects, lifeless museum pieces more totem than tantalizing. Perhaps it is more that, in hiding their (sexual) bodies, the artist is in effect 'restoring their little girliness'. (9)
'We pulled our dolls along behind the bars of our crib, dragged them into the heavy
folds of illness. They appeared in dreams and were tied up in the disasters of feverish
nights. They did not make any effort of their own; they were lying at the edge of
childhood sleep, maybe filled with rudimentary thoughts of falling off, and they let
themselves be dreamed. Just as they were accustomed to be lived tirelessly through
someone else's power during the day.' (10)
The idea that the artist is de-personalising her dolls is further enhanced by the display of x-rays she has taken of them featured in the exhibition. These medically forensic looking specimens are chilling. Powerfully evocative of bodily fragility they have a visceral, painful quality which defy their prosaic origins, these are just toys for God's sake! The pins so clearly illuminated by the photographic process are mere sewing tools, yet it is extraordinary how gruesome they appear. Moses's intention in taking the x-rays was more commonplace than controversial "I had spent my time wrapping them up so tightly, like a magical protection, I was fascinated to see what was going on inside and was surprised to see how many pins I had left in".
This interest in how things are constructed - the minutiae of making is very important to Moses, she is intrigued by things such as "the white space left in fabric when something has been knotted and then the knot removed". She previously worked as a costume supervisor, handling old clothes she found herself "forever looking at the inside of things, turning them inside out, looking at how they were made and imagining the lives of the people in them". The fabrics she uses are often stained and worn and she relishes the authenticity of these marks "I hate it when something has been tea-dyed to make it look old, that is just so contrived".
The importance of authenticity is clearly seen in perhaps the most controversial piece in the exhibition where the artist has mixed human bones (albeit over 100 years old) with her hand made cotton limbs. This work was suggested by a collection of fabric Victorian dolls in the museum's collection. Moses has increased the size of the limbs and sewn the arms from a delicate fine bleached white calico and the legs from a type of silk, aptly known as 'shattered' silk. On each Moses has applied exquisitely embroidered delicately coloured flowers. The work is breathtaking in its craftsmanship and subtlety. The beauty of the hand-made pristinely white fabric serves as a contrast to the raw, tainted hardness of the bones themselves. Of all the pieces these are the most extreme example of Moses's practice of disrupting pre-conceived ideas of beauty and craft through contradiction and difference. With her innate interest in temporality and the history of use of bones in her work, from the sharpened mutton bone used by Annie Parker to stitch her sampler to the stags shin used in polishing the hunting boots, it was inevitable that Moses would eventually be lead to the use of bone itself, traditionally a symbol of "the essential life principle, but also mortality and the transitory" as a signifier in the work itself.
It is a measure of Moses's contradictions that she has also included her collection of miniature portraits of bearded Middle Eastern looking men. She places these tiny self important looking chaps, which she found on chewing tobacco packets known as paan, on a recent visit to Bangladesh in a set of drawers like insect specimens. "I like the way they look so pompous" she says, "yet they come from such a throwaway source and anyway there is always room for a touch of humour".
In The Lost and the Found, Tabitha Kyoko Moses has responded to the location with her own re-imaginings of the museum's conventions in a memento-mori, mise-en-scene, masquerade of making. Inspired by the existing exhibits she weaves gorgeously sinister connections into her elegant artifacts. Her cabinets of curiosity mirror the nuances and icy chills of being in the presence of archaic objects. Yet the work has a strong contemporary relevance. Moses is part of a growing constituency of artists utilizing, a non-monumental, hand-made and the heart-felt, aesthetic driven by a conceptual gravitas as a legitimate site of creative potential. Beautiful and breathtaking in their skill, look closely into these objects and you discover a heart of darkness which is the inescapable fact that - in life we are always in the presence of death.
1. Sylvia Plath - Last Words- Sylvia Plath, Crossing the Water - Faber and Faber 1971
2. Sally O'Reilly - Adam and Eve It - London Printworks Trust, London 2005
3. Claire Colebroke - Gilles Deleuze - Routledge 2002 London pg 33
4. From "Greetings from the Seaside" by Tabitha Kyoko Moses 2006
5. www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/ stories/dalwood_bellini/dalwood
6. Marina Warner - The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers - Vintage 1995
7. Robert Storr - The Discreet Charm of Louise Bourgeois - Tate Magazine issue 6 - Summer 1995
8. Freud - The Uncanny - Penguin Classics 2003
9. This was a comment made to Tabitha Kyoko Moses by a visitor to her first showing of the dolls at the Bolton Museum in 2004
10. Eva-Maria Simms - Uncanny Dolls: Images of Death in Rilke and Freud pp. 663-677 Rainer Maria Rilke, Dolls, New Literary History - Volume 27, Number 4, Autumn 1996 - John Hopkins University Press