Narrative Strands

By Sarah Quinton, 1999

Anne Wilson admits the obsessive and sensual associations human hair has with codes of fashion, gender and traditional sewn work such as embroidery, dressmaking and mending. She has made many artworks using human hair as mending threads to repair stained and torn domestic linens that exhibit signs of wear and tear. The impulse is to pick at the hair. Get rid of it. (From Wilson’s artist’s statement, “the visceral nature of human hair is in contrast to the formality of white linen, and sets up an aesthetic of oppositional tendencies.”)

In Areas of Disrepair (1993-99), Wilson mends worn spots on formal, starched table linens with human hair and presents them as archival remnants, or mementos of repeated use and the passage of time. In Mendings (1995), a series of lacy fragments is identifiable as a shirt cuff or collar handkerchief, dresser scarf or towel edge. A Chronicle of Days (1997-1998) is a daily practice of 100 stitched entries that emanate from white-on-white patterned damask where peculiar, beautiful and morbid marks reveal a whole universe of scars and pox, moles and beauty spots. Wilson gives birth to a new, inexplicable genealogy by integrating highly valued and symbolic heirlooms with fine hair filaments - human remains culled from a wide scope of specimens, both anonymous and familiar. She crossbreeds gene pools. Wilson’s fecund and hairy stitchery injects human or messy qualities into an otherwise ideal(ized) condition.

Angela Forster’s artistic domain is found in classified personal ads, a lonely-hearts arena of fantastic future-building and present-moment gratification. Her 1996 Poetry Magnets is made up of small magnetized strips imprinted with words and phrase-bites that have been lifted from the personal ads section (of a newspaper, for example). The magnets can be reconfigured on a moment’s notice so that top qualities and interests can be restated as the spirit moves.

“Harley Rider,” “Honest,” “Touch of class,” “Open mind,” “Advanced,” “Articulate,” “Warm hearted,” “Low Mileage,” “Passionate,” “Full figured... I am,” and “You are Similar” are excerpts uttered in SWF-ISO Dreaming Between the Lines (1997) (SWF-ISO stands for Single White Female - In Search Of), a multimedia sound installation where Forster broadcasts actual responses to personal ads; second- and third-listening stations pare the responses, stripping them of emotion and retaining little more than guttural monosyllables, though still intelligible. These ersatz Romeos and Juliets have been caught thinking out loud.

In a similar vein, Told and Retold: an inquiry about hair performs a litany of intimate day-to-day chronicles against a backdrop of high- and low-tech communication channels, from the World Wide Web and email, the post office, fax machine and telephone, to the tape loop and slip-covered headset that nestles into our own (aspiring) heads of hair, with its wire-cord tendrils trailing over our shoulders. Testimonials circulate throughout the whole body. What are these acoustic vibrations? Sound is materialized here as spoken language in a topsy-turvy place where late 20th-century information systems have evolved into storytellers spinning fireside yarns. We know that these recorded voices have bodies; their surrogates speak viva voce, with an authentic voice rather than as an invocation of romantic idealism. Told and Retold absorbs and exudes a flow of conjecture and (self-)portraiture. The power of the piece resides in its subjectivity and in the split, even polarized responses embodied in the narratives. Indeed, everybody has a story to tell. Could it be that “The very hairs on your head are all numbered?” (St. Matthew v. 30)

The gallery that houses Told and Retold: an inquiry about hair is furnished with tape recorders encased in black cinch bags, audio head-sets, hanks of cables and strands of cords - all slip-covered with various fabrics. The gallery is dressed up as an automated production or communication system, bringing to mind computers, mailboxes, weaving looms and telephone switchboards. Tape loops circulate personal and cultural reminiscences about social belonging, the physical body, and family histories that have been gathered through Anne Wilson’s Internet Web site: a no-holds-barred information crucible. We are invited to don headsets and listen to recorded voices that yield an unrelenting climate of storytelling. Told and Retold recounts tales of love, violence, disease and, of the imagination.

Human hair is both symbolic and useful - a tactile, psycho-sensual fibrous substance that penetrates the epidermis while it offers protection and identity. Beehives, mohawks, ducktails, flips, ringlets, dreads, buzz-cuts, lemon-yellow dye jobs, pink tips and blue rinses - even as they remain affixed to their life source, these styles key us in to the transformative powers of hair, and a single lock can shriek of personal significance. Enervating effects of disease and medical treatments cause hair to fall out. Daily plucking, trimming, waxing and shaving is undertaken by neat and tidy, conscientious consumers who are, perhaps, fearful of being too closely aligned with their earthbound, bestial origins. (The hair on our body is an indication of human connectedness to the animal world.) Hair shapes a social body through exaggeration, whimsy and expressions of outrage.

In the European Middle Ages, hirsute, mythological wild women and men (represented in medieval illuminated manuscripts, engravings, tapestries, paintings, etc.) were considered to be a monumental threat to moral and psychological well-being, as well as to external social canons. These inarticulate “monsters” embodied madness, messiness and wanton behavior. “Wild” families, depicted in isolated wooded settings, had hair covering all but their faces, breasts (in the case of women), elbows, hands, knees and feet. Various - and at times chaotic - renditions of these allegorical figures appear over time, and the significance of their hairy attributes is explained both in terms of repulsion and of attraction. These salacious human-types symbolized the untamed world of base instincts, at times feared, and at times revered.

Paradoxical meanings of hair are also interwoven throughout Victorian hair work. Victorians made a mind-boggling assortment of ornamental objects out of human hair: bracelets, necklaces, pictures, autograph albums, lockets, brooches and hair wreaths. The melodramatic Victorian predilection for mourning often eclipses other significant aspects of this trend in handwork. Made from the hair of both the dead and the living, hair jewellery was fashionable as mourning jewellery, but it was also a great signifier of friendship and loyalty. The wreaths remind us of death because of their shape’s affinity with grave markers and, quite likely, because of the dark and wondrous qualities the hair manifests once it has been so intricately and laboriously worked. In fact, the wreaths were intended as portraits of life. They were made of the hair of many different individuals by people with a discerning eye for materials of various shades and tones. At times they took on the significance of a family tree, when strands of family members’ hair were intertwined to create a symbolic portrait. A woman’s dressing table often included a hair tidy or hair receiver, a small container in which she saved her hair. Locks were snipped from the heads of babies and the recently deceased, as well as from friends and families in mourning. Hair work was often intended as memento mori - constant reminders of life’s fleeting nature. This surely puts a new twist on the verse:

“And while she feels the heavens lie bare, She only talks about her hair”
-Francis Thompson (1859-1907), from “The Way of a Maid”

Hair is an idiosyncratic protagonist, able to express fear and passion, as well as death and transcendence, word by word, strand by strand.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada