glas javnosti interview
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I am very conscious of the mythologies of childhood and the wide discrepancies between the myth and the reality. In my work I try to strip back to the bare bones of experience and try to find some kind of underlying truth using personal narratives alongside subverted traditional imagery. I use the familiar and the nostalgic as a trigger but disrupt the reading -the pieces I create take recognisable artefacts and tales from childhood and subvert them into something malformed, battered and bruised to evoke that darker side of childhood experience. I’m not interested necessarily in provoking a judgemental response to that tradition, but I am preoccupied with our relationships to these trigger objects, memory, nostalgia and psychosis.
The light boxes do contain actual X-rays of the objects I make – I use an industrial company to take interior snapshots of their innards. The animals are objects of comfort and each of them contains ‘secrets’, small objects and text made of wire or scrawled on notes. In that way they’ve become an encoded uncovering of my own vulnerabilities. I hope that personal content is exaggerated by the contrast between the archaeology of the object and the starkness of the clinical exposure, scratching beneath the surface to get at the heart of something or someone. I like to exploit the tactile sensitivities of natural materials; fur, feathers, skins and leather alongside the cold but highly personal associations of X-ray. There’s a satisfaction in the process of constructing these malformed grotesques in my haphazard way only to slice back through with the X-ray photo. It produces something which is, to an extent, out of my control. For the most part I stitch the creatures together by hand; the thickness of the leather makes it a laborious and clumsy process. This and the use of battered remnants of skins and furs is what give the toys that wounded ‘authenticity’. There’s something almost pitiful about the handmade, especially in the context of mass production where everything is clean and shiny and numbered, safe with kite marks. There’s a nice line by the writer Angela Carter where she describes the ‘worst wolves’ as being ‘hairy on the inside’, obviously a reference to the predatory and the knowing feeding on the innocent. I decided to construct my animals from old fur coats turned skin side out so as to be literally hairy inside. There’s a fetishistic quality in the making of them, a ritual in the repetition to imbue each one with some kind of ‘soul’. But I think the life of the work is really beyond its making, in the evolving narratives and meanings that are beyond my control as the puller of the visual trigger.
Memory is often altered with adult experience and the objects and fixations of our childhood can be fetishised, magnified, altered or suppressed. In this way I am playing with the idea of telling tales – creating narratives, ritualising, hiding and binding, and suggesting or searching for meanings beyond the exterior of the object. Memory is vulnerable to shifts in knowledge and context, looking at something with an adult’s eye can provoke shifts in perception, emotional, psychological or sexual. I’m interested in the multiple readings provoked in individual viewer, this is true for my both my 3D constructions and my drawings. We all have this emotional ‘baggage’ and people often search for and find their own stories within a trigger object. This is why I concentrate on the familiar and the vulnerable. We all have objects of comfort as children, whether these are pets or soft toys or dolls. In some ways I guess it feels like a cheap trick to home in on something so well used and abused as a signifier, it’s obvious, but it works because of the universality of it
Soft toys take on the attributes of the child, they become tatty and dirty and take on the smell of the child, and then they’re thrown away because they’ve lost the pristine fluffiness and perfection that we want to associate with childhood. In many ways I’m more interested in looking at the way adults view the child through association with these objects. I was very lonely as a kid, I was an only child till I was 10 and I lived in books and fantasy. My objects of comfort as a very young child were teddy bears, rabbits etc and I can remember christening them carefully, developing characters, confiding in them and creating dramas. I guess I have continued that, but very much with an adults eye. Dolls were too close to human for me, I was never keen on them or the pretty girls that played with them. I guess the soft toy is a much less threatening signifier, a better symbol of vulnerability. There comes a point when it’s inappropriate to be seen playing with toys and the grownup removes the smelly battered old toy. For me it ties in with that peculiar myth of the artist as an irresponsible outsider, living in a solitary garret and disregarding the adult norms of society. What I do also plays with that notion. I got my toys back and I keep playing with them and subverting the narratives. I like to think that I’m not promoting a pathetic aesthetic; I’ve no desire particularly to tug at the heartstrings and promote nostalgia or desperation for the state of the world. For me it’s more about the way we read and try to psychoanalyse the material in front of us, connect to each other through constructed narratives and use these to dispel or reinforce mythologies.
On a simplistic level children represent an ideal to us but also an untamedness, a wildness, they walk into danger because they trust and they are cruel because they haven’t learned adult ‘morality’. When something happens to a child, an abduction or a murder or a cruelty of some kind, it shakes society to its foundations and reinforces feelings of a kind of mass failure, it provokes outrage in spite of the evidence that childhood is not an idyllic, comforting or safe time. I recently talked to a man who has worked for a child protection agency in London for many years. He told me that statistically you are most likely to be murdered if you are female and if you are under 2 years of age. The fact of this is shocking and completely at odds with the high moralistic attitude with which we view family and childhood and with the truth of life for many children.
I didn’t want to scrutinise my own fears and let personal anxieties become evident in the work I make necessarily, No-one wants to fall into some anal cavity of despair with an audience, but this seems somehow inevitable in the end. I became fascinated for a while with the phenomenon of popular psychology, particularly of those soul bearing TV shows will moralistic hosts and audiences, of allowing such a broad intrusion into personal traumas. I am compelled and appalled by the creation of a society of victims who use a newly learned language of pop psychology to propel a new set of myths through the mass media. I look at these things that I make and try to sense the extent of the personal exposure within them, whether I’m being self indulgent and just expressing my own anxieties. Art is peculiar, it can be cathartic therapy or it can reinforce a message of doom, it’s as personal as you can get or it’s a sweeping generalisation. It’s almost meditative. Years ago I went to an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, I’d gone down to see Howard Hodgkin and ended up spending most of my time in the other exhibit, it was called ‘Beyond Reason’ with the snappy subtitle, ‘art of the insane’. It was incredibly intricate and heart wrenching stuff produced by the patients of a Victorian asylum. The concentrated intensity of lines and text was like a mantra to obsessive compulsion. If you write the same thing over and over and over – then maybe it will happen, if you scratch something out – then maybe it will disappear. It’s a way of setting the emotions connected with a situation outside yourself and, like neurolinguistics, maybe it has some reprogramming function to it. You draw all the characters out in a scene and as you score into each character you try sense that emotion. It sounds maybe too much in the context of what are, in effect, cartoons but sometimes I’ve surprised myself, suddenly finding that I’m contorting my face and mimicking the expressions as I draw, like a rudimentary role play. So I wouldn’t ever close off the possibility of transcendence, complexes can be overcome – it is a question of negative or positive attitude I suppose. My drawings are expressions of particular human emotions associated with non specific events which mirror the muddied effect that memory has on insight. You remember the feeling of something more than the event itself often, because it’s the feeling that is the damage. It stays with you long after any physical wounds have healed. The rabbits in my drawings are there because I want them all to have that vulnerability we associate with the child. Protagonists and victims all take the form of these childhood signifiers, each one of them is scarred or wounded and each one of them is stitched at the mouth because there’s a silence in the individual suffering of the other that can isn’t being communicated adequately. If face to face verbal communication is at the centre of human communication and psychoanalysis then my drawings are an expression of the lack of that exchange. It is the child part of each character that is in control, the domination of despair over reason and the adult and parental voices are subdued. I first used the rabbits in a piece about the Iraq war in 2003. I began to construct a camouflage net of stuffed rabbits, 200 in total, each made of camouflage material and each stitched to the next in a kind of American quilt pattern. It was a laborious and ritualistic process of making. I called it ‘200 rabbits to hide behind…I was against the war and the rabbits came to symbolize the waste of lives flickering daily across the TV screen and on my radio. Rabbits are a symbol of innocence and passivity, they’re prey to so many animals and they have that characteristic twitching and shivering which adds to their seeming vulnerability. Other than that I guess I have lots of small memories of rabbits as passive victims with high pitched squeals. My childhood friend had a pet rabbit that contracted mixamatosis, his parents wanted to put the thing out of its misery so they called a man they knew with a gun, hoping he would come round and finish the thing off quickly and without fuss. Instead of bringing his gun, the man brought a shovel and proceeded to batter the poor thing to death, taking a considerable amount of time to kill it and setting off a long series of rabbit screams that were disturbingly baby like. I’ve also watched baby rabbits being attacked by crows in the fields, more high pitched squealing and fur flying and my mother is disturbingly fond of telling people how she overfed her own pet rabbit till it died, I never met it personally but Thumper’s memory lives on in our family folklore. So it’s not difficult to see I guess why the rabbits have overtaken my drawings. In childhood tales the obvious connection is with Alice in wonderland, falling into a rabbit hole and following the white rabbit into the unknown.
interview with Morwenna Catt: Translated excerpt from Serbian newspaper ‘Glas Javnosti' – interview by Srdjan Markovic