The bulging sheen and lustre of stuffed satin is a playful and inviting introduction to get up close to the work of Belinda Harrow. All light and atmospheric in the front room, a series of vertically hung pale satin forms cluster and swirl in front of a text book range of avian forms sketched out upon HSP’s wall. The main gallery hosts a darker toned, contemplative brood which hang low from the ceiling and surround a light-toned flock positioned above twin quilted beds that lie centrally within the space.
Harrow’s works seem to lust after the aesthetic and rational economy of machined perfection essentially at the expense of their ‘craft’ value. But would we respond to these works differently if they were any less uniform and all laboriously hand-stitched?
As a contemporary example of soft sculpture or textile art, the rhetoric of feminism’s ‘subversive stich’ doesn’t really seem to fit anyway, except for those hand-done ones that seal off the hanging planes between the wing and the tail, stitching them shut and prep-ing them for take-off out of the artist’s hands. This is perhaps the most telling detail of these objects as it speaks to the process of their fabrication and the woman-hours behind Harrow’s practice. It’s also there that you can find real and tangible evidence of the methodical and contemplative tone that this exhibition so readily invokes. A group of similar planes are soon to be presented impaled upon spikes as part of SOFA’s MFA Graduate Exhibition which speaks nicely to my preoccupation with this little stitched up slash, the ritualistic scar that marks each one linking it to its creator.
Home is where the heart is so they say, but even if they’re wrong, it is most often the place you lay your head. Most people invest a lot of energy when they’re looking for a new bed. I mean why wouldn’t you, considering that a vast proportion of our life is spent in there, futon, slat, Sealy, king, queen or otherwise. For most people, bed proves to be a comforting and rejuvenating place in which to reanimate your conscious self while exercising and entertaining the desires of your subconscious. Consequently, the bed can easily be seen as a stage or platform upon which a wide variety of emotional events are regularly played out. Whether it’s dancing, reading, day or night-time dreaming, making love, resting or scheming for example, in any one day, any number of dramas find themselves laid down and played out against the surfaces of these familiar objects.
In the tradition of art in the west, the bed or divan has been a surface associated most often with the female exposed, stripped bare. Think Edouard Manet’s Olympia which stood out as conspicuously contemporary by making the most of the surface of the bed to project the artist’s challenging formal innovations whilst also functioning as an interesting social commentary on the times. There’s always going to be a story behind an artwork, and this is certainly true of the works Harrow is exhibiting here. Where as we might ask ‘Who was this woman, ‘Olympia’ to Manet?’ we would more likely ask of Harrow, ‘What’s with the beds?’ and ‘Why Planes?’. In a general sense these motifs both serve as vehicles which move and connect us with others in different ways. So, where Manet presented his work to transact with certain audiences trading upon the associative and attractive qualities of his image, here we can see Harrow playing at a similar game, as she quietly but compellingly drawing us into a consideration of the inevitable biographical elements sewn within her practice.
More contemporarily, if we’re talking about beds, Tracey Emin’s My Bed probably offers us a closer point of reference. Emin’s bed, and more broadly her art is audaciously autobiographical. In it’s intent, My Bed proved to be a brazen and challenging representation of female subjectivity and experience, where as with Plain & Fancy, Harrow has chosen to offers us a more formalised, unconfessional consideration of her experiences and personal concerns. Consequently we find before us the invitingly pristine surface of Harrow’s twin beds, pure white with raised, quilted-in aeroplane forms. So where as Harrow might seem to be playing good girl to Emin’s bad, in reality, the surface that we see is less than practical and could easily explain the restless behaviour of any misbehaving little princess, as these beds would surely prove a place in which to “dream perchance to sleep”. But even then, with your mind spectrally clouded by thoughts as dark as the grey planes that surround your bed perhaps even some form of fitful slumber might be asking too much.
Gently introspective, the two works installed as Plain and Fancy reference Harrow’s location & dislocation between New Zealand and Canada. Although born in New Zealand, Harrow and her family emigrated to a small prairie town in Saskatchewan, Canada when she was three. Returning to NZ for the first time in 1993, Harrow retraced the journey her maternal grandmother had made in 1946 when she left Canada to settle in New Zealand after marrying a kiwi soldier during WWII. Since her first visit to these shores, Harrow has see-sawed between both hemispheres. As a consequence of this, we find Romantic Traffic’s twin beds installed with their raised chevron pointing hopefully northward. Subtly charged with an emotive sincerity, Harrow’s work attempts to examine “the privileged problem of longing [, and] belonging to two countries” (Artist’s introduction to her MFA Thesis). With all this biographical detail, Plain and Fancy could prove so sincere as to be a little unnerving, but these works also speak powerfully and clearly to some of the complexities of our terrifyingly contemporary lives. One point of interrogation is the ease with which transportation and global movement is currently able to occur, with flights get cheaper all the time but at what cost to the environment. Also, whilst places may seem closer, those old and painful elements of dislocation and separation don’t get any easier to deal with. Just as Harrow’s twin beds are stronger for their union, as their chevron wouldn’t form with one side alone, their dependence also serves to suggest the possibility of their separation on some cloudy and distant horizon.
Simultaneously a diasporic statement and a welcome example of an internationalist at work, Plain and Fancy remains conceptually mobile in its associative value. Harrow’s patient process, and her use of simple but evocative materials suggests a resolute nostalgia for the familiar closeness and trusted dependence of a distant childhood while also asking us to consider at what point somewhere new might begin to feel like home.
The forms that populate this exhibition could equally reference birds, fish or indeed the human form as well as referencing aeroplanes themselves. When it comes to planes, I guess there’s always Peter Robinson to take into consideration. His appropriation of the plane motif as a contemporary version of the waka found itself included in his bitumen works of the early 1990s, but it is his big ‘patchwork’ sculptural version that was included in the touring exhibition Cultural Safety: Contemporary Art from New Zealand that interests me most in relation to Harrow’s work. Concerned with the transactions between cultures, Robinson’s early work looked to the raw details and collision points of Maori and European culture for his subject matter. Simplifying the aeroplane’s form, he illustrated the vehicle’s similarity in shape, use and importance to Aotearoa’s earlier form of transport the waka. In a similar way, Harrow mobilises the plane’s similarity to the natural, flying prototype of the bird whilst also calling the metaphor of migration and immigration into play via her reference to the chevron formation of birds in flight.
It all reminds me of that ad, with the really up-beat backing and info-bites popping up as a flock of geese were flying along. Rifting on team work and an ‘ain’t nature prophetic’ hook, it made the most of the efficient migrational behaviours of our feathered friends. As it turns out there are a wide variety of flocking formations, the most commonly recognisable the V or chevron that Harrow references. However, some birds favour simpler formations such as columns or skeins. There’s a lovely resonance then that a skein is also a collection of thread, all coiled and waiting to be woven up or used to sew together disparate things. Harrow’s work is no doubt stronger for these subtleties that see her artfully allude to the innate nesting behaviour of us all.
Exhibited at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany, in association with the City Gallery, Wellington, 1995.