‘We Don’t Have to Be the Building’ (2016) researched diverse community stories about sexuality and activism, resulting in assemblage art and writing in the lightboxes on Courtenay Place, Wellington.
I’d now like to create a beautiful publication that you can own and put on your wall, and keep to remember, or get to know the project. It will consist of:
8 A3 posters, of all 16 panels of the final work, printed on 150gsm paper
30 pages of process writing, images of the process, action sheets and reflections on making the project
A commissioned essay
All beautifully presented in a box for you to keep together, or choose your favourites to put on your wall.
I can only produce this with your help, so I am checking out interest by pre-selling it, like an album. The total costs for this, (Minus some funding from the Armstrong and Arthur Trust, Thank-you!) will work out to $40 per publication, if I make 100.
If you’d like to go on the list to pre-purchase one, please let me know. I need to pre-sell 100 to make it possible. I’m up to 35 as of 16th August, so if I make it by the end f August, I will then ask you all for deposits and jump into production mode!
Why we do a thing. What we mean to do. The reasons that unfold as we do it.
Intention is not always clear to an artist. Sometimes it is more of an energy, a will to discover, create or express. Other times it’s like an itch, or irritation that drives a form of exploration you really don’t want to make. But you make it, because it says you should.
Sometimes, intention unfolds itself as you are going along – ah, that is what I meant. For me the materials themselves have their own intentions, as do the finished works. Like children, they don’t belong to me once they have left the scope of my body or making. Mybe they never did, but once they are out in the world, they have to stand on their own two feet.
There’s that saying; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What we thought we were doing, but then what we actually did, and the effect of that. Intention is often an excuse used by those who cause harm to others; ‘Oh but that wasn’t my intention.’ So intention becomes slippery. Intention has to be responsive, and responsible.
I have thought of what I am doing lately as making a series of offers. Offers that you can accept or refuse, but made with an open hand, and ready to hear whatever response is made. My intention is to find things out, and see what creative practice and art can actually do in the world. Make itself useful!
Thinking about intention has made me realise that my main intention has always been to trust the process. I don’t quite see the point of doing something if you already know what will happen, or what you want to happen. Trust for me is a process of yielding; to accident, happenstance, other people, magic. Trust is also a revolutionary process: To trust in our own instincts, bodies and desires; witches got burned for that. And it’s still a thing, isn’t it. There is a mind and body bending amount of telling, everywhere we look and listen, even when we don’t want to, about how your body should be, look, behave, feel, respond. And what is the intention of that? It’s always felt like control to me.
So what happens when the body is not controlled? When it is allowed to be, and find out, and explore, and play? What happens when the materials it uses are allowed to do the same? My intention has been to find out. And I’ve been told off all the way through. When I was studying, trying to find ways to write about a process that I was living; questioning and rejecting the possibility and value of being able to be ‘objective’, I was told, come on, you’re a clever girl, can’t you just ‘write a straight version?’
This post is a beginning and end of a show, ish. The work began before the proposal, and it will continue beyond this show. But I wanted to be generous, and share what I wrote, and then what became of it. I made a decision about a year ago to start writing proposals that really said what I mean, what I really want to do, and use the language I really believe in. This is the result;
Sian Torrington – Proposal for Feminisms in Aotearoa, Enjoy Gallery
(Show later titled ‘Enjoy Feminisms’ at Enjoy Public art gallery, Wellington. Artists were; Dilohana Lekamge, Single Brown Female, Sian Torrington, Fresh and Fruity, Ann Shelton, Faith, Leafa and Olive Wilson. For more details about the show go here http://www.enjoy.org.nz/node/3665
I wish to discuss female sexual aggression and dominance. I want to draw out my own queer body, which expresses its sexuality through diverse genders. I want to address the fear, shame, blockages and discoveries which accompany a series of coming outs around gender and sexual expression. I want to do this in the context of a feminist show because I also want to explore and address the fear of no longer belonging within feminism, of being a ‘bad feminist’. Of returning to the body and finding it changed and changing; an inconveniently uncategorizable process, and so linked to a process-based making.
Uncertainty, passion, expression, weight, effort. Self made, self defined.
And if I can only come when I close my eyes and my cock is half way down your throat, am I still a feminist?
When you do not see your body, desire or sexuality represented, it is imperative that you represent it yourself, and as honestly and in as much of its complexity as you possibly can.
The problem is still the body. My body is queer, kinky, strong, genderqueer, bolshy, sick, sensitive and hungry. It is excessive and intuitive and gut driven. It is all the things it is not supposed to be in a cool, irony driven art world. My life has been a series of coming outs. Feminist, artist, lesbian, queer, femme, dominant, activist, masculine, brute. The work I want to offer for this show is another coming out; of my body and my mission to explore its many rooms, through figurative and abstract drawing. My body and the things that are attached to it which are not imagination; parts of my body which you cannot see but I can feel.
I have always identified as a feminist. I believe that feminist thought, in its centering of the body, has the capacity to disrupt phallogocentric ideals of rationalism, objectivity and straight lines which have no relation to any body. And yet the body feminism represents can, and has, excluded many embodiments that still need and deserve its strength and protection. My feminism is queer, femme, genderqueer, body and sex positive, and includes all who identify as women, have experience being treated as women, and who claim femininity and femme as a place from which to speak.
I find myself feeling like I need to rein things in; rub out the finger prints on the edges of drawings, keep a clean space around the edges and select less rather than more. Galleries are white, clean, and there is an assumption that if you put a lot of things in it, you didn’t make enough decisions. Even though mass is a very deliberate and bold decision. It’s not that you just accidentally ate too much; it’s that you want to feel your body and this is the only way you know how to find your way back to that; to say yes to everything you want to eat. It’s not that you are not bothering to be feminine; it’s that you always felt secretly sexy when you are strong and lifting and building your own way, regardless of whether anyone wanted that. It’s that you are trying to explore something which doesn’t want to be regulated.
Artists make many things, but when we show in galleries, we hide the many in favour of the one final work or body of work. In doing this we exclude failure, accident and the trying energy of practice; the fact that making involves many repeated tryings and failings.
The work I want to make for your show is about being an aggressive, queer, tangled up, sexual, dominant emerging from fear and a busting-out genderqueer feminist person. I propose to make a large-scale drawing on the back wall of the gallery, compiled of many pieces, which shows body, appendages, fucking, being, remembering, becoming. The drawing will be assembled of many pieces which move through figuration and abstraction. The drawing will also be made from partial sculptures, which will extend the work into three dimensional space. I want to acknowledge the slippages, strangeness and mass of simultaneous embodied experience in sexuality and gender. I want to cease censoring and controlling the body and also the work, by including a mass of drawings, experiments and trials.
The drawings and sculptures I am proposing use my body as subject; active, embodied, messy, aggressive, self-formulating subject. The marks and gestures draw and repeat actions that are made in sex; in battling this body, these genders, this sexuality, out of itself. Through intimacy, reflection and interaction with itself and other bodies, it becomes known. Through the process of making, it becomes visible. But what is represented is from the inside. I cannot speak for anyone else, only for me, from me. In this I reflect the highest value of consent; that to be a fully consenting adult, one must be fully informed, and know oneself as fully as possible.
I am involved. I am implicated.
Thanks to Enjoy Gallery and Harry Culy for the images.
Weaving in, weaving out, is about femininity, expression, colour, difficulty and the skills we have learnt to create homes and spaces for ourselves.
Being on a residency means having to build a temporary home in a new country. This home is made from local materials and influenced by vernacular structures. I think of architecture as how we arrange the spaces around us, including the small spaces. In India I have been fascinated by how things are arranged; the sweets hanging outside a shop, the bamboo scaffolds; bundles of flowers discarded at the end of the day.
I want to make things which have a sense of being alive, growing, exuberance, and reveal their own fragility and the difficulty of growing. We live in bodies which get broken, and I want my sculptures to be like that. Vulnerable and yet brave, scaffold, on crutches and yet still moving.
There are so many hand skills here; everyday, useful items, made by hand. Everything is arranged beautifully. The skills needed to make them take time to learn, and then become part of the body; as natural and unthinking as walking. I became interested in skills because I know they are part of a community, a culture, that we learn and do things together. Also, skills became part of how I could acknowledge my whiteness in this culture. Rather than repeat and exploit a white history of taking from a country, I wanted to see if I could transform it a little, by being humble enough to try and learn, deliberately doing things which are new to me; to make myself vulnerable.
I am very grateful to Mona for teaching me how to tie flowers, and also a new stitch; forms of structure that I have used throughout this project. Learning the flower tying gave me a metaphor for the project; weaving. At the beginning of a residency, there are no connections. As time passes, some threads become connected. With people and places, new routines begin to create form. Like making a nest; a bird choosing available materials to wedge itself into the local environment. Some threads are temporary, or need replacing. Strengthening is required, re weaving in and adding new elements. All are part of the whole.
I’d like to talk about femininity and femaleness. I have been struck by the gender difference in public space compared to what I am used to. The street seems very male to me; places where men drink tea, eat food and congregate. I wondered where my space could be, where I could express myself, and so I have made it. I have heard stories of Rangoli, and connections between femininity and nature here. I think of nature as wild, much stronger than we think, and disregarding of human control. I wanted to build this structure which spilled out onto the street, in the same way that a tree does. Putting aside the rules, boundaries and acceptable ways to take up space, trees just grow wherever they can find a foothold. This is how I made my work, and how I made connections with women here. I trawled face book groups, went to workshops, said yes to every offer of help, and slowly wove myself in to feeling like I had some threads connecting me. Rani pink threads. Through conversations, gifts of fabric pieces, and working together, I have created this show from fragments of stories in which I both learn, and recognise myself.
I am very grateful to everyone who has made this project possible. The women who have come and shared stories, time and energy with me building and installing the show; Mona, Priyanka, Varsha, Bhavani, Bindu, and Vidhna for the gift of fabric. Also to Asia New Zealand for funding this residency, and Shanthi Rd, Suresh and Sandeep for hosting me here. Particular thanks to Suresh for his wonderful knowledge of this city and materials shopping in the heat! Thank you to Shiva for your help, and constant encouragement and energy! Finally thank you to everyone who befriended me here. Being an artist on residency means I am here temporarily, and I am very grateful for warm welcomes, friendship, and delivery of food and drink while I couldn’t walk!
Immersion Acrylic paint, pigment, pastel, charcoal on hand made paper Heap Fabric, coconut husks Gutter flower Paper, paint, wool Absorption Acrylic paint, pigment, pastel, charcoal on hand made paper Gentle holding shape Onion sack, wool, net, fabric, rope, bamboo Tied back to shelter Onion sack, wool, net, fabric, rope, bamboo Two more female bodies (1) Pastel, pencil, graphite, charcoal on Fabriano paper Two more female bodies (2) Pastel, pencil, graphite, charcoal on Fabriano paper Ropes (1) Pencil, graphite, charcoal on Fabriano paper Ropes (2) Pencil, graphite, charcoal on Fabriano paper Flop and slump Onion sack, wool, net, fabric, rope, bamboo, paper, paint Weaving in, weaving out (Installation) Fabric, hand made paper, streamers, glue, ribbons, bamboo, coconut rope, fabric, banana leaves, coconut palm leaves, paint, tinsel
Yesterday two women came and built with me. Wrapping, twisting, layering. I warned them in advance to bring messy clothes, and they weren’t afraid of heights or climbing. Sometimes climbing, sometimes clambering, we found ways to get up, stay up, and be there together. It’s hard to explain how much it meant to me to have this female company. I’m queer, and I spend much of my time at home with female bodied or identified folk. Or people with experience of being female; people with experiences which means they can hear me, see me, make space for me. People who are aware that sometimes you have to create space so others can speak. It never ceases to amaze me how much airspace cis men take up with their talking and telling. The silences we find ourselves in, and watch each other in, are the reason I wanted to only work with women. I wanted female hands on this sculpture which is so much to do with expressing my female, femme identity here in India. I don’t know how else to do it; I don’t have my wardrobe, my swagger, my community. I feel looked at enough, and don’t want to stick out any more. I bought jewellery, even just to wear inside, to remind me of the outrageous, eccentric shine I love.
But I have my practice, and I know how to be brave with that. Priyanka and Varsha made me feel so much braver, with their immediate enthusiasm, excitement and encouragement. Both artists, they had a beautiful visual sense, and the work seemed to grow like a truly living thing in response to their touch. I felt nourished, and seen by them. I unfolded a piece of glimmering pink chiffon fabric, and the noise Priyanka made was a moment of recognition and affirmation for me. Yes, it’s beautiful! Yes, for no reason other than sensual, yummy beauty! These pieces are a gift, from a woman who identifies as ‘obsessed with recycling’. She told me they come from another woman, who had collected them for forty years, ever since she had a sewing machine. They are the second blessing on this project, and they are absolute treasure to me. We sift through them, looking for the pieces which are equally light, to drape from the ceiling like soft petals.
While we are building, Varsha says to me ‘I’ve always wanted to build something like this. Like a treehouse!’ And that is how it feels. The femme treehouse, taking up space, spilling over into the road. No men came to talk to me today.
In the afternoon, I take us for coffee. It began to rain torrentially, and we sheltered under the eaves, laughing as a fat raindrop fell exactly into one of our coffees, splashing us with its force. I had been worried to come out to them; I didn’t want to ruin this natural closeness which felt so good. But we talked about marriage, and I threw it in there, my big queer, eccentric wedding. They were wonderfully fascinated, wanting to know about the dress, the ring, how it is to get married where I come from, and bemoaning when the law will ever change here on same sex marriage. We talked about how in love I am with my sweetheart. We talked about Indian weddings, ceremonies, and how both of them would rather elope.
Feminine space is precious, and sure, it should be everywhere, anywhere, but it isn’t. Today I felt like there was a small space I had created, and we kept creating together, which allowed me to breathe easier, feel myself reflected, accepted, and encouraged, in female company.
Stages of making;
Opening, listening, searching
Collecting based on attraction with no judgement
Trials, experiments, allowing
Writing making drawing photographing
Collecting. Making visible
Step back in
Doing and doing some more
Tidy the studio. Organise into boxes. Sweep.
Letting go of what didn’t make it in time
Accepting a state of finishedness
Sheltering from rain. One fat raindrop to land exactly in her coffee
Allowing miraculous surprises by not trying to make the outcome meet the initial expectation
Finding a title while walking under a bats flight path
Asking for help
Getting up, walking, working, eating dinner, sleeping.
When people ask me “what are you doing?’ I’m starting to say, I’m building a palace. A cane palace, he asks, and I say yes, and there will be paper, and fabric, and shiny parts. It’s kind of amazing how what I am making really is what I wrote in my proposal. A shelter, an expression of identity, an external showing and letting in. I’m starting to feel comfy up there, even though my arms get sore. I built that platform real strong, layers and layers and triangles like my dad taught me from looking at bridges. I’ve tried all the structural parts with coconut rope, and then I’m adding Rani pink wool. Rani means queen I learnt and Suresh and I both laughed. It’s the colour my hair used to be when it was freshly dyed; a real bright, fuchsia pink. My sweetheart calls me their queen, and it’s not about ruling or staking claim. It’s something to do with femme identity, queer identity. I see it in the gender queer folk here; walking tall and proud because that’s the space you’ve got, so work it. It is making an offer, but not compromising. It is showing with pride the vulnerable as it grows. It is accepting ones nature. All of the people who ask me what I am doing are men. I tell them you see how the street is so male, people like you? Well I am a woman, and this will be something feminine coming into the street. It’s a humble palace, built by one, to house one. It’s an externalised body. The lower deck is the size of a single bed. The boys who come to see after school twitter like birds all talking at once. They get it; Auntie Auntie! It’s a house Auntie!
Down the road is a real bamboo palace; built over three storeys high I reckon, delicate and strong and extraordinary. There’s no platforms on it, just bamboo poles which deft and confident feet balance on, treading the high wires to keep on building.
Going to see the Ganesha statues being made (should I call them statues, or icons?) on the street reminded me of many of my most treasured childhood memories. Where I grew up, in a small town in Somerset, there was an amazing carnival once a year. People would spend all year it seemed building these outrageously elaborate floats and costumes. It was an extravaganza of lights, dancing and music, and it came right past our house. Thinking about it now, it strikes me how much I loved the contrast between the people driving the trucks or lorries, and the performers. I always feel comfortable backstage, at gigs or installs, being one of the people making it happen. The drivers were doing a job, in ordinary clothes, maybe smoking a cigarette. I remember how the flat bed trucks would bounce as everyone danced on them, and the wardens making sure noone got too close.
How do I describe my fascination and comfort with this; when you can see the line between everyday reality and the magical, and still believe in it. The way it is only imagination, willingness and that lovely sense of being swept along with it, that allows us to enter that other world of make believe. I had lots of practice; my parents took us to kids theatre, kids festivals, and of course, the mighty Glastonbury Festival. Somerset in those days was a hive of arts activity, and most of what we went to was free. I remember clearly a touring theatre troupe coming and performing at our school (just an ordinary, non-private school). Their show was an adaptation of one of the CS Lewis stories, a watery, boggy one with a character called Puddleglum. They made theatre on the same level as us; children sitting around the performing in a taped off square for a stage. Puddleglum sticks in my mind; beautifully miserable, with ragged clothes and a floppy hat. I’m sure my memory is created through an alchemy between the show, memory and reading the books, but he feels very clear to me. What is also clear is what I wanted then. I decided when I grow up, I want to be like these people. They had dyed hair and holes in their jeans, and they traveled around opening portals into other worlds right there on the floor. They were a troupe, a community, a creative gang with their own rules, and I wanted that.
The Ganesha seemed to being made in a big shed with corrugated iron doors. I so wanted to go in, but they firmly closed the gate before me and put a padlock on. I never saw where the carnival floats were made either. Backstage is where the magic is made, and it’s a privilege to see how. They range from small (30cm) to huge (5metres), and I had a good look underneath to check out the construction. From that, and conversations I gleaned that they are made from Plaster of Paris, or maybe mud (as they used to be), poured into rubber moulds, and strengthened with internal bamboo structures and coconut fibre in the mix. Then they are painted with all of the colours, and decorated, and decorated some more. I watch a man sticking endless strings of jewels over a Ganeshas rounded belly. He tells me that he used to be an auto driver, but this was his fathers business, and his fathers before him, so now he’s doing this. It’s incredible to me that these hugely decorated figures will be pushed into the river. I can’t help wondering what happens to all the jewels and lace and gold glitter. Surely someone salvages them?
When I was doing my MFA I was asked a number of times “Have you ever thought that maybe less is more?” It was a great relief to me to feel for perhaps the first time, seeing these, as if maybe I am not decorating my work enough. It one of my realisations about the huge gift of this residency; I’m having the experience of maybe having enough time to achieve what I want, to make as many layers as I dream of. I photographed a tree which drapes and flourishes all over the side of a building, and I sigh with exhaustion and envy at the time it would take me to build something equally lush. I’m always interested in the lush layers and patina of surfaces as they age and weather over time, and it’s the same with making them myself, that can’t be rushed. I’ve been putting painted boards out in the rain, and I can’t wait to see what happens with the strings of paper flowers when it pours on them. I’m hoping for gluggy fragile lumps which I can hold together with paint and mud.
I’m also hoping to build my own little troupe here; I badly need someone to bless this structure before it opens, and I wonder if that can be done through dance, or song, or chanting. There’s some events going on here about women claiming the streets, and maybe I’ll ask them for help. What I do know is that my structure will be like Glastonbury festival will always be in my mind. Before I even realised it was a huge music festival with famous people, it was this incredible unfolding of a city in a field. People arrived from who knows where, decorating poles, building stages, lifting trapeze. In Thatchers Britain it felt like this small space of resistance and freedom where people could create an entirely different world in weeks, then dismantle it as if it had never been there.
Today was my third dance class, and I hit something again. I’ve been doing really great with my compassion and expectations; I started by telling myself look, you will be the biggest, most graceless, clumsy and only white person in there. And that’s ok. Totally ok. Be with your own body and see it progress at its own pace. Last week I didn’t have any moments where I thought I would burst into tears from feeling like I can’t do it, but this week I just couldn’t make it through the last hour. I also have another thing to go to; a dance thing which is apparently more of a ‘ritual performance’. I think it’s something I am more familiar with, so that was part of the compassion too, to leave early and give myself a chance to get there.
I guess it’s the self consciousness that gets me, and when my mind gets involved. I’m trying to remember the sequences, and I have flashes of knowing it’s not remembering through mind which matters, it’s trust of the body. That’s where I hit something. It’s a wall of fear, long taught and held, about what I am able to do with my body. It holds my hips tight as I try to move over them, and makes me clumsy. So many times I have heard ‘be careful, don’t hurt yourself, I’ll do it for you, here, let me, that’s too heavy’. And on and on. So it’s a gender thing, and a being controlled thing. And like all the worst kinds of control and fear, it’s gotten inside my own skin, my own muscles. And I want it out. That’s why I’m here, bringing as much softness and compassion as I can, noticing the shifts, congratulating myself like a small child.
She says release, release! And I’m trying. It’s just that my release, my trust in my body is still so quiet. My faith that the floor will hold me take me time to listen for. I want so bad to release. I love that floor that I can sink into. And sometimes I can do it. Today I nearly managed to spin across the floor, something very roughly like a ballerina.
And I know the release comes with grief. Letting go means losing something which has been held. My body has tried to protect me; to clench around the fear it has absorbed. It has responded to the clear and repeated messages, and tightened. Beautiful, wise body.
I have always had lovers who can climb trees, play sports, who are unafraid to move their bodies; who are loose. I long for that looseness, and the ability to try and fail. To be crap, and still be loved. This class is so welcoming, so warm. It’s a place I can try.
Last summer my sweetheart taught me how to throw a ball, and how to hit one. The simple joy of being able to hit a ball. The pleasure of being shown how to move my body, how to make it easier. The sense of achievement was wild, free, energetic and hopeful. It’s not my fault that I can’t spin yet; I need to learn that it is my upper body turning which will guide me. I love being taught. I love to follow the guidance of a wise teacher with patience and faith. I can rest in that.
Today I tucked my head in further and did a forward roll. It was fast, and unthought. She says practice until it feels normal. Trust in doing, in repetition. The stories are old, and need no retelling.