Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public is part of the art work I produced at ‘Bodies: a group residency by Synecdoche’ . It’s based around a series of temporary installations of used clothing that I made between 1st and 29th September 2016 in The Unit, an empty shop in a busy shopping area in the centre of Bristol, UK. The space was open to the public for 4 days a week. It took on a life of its own and became part performance, part social engagement but was also participatory, confessional, interactive, and conceptual. Have a look at the presentation I have made about Don't wash your dirty laundry in public; it captures just a snapshot of the whole. Since then I have had another busy month, exhibiting at Unravelling and catching up with everything I’ve neglected. Now, finally, I have time to give more thought to what happened at Bodies so that I can see how to develop these ideas further.

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Image: Don't wash your dirty laundry in public, Day 23, September 2016

Why second hand clothing?

I researched the use of second hand clothing in art during my final two years at University and wrote my dissertation on the different ways that Louise Bourgeois and Christian Boltanski have used second hand clothing in their work. Clothing is often thought of as a second skin; it makes us think of bodies. It’s quite unusual to use it in art. It’s soft and impermanent and can remind us of our mortality. It also somehow mixes up the senses of touch and sight. There are strong links with memory too. Clothes, when worn, take on the shape of the wearer and become sculptural. When they are empty, they can suggest absence. Hanging them increases this sense of loss. Second hand clothing also takes on the scents and stains of wear and other elements come into play, including dirt, contamination anxiety and abjection.

I have used second hand clothing in some of my stitched work before now:

·         My imaginary friend, 2010, is a crazy patchwork of sections of my old clothes, interspersed with zips with red velvet inserts. It is a shroud, installed draped over a prone mannequin.

·         Nobody I, 2014, I used sections of my son’s old clothes which I quilted with drawings from cut out photos and inserted into zips to make a large, hanging, soft sculpture

·         All the babies I might have had II, 2015, is a stitched leather sculpture with baby grows inserted into zips. I found that I couldn’t cut up my son’s baby clothes, so I bought these from a charity shop.

My family had been doing some sorting out over the summer, and, knowing I had the month’s residency in September, they agreed that I could use their clothes for the exhibition, as long as I took them to a charity shop afterwards! But I didn’t really know what I was going to do with them. Early in September, I wrote down my research intentions, to tether my thoughts, and that included:

‘What I plan to do:

·         use the project space to set up a series of transient, changeable, participatory installations using eg second hand clothing, body bags, my hanging sculptures etc

·         start work on a new body of work, Made flesh, a series of garment-like wearable sculptures

·         set up a participatory installation, Made flesh, inviting the public to become living sculptures by wearing them

·         photograph interactions and record comments and conversations throughout the month

·         reflect on the process

·         interact and collaborate with the rest of the artists and attend crits’

At the end I wrote:

‘I know that my work will be influenced by public interactions and by working alongside the other artists. Ideas will develop as the days go by. Watch this space!’


Image: Day 16

I had moved in with a table, my sewing machine and rolls of cloth, imitation leather and everything I needed to begin a new body of stitched work. And also 6 bags of used clothes and shoes. I had negotiated with the other artists that I could use the area we’d designated as the project space so I started to set up an installation of the clothes as soon as I could. I quickly realised that even a pile of tangled clothing in a gallery setting is poignant. I’d bought various devices to hang the clothes - hooks, hangers, meat hooks and a washing line and wooden pegs etc. Straight away the washing line and pegs seemed the most appropriate choice. And I made a sign – FREE CLOTHES.

Why free clothes?

I wanted to find a way to engage the public and I wanted, ultimately, to get rid of the clothes. I like the idea of giving gifts and that part of the work I have done here will continue elsewhere as a kind of ‘physical memory’. That the clothing has significance for me has made it quite a poignant process. I’m also interested in the recycling of textiles; what happens to all the clothes we give to charity shops?

I loved watching the different responses when people realised that the clothes were really free. Some were absolutely delighted and began to rummage through them with enthusiasm; others looked disgusted, some looked very suspicious and some, confused.

Giving them away was much harder than I thought it would be.  As people rummaged through them I found myself remembering something about each piece of clothing. It felt as if I was giving away my memories with the clothes.It felt like a ‘letting go’. How important was it that the clothes belong to my family? How would anyone else know? Would it have felt different to me if I’d got them from somewhere else?It was definitely harder than taking them to the charity shop.

I had intended to bring bags of my own clothes in too, but I soon realised that I didn’t want to. It would have felt too intimate somehow, to watch people trying on my clothes and then taking them away.

Why hanging out clothes?

I essentially spent a month hanging out the same clothes again and again in different ways. I’d take them down, they’d fall down, or people would take clothes away and there would be gaps on the washing line. So I’d hang them back up again, or replace them with others. It seemed to mirror perfectly the cycle of domestic care. Hanging out the clothes was a performance, the context for the rest. 


Image: Day 9

Hanging out clothes is

•      domestic

•      repetitive

•      mundane

•      gendered

•      normally private

•      functional

•      work

•      meditative

•      oddly pleasurable

•      obsessive

•      has elements of care

As they were my family’s clothes, I couldn’t help wondering how many times I’d hung out these clothes before.

In this setting, it was also completely futile. They weren’t wet, they weren’t freshly laundered, and I was still obsessively hanging them, deliberately, in highly ordered, non-functional ways. It felt like some kind of compulsive disorder.

Image: Day 4

Why body bags?

I saw a very compelling image of an Amnesty International protest on Brighton beach a few years ago. Volunteers zipped themselves into body bags to highlight the refugee crisis. It was very effective, poignant and chilling. At the time I had just made some life sized sculptures and needed a way to store them. Body bags were the perfect solution! It was cheaper than making something comparable. And I bought some extras, just in case.

Body bags obviously have associations with death. Empty, used clothing also reminds us of bodies and our mortality. I wanted to use them together somehow as part of the installations. In the end, I filled the body bags with clothing and laid them out in different ways in the space.  

I do feel uncomfortable at times using body bags. I don’t want anyone to think I’m being disrespectful of the dead.


Image: Day 19

The invisible performer?

But is it performance? And if so, who is performing? I first acknowledged that my instinct to interview my viewer takes on a performative aspect when I spent 2 separate intensive 5-day periods of time ‘on duty’ with my work at The Knitting and Stitching Shows in London and Harrogate last year, in 2015. I was exhibiting there as part of my Embroiderers’ Guild Scholarship. I quickly realised that if I didn’t actively engage with the public, I’d miss an unprecedented opportunity to get valuable feedback; in a gallery setting the artist might usually only be present for a couple of hours during a private view or when invigilating. In this setting I was with my work from 10-5 for 5 days at a time. Because it was so busy and I felt it was very important for me to record the responses of my public, I began to ask people, as we were talking, whether I could write down their comments. And so it began; it hadn’t been planned, but it became something invaluable to me – documentation of the event and the fabulous range of responses to my work mixed in with my reflections of our conversations. It interests me how those scrawled notes can conjure an image of the person I had been talking to, and prompt a memory of other things they said. I was thrilled with the connections I made with so many people, some with whom I am still in contact. Have a look at the documentation of this experience, Do you mind if I write that down? It includes a wonderful range of comments from my visitors as well as photos and my reflections. 

So, when I arrived at The Unit at the beginning of September, I quickly recognised a familiar situation, except this time I was meant to be making work at the same time! I thought I might still do some making during quiet times, or on the days we decided to keep the shop closed, but I soon recognised that I needed to make the most of having that space, of sharing it with the other artists and also that interacting with the public was like an addiction; I loved it!


Image: Day 6

But is it performance? My interest in each person’s thoughts and opinions is entirely genuine, and I also make myself vulnerable and discuss private things, but over the course of time, it becomes performative as I reach for my notebook and pen and ask ‘Oh! Would it be OK if I write that down?’ But who is performing? I observe that asking for permission to write down people’s comments seems to give them confidence to say more because what they’re saying has been given value. It changes the balance of power. Also, asking if I can take a photo of them rummaging through my clothes or trying them on, in most instances, in many cases, caused a change in behaviour; many people would laugh or smile and then pose for me! I have a fabulous series of photos of happy people. Are they happy about the free clothes, or happy about the interaction, or happy about having a photo taken in that environment, or happy to be able to participate?

I definitely feel that I was performing, although I see myself in many ways as an invisible performer; much of the installation work happened when I was alone, or without an audience. During the interactions with the public, I feel that my role changed from performer to facilitator. I was giving the public the opportunity to become active participants at several different levels. They could become performers if they chose.

Another aspect of the public’s performance is obviously that the installations changed every time someone rummaged, or took clothing away. Unwittingly, their actions changed the work and became part of it. So what about the ethics of this? I feel that people willingly participated. If they weren’t interested they didn’t engage. I asked permission to write down comments and take photos and have used them anonymously, for a limited audience.

I am a reluctant performer. Although I recognise performative elements in some of my previous work, I have always tried to avoid it. It interests me that I seem happy to take on the role of giving others an opportunity to become performers, by facilitating participation. Is it a form of ‘performance by stealth’?

So what about the installations I made, that no one else saw? A couple of times, I set up an installation, took photos, and then rearranged it before anyone else saw it. Once, I hung all the shoes on the washing line and it fell down before I could get a photo. Are they still performances? And the one that wasn’t documented? Does it count as a performance if there is no audience?

Maker or performer?

It feels very strange to have produced a body of work that has not involved any making. Until now, making has been fundamental to my practice. I have felt that my work was only valid if it involved time-consuming labour and bore the mark of my hand. For this project I have no physical outcome. Instead I have two sketchbooks of comments and reflections, many photos, a PowerPoint presentation, many memories and fewer clothes than I had! Does this matter to me? Does it make the work less valid?

And yet I can see similarities in the processes; the work of hanging and installing was repetitive, intense and very physical so was consequently also meditative, pleasurable and satisfying. It also didn’t involve the high levels of concentration that are needed when I’m making, so it was perfect for this context. In the end I didn’t get any making done during that month. I was able and happy to stop at any point to engage with a member of the public or to join in one of the collaborative activities that were also happening in the space alongside my installations.

I normally work alone so it’s been intriguing working in a space that’s open to the public and finding out what people think of my work. It feels like a great privilege. It’s been brilliant but also quite hard at times. It’s definitely been exhausting.


Image: Day 9

Making public things that are normally private?

I think that the key to Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public working as well as it did is that it had a confessional element. I made myself vulnerable, I was available to talk to people about what I was doing and why… and they responded by talking to me. I was also giving something away! I am delighted that it has provoked a range of conflicting responses - attraction, repulsion, horror, hilarity, grief, comfort, understanding and incomprehension, amongst others. But it also feels like a responsibility. Engaging the public in this way needs to be genuine. I invited people to get involved in a non-threatening activity in an art setting, but the talking was important too. It highlighted to me that many people are essentially lonely, and many seem to be willing to talk about personal things, in great depth, with a complete stranger. It felt like a great privilege, but was hard as well, partly because I was exploring my own issues of absence and loss, but also because what I was doing isn’t counselling, it is art. Addressing personal issues which are common to many can be powerful, but is also hard.

I also think that the setting helped. It wasn’t a typical art gallery, it was an empty shop and, although part of it was laid out like a gallery, there were other areas where other things were happening. The audience was consequently much more diverse than it might have been, many people were fuelled by curiosity rather than by a desire to look at art. I think that was the reason why my work provoked such a wide range of responses.

And the title? I came up with several ideas including Body of work, Bodies of work and Letting go but Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public seemed to fit so well both in terms of the public/private meanings of the idiom and in terms of the physical process.

What was the point?

My work subverts gendered expectations of work with textiles in many ways by exploring individuation, a process which, according to Carl Jung, needs to occur in the second half of life, of finding meaning in life. It is ultimately a preparation for death. Jung talks about balancing our multiple selves with the dark side, or shadow, of ourselves and maintains that failure to acknowledge and accept this shadow can result in fragmentation and associated mental health issues. He also describes the shadow as being the seat of creativity, and creativity is linked to happiness.

These transient installations of my family’s old clothes and body bags, in a public place, alongside the obsessive arranging and rearranging, explore a dark side. They suggest a question of balance. Talking to people, recording their comments and giving the clothing away, I feel, redresses that balance. That the project took place over a month adds to its significance. It has been my first major foray into socially engaged art, in a truly public setting, and I’m addicted!


Image: Day 18


·         It’s a form of research

·         I have had lots of useful feedback about my work

·         I’ve had many really great conversations about life, the universe and everything

·         It has been very therapeutic

·         I gave away some clothes

·         It’s been fun and funny!

What next?

I’m planning to write a proposal based on these ideas for other exhibitions or residencies.I’ve also been thinking of ways to develop these ideas further, and other ways to engage the public either with clothes or through giving other things away. Watch this space!