For over an hour in the Saltburn Gallery, Cleveland, two women methodically undertake what appear to be food-processing operations, struggling up stepladders, pouring red fruit-mash and cream into gigantic hanging muslin bags, kneading and squeezing the strained residues into jugs and buckets. This onerous task yields increasing quantities of liquids then refiltered through the system and, as time passes, the products accidentally splatter across the floor and walls and the artists themselves who become more and more bedraggled - occasionally even rinsing their heads and mouths with the juices - until the entire scene suggests a horror movie shoot. When their discomfort at the smell and feel of the sticky substances mingling and stinging eyes, filling hair and covering bodies becomes too much, the visibly tiring women abandon their travails - leaving a random mosaic of bright purples, reds and pinks among discarded containers in the once-clean white space. Nevertheless they soon reappear with only the worst of the mess washed off, in an adjacent room holding tables set with massed ranks of delicate china. Preparing cuppas and scones with blackberry and apple jam and cream, they serve the audience afternoon tea.
Initiating Saltburn Artists Project’s live art programme, Carole Luby and Sally Madge’s Labour Intensive (12th October, 2008) condenses a whole gamut of traditional ‘women’s work’ into a simple installation. Starting from deeply personal resonances of specific domestic rituals harnessing wild food into cottage economics, the exhausting routines of housework and family sustenance take their toll inscribed on bodies and souls - the gradual saturation with vivid blood-red and off-white rotting, festering excretions connoting menstruation, maturation and childbirth, bodily care, damage and ageing, in cycles of biological and social reproduction. Pleasure and fulfilment arise from the sheer sensuality of visceral engagement and commitment to motherly objectives, but the overriding sense here is ambivalence - visually, in the grotesque beauty; and emotionally, in the artists’ abjection, pain and melancholy, wrung-out of energy from lifetimes of loving care. The manipulation of raw environmental and bodily material thus threatens to overwhelm human capacities to cope with the flow and distil the boundless potential of the world into useful, nourishing essence - with the monstrous jam-manufacturing machinery hinting at industrial alienation, and the subsequent tea-party completing the fragmentation of integrated productive activity in service-sector commodification.
The themes tackled signal the influence of feminist art since the 1960s - for example, Judy Chicago’s celebratory The Dinner Party and Bobby Baker’s deranged renderings of respectable housewifery. Whereas if later conceptual explorations of the ideologies and stereotypes of womanhood are only implicit, another blatant precursor would be the macho provocations of the Vienna Actionists, transgressing acceptable bounds of public behaviour and encouraging extremes of fascination and disgust. Meanwhile the exaggerated dysfunctional apparatus reinforces the artifice of this situation - militating against interpretations of gender essentialism - and the art gallery setting further frames the performance within institutional discourses rather than ‘natural’ activity. Moreover the structure of the space itself prompts voyeuristic peering through a narrow doorway, placing centre-stage endeavours normally culturally hidden, socially taken for granted and politically undervalued. Thus the concealed ‘internal’ effects of this everyday hard labour are symbolically transposed: first onto the performers’ bodies; then the building’s surfaces; and finally into the reactions of viewers - who were clearly moved, even though some accepted the gift of nourishment while others preferred to pass.
But beyond its expressive sophistication and effectiveness, Labour Intensive neatly brings together production and consumption - both in the artistic process, challenging the objectifying gaze of detached contemplation, and the culmination of its circuit of social relations implicating ‘customers’ directly in preceding events. And, of course - contrary to conservative rhetoric sanctifying isolated nuclear families and regulating and rewarding individual conduct - the complex rhythms and rites surrounding food and care-giving always were collective. Communal traditions involving highly-skilled craft originated, developed and were transmitted at the grass-roots, largely outside centralised control yet a constant source of anxiety and interference. Such stubbornly persistent patterns of basic human sociality need taming, breaking down and reconstituting if their potential utility for elite interests is to be mobilised, regimented and exploited - from the enclosures of the commons and the destruction of tribal and subsistence cultures, through mass industrial incarceration, to the soulless colonisation of ‘affective labour’ in the ‘social factory’, and now in biotechnology’s rapacious invasion of cellular life. Prevailing modes of production, reproduction and domination seem consistently to intersect most crucially and fruitfully precisely where women’s wisdom and bodily practices loom largest, and Sally Madge and Carole Luby manage artfully to expose some of the intimate resonances of this mysterious process without falling victim to its otherwise almost universal mystification.
Review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 21, November 22nd, 2008
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: