the back story

thumbnail.gif  … so it occurs to me that someone happening accross this blog won’t have any idea what I am ranting about with the whole wallpaper thing, so here is a statement that accompanied a show about a year ago, which might help

For several years now my practice has used the lives and words of women institutionalized during the Victorian era as a lens through which to view the condition of modern women’s lives. Last year with the support and encouragement of my family and friends I was fortunate enough to take a year out of my everyday life and immerse myself in the research and study of the Victorian era while pursuing a Master’s degree in Visual Culture at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England. During my research for my thesis an idea began to germinate for a new body of work, and this work is an exploratory foray into the world I began to glimpse behind the wallpaper.

It is always difficult to unravel the twisted strands of influence and idea that come to form an art work, however Charlotte’s Yellow Wallpaper was an organizing principle for much of my research and writing during my thesis and so has become the visual launching point for these new ideas. Published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper[1] traces the descent of a dutiful doctor’s wife into insanity using the wallpaper’s design as a vehicle for her madness. Without an understanding of Victorian design reform the connection between bad wallpaper and mad women is not immediately obvious, but studies, of the Arts and Crafts movement and the design reformers that preceded it, lead one to an historical moment when wallpaper design could indeed be perceived as immoral. Little has been made of this unlikely analogy, between mad women and bad design, which is a little perplexing to today’s reader, not able to see immediately how the two are connected, but in Gilman’s time the rhetoric surrounding the Arts and Crafts movement made design a moral issue, and it would therefore have seemed a less unlikely metaphor than it does today. The language of design reform with its strong moral overtones echoes the language directed at women during this period.

Gilman published many other books, and her work Women and Economics made her an international star, it is this work and her domestic reform agenda, her ideas about women trapped by their environments that encouraged me to indulge in a twentieth century feminist/spatial interpretation of The Yellow Wallpaper as more than a metaphor for madness. For me the pattern has come to be about a psychological space, a mythical space of freedom, where women might be free to imagine any possible configuration of their physical environment. It is the space hidden within the wallpaper, behind the pattern, only visible now because of twentieth century analysis of space by writers like Henri Lefebvre, Gaston Bachelard, Elizabeth Grosz and Luce Irigaray. It is a space outside of the realm of everyday experience that we can only just imagine, like some hidden dimension of string physics almost visible. A space chased by architects and artists, by philosophers and revolutionaries, a utopian shore where all our expectations are dismantled and we are free to begin our social experiment over again and maybe do it differently this time.

It seems to me that the woman in the wallpaper might not be trapped but rather seeking to evade the censors, lurking in the uncontrolled and riotous pattern, embracing the chaos rejected by the (male) design reformers. It seems relevant then that it is such badly designed wallpaper, which embraces all that is grotesque and frivolous; it is not taking the reform party line, instead it is rejecting a moral stance about feminine roles that created a domestic prison for women. Is it possible that rather than seeking to escape; this rebellious wife might be taking refuge in this feminine space that refutes all the parameters of a masculine modernity?

Wallpaper itself could be considered a marginal space, like Bachelard’s skin[2], a boundary between inside and outside, a possible space for negotiation. In this light then, wallpaper becomes both public and private, a place for defining these disparate places, for investigating the domestic as tactical[3]. The wallpaper is hanging in the nursery an almost exclusively female space, except for male children it was rarely visited by men. Gilman chooses this gender defined space in which to place the wallpaper, the other central character in the story. This particular domestic space was defined by women’s role in interior spaces, by the cult of True Womanhood and the virtues of docility and maternity. It is a space where at least some control might be exerted over the domain precisely because of these definitions of femininity and the gender exclusivity of maternity. The wallpaper reads in this nursery space as pregnant, giving birth, delivering at the end of the story the woman who refuses to go back into the patriarchal space. There are all the Gothic issues of male surveillance, female confinement and an infantile treatment of women. The narrator is taken back to the nursery to be reconditioned but instead she finds in the wallpaper an ally, in its sprawling and undisciplined monstrousness. The Wallpaper’s very excessiveness articulates with its undisciplined tangles a fear of change gnawing at the intelligentsia of her day, this modern reading finds another space for women, a tactical subversion of allotted space to create a small space for a woman outside the boundaries of normal. And this is precisely the space that I am interested in exploring now… taking not an escapist Utopian view but with a grounded view of blooming where I am planted and tactically subverting domesticity to meet my own needs.

1. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, The Yellow Wallpaper

[2] Bachelard, Gaston, “The Dialectics of Inside and Outside”, The poetics of Space


If that helps??


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