COZY: AN EXPLORATION OF COMFORT AND CONFINEMENT
The unmaking of civilization inevitably requires a return to and mutilation of the domestic, the ground of all making. -- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain
Personal narrative and subjective memory provide the creative impetus for Cozy. Scale, color, material, and space are the primary tools utilized in creating sculpture that is meant to be experienced first physically and then psychologically, emotionally, and/or intellectually. Saturated by a sense of history and memory that is, at once, both completely familiar and totally unfamiliar, the work intends to pull viewers into a place within themselves where they can, if they so choose, contemplate issues involving personal awareness, potential, choice, and resilience.
Personal narrative and subjective memory supplied the initial ideas that underlie Cozy. It is based on the following excerpt from my journal: When I was seven-years-old and my little sister three, she moved into the hall closet and I moved into her crib. I filled the crib with my stuffed animals and blankets and pillows. I was safe. I pretended that we were on Noahs Ark, but since there was just one of each kind of most animals, they paired up as they pleased. We rolled through the waves, singing and laughing. We weathered violent storms and avoided sinking until my big sister yelled at us to shut up.
This story takes me to a place where I felt both safe (in the crib) and threatened (by my sister). I felt completely in control (of the crib) and totally controlled (by my sister). It provided the initial impetus for Cozy, a piece which serves as a metaphor for the influences faced in adulthood that are simultaneously comforting and smothering, empowering and entrapping and explores issues involved with the difficulties inherent in trying to grow beyond the confinement of controlling forces. I had created a number of pieces during graduate school that explored similar, albeit more personal, concerns such as Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater (Plate 1) and a series involving the unraveling of afghans (Plates 2-5). Each of these pieces was inspired by personal narrative but referenced larger issues. Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater is about the impossibility of controlling another human being without his or her consent. The unraveling afghan pieces illustrate personal power and resilience as well as the fragility of the human experience. With Cozy I wanted to address similar concepts on a more global level.
My thought process behind Cozy is as follows:
At birth, people are blanketed by the pasts and presents of their caregivers and greater community. Although completely under the control of someone else, we are comfortable and feel safe because of the love and nurturing (or, at least, familiarity and proximity) of our caregivers. As we mature, we believe we are evolving beyond the influences of our birth, developing our own history, and becoming strong and independent. However, awareness brings with it constant reminders of the controls upon us. The closer we look, the more we realize that little has changed except the scale of the confinement. We have grown into a larger crib and are being controlled by a deeper history and a more invasive environment.
Methods and Materials
To translate this idea into sculpture, I started with the crib, an object that provides comfort and captivity and is both sanctuary and cell. I upsized the crib to be adult sized. The ratio of a three-year-old to a standard baby crib was maintained to create an appropriately sized crib for an adult approximately 5 feet 6 inches tall, an average of heights between 5 feet and 6 feet. This resulted in a crib measuring 60 inches wide x 108 inches long x 96 inches high. Cozy is constructed of 1 inch solid steel bar and 2 inch x 2 inch square steel tubing, materials similar to those used in actual jail cells. The style mimics my childhood crib, which was very linear and unadorned. These details, plus the scale, emphasize the contradiction between crib (sanctuary/safe) and jail (cell/imprisoning). All of the pieces of the crib have been powder coated a creamy yellow, the color of my childhood crib. Although the entire structure has been completely covered with crocheted yarn, I wanted the small spaces between stitches to be a light color instead of the dark gray of unfinished metal. In essence, Cozy is a super-sized crib/jail covered by a garishly colored crocheted cozy (Plate 6).
As with other pieces I have made, Cozy went through several transitions before reaching this configuration. This process encourages my pieces to fulfill their intended conceptual potential through experimentation. For instance, during its yearlong evolution in the studio, Cozy has been displayed unadorned and empty, has been draped by fabric as well as afghans, and has been completely filled with suitcases. In drawings and discussions, it has gone through a number of other configurations. I thought about utilizing video cameras to set up a dialogue between the camera behind bars and the viewers who appear to be jailed. Consideration was given to displaying the crib collapsed into a pile, hung from the ceiling or walls, or splayed in a geometric configuration. Also considered was the possibility of deconstructing the crib, cutting it up, and packing it away in suitcases. Each configuration resulted in a conceptual shift, which was considered, worked through, and accepted or rejected in part or whole. While the original concept drives the final form in my pieces, exploring options for construction and display enables form and concept to evolve until they mesh into an object that invites the desired physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual interaction. In the end, the intuitive takes precedence over the intellectual in determining the final form of my sculptures. In Cozy that evolution ended with the empty crib/jail form being completely covered by a brightly colored crocheted cozy. All of the crocheted pieces fit snuggly except one leg covering, which is enlarged and seems to be growing beyond its confines (Plate 7), a metaphor for human resilience and potential. Each element in the sculpture is chosen and constructed to maximize impact on and connection with the viewer, to enhance the core contradiction of something that is simultaneously safe and dangerous, alluring and repellent, and to forge connections with literal as well as intuitive memories.
Cozy is structured to maximize physical impact, first, and then to draw viewers in for possible psychological connections. Like sculptor Mona Hatoum, I believe that you first experience an artwork physically. Meanings, connotations and association come after the initial physical experience (Loffler 188). Scale, space, color, and materials are tools I use to create a physical experience. Cozy utilizes a familiar object, the crib, that through altered scale and skin becomes an oddly familiar object of comfort and captivity. Its scale creates an interior space that is not only the same proportional size that we experienced when in a crib but also mimics the feel of a jail cell, large enough in which to exist, but not comfortably. Its heavy bars reinforce the jail (captivity) aspect while their colorful yarn coverings reinforce the crib (comfort) aspect. The use of furniture to activate pieces of art is a relatively common tactic used in art. As Nancy Princenthal says in Silence Seen, this is due to the two-pronged significance of the furniture. It both stands for the absence of the body, by so clearly indicating a place where it might be (but is not) and at the same time anthropomorphically represents that missing body, particularly in the case of chairs (with their backs, seats and feet) and beds (head and foot boards) (Princenthal 77). The crib, in particular, represents an object in which protection, care, and confinement play equal parts. It is not hard to image this super-sized crib that is dressed in colorful yarn as a larger-than-life surrogate mother wrapping her colorful arms around her empty womb, beckoning with promises of comfort, care, and safety until, that is, the object shifts into an undercover jailer demanding surrender and promising loss of freedom and confinement.
The use of bright, garish colors and crocheted yarn, common elements in afghans, wraps the object in personal and cultural nostalgia, evoking memories of a bygone time, place, and class when life was simple but good. By softening the rigid, metal form, the yarn also emphasizes it, and while it imbues the object with nostalgia and memory, it also encases, entraps, and enfeebles the form. The cozy encasing the object alternates between comforting blanket and cover-up; it conceals as much as it protects; it hides as much as it reveals. Simultaneous yearnings to be inside and outside collide. In addition to tapping into literal as well as intuitive memories, these elements set up a conflict between the masculinity of the large steel object and its feminine covering of soft yarn. The utilization of the emphatically handmade, feminine, cozy covering the linear, masculine, structure which is actually an oversized, feminine, crib or an undersized, male, jail cell further complicates with questions concerning gender and power. The (male) jail constantly challenges the (female) crib even though the (male) structure is completely covered by the (female) cozy. The object fluctuates between masculine and feminine while the interaction of the viewer shifts between the physical and psychological and elements of safety, security, and comfort war with elements of danger, confinement, and control beneath the skin of color.
The object is positioned in the center of the public space like the featured cage in a surreal zoo exhibit. While its positioning emphasizes the element of captivity, the brightly colored cozy evokes nostalgia and promises of safety and security. There is space to walk around the entire structure enabling viewers not only to peer into the vacant interior, but also across it to see other viewers, who are physically on the outside, yet visually behind bars (on the inside). Cozy structures the physical encounter of the viewer with the three-dimensional object in an attempt to activate a dialogue between the viewer and the work by unsettling familiar points of reference and value systems. The very structure of the object impels viewers to take time to see and to contemplate the work and, when time is culturally processed, it carries narrative. But while the manipulation of formal elements can inject memory into a piece and the space in which it exists, in the end, it is only an approximation of memory. It is precisely this inexactitude, however, that draws viewers in and stimulates them to pursue that which remains elusive and absent (Huyssen 101). Objects which engage the viewer both physically and psychologically during periods of silent contemplation have a chance of tapping into those levels of the unconscious where memory is made, where the familiar is unfamiliar and the unfamiliar is familiar, and where reality and unreality exist simultaneously. It is from this place that the viewer can choose to consider concepts that not only drive the piece of artwork but that have driven, and continue to drive, the human experience.
Doris Salcedo, Louise Bourgeois, and Mona Hatoum are three of my primary influences. Both Bourgeois and Salcedo utilize personal narrative and subjective memories to underpin and drive their work while Hatoum manipulates formal elements to imbue her sculptures with contradiction. I realize that critics argue that autobiography in the evaluation of art is everything from an annoying distraction to absolutely essential. However, I believe that the use of personal narrative during the creation of art, to provide the point of connection with issues that affect many people, has validity. While my pieces and the pieces of Salcedo and Bourgeois are spawned by very personal experiences, thoughts, or emotions, their intent is to transcend the individual memories and connect very personally with the experiences, thoughts, or emotions of the viewers. Therefore, my writings remain separate from the sculptures and are not essential to the understanding of the pieces. My hope is that by the time the sculptures are completed, the stories that launched the objects will have become limiting, if not useless, influences. As Salcedo, whose works are based on the narrative of political victims in Colombia, says: When works leave my studio they no longer have anything to do with me; they become completely alien. I acquire a distant view of my works once they have reached completion. Each work has to find its proper place in the world (Basualdo 27). To come to its full potential in the space it inhabits and in the mind of each viewer, I believe artwork must detach from the personal narrative of its creator. Only on those occasions when I view my own creations, do the pieces re-form even a tenuous connection to the original narrative and, even then, that narrative is greatly altered. Once a work is finished and located in space, as Salcedo points out, everything that takes place occurs within the space of the viewer. Each person will, or will not, approach an artwork according to his or her spirit. What the viewers might come to feel, to remember, or to comprehend, is entirely dependent on their internal code (Merewether 142). Therefore, my work is not intended to illustrate memories from my life, but rather lead viewers to a place within themselves where contemplation of issues important to them is encouraged.
While sculptor Louise Bourgeois chooses to utilize her personal narrative more actively than I do in the presentation of her work, her methods and objectives are similar to those I employ in my work. Bourgeois is not asking viewers to help her work through the childhood trauma that drives her work; she is, instead, tapping into the universality of her experience and inviting others to join her on the journey. To her, Art is not about art. Art is about life. While Bourgeois reveals her own extremely personal memories in her writings, she is, more importantly, telling her individual stories relative to the whole of society. Her words leave little doubt that Bourgeois has suffered real pain in her life, but critics and viewers alike connect to Bourgeois on a very personal level because her suffering forges both a physical and psychic connection to their lives. What sets her apart is her ability to objectify powers that affect and disturb her, according to editor Peter Weiermair, powers, however, that do not remain sealed hermetically in their relationship to her own subjectivity but correspond instead to the joint experience of our psycho-physical conditions as creatures (Weiermair 11). After all, if content is judged solely autobiographically, then the viewer, who is outside the autobiography, has no option but to appreciate the work only from a formal perspective. Bourgeois draws upon her own history, as well as the whole of history, and utilizes any means available to enable her art to speak and communicate. As she has been quoted as saying: My work grows from the duel between the isolated individual and the shared awareness of the group. Therefore, as noted earlier, it is essential that the finished work of art becomes an autonomous creature, independent of its original intention or narrative. This transformation can only occur, however, through total psychological emergence in the driving narrative. As Doris Salcedo says, following formal logic to translate narrative into a piece of art paralyses intuition, blocks inspiration and impedes the appropriation of the dissimilar (Merewether 141).
But although formal logic impedes the creation of artwork inspired by narrative at some point, formal strategies are invaluable. Manipulation of the formal elements in a piece of art can be likened to the manipulation of words in a story. Unless each element/word is meticulously selected and precisely placed in relationship to other elements/words, the sculpture/story will make no sense. Structure is key to making meaning. I try to structure my artwork like I create my stories, building layers of communication letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. The individual elements that are combined within a piece, and the placement of the piece in relation to other pieces and the space itself all communicate to the viewer, creating layer upon layer of meaning for each individual to absorb, reject, accept, refuse, digest, regurgitate, ponder, or dismiss. Each element in my sculptures is chosen for maximum impact as it relates to the underlying concept. As discussed earlier, in Cozy, the specific scale, color, material, and positioning in space are carefully considered and selected to enhance the core contradiction of something that is simultaneously a sanctuary and cell and to forge connections with literal as well as intuitive memories. This piece alters a familiar object, a crib, to resemble a familiar place, a jail cell, and wraps the masculine form in feminine skin to create an oddly familiar object filled with contradictions concerning comfort and control. Further, contemplation of these elements provides psychological, emotional, and/or intellectual access to issues involving personal awareness, potential, choice, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, 120 inches x 120 inches x 144 inches
Steel, straight pins
Red Carpet, 72 icnhes x 72 inches x 120 inches
Stepping out, 72 inches x 72 inches x 120 inches
Unraveling, 72 inches x 120 inches x 3 inches
Mother-in-law #1, 240 inches x 120 inches x 2 inches (varies)
Cozy, 96 inches x 108 inches x 60 inches
Basualdo, Carlos. In Conversation with Doris Salcedo. Doris Salcedo. New York: Phaidon.
Huyssen, Andreas. Unland: The Orphan's Tunic. Doris Salcedo. New York: Phaidon.
Loffler, Petra. Without a Country. Women Artists in the 20th and 21st Century. Ed. Uta Grosenick. Kőln, London, Madrid, New York, Paris, Tokyo: Taschen (2001).
Merewether, Charles. Interview with Charles Merewether, 1998. Doris Salcedo. New York: Phaidon.
Princenthal, Nancy. Silence Seen. Doris Salcedo. New York: Phaidon.
Weiermair, Peter. Louise Bourgeois. Italy: Edition Stemmle (1995).
© 2017 Carol Hummel