Women Artists at the F1
New Zealand Sculpture Project

BARBARA STRATHDEE

As a participating artist and a feminist my response to the events at F1 was very much governed by my interest in art produced from a stance of political consciousness - whether from a concern with the social reality of women in a male-dominant culture or from a concern with the wider society as perceived by feminists. Some of the most impressive and beautiful works by women artists at the sculpture project, however, were entirely abstract: as for instance, the installations by Pauline Rhodes and Jacqui Fraser.

 

Colleen Anstey, Work in progress (stage one of a three stage, two-day installation) Photograph by Jurgen Waibel

Pauline Rhodes worked across an enormous area on the ground floor in such a way that the viewer could walk through the installation (Extensums: ground runs - stained ground) and discover tiny details on the floor surface to which attention had been directed by chalk and water marks, by hose tubing and by the metal covers pulled open from small gutters which previously I hadn't noticed. Rhodes spent several days installing large undulating lengths of paper which had been stained by rusting steel sheets, and curved grids placed upright at regular intervals across the floor. Finally, and startling in the general gloom of the factory, lime green rods were propped across the metal grids, setting up a new rhythm counterbalancing the grids, the paper strips and the already existing pillars of the factory which had been the major elements of the work the day before.

(This area, with its gutters and dripping taps, we were told by a man who had been employed in the soft-drink factory in 1939, was where the returned empty bottles were washed out with caustic soda.)

The nature of the work which until recently had been happening in the building directed the experimental installation by Vivian Lynn. She had collected hair clippings from a number of hair salons in WelIington, over a period of weeks, and formed with them a large multi-coioured rectangle on the cold concrete floor. Upon them was placed a smaller rectangular shape - an old woollen blanket. The contrast between the physical materials (the hard and the soft) was accentuated when one day some 'babies' appeared: about six small sausage-shaped rolls of hair wrapped in pieces of blanket, lying in a line at the foot of what now seemed a rectangular bed of hair. They didn't remain for long. Then a photocopy of an early photograph of women labouring in a factory was placed on a pillar adjacent to the work, which emphasized the harshness of conditions in factories, causing the hair to be seen (at one level of meaning) as a symbol for human beings, the concrete floor a symbol for the dehumanising factory environment, and the blanket, warming the hair, as it were, as a symbol for whatever can modify that environment. The act of making the work (Mantle) became an ameliorating of the factory space as it exists now.

PAULINE RHODES Extensums: Ground Runs - Stained Ground
(Work in progress) Photograph by Jurgen Waibel

A powerful installation/performance piece over a period of two days, by Colleen Anstey, excited both an aesthetic response and an emotional one. She plotted the path of light from a window across the floor at half-hourly intervals, using string to eventually form an intricate structure that worked as a piece complete in itself. The process continued at night, involving mirrors reflecting beams of light across the dark room to illuminate polaroid photos attached to the walls, and the throwing of a huge stone wrapped in a sheet through a window, which broke the glass and also the rhythm of work and passage of time. into the silence, a tremulous voice of an elderly woman (on tape) began describing the events of a day which she had chosen to be her last. Having failed to die, she lamented that she was continually watched - the choice had been taken away from her. The stone was hauled back through the window, next day, unwrapped slowly, and revealed as a beautiful river boulder.

Absence of choice, caused by enforced conditioning, was specific in a work by the Irish artist Rose Arm McCreery. When travelling briefly through New Zealand, she chose a space in the factory and sent her work by post from New York with instructions on how it should be installed. In it she points out the schizoid conditioning of the young female, by exhibiting symbolic clothing - the costumes for the daytime female houseworker and for her second role as glamour girl by night. It consisted of two pieces of thin plastic: a gigantic cut-out dress shape spread on the floor and covered with blue soap powder, and a huge rectangle painted white with a different dress shape left unpainted in the centre, but sprinkled with glitter.

This piece encourages comparison between the stereotypes of women and the fact that the author of the artefact is herself a woman, thus an example of the reality that women are actively capable of confronting and subverting the expectations placed upon them.

In a metaphor for the effort required to escape given situations, Kate Coolahan presented a bird-like structure in flight for white bundles of rubbish which dangled from a ceiling. Di Ffrench exhibited large Ciba-chromes of a performance Fontanel. My own piece was about the use of private spaces (living-rooms and photograph albums) to ignore the destruction we, women and men, allow to be committed beyond our walls. Mary Louise Brown did a commanding performance which left traces (outlines of hands on the walls) of an arduous work process. And visiting artist from Canada, Evelyn Roth, gave a joyful performance, ran a workshop and showed films of her work which takes fibre as a medium, especially large scale crochet, into the area of animated sculpture.

Jacqui Fraser created a very beautiful multilayered construction of green materials and paua shells - Breaker Bay. Other artists with work at F1 were Jane Rennie, Pip Davies, Claudia Pond Eyley (documentation), Tanya Ashken, Virginia Barton-Chapple and Jamie Bull.

A two-day Women Sculptors Seminar, as part of an extensive range of seminars, brought many more art works to F 1 to present what became a survey of current activity in the visual arts by women in New Zealand, Great Britain, the USA, Australia and Italy. A discussion looked at existing structures in New Zealand for supporting art by women, and considered the process of collaborative work, stimulated by the slide presentations of Juliet Batten, Claudia Pond Eyley and Barb McDonald. An analysis of the differences between lesbian and heterosexual women artists on erotic imagery was begun, and accounts of the difficulties women artists still encounter with art criticism, and feminists encounter working in art institutions, were heard. A report back to the general audience at F1 was marked by raucous incomprehension on the part of some of the men who evidently have not been following women's art in the last decade. All the discussions were taped by Lita Barrie, and a fuller account will become available in a publication on the entire F1 experience.
(November 8 to December 2, 1982)

Originally published in Art New Zealand 26 Autumn 1983