Brooke Zeligman is a visual artist, cook and academic, living in Canberra. She works predominantly with glass, wood and metal and has exhibited extensively throughout Australia. After completing her PhD, she continues to cook, both in the studio and in the kitchen.
Volume 32, May 2015
I am a visual artist. I am obsessed with glass as a material and all of the possibilities that lie beneath its skin. My PhD, called Material Murmurings, used a practice-led research methodology to explore the materiality of glass and its resonance for women’s bodily experience. I understand materiality as the insistence of meaning that a material contributes to a work of art: the qualities, history and function of the material, beyond the decorative or aesthetic value of the work.
My research was led by my art practice and was accompanied by a written exegesis. Throughout the course of my PhD I held four exhibitions of my work: Rootprints (Hyaline Studio, Mt Lawley, 2007), feast (The Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery, Fremantle, 2009); The M Words (Elements Gallery, Dalkeith, 2012); and Material Murmurings (Spectrum Art Gallery, ECU Mt Lawley Campus, 2013). The first three exhibitions (Rootprints, feast, and The M Words) presented work that explored different dimensions of glass as a material, and amplified different questions relevant to feminist body scholarship. The fourth exhibition, Material Murmurings, brought work from all previous exhibitions into the one space, so emphasizing the interrelatedness of the work, materially and thematically. In this paper I discuss the method embedded in my praxis, specifically through the making (and breaking) of work for feast.
feast was exhibited at the Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery in 2009. It is a delicate and dangerous tableau made entirely from pâte de verre, glittering golden crushed glass (Figures 1 & 2). It is a table setting where a feast is imminent. The table appears set for many and yet there is only one chair: the diner will be alone, alienated from the familial setting.
feast is about exile. Within that exile there is fragmentation, isolation, and dysfunction. feast is about loss: of family, of tradition, of self. It is both joyous and horrific, containing jouissance and abjection.
I found the beginnings of feast in a box in a cupboard. In the box was my Grandmother’s lace, made over a lifetime that I thought was cold, quiet, and aloof. My grandmother’s lace exposed a woman that I never knew: creative and contemplative, conversational and confessional.
feast is a deeply personal work that operates across multiple themes simultaneously. This is made possible by the polyphonic, multi-valence of the materiality of glass.
For each layer of the setting there is a layer of grief.
There is one for my grandmother, cold and unyielding. Her hands were gifted, but never nurturing.
There is a layer for my mother, whose soft, perfumed hands promised safety but only for herself, cooking, forever cooking.
There is one for my father, whose hands were huge and cruel, who ended his life and left me with little but why?
And there is one for me. My hands, I am told, are just like my father’s.
This work, this écriture feminine in glass, allows “the tenderness necessary to let the other live” (Pollock, 1999, p. 74). The familial exile is allowed home, but never completely.
feast is an orally sadistic work that plays on desire: the desire to belong; the desire for lost tradition; the desire for that which never was; and finally, the desire for the absent matriarch, the warm protective womb. There is also desire for the beautiful and the desire implicit in obsession. The decorative aesthetic is subverted by the sadistic oral. The possibility for harm plays on primeval terrors, evokes the power of horror.
Begun in 2006 and exhibited in 2009, feast is a work that evades completion, a work I must force myself to stop, a work that will remain forever in my mind as incomplete. Like cooking the perfect dish, the end to feast is always just out of reach, it goes on and on. Boxes fill with pieces. As I write this I have stopped making, but I could so easily start again. It is obsessive, neurotic. The story I am trying to tell is too much. The stories it holds are too many. It is my story and it is the story of family and fragmentation, war and exile.
Whether it is the meandering line of a pen, a drip of oil paint, a deeply etched mark, or a performative, bodily gesture, the creative process is often communicated through the materials with which an artwork is made [and] the way in which process and materials can be central to the purpose and meaning of a work of art. (Hammond, 2007, para 1)
The process of making is a ritual. I make a conscious choice to perform this ritual and it brings comfort. Like many artists, I see my method of working as a type of meditation and confession (Huangfu, 2007). Within the action, the repetition, the performativity of process and narrative, continual writing and rewriting of the myth, of the self, is a confession - it is all those things that I am too fearful of saying. This is softened and diffused through the process of making and I am safe. Just don’t ask me to tell you what it’s about, because then you are stealing the whispered confession and forcing me to scream what I never wanted to say in the first place.
For years I worked as a cook, before I went to art school. I cook with the heart, measure with eye and taste bud. Instinctual and passionate, if I’m unhappy it shows in the finished product. I still see myself as a cook, rather than an artist. My pans and utensils are now moulds and ladles, my oven the kiln, my soup pot the glass crucible, my ingredients have become plaster silica grog glass.
Glass making/cooking processes are central to my practice, from the scooping and ladling of the molten glass (Figure 3), the mixing of mould materials, the baking of glass in kiln, to the slow hand-crafting of wood and steel as accompaniments to complete the meal.
My entire body is immersed in the making. I injure my back, I spill my blood, hair gets tangled up and sets into the materials. I drip sweat, swear, talk lovingly, coax. I make work about lived experience and as I make I live, I experience, I am deeply engaged. Once made I don’t detach, that’s my DNA in that work, I must continue to touch. “It’s from inside the body that the drawing-of-the-poet rises to the light of day” (Cixous, 1998, p. 17).
I must make my work. My work changes meaning if made by others. I could not present an object as my own if I had not had a hands-on approach to its making.
My studio is chaotic. I rush in full of excitement, eager. I forget vital steps. Simple little elements that would save hours of frustration if only I had taken my time, measured and weighed correctly, stopped, breathed, thought about each step.
I never learn. I do it again and again. Rush. Forget. Regret. Rush. Forget. Regret.
And I suffer the loss. This is embedded in the work. Material, emotion, time. I retreat to the kitchen when the studio is in mourning. I rolled a car once when working as a cook on a mine site. ‘Lucky to walk away’ they said. The miners came back to tables laden with food: pies, cakes, biscuits, quiches. The patience required for baking had calmed me.
Glass has a memory. Its skin carries scars, “metaphor is made flesh” (Cixous, 1998, p. 12). The processes I engage are physical, messy, and the works hold within them the lived experience of the making. These processes allow time for meanings to rise. The flavours seep into the work where they develop, ripen and rot. The seductive molten state heightens my desire to touch and taste its toffee-like perfection. In my mind a scene plays out: I reach to touch and flesh melts as it connects with the toffee, the 1200 degree Celsius molten glass.
Abjection lives in the dark heart and I experience my repulsion/desire: a bodily experience of the visceral and domestic, this link to food, to body. I cannot escape, not only in process, but within the works themselves. These links to abjection, to food, body, and history are relevant to all three bodies of work exhibited in Feast, Rootprints and The M Words.
feast is an incredibly fragile work. feast uses the qualities inherent within glass - the contradiction between strength and fragility, the rapture and rupture, the decorative, the domestic, the jouissance and abject, and the sensuous visual - to operate as metaphor for aspects of lived body/experience/imaginary. It is a multivalent work that explores ideas of family, the feminine, tradition and the handmade, memory, desire, exile, (m)othering, consumption and loss.
During the making process the fragility of glass has been drawn out, pushing the boundaries of what the material is capable of. The extreme fragility is created by controlling the thickness of the glass as it is packed into the moulds, carefully layering and packing the crushed glass until a thin and even coat exists. Many of the pieces began their life as doilies that had been made by my grandmother. The doilies have been draped over bowls, moulds taken, and the resulting lace impressions then packed with powdered glass or frit, and fired. The results are incredibly delicate glass lace bowls, plates and serving dishes.
In the installation, lace bowls sit on lace plates which rest on doilies or lacy place mats, creating layers alluding to an impossible construction of feminine identity within the family that travels through generations. It attempts to shake off layers of constraint and restriction, of domesticity and expected motherhood, and yet it never does, and all the while it mourns for the loss of tradition. “As women, we have […] been enclosed in an order of forms inappropriate to us. In order to exist, we must break out of these forms” (Irigaray, 1993, p. 102). Pâté de verre is often talked about in terms of laciness because of the way the glass is handled during the packing of the mould. A loosely packed mould will result in holes, formed as the glass melts and the particles adhere to each other in their molten state. Loose packing means there is not enough material to form a solid layer and so will result in holes as the glass particles pull and adhere, searching out their final form. The technique seems well suited to referencing feminine construction: the translation of the old, traditional forms of doilies, through material, form, technique and process, into something new yet incredibly fragile becomes symbolic of a breaking loose, a denial of femininity.
As both maker and viewer I respond to the contradictions within the material, to the binaries defied – I am drawn to the lusciousness and the beauty of the material, yet held at a distance, afraid of its fragility and brittleness, the possibility for ruination and harm. I explore this contradiction by pushing the boundaries of what the material is capable of, taking it to its structural limits, to the point of possible collapse in order to draw out these seemingly opposite elements of jouissance and abjection. Thrice cooked and fallen (Figure 4) is an example of this, having been cooked three times. The glass was allowed to fold in on itself and to devitrify - to crystallise like overcooked toffee - making it sugary sweet and exceptionally brittle.
The fragile aesthetic and beauty is used to bring out the jouissance of the material, acting as a “lubricant to evoke metaphors of vulnerability, connectivity and interdependence, bearing witness to the transience of life” (sic) (Osborne, 2008, p.25). Grandmother’s bowl, (Figure 5) another favourite because it comes from the first doily that was lifted from the box, connects me to Betty, the woman. In its fragile beauty I find pleasure, an irrepressible joy, an experience fleeting, furtive and beyond words. It is a response to the delicate aesthetic, and the time spent in the making - ultimately futile due to the fragility that lends the work an almost ephemeral quality, and counters my pleasure with a sense of loss.
Much of feast no longer exists, destroyed in transit before it was even exhibited. What I have are the crumbled remains.
It may be that in destroying already coded forms, women rediscover their nature, their identity, and are able to find their forms, to blossom out in accordance with what they are. Furthermore, these female forms are always incomplete, in perpetual growth, because a woman grows, blossoms, and fertilizes (herself) with her own body. (Irigaray, 1993, p. 103)
The women in my family travelled from Adelaide, Dampier and Cairns to meet in Perth for feast. An exhibition of glass pieces that form a tableau, a table setting, each piece incredibly fragile, pushed to the structural limitations of the pâte de verre technique. It’s a work made in response to us: to the stories of the women who came before us, to their skills and traditions that have since been lost, to our passion for cooking, to recipes that have been handed down and shared, to the things that are never said, and to those that are said too often.
The works, which have been freighted from Cairns, are late, days late.
The freight company has no idea where they are. I switch between panic ... fury ... sickness.
The work arrives. We gather. I lift the lid on the first crate. There is sound where there should be none - small things grinding, crunching. The brief flicker of relief burns out; sickness returns. Nestled in a bed of foam bubble and beads is no longer a fragile confection of pâte de verre that defies reason with its delicacy. Instead, in its place, are the crumbled remains.
Wide eyes stare at me. Platitudes - it’s only one box.
And the next... and the next... and the next...
I ask everyone to leave just as the blood from my body has already gone. I can’t continue this with an audience. Not even one that loves.
With less than two days to install I have lost over half of the work. Years destroyed by careless handling. Exquisite pieces of glass lace that defied logic with their fragility.
I am left with the crumbs, the bones, the scraps of what was once a feast.
Thrice cooked and fallen (Figure 5), one of my most treasured pieces, was destroyed during the transit of the work from Cairns to Perth.
I keep reminding myself that this is the nature of the work. I did this. It was deliberate. It was I who had pushed the glass to the edge of fragility, to its structural boundaries. It was I who revelled in the work being almost ephemeral. For Kristeva, modern literature … is haunted by the threat of the extinction or collapse of meaning and is therefore characterised by its constant and horrified evocation of the abject (Macey, 2000, p. 1) This work had embraced notions of the abject, the rejection of the maternal. I sit amongst the crumbled remains and wonder if this is the extinction, the collapse of meaning?
The moment I came into life […] I trembled: from the fear of separation, the dread of death. I saw death at work […] I watched it wound, disfigure, paralyse, and massacre from the moment my eyes opened to seeing. I discovered that the face was mortal, and that I would have to snatch it back at every moment from Nothingness […] Because of my fear I reinforced love, I alerted all the forces of life, I armed love, with soul and words, to keep death from winning. Loving: keeping alive: naming. (Cixous, 1991, p. 2)
feast is a work of excess. The title, the table setting, the pieces of glass doilies laid out in plates and serving dishes all connote a meal, not just a meal, but a banquet for one, with only one single complete table setting, suggesting extreme consumption and bodily excess. Rosemary Betterton argues: “The tension between repression and release is inscribed … [upon] the bodies of women through eating. Femininity and the consumption of food are intimately connected” and excessive consumption indicates woman out of control and “the failure of feminine identity” (1996, p. 131).
The theme of excess pervades the work, from the excess that exists within the obsession with the material, through the excess that lies within the processes required to work the material, to the excess of the consumption of energy that is necessary to engage in those processes. These excesses connect to the excess of personal consumption, the excess of the collector of the finished objects, the excess in the repetition of form and the excess that lies within the personal, conjuring disorder, doubt and dysfunction.
Within excess there is jouissance. In feast I experience jouissance through the beauty and aesthetic of the patterns and rhythms and fragility of the work, and through the material. Glass, with its luscious glow and glittering radiance, fascinates and captivates the imagination with its refractory capacity. It is seductive and sensual, the stuff of obsession.
Jouissance is indefinable. We can describe it as bliss or enjoyment, but it is more than this. It is an excess that cannot be contained within language and goes beyond pleasure (Grosz, 1989, p. xix). Jouissance exceeds “socially tolerable boundaries” and is problematic to the construction of identity (Grosz, 1989, p. 56) with its too too muchness. When handling Grandmother’s bowl I hold my breath, as if not breathing would stem the thrill that I get from touching something so fragile: a thrill that threatens to overflow, causing me to squeeze just a little too hard and shatter the bowl.
Abjection also exists within excess. As contradictions collide, it is here that meaning collapses and lingers at the edge of reason. Abjection and jouissance, different yet the same, are like magnets of opposite poles. Their too too muchness must be controlled lest they overwhelm the body.
Rosemary Betterton draws on Kristeva’s three main categories of the abject – food, corporeal alteration and death, and the female body - to suggest that this typology corresponds to the preoccupations of contemporary women artists who ‘explore an aesthetic of bodily transgression, often symbolically acted on the female body’ (Betterton, 1996, p. 135). feast contains formal signifiers of abjection which act as multiple layers of meaning, signalling internalised codes and allowing access to what lies beneath the aesthetic. The decorative, domestic nature of the lacy fragile table setting points not only to the construction of femininity, but also to the female body and to food.
A threat lies behind the glittering golden façade of feast. Orally sadistic, it is the fear of being eaten by the unknown, the fine hair rising on the back of the neck, the pimpled goose flesh on arms; a primal unease. Kristeva writes of abjection: “It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced” (1982, p.1). When I look at feast I see consumption. I hear the crunch. I taste the blood in my mouth and feel the splinters slide down my throat. There is brutality here, hidden beneath the delicate exterior, that worries and fascinates.
In the not-liquid/not-solid nature of glass I see the abject made manifest: its ooze and flow when molten, the ubiquitous domestic applications, the association with decoration and craft all allow it to operate as metaphor for the female live body/experience/imaginary. Glass is connected to the storage, cooking, presentation, service and consumption of food, and I have an urge to bite and lick it in its various states, from molten toffee to sugary sweet crystals. Glass, with its potential to shatter, to pierce the skin, to draw blood, forever threatens carefully constructed borders, serving as a reminder of mortality. The female body, food and death – the three layers of abjection – create identification, not just as feminine and female but also and always as monstrous.
The women in my family are cooks. On the phone we speak of recipes and flavours. Gourmet triumphs and shameful failures keep us connected.
Many viewers of feast have shared their stories in response to seeing the work. Tales of family celebrations, of doilies decorating tables, of how they wish they had learnt how to cook, to crochet, or of how they wish they had not thrown out their Aunt’s doilies, of Grandmother’s dishes and forgotten recipes. Some have shared their stories of bulimia, of shame, of guilt and loss.
feast contains the myths and stories of the women of my family; stories told with pride but never shared. Here sits my twice great-Grandmother Coombs (Figure 6), who never wanted children. When pregnant, she would hitch horse to cart to careen across rough hill paths to shake the leaching life free from her. She did this 14 times. She had only 9 children.
What began as a tribute to my Grandmother’s making has become the story of reluctant matriarchs. Five generations of women coexist in feast, present in the layers of doilies, placemats, cutlery and serving dishes. It is a complex emotive appeal that creates connection to family and to history, evoked through the layers, textures, patterns, tones and rhythms of the work. The delicate patterns allude to the cultural construction of femininity and motherhood. However, hidden in these layers are razor sharp spikes and peaks. Created during the making process, they leave tiny glass splinters in fingertips.
But there is more here at the table than matriarchal lineage. There are other women present, women who never had a voice. Memory is a fragile thing and these silent women have left no memories.
As my mother ages I listen to her claim provenance to stories I have told her. Stories of my father’s family of which she knew nothing. He was a closed and secretive man and I have only gained access to these stories through the search for family that was denied me, from family who were also denied, who found a fading trail and followed it to me.
As I have told my mother these stories they have become hers. Passed on, she says, from a secretive man who shared nothing. She’s not lying. She is reconstructing.
My father who had cruel hands suffered at hands that were cruel. His father, like mine, like him, never shared, only hurt.
My father’s mother died young, after losing her second child, a girl, Hannah. My grandmother, who I never knew, was hit by a Melbourne tram in 1956. Miriam. They were poor. Had fled Europe as Nazi Germany rose and spread its toxic shadow. Perhaps my father had never mentioned Hannah because mourning a young child was a luxury they were not allowed. I wonder how often Miriam thought of her in her grey world of patched and boiled clothes, wrung out to dry.
Through strangers who have sought out family, I have learnt the history of a grand family. These are what they cling to. Zionist heroes. Architects of a new Tel Aviv. Builders of armies. I know why my mother claims history. It shines, romantic and grand, when the truth is, for us, it is tainted and rotten.
I claim the forgotten. The unspoken. The tragic Miriam and the little Hannah who have no one to remember them. Miriam exists in the gesture of a milk jug (Figure 7), Hannah in the tiny and delicate sugar spoons (Figure 2). Sit here, beside me, whisper your stories, I will remember you.
“To find a voice. What does it mean? What does it mean when a woman finds her voice? And when she finds it, what then? (Modjeska, 1990, p. 132). With Lekkie Hopkins I understand that voice comes from the interstices of knowledge and experience (Hopkins 2009). feast gives a voice to me and to all the women in my family. It contains all the stories that are spoken, and those that cannot, must not, be spoken. It unabashedly drips with sentimentality. It is full of yearning for what was - what is lost - what I never had and will never have.
“The hours and hours of work involved are ultimately futile” (Angeloro, 2007, p. 21); the fragile, almost ephemeral state of the glass is symbolic “of man’s hubris” (Angeloro, 2007, p. 21); and ultimately the countless hours it has taken to make feast are just as futile. I cannot recreate what has been lost; and anyway, the work is too fragile to survive, even if, like my Grandmother’s lace that inspired it, it is boxed away, safe and sound. It will eventually get destroyed like the traditions of lace-making that have been lost, like the stories of the women that disappear over time, like the woman my grandmother was, who I never knew. “As women, we have […] been enclosed in an order of forms inappropriate to us. In order to exist, we must break out of these forms” (Irigaray, 1993, p. 102). Glass, with its decorative history, has been tied to the female form, as I too have been. Rapturous, decorative, delicious, drawn, stretched and fragile beyond belief, it carries the possibility of rupture, threatening to break out of that form at any given moment.
“The portrayal of suffering is […] for women an act of truthfulness. It’s also akin to an individual and collective catharsis. As women they’ve been obliged to keep quiet about what they go through” (Irigaray, 1993, p. 101). The confession in feast contains ‘potentially explosive excesses’ that must never be uttered. Here lie secrets, strategically contained, preserved, captured, fragile, and ready for polite society. Noelle McAfee cites Julia Kristeva (1984, p. 16) when she explains: “Our everyday uses of language in social settings generally operate by trying to contain the “excesses” of language, that is, the potentially explosive ways in which signifying practices exceed the subject and … her communicative structures” (McAfee, 2004, p. 13). Excesses, whispered confessions; the unspeakable is allowed at this table.
In feast we find the voice of visuacy, carried through object, form, narrative, presentation and materiality: the insistence of meaning in material. It’s a voice of love, labour, strength, and fragility. A voice of fear, loss and yearning. A voice filled with inaudible excesses. It is my voice.
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