The Child as Parent to the Art by Tom Jennings
[MAKE: The Magazine of Women’s Art, April 1997 (unpublished)]
‘Transitional Goods’, by Sally Madge, in Shop (group show), Blue Cowboys, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996.
“What might be searched for is a patchwork which combines the specifics of time, place, event, gender, race, class, age and sexual orientation across comparative instances of complex social identity” (Caryn Faure Walker ).
“Her work weaves an elaborate web of personal, historical references, and in the same way that her own possessions become symbolic archetypes, her presence is simultaneously concealed and revealed” (Louisa Buck, on Rose Garrard ).
Such adventurous strategies and processes are increasingly adopted by contemporary British women artists, especially in installation, performance and multi-media. In her installations, for example, Sally Madge is developing a distinctive visual language – a cognitive and emotional projection of experience into embodied sites and spaces.
Installations are metaphorical bodies, at the intersection of the social construction of identity within biography, culture and politics. The complex ambivalences of life are rendered in three dimensions surrounding the viewer, whose emotional and aesthetic responses can resonate withm and/or oppose, those of the artist.
“What interests the artist is to animate the whole building. She wants to make tangible the parallel between the structural and physical body” (Penelope Curtis, on Hermione Wiltshire ).
“… to use objects which have their own story and sense of history … dislodged in time and place … now associated with the artist’s and viewer’s unconscious longings” (Tessa Jackson, on Dorothy Cross ).
From early work in sculpture, painting and ceramics, the problematic of containment – physical and psychological – was always central to Sally Madge’s art. The leap to installation then exploded tendencies towards interior reflection on universal experience and excavating unconscious conflict; so that the containment of form and content in traditional Fine Art becomes the historical specificity of the site.
Now, traces of personal experiences are intuitively blended with its institutional disciplining, etched into and contained by the fabric of buildings. Highly personal and idiosyncratic references, found objects, materials and media catalyse the concoction of so many different levels of connotation – surely unstable; but also satisfying, achieving a precarious balance of resonances in the viewer .
“We aim to ask serious questions abou shopping” (Blue Cowboys ).
“… [treating] the aesthetically despised categories and pleasures of popular culture … as things that are first nature and commonplace and mutually defining of subjectivity” (John Roberts ).
In ‘Transitional Goods’, the artist inflects the parent-child theme – through a typically lateral manouevre – emphasising the child within the adult, taken for granted as a central element of artistic expression, and of identity. An analogy is offered between the strange fascination exercised by consumer durables, often far exceeding any utilitarian or intrinsic worth, and the magical qualities children impute to their special toys. This is compared to adults collecting toys (or art), and to fetishism, nostalgia and kitsch.
By gathering hundreds of soft toys from car boot sales, charity shops and jumble sales, the economic relations of mass-produced commodities are questioned using alternative and undervalued forms of exchange (echoing their sweatshop production). The site-specificity of all these complications arises from filling an ex-Oxfam shop with an artist-curated group show about shopping, in a city centre whose image and planning is obsessed with consumerism.
This ironic over-determination is compounded by the value of the toys to their owners. Bought as gifts, passed on second- and third-hand, a considerable weight of emotional meaning accrues just as their monetary value plummets. Young children feel very close to these transitional objects, playing with fantasies of love, nurturance, security, control, punishment and cruelty.
“In playing the child externalises and works out the differing trends of her internal, psychic life … Children gather objects from the world and use these in their fantasies, playing out fragmented experiences which … come under their control … A child can resolve the conflicts of powerlessness within the family, and learn how to become a social being” (Jo Spence & Rosy Martin ).
“[This is] why … new experiences are painful. There is no trace without resistance, and there is no etching on a surface without pain” (Marike Finlay ).
Transitional objects oscillate between being felt as independent, external beings, or split-off parts of the self imagined into them via introjection and the fantasy role-playing of parents’ and siblings’ behaviour. The installation explicitly links these receptacles for controlled projection with adult play and creativity – a photograph has the mature artist, dressed in a childlike pink rabbit suit, in bed with her toys.
The richness of associations they evoke contrasts with the power of consumer objects, where an instant gratification of buying  supplants the difficult intimacy of social relations. After all, if anyone damaged these ‘transitional goods’, the artist wasn’t responsible. Whereas actual toys people keep as souvenirs from their own childhoods are often incredibly poignant – worn out, bald, battered, ripped apart – externalised scars of forgotten passion and ambivalence.
“[The] enactment of the maternal role locates desire in the mother, a multiple desire (for protection, security, mastery among others) satisfied not simply by the production of an object, like a baby, but by the possibility of holding and controlling the object” (Mignon Nixon, on Lousie Bourgeois ).
“… [the idea of] the failure in development ever to transcend primitive assimilative, ruminative and projective mechanisms” (Robert M. Young ).
The toys resonate with childish longings for satisfaction and security, simultaneously recalling the infantile terror and anger at the failure of the environment and its carers. To collect them might also render such conflicts safe, tamed by the energy of obsession and selectivity – as with the biographical falsifications of family photo albums .
However, the installation’s framing and juxtaposition complicate the pleasures of contemplation with more sorrowful, painful, abject and grotesque overtones. Apart from simple sentimental reactions, some viewers felt an urge to blend into the mass of toys (some children acted on this!); others also reported disquiet, repulsion or disgust.
“Loss is a function of fantasied destructive actions performed by the subject … capable, in fantasy, of repairing its damaged objects” (Mignon Nixon ).
“Space occupied and then vacated by the body also manifests the collapse through which object and desire, like self and other, are enfolded by infantile fantasy. The distinctions of inside and outside or bodyy and environment that are foundational for the gendered body are not observed” (Mignon Nixon, on Rachel Whiteread .
Scrambled together rather than packaged and classified, these soft toys look out balefully, accusingly. From the self-portrait, the artist watches them spill forth, draining the husk of an adult pink rabbit projected into the installation’s womb. They squeeze under a bare brick archway in the basement, leading to associations with the charnel house, mausoleum, death and horror. This structure implicates deeper layers of infantile fantasies; the terror of dissolution, anger and envy of the mother’s imagined powers of nourishment and withholding, love and hate.
Such fantasies mingle later with the pleasure and pain of sex, parenthood, children’s independence, ageing and death. In ‘Transitional Goods’ the intensity of a child’s pain and yearning live on in a middle-aged mother whose children have grown up and left home – expressed in the distance between the untidy mob of toys and the formally-staged, neatly mounted image of the artist. With hands folded over her abdomen, she reclines serenely among her babies/transitional objects/art medium .
“Various ‘gazes’ … help to control, objectify, define and mirror identities to us. Sometimes these gazes are loving or benevolent, often they are more intrusive … But of the myriad fragments mirrored to us, first unconsciously as babies, then as we are growing into language and culture, aspects of our identities are constructed … We learn the complexities of the shifting hierarchies within which we are positioned” (Jo Spence & Rosy Martin ).
“In domestic spaces … Bourgeois materialised the Kleinian notion of position as ‘a place in which one is sometimes lodged’. With great insistence on the concreteness of the objects, the corporeality of the viewer and the … space, she deployed objects … in the construction of memory itself as a ‘perpetual present’” (Mignon Nixon ).
Most interestingly, the viewer is stranded in this gap. One side of the installation is always out of sight, while the artist and the toys gaze in unison at the viewer. So if mothers, and artists, sometimes have manic fantasies of omnipotence; this too echoes the planning, manipulation and surveillance of contemporary urban space – especially in shopping centres, where viewers/consumers are caught in the gap between false promises of fulfilment and their own partly infantile needs and fantasies.
But in the installation, viewers can vary perspective, sensing the tensions in the spectacle. Displaying the vulnerability of the child-within, constructing her artwork from ‘serious play’, Sally Madge offers pathways through the paradoxes.
“The most fateful paradox is … posed by our simultaneous need for recognition and independence … that the other subject is outside our control and yet we need him [/her]. To embrace this paradox is the first step towards unravelling the bonds of love … not to undo our ties to others but rather to disentangle them, to make of them not shackles but circuits of recognition” (Jessica Benjamin ).
“… a bricolage in which fragments of high and popular art and naturalism are seen to flow from event to eventuality … [using] the spectator’s experience of fullness” (Caryn Faure Walker ).
1. Caryn Faure Walker, Ecstasy, Ecstasy, Ecstasy, She Said: Women’s Art in Britain, a Partial View, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 1994, p.29.
2. Louisa Buck, ‘Mapping the Marks’, in: Rose Garrard, Archiving My Own History, Cornerhouse, Manchester / South London Gallery, 1994, p.9.
3. Penelope Curtis, ‘Hermione Wiltshire: A Pressing Engagement’, in: The British Council Window Gallery, Prague. Selected Exhibitions, 1993-1996, p.16.
4. Tessa Jackson, ‘Earlier Work’, in: Dorothy Cross, Even (catalogue), Arnolfini, Bristol, 1996, p.6.
5. Sally Madge’s site-specific installations include: Listen With Mother, Newcastle, 1992 (the educative policing of parenting and creativity); The Thin Red Line, 1992 (clinical discourses of healthy bodies and minds); Hot House Cold Storage, Melmerby, Cumbria, 1994 (the taming of nature by farming, museums and heritage; see also Tom Jennings, ‘Nature Read in Truth and Straw’, Versus, No. 4, 1995, pp.60-62); Heart of the City, Newcastle, 1995; and Slippery Blisses, Waygood Gallery, Newcastle, 1996 (the cultural and economic relations of urban space). [She returned to the theme of childhood in 1999 with the installation Replay at the Childhood Memories Toy Museum, Tynemouth.]
6. Shop (programme), Blue Cowboys group show, Newcastle, 1996.
7. John Roberts, ‘Mad For It: Philistinism, the Everyday and the New British Art’, Third Text, 35, 1996, p.30.
8. Jo Spence & Rosy Martin, ‘Phototherapy’, in: Jo Spence, Cultural Sniping: the Art of Transgression, Routledge, 1995, p.166.
9. Marike Finlay, ‘Post-modernising Psychoanalysis / Psychoanalysing Post-modernity’, Free Associations, 16, 1989, p.76.
10. For discussions of object-relations psychoanalysis and consumerism, see: Barry Richards, ‘Schizoid States and the Market’, in: Capitalism and Infancy, Free Associations Books, 1984, pp.122-166; and Robert M. Young, ‘Transitional Phenomena’, in: Barry Richards (Ed.), Crises of the Self, Free Associations Books, 1989, pp.67-74.
11. Mignon Nixon, ‘Pretty as a Picture: Lousie Bourgeois’ Fillette’, Parkett, 27, 1991, p.61.
12. Robert M. Young, op cit. p.62.
13. see: Jo Spence, Cultural Sniping, op cit; Valerie Walkerdine, Schoolgirl Fictions, Verso, 1990.
14. Mignon Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother, October, 71, 1995, p.87.
15. ibid, p.89.
16. For discussions of the use of Klein and Winnicott’s psychoanalysis in art theory, philosophy, criticism and feminism, see: Elizabeth Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Methuen, 1984; Marike Finlay, op cit; ‘Positioning Klein’, Women: A Cultural Review, 2, Summer 1990 Special Issue; and Mignon Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother’, op cit.
17. Jo Spence & Rosy Martin, op cit.
18. Mignon Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother’, op cit.
19. Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination, Virago, 1990, p.221.
20. Caryn Faure Walker, op cit, p.31.