October 12th - November 24th 2018
A piece of clothing has an interesting relationship to ‘nothing’ - its form delimiting an emptiness only potentially filled by the body of its wearer. Along the line of fabric that articulates these continuous, contrasting spaces, alternately full and empty, two kinds of figuration become possible. On the one hand a figure imaginatively projected into the empty place delineated by a garment's form, on the other, a figure embodied in the plenitude of the clothing itself, as if woven into its material texture. Through this ambiguous feature of clothing's formal structure, Empire Waist provokes questions about the status of the female figures presented therein.
In this show, Teghan Burt exhibits thirteen ready-to-wear high-street dresses, each broadly distinguished by style, brand, price and provenance, with a corresponding set of identical baby-clothes stitched over their waistlines. Each of these altered dresses is hung from a clothes hanger on the walls of the gallery space, recalling the display practices of a clothing store. As an ensemble they draw significance both from their prosaic functionality as store-bought commodities, and from their intrinsic formal capacity to conjure a figural image of feminine subjectivity, simply through their placement and pictorial consideration.
With the baby-clothes stitched over each dress however, a specifically maternal figure is produced; an image of femininity materially fashioned through the artist's methodological conjunction of 'conceptualist’ shopping and manual, ‘artisanal’, stitching. The cumulative result is an ensemble of mass-produced 'Women' of varying social-status and type, all become 'Mothers’ through the touch of handicraft with which each ‘infant’ is assigned its place, and where in a formal analogy to the role of the maternal body, the surface of each dress is converted into a material support.
When comprehended through their real determinations as functional objects - both individually and in their differential relations with one another - each of these figures are revealed to be formed by the inequalities of a market society. As intimated by their individual titles, the actual relations of production which preside over their industrial manufacture are cyphered in their commodified form. The commonplace injustices of alienation through factory standardisation, gendered hyper-exploitation, and a racialised, neo-colonial division of labour are typically disavowed at the point of consumption, where what counts are the garment's price, appearance, and the social import of its brand name. Nevertheless, these unsavoury realities are present and inform the sense of each. At the same time, and in contrast to these individual determinations, each figure is equivalently made to assume an identical maternity. In this way the terms of an image are fixed both in the texture of the clothes themselves and through the artist’s material intervention. We come to perceive these images of motherhood as positively defined by the qualities legible in their materiality, in which social distinction is translated into a commodified appearance, inscribed with the petty miseries of class stratification, and bound to the imperatives of a biologically determined reproductive function.
Are these images of subjection to socially constructed norms of gendered personhood? Do they affirm a biological determinism that undergirds the libidinal economy of consumerist individuation? Are they dark, anti-humanist criticisms of vapid identity formation? What complicates these readings is the negative dimension circumscribed by each dresses form, the empty reverse of its positive figuration: the absent figure. The uncanny, empty anonymity of the void described by each outfit can easily function as a screen for both liberating fantasy projections or melancholy interpretations. Is this a black hole into which the cultural appurtenances of the self's consistency dissolves? Is it the nothingness of an unqualified and abstract freedom, impersonal like money, boredom or death? What can we make of this blankness without destroying its neutrality? Circumscribing an essential indeterminacy, each dress is a place in which the bodies that could come to fill them have not yet arrived. The intriguing complexity of Empire Waist is that in it we are shown an image of the female subject that disappears as soon as it is revealed.
- Shiraz Sadikeen