The Bishop Stares
Geraint Evans 2018
THE HEAD OF FRANCIS ATTERBURY, Bishop of Rochester (1713-23) is turned towards us. His impressive wig is typical of the time and brings to mind William Hogarth’s fine engraving, ‘Five Orders of Periwigs’ (1761) which both satirised the fashion for such outlandish attire and critiqued prevailing notions of classical beauty. The bishop stares, or at least he appears to, but his face is obscured by a knot of hair, as though the wig has grown to absurd and disturbing proportions.
This unsettling representation is part of a series or collection in which the etched portraits of members of the privileged class have been hidden and effectively erased by modest and yet troubling acts of iconoclasm. A braid of hair links the face of the Lady Dover to that of her son, the Honourable Henry Agar Ellis resembling an elegant and perverse umbilical cord. Elsewhere, a shock of red, curling locks appears where the face of George Villiers 2nd Duke of Buckingham should be. Sasha Bowles often applies real hair within her ‘Hairy Interventions’ and it is this which gives these reworked images their particular charge.
In 1984, the writer David King came across Aleksandr Rodchenko’s personal copy of ‘10 Years of Uzbekistan’, a book about Uzbek Communism that the Russian Constructivist artist had designed in 1934. Rodchenko, it seemed had defaced this copy just 3 years after its publication obliterating the faces of the party officials who had been recently purged by Stalin.
This form of ghoulish censorship was not uncommon at the height of the Stalinist purges and King’s book ‘The Commissar Vanishes’ documents the very many doctored or defaced Soviet-era photographs. As Brian Dillon suggests in ‘the Revelation of Erasure’ in Tate etc. issue 8 (2006) it is the photographs in which the subject has been literally rubbed, blotted or cut out by the individual in private, that are the most powerful, the most effecting images of this type.
Dillon writes that “More than any other image, an erased human face remains horribly eloquent. In fact, a face cannot be made to vanish completely: it stays sufficiently human to horrify by its exact lack of humanity” (Dillon 2006)
Sasha’s ‘Hairy Interventions’ oscillate between a number of positions: visions of unspeakable strangeness, grotesque assemblages, humorous and absurd appendages that echo surrealist objects. More broadly, they also remind us of the complex social and cultural associations of hair in terms of identity, beauty, convention, gender and religion. Hair elicits a range of responses from desire to disgust and historically, locks of hair were offered as tokens of love, kept as mementos of the deceased or enshrined as saintly relics. Hair occupies a unique position within our own bodies – both familiar and other. Heather Hana suggests that “just as the materiality of death may induce sensations of abjection, so too might hair as a liminal material between the inner and outer body” (Hana 2015 p111).
In another series of work, hand fashioned white clay objects are riven through with braids and strands of hair. They carry the physical impressions of their making but also resemble fragments of bone. On closer inspection, we begin to pick out parts of the human body from these modest biomorphic forms: buttocks, limbs and arching backbones. The holes through which the hair is threaded then begin to suggest human orifices: mouths and anuses. These rudimentary clay figures bring to mind the Jewish story of the Golem, an automaton created from clay or mud, its name derived from a Hebrew word meaning unformed or incomplete.
As with ‘Hairy Interventions’ there is a sense of craft and careful intention within these objects. The hair does not sprout in an unkempt fashion, it is carefully braded and looped, more suggestive of relics or curious museum artefacts than imagined animated beings. Sasha underlines this point by presenting these objects within the museum vitrine, suggesting a sort of collection that is designed to provoke curiosity and wonder through display. The mode of presentation is crucial here, as Susan Stewart writes: “The collection relies upon the box, the cabinet, the cupboard, the seriality of shelves. It is determined by these boundaries…” (Stewart 1992 p157).
In the catalogue essay for the ‘Greenhouse Effect’, Serpentine Gallery 2000, Lisa Corrin explores the ways in which display evokes wonderment in the artefacts of the museum with reference, for example, to the surprising and delightful juxtapositions of the Wunderkammer in which “visitors were encouraged to touch an array of objects, to delight sensually and intellectually in their infinite variety and to create associations that were often poetic, metaphysical and even theological.” But in relation to the modern museum, she suggests that “the language of the museum has become such an intrinsic part of our unconscious experience that we take mediation for granted. Wonderment, thus engineered, is a most calculated sentiment and system…” (Currin 2000 p44).
The museum, the collection, display and the art historical artefact are recurrent themes in Sasha’s work, exemplified by her wonderfully odd painterly embellishments on reproductions of 17th century portraits from the Spanish Court. The sitters’ heads are replaced by coloured balls, garlands of flowers, fur or arrangements of hair that emanate from dark and terrifying voids. These paintings are rendered in such a skilful fashion that they seduce the viewer, demanding that we take a closer look. Sasha works with oil paint into found prints, book illustrations and postcards in ‘collaboration’ with the works’ original and unwitting authors.
At Nottingham Castle Museum in 2017, Sasha displayed reworked representations of paintings from the museum’s collection. They were placed in a discreet space of their own contained within the interior of a large packing case, which was placed at the centre of one of the Castle’s galleries - a museum within a museum, a collection of the imagination and a portable one at that. Susan Stewart’s comment that “the collection is a form of art as play, a form involving the reframing of objects within a world of attention and manipulation of context’ (Stewart 1992 p151) seems pertinent here. And the idea of the imaginary museum continues to find form in the large black and white montages that Sasha deploys as backdrops for her paintings and sculptural objects. These backdrops are complex amalgamations, traces and palimpsests of the interiors of existing museums and stately homes. The range of architectural tropes - Doric columns, grand hallways, decorative ceiling domes and purposefully placed classical sculptures and chandeliers – signify the wealth and power that is so often associated with the accumulation of great collections.
A more modest domestic interior forms the backdrop for the video ‘Obsession’ (2017). We stare uncomfortably at the back of a lone female figure who repeatedly pulls a strand of her hair through red, leather-clad fingers. At first, we think she might be grooming or is, perhaps, absentmindedly lost in a sort of reverie. But her behaviour feels too determined, her attire too dressy to be of the everyday (indeed, the sashes around her waist echo those of the privileged sitters in Sasha’s embellished found portraits). The red leather gloves recall Valentine Hugo’s relief ‘Object’ (1931), which was exhibited at the Surrealist Exhibition at Pierre Colle Gallery, Paris, 1933 and, according to Valerie J Fletcher was described by a critic at the time as “achieving something more subtle and sensuous than the usual Surrealist predilection for psychological and sexual provocations” (Fletcher 2015 p97). But here the viewer is placed in the troubling position of a voyeur witnessing an obsessive, fetishistic and disconcerting performance.
And all the while the head of Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester continues to stare blankly, exuding a sense of quiet strangeness that defines much of Sasha’s work. As Brian Dillon might put it, his disquieting appearance creates an “uncanny oscillation between human and inhuman” (Dillon 2006).