Don't wash your dirty laundry in public

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Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public Lou Baker made during Bodies: a group residency by Synecdoche at The Unit, Bristol September 1st - 30th 2016

Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public is a record of the work I have done at Bodies: a group residency by Synecdoche. What happens when 12 artists take over an empty shop in a busy shopping area in the centre of Bristol for a month? And what if it’s open to the public for 4 days a week? The Unit is a temporary art space in the historical St James’ Arcade in Broadmead, Bristol, which provides exhibition, event and test space for artist-led projects. Bodies took place from 1st – 30th September 2016.

What have I been doing?

I decided to use the time and space at The Unit to try out different installations with used clothing. The clothes belong to my family. I’ve been giving them away. I also wrote down some of the comments and conversations that I’ve had with the public and took lots of photos.

Why hanging out washing? • • • • • • • • • •

domestic repetitive mundane gendered private functional work meditative pleasurable about care

‘Coat hangers in a box, they fight. They drive me mad!’

‘When you put something domestic into an art setting people see it differently.’

How many times have I hung out these clothes?

‘Free clothes? Amazing!’

Clothing is often thought of as a second skin; it makes us think of bodies. It’s quite unusual to use it in art. It’s soft and impermanent and can remind us of our mortality. It also somehow mixes up the senses of touch and sight. There are strong links with memory too. Clothes, when worn, take on the shape of the wearer and become sculptural. When they are empty, they can suggest absence. Hanging them increases this sense of loss. When the clothing is second hand, other elements come into play, including abjection and contamination anxiety.

‘I bought some hairy shoes.’

‘Being ill, my body changes, my mind doesn’t.’

Hanging something suggests vulnerability and fragility.

Art is therapy.

‘Yuk! I’ve just found a tissue in the pocket of this coat.’

‘Dementia is like an onion, peeling away layers to the inner person.’

Other artists who use clothing: Christian Boltanski

‘(U)sed clothes are like a body….(It’s) kind of an object which represents that the subject is’s going to show absence….’ ‘(A)ll these clothes … (They) are dead clothes. (They) are bodies…but in the mountain (of clothes), there’s no more identity because you can’t see if it’s a jacket or coat - everything is mixed together…everybody is so fragile...’ Rosenbaum-Kranson, Sarah, 2010, Christian Boltanski, Available from: [Accessed 18 April 2012]

Christian Boltanski, No Man’s Land, 2010 Installed at Park Avenue Armory, New York Used clothing, lighting, claw

‘Each item of clothing has a memory attached to it.’

Why free clothes? I like the idea of giving gifts and that part of the work I have done here will continue elsewhere as a kind of ‘physical memory’. That the clothing has significance for me has made it quite a poignant process.

‘The clothes are all mixed up, like tangled bodies.’

‘I always want to touch. I want to straighten the hangers up.’

Giving them away is much harder than I thought it would be. As people rummage through them I find myself remembering something about each piece of clothing. It feels as if I’m giving away my memories with the clothes.

‘It reminds me of hanging out clothes in Columbia when I was young. They would dry!’

‘Have you invited the homeless in? I’m going to tell all my friends.’

‘Investing time in something impersonal makes a personal bond.’

‘Each piece of clothing has a history.’

How important is it that the clothes belong to my family? How would anyone else know? Would it feel different to me if I’d got them from somewhere else?

‘I recognise loneliness in other people.’

‘My body’s going south and I’m following it.’

Buying pegs in Wilko:

‘Doing lots of washing then? Plastic pegs are better.’

‘It’s like a pile of remembrance.’

‘I try to do something for someone else every day.’

Giving my family’s clothes away makes me feel very vulnerable.

‘Oooh. Thank you! I’m kitted out for the winter now.’

‘Moving house was the way I dealt with my children leaving home. I couldn’t stand the two empty bedrooms.’

‘When I was younger I was a goth. I recently bought two pairs of ridiculously expensive goth shoes which I’ve framed in coffin-like boxes.’

Does it matter if no one else sees my temporary installations or my performances?

It feels like a ‘letting go’. It’s harder than taking them to the charity shop.

‘I’ll take these back to the squat and then I’ll be back for more.’

‘Clothing is like shed skin as you pass through life. As you grow up and change you shed identities.’

I don’t want to bring my own clothes in. It’s too intimate somehow.

Other artists who use clothing: Louise Bourgeois ‘A garment is… an exercise in memory. It makes me explore the past.’ ‘Clothes are the body’s second skin; they cling not only to its shape but also to its spirit, enclosing the fragrance of a specific period in their folds.’

‘A garment is …like a stuffed animal, it is a transitional object that represents a person, suggests a mood or evokes an emotional experience’.

Bernadac, Marie-Laure, 2004, Louise Bourgeois. Paris, Musée D’art contemporain de Bordeaux Bernadac, Marie-Laure, 2006, Louise Bourgeois. Paris, Flammarion Herkenhoff, Paulo, 1997, Louise Bourgeois: Blue days and Pink Days, exhibition catalogue. Milan, Fondazione Prada

Louise Bourgeois, Pink Days and Blue Days, 1997 Steel, fabric, bone, wood, glass, rubber and mixed media

‘I’m saving my two boys’ clothes. Maybe I’ll make a collage one day.’

‘I’d like to take a shirt as a memory of this experience please. I normally wear my ex’s old shirt as a night shirt but I’d prefer to wear this one.’

‘The story of my life in clothes: a spectrum. The evolution of you.’

‘ I made a den. It looked rough from the outside but I dressed the inside with things from my bedroom and sprayed my mum’s perfume in it. It was comforting.’

‘The body bags, they make me feel funny.’ (Touches tummy)

Loneliness. People want to talk.

‘What happens to the recycled clothes that no one wants?’

‘Everyone has their own style of being.’

‘Clothes are what’s left behind. It makes me think of earthquakes and refugees.’

‘It’s whacky! But I could say it’s a load of shit. It’s off the wall. Is it art? Art is Turner, Constable, Rodin etc.’

‘Openings. Wounds. Vaginas?’

‘Ghosts, a metaphor for social invisibility and marginality.’

‘Dead bodies?’

‘Really powerful. I’d like to see it splattered with blood. It’s like Syria.’ Syrian refugee

I feel uncomfortable at times using body bags. I don’t want anyone to think I’m being disrespectful of the dead.

‘I didn’t think they were really free. I thought it was part of the art.’

‘For years I would just look in the windows of art galleries. I wasn’t sure what I was talking about and I couldn’t afford to buy anything. Now I feel more comfortable talking about art.’

‘The invisibility of illness leads to the isolation.’

Is this performance art?

‘Mmmmm. These clothes smell so lovely. What washing powder do you use?’

Art is cheaper than therapy.

‘Hate crushes beauty.’

‘Giving away clothes in body bags makes me think of new beginnings. The openings mean the clothes will have a new life.’ Iraqi refugee

‘I have an alter ego who’s a tarot reader and she would love this. She’s called Gemmalina.’

‘Oooh. My son would really like this. And this. And my daughter would probably like this. I wonder if it will fit her? Do you have any carrier bags?’

‘Are they clean?’

‘Do you have any men’s pants? I like wearing men’s pants because they’re more comfortable.’ Older woman

‘We are but leaky bags of fluid.’

‘I don’t do other people’s shoes.’

Why body bags? I saw a very compelling image of an Amnesty International protest on Brighton beach a few years ago. Volunteers got inside body bags to highlight the refugee crisis. Body bags obviously have associations with death. I also now use them to store my soft sculptures!

I want my work to provoke a range of conflicting responses - attraction, repulsion, horror, hilarity, grief, comfort, understanding, incomprehension amongst others.

‘Can I come back tomorrow for some more?’

I normally work alone so its been intriguing working in a space that’s open to the public and finding out what people think of my work. It feels like a great privilege. It’s been brilliant but also quite hard at times. It’s definitely been exhausting.

‘Are you sure I can’t pay for them? I feel as if I should give some money to charity or something.’

How would I describe what I’ve been doing? It’s a series of temporary installations but it took on a life of its own and became part social engagement, part performance but it was also participatory, confessional, interactive, and highly conceptual.

‘They have a very distinctive smell. I’m not sure I like it!’

‘Whose hair is in your plughole?’

‘Don’t be trapped by your final work.’

I have been making public things that are normally private.

‘Shoes contain most of a person, the weight, the trace. They take on a bodily resonance.’

I love seeing the different responses when people see that the clothes are free. Some are absolutely delighted and begin to rummage through them with enthusiasm; others look disgusted, some look very suspicious and some, confused.

Asking for permission to write down people’s comments gives them confidence to say more because what they’re saying has been given value. It changes the balance of power.

‘The body bags are like death. Giving away clothes is like parting with someone, like bereavement, loss, grief.’

‘The smell of clothes can make you think of particular people or times.’

‘It’s like a fashion show.’

I have spent a whole month hanging out the same clothes again and again in different ways in an empty shop, arranging them in body bags, talking to people, writing down their comments and taking photos. What’s the point? • It’s research • I have had lots of feedback about my work • I’ve had many really great conversations about life, the universe and everything • It has also been very therapeutic • It’s been fun and funny! • #whatdoartistsdoallday • #everydayisdifferent)

What next? Bodies 2?

Is it art?