For many contemporary artists, the body itself is a medium which can be used to create artworks, rendering the two intrinsically linked. Hair, nail clippings, skin and even blood have been utilised as materials for artistic expression. For example, the conceptual artist Adrian Piper’s work What Will Become of Me?, is an ongoing piece started in 1985 where her hair cuttings and nail clippings are collected in jars, and poignantly, the piece will only be complete once her cremated ashes have been added to the mix – the ultimate residual trace of a body’s life cycle; in Donald Rodney’s In the House of My Father, the artist delicately constructed a tiny, fragile house using samples of his own skin removed during treatment for sickle cell anaemia.
Alice Anderson’s work continues this corporeal trend, as the French-Algerian artist utilises swathes of thick red hair in her installation works. We’re not just talking a few measly wisps, but instead, enough tangled hair to encompass an architectural façade, or indeed, fill the void of a building’s interior. With commissions in both London and Paris, Anderson is an artist in demand, and has recently produced site-specific installations for the Royal Opera House (Mother’s Web, 2010) and Frank Gehry’s Cinémathèque Française (Isolated Child, 2010). An enchanting fairytale aspect pervades these sculptures as the hair is in-fact tangled webs of doll’s hair that perfectly mirrors Anderson’s own fiery-red locks. For the artist, ‘working with hair is quite unusual and … disturbing.’ It represents an element of personal intimacy that she is interested in projecting and ‘placing on a larger scale.’ Within the context of Anderson’s work, hair could be seen as a metaphor for both intimacy and connectivity; we groom and maintain our own hair, but also that of our loved ones – imagine little girls in the playground plaiting each others locks, or a mother brushing her child’s hair before bedtime. Furthermore, the concept of time as a working material is bound into the shapes formed by the doll’s hair, hanging in the air; its infinite layers become a visual metaphor for the passage of time.
The Cinémathèque Française sculpture seems to allude to the story of Rapunzel, and accordingly hair also becomes the stuff of isolation and loneliness. The artist represents herself in the form of the doll as she lets down her hair which cascades in ribbon-like waves over the building’s exterior. Anderson describes the doll as ‘one of my personages … I am reinventing my childhood [by] re-imagining my own memories.’ Biographical elements permeate her sculptures, as Kafkaesque notions of the double or doppelgänger become repeated motifs. As part of James Putnam’s current exhibition ‘Identity Theft’ at Mimmo Scognamiglio Arte Contemporanea, Milan (15 Dec 2010 – 28 Feb 2011), Anderson’s work Dolls Mask No.5 is being exhibited. This work almost functions as a sculptural photograph of the artist; a perfect frozen moment in the form of a silicon mask of Anderson’s face, preserved beneath a bell jar. Questions arise for the viewer about the truthfulness of the artworks themselves; we consider the extent to which what we are seeing might actually be real, or rather, a fictitious construct invented by Anderson, her persona becoming an imagined fairytale in its own right.
Mother’s Web at The Royal Opera House is particularly significant for the artist as she describes how ‘I became really inspired because my mother was a ballet dancer in Algeria.’ Matrix-like webs weave and consume the building’s interior operating ‘like a seductive trap, protective and welcoming, but also threatening and oppressive, closing in like a spider’s web’. Conceptually, the strands of hair become threads that connect the self to others, the artist to her audience, or indeed mother to child, and ultimately, these works offer both notions of protection but also danger and entrapment.
The artist is clear in articulating the influence that her own life and childhood has had upon the development of her artistic practice, but to what extent should we rely upon the voice of the artist and biography as tools to deconstruct works of art? It is perhaps more interesting to hypothesise about how long the thread between fiction and reality really is for Alice Anderson, and consider the extent to which an artist might become caught in a fictional web of their own making.
Alice Anderson’s installation Mother’s Web is on at the Royal Opera House, London until September 2011.
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