Body hair and other double standards: the art of Julia Barbour
Artist profile 7
The work of Julia Barbour spans many different mediums; from sculpture, performance and drawing, to embroidery and writing. There is however a continuity within her work. Although the mediums shift and the appearance of her artworks is transitory, there is a commonality within her themes and ideas which run through her work like a central nervous system:
My work is about femininity. What is it to be a woman, and how do you represent a body that has already been so commodified, violated, appropriated? At the moment I am trying to understand how I can represent an identity that is so codified and romanticised by art already, one that is shared by so many but kept so closeted. Events in my past made me feel I’d been robbed of my autonomy, and in many ways my work is an attempt to reclaim that.
— Julia Barbour, 2015
Her work has been referred to as ‘erotic surrealism’, the brush sculpture above being a good example of this. The conception of the idea came from a a slip of the tongue, ‘Brush with tassels’ instead of ‘brush with bristles’.
A Freudian slip?
The accident proved interesting, a scrubbing brush is a tool which is use to clean dirt away by repetitively rubbing it. There is of course the connotation that something is ‘dirty’ which can have a quite different meaning. Whilst tassels are a form of titillation, a decorative elaboration, or an appendage most commonly found attached to a nipple.
The way we think about dirt is symbolic, as Mary Douglas noted, we think of it as ‘matter out of place.’ And as such it is related to the ‘found art object’.
In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying we are not governed by our anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea.
— Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo
There is also a more pressing comment within the work on the double standard with which women are viewed by our current hegemonic discourse; between that of the dutiful woman (who cooks and cleans and serves her husband) and the sexualised woman, the one which is simultaneously dammed for being a slut or chastised for being a prude. Dirtiness exists only through it’s dependence on the existence of ‘purity’.
The objects that Julia uses in these sculptures are symbolic of the domesticated labor which women are (sadly) still socially expected to maintain.
The housewife is an unpaid worker in her husband’s house in return for the security of being a permanent employee.
— Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 1970
This idea collides within her work with another inequality which is inexplicably linked to the other, one which is hinted at from the titles: ‘Oops, I forgot to shave’. Women are made to feel ashamed of body hair, which grows there quite naturally. There is a strange unspoken rule in our westernised societies; that men are allowed to be hairy, and that women are supposed to be smooth, like porcelain object’s (of the type found in display cases).
Women are systematically expected to police their own bodies in a way which men, simply are not. This systemic injustice creates and maintains the illusion of absolute difference. When in actuality we are all a bit like scrubbing brushes, bristly to the touch.
I am inspired by surreal fashion, reliquaries, religious rituals, drag, fetish clothing, taboo practices, costume, wounds, trauma, and the labour of women who sat silently embroidering for centuries.
— Julia Barbour, 2015
As well as her sculptural work Julia also uses embroidery and mark making. Embroidery, as well as being symbolic of ‘women’s work’ is also about repairing, about stitching back together the threads which have become separated. It is intimate, the fabric is sourced from pillows and bed sheets and the statements and symbols themselves are also intimate in a way that brings to mind both the work of Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois.
In her drawings (pictured below), it is only fragments of figures that we are presented with. Eyes, ears, mouthes, hair. According to Jacque Lacan, the French psychoanalyst our conception of our self is partial. We experience ourselves as incomplete, through the narrow geometry of our gaze within a mirror, we know ourselves from only one angle. Our knowledge of ourself is like Julia’s drawings; fragmentary.
Plato, the greek philosopher from 428 BC excluded poetry from his ‘idealised’ world because poetry according to him necessitated a lie, an untruth. Is there a lie that can tell us the truth about ourselves? Our identity is a form of performance, we perform our identities like actors in a play.
There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender… identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.
— Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)
In her most recent work The Bird of Paradise Julia is planning a performance, which takes place virtually, it draws inspiration from a diverse range of historical and contextual sources. The plan is to upload the images of the performance to the online ‘dating’ platform Tindr.
I read that when explorers in papua new guinea first encountered the birds of paradise, it was in trading with locals, who had stripped the birds of their legs and wings, preserving only the colourful plumage. so the legend went that these were birds from heaven, who did not need wings to fly, nor legs to stand on. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with the way modern aggressive lad culture that views women as glittering objects, and how women are supposed to respond in kind by being pretty and pliable.
— Julia Barbour, 2015
This idea offers a way for art to merge further into the realms of human interaction, into places often thought (or presumed) off limits. I’ve never actually used Tindr, so I apologise if it’s your favourite place to swiftly move your finger from left to right or right to left, but if you came across this… what would you think?
Julia’s work incorporates elements of performance as well as art as an unexpected intervention into reality. Her work offers a way for us to reframe our discourse on the body, a way to reclaim the self and our own corporeality simultaneously.
Julia’s work shows an awareness of power, and subverts it beautifully with an absurdity which is both witty and serious.
You can see more of here work here:
All images courtesy of the Artist.
Additional text by Sam Wood.