LENGTH BREADTH, THICKNESS AND DURATION (WORKING TITLE)

Beth Stuart

The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto 

Fall 2018

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Length, Breadth, Thickness and Duration is an exhibition consisting of an immersive installation in the Power Plant’s upper North Gallery, and a mobile sculpture concurrently installed immediately outside the gallery.

At the core of both interior and exterior works is a critical engagement with the Victorian-era Bathing Machine. The Bathing Machine emerged after European beaches began to gender de-segregate, and sea bathing came into fashion in the 18th century. It was a cumbersome wagon that was driven into the water by horse, human muscle, or winch, carrying a fully clothed person in order to allow them to swim in modest protection.

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At first, sea bathing was not so much recreational as it was a medicinal treatment. Initially the bather would emerge naked from the chamber into the sea and bathe, either alone or with the help of a physically strong, usually working class individual, employed as a professional “Dipper”(female) or “Bather”(male). Later, the user would change inside the carriage into voluminous and cumbersome wool garments and emerge into the water. The Dippers and Bathers vocation persisted, as the risk of drowning by unskilled swimmers in heavy costume was high. The model of Bathing Machine most closely recalled for the exhibition working was designed by a Quaker man named Benjamin Beale. While many Bathing Machines were simple boxes on wheels, Beale’s machines had a voluminous, retractable canopy that dropped its mouth directly into the sea.

Artist's rendering

Artist's rendering

The project combines the Bathing Machine as a sculptural and theoretical frame with research into the garment designs of Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975). She was most famous for promoting the eradication of the corset, and for inventing the bias cut, which allowed freedom of movement and simplified forms. She also provided simple, pragmatic instructions for her patterns that eerily conjure Sol Lewitt’s instructions, or fluxus performance instructions. She designed some of the first transitional beach fashion for women, referred to as pyjamas de plage.

a simple example of a bias cut pattern

a simple example of a bias cut pattern

 

DETAILED PROJECT DESCRIPTION

 

The project consists of five interwoven parts

·      A fully functional version of a Bathing Machine, installed outside

·      An interior sculpture which is a stripped down skeleton mirroring the form of the exterior sculpture

·      A series of mural-scale paintings based loosely on Vionnet’s garment cut patterns that will surround the skeleton sculpture, skinning the walls of the gallery.

·      Bathing Costumes for Dipper, Bather, and 3 Pullers that move between the indoors and outdoors

·      Performative and collaborative programming.

 

Bathing Machine

 

The Bathing Machine is being designed in collaboration with Toronto’s Public Studio. While employing references to Victorian architecture, it will not be a strict historical reproduction.  It will speak simultaneously and critically to the modifications and modernization of Victorian architecture so prevalent in North American cities, and to a retro-futurism that proposes a radical reinterpretation of both.

Materially, it will be quite simple and stripped down. It will reference the typical Toronto Victorian style single-family home in a slightly exaggerated width to height ratio and sharply peaked roof. Colour and reflection will play vital role in the appearance of the machine. The entire exterior cladding and detailing will be black, including the appearance of smoked one-way glass in the windows and entry door, and enamelled black roof tile. The Beale Canopy will be of custom printed black on black Tyvek. The interior will largely employ a combination of taupe tinted mirror and aniline dyed cedar cladding. The goal is that both interior and exterior surfaces will appear as close to purely monochromatic as possible, the exterior giving the wagon the appearance of a void or a hole, and the interior breathing as an organ.

While the Bathing Machine is intended to be able to be brought into the water, and used in the way they had been historically, this literal re-enactment of its’ utility is only one reference point. Its’ manifold implications are as an allegorical vehicle for transformative change, for baptism, for birth, for time travel and reinvention. It considers the inescapable fragility of the human body in the face of our primordial relationship to water. It considers the aesthetics and moral codes of the cities that we live in; notions of privacy and property; the nuclear, single family home; the trappings of European settler colonial histories that permeate every aspect of the spaces we inhabit and the ways in which we occupy them. It forms direct parallels to contemporary societal control over bodies. It is at once a garment and a building; a shelter; a studio; a gallery; a proscenium and a womb. It is also conscious of it’s own absurd failure in fulfilling any of these functions or identities fully, and thus becomes a reflexive, self-critical structure.

 

Interior Sculpture:

 

The interior sculpture will be a fragile, alien reduction of the Bathing Machine to its’ skeletal structure. The surface of each component will be treated individually with either shagreen or with lime/marble plaster. In this way the form, though geometric, will have the surface quality of tooth and bone. The canopy will also be rendered transparent, made using an ancient technique of continuously braided netting called Sprang

The reclamation of the Bathing Machine from its oppressive history proposes it as an allegorical vehicle for birth, transformation, and also as a reflection on the possibility of movement and change within the architecture of contemporary art. The gallery in this instance becomes a secular shrine to European modernism, and the bones of the machine an infertile relic.

 

Paintings:

 

Sprang is an ancient and rudimentary textile technique used initially by the Coptic Christians and the Vikings. It is essentially a braid, which means that unlike a modern woven fabric, which has both horizontal and vertical threads that form a grid, Sprang has only vertical threads, and each thread is twisted against the next to form a net.  The resulting fabric is stretchy and its’ edges are unclear.  It is also a contingent form; if one thread is pulled, the whole structure collapses.

Madeliene Vionnet’s invention shifted European women’s garments from being architectural and geometric to being organic. Suddenly, there was a freedom from fastenings and stays, and the garments facilitated the ability to move freely, to exercise, to labour in ways previously impossible, to play, to dance, to simply be given the ability to breathe , rather than constraining it. Think, for example of the kind of leap, conceptually and technically to move directly from the architechture of Hausmann to that of Frank Geary. This was, in more ways than one, a kind of folding of time, or tesseract; a giant and structural leap forward. 

Parts of the paintings in the exhibition will be constructed from conventional painter’s linen, variously dyed, with sections of the weft, or horizontal threads removed, and the remaining warp re-woven using Sprang. The removed sections will mirror enlargements of Vionnet’s cut patterns. Others will be relief works directly on the wall using traditional venetian plaster techniques, and other parts will recall modernist colourfield painting. These material collages will also link visually and conceptually to the bathers costumes, and the Beale Canopy.

 

Costumes:

 

Hanging in the corridor entering the north gallery will be a winter and summer Dipper costume, suits for the Bather who participates in the use of the Bathing Machine, and suits for the Pullers. Rather than using historical bathing couture as models, these will be decidedly ahistorical, based, rather, on a speculative vision of movement and gender fluidity. While loosely referencing Vionnet’s cut patterns, they will hybridize these with the architecture of the machine itself and the Beale Canopy.  The suits will combine wool silk, rubber and neoprene, playing on contemporary gender fluid drag costume, high-tech athletic gear, the fetishizing of European period costume, and ritual wiccan robes. I also plan on inviting collaborative contributions to these costumes.

 

Performative and Collaborative Programming:

 

The Venerable Priestess of the Bath

Martha Gunn (1726-1815), commonly known as the Brighton Dipper was a working class woman who became famous for as a Dipper, and most specifically as a Dipper to King George III’s children. Her body was very strong, and she made a life of this strength, transgressing class and gender boundaries. I plan on enacting this role myself. I have already begun strength and endurance training. I plan on being capable of pulling, lifting and holding a large man, in water and on land by the time of the exhibition. I am also undergoing a kind of psycho-spiritual training. The suggestion of homo-social bonding in real physical time extends beyond the historical re-enactment of Dipping. I plan on being on site, in and around the machine, for regular working hours over the course of the exhibition. I will make myself available to discuss ideas around spiritual and social change and personal metamorphosis. I plan on supporting visitors in these conversations as they arise, both anecdotally and specifically in reference to current anxieties about the environment, privilege, the city, capital, sexuality, gender, art and the museum. Not as an expert or luminary on any of these subjects, but rather as a plebian labourer at the construction site of these collective troubles. There is a simple question that I will ask, and offer be asked: How can we change?

 

Beach Social:

As a lighthearted and absurdist performance of the original function of the Machine, there will be a day at the Beach, where the Machine is taken from the Gallery to Centre Island, and brought into the water. Dippers, Pullers and volunteer Bathers will Bathe, in full regalia (winter costumes will be heated to accommodate fall weather). The Machine will otherwise be parked in on the beach, woodstove functioning for warming and intimate conversation. Seasonal refreshments will be served.

 

Guest artists and other programming TBC