Object Temporarily Removed
By Abby King
What kind of child were you? At the first sign of freedom, did you run? Or did you hide between your parent’s legs? My brother managed to embody both of these opposing impulses. He was chickenshit yet had the annoying habit of wandering off, just out of reach. Not really making a break for it, per say, but always loitering barely out of sight to make us wait on him. He wasn’t a leash child but at times I wished he would be. We would lose sight of him at Blockbuster and Winn Dixie before they went defunct.
To teach him a lesson once my Mom and I pretended to abandon him. We got in the car and drove to an adjacent parking lot, far enough to hide but close enough to spy on the bugger. Was it sadistic? Yes. We both enjoyed watching him panic a little, a big grin then anger as he finally spotted us. I’ve always thought this memory was hilarious.
While this story is at my brother’s expense, it makes me wonder what sort of pranks my Mom had at mine. I find myself recalling this game - and what it tells me about my mother - while watching Lenka Clayton’s video installation at the Fabric Workshop. Clayton’s exhibition, Object Temporarily Removed, draws attention to the often overlooked movements of motherhood, not just as a job but as artistry.
Perhaps my initial prompt is wrong. I should ask, what kind of mother are/might you be? Maybe it’s gendered. Even those of us with uteruses might opt out of that title role. Clayton is an artist, a mother, a female, a person. None of them are separate categories. She is not a mother who happens to make art. Nor is she an artist who ignored the advice of many male artists and plenty of females who said, “don’t procreate if you want to be successful.”
I visited Clayton’s show on International Women’s day, a coincidence due to scheduling but it worked to assuage my conscience for not wearing red. In the back of the exhibition, there was a video of a field, too picturesque for Philly. Fluffy clouds, large bushes and looming trees. Idyllic. I saw a little boy in the distance. The little lad became a speck and goes off screen. I didn’t know what would follow, there was a missing moment once the boy had faded from view. My question was answered a few beats later when a figure rushed from behind the camera and after him. A total blur.
Over the landscape appeared big white numbers measuring the distance in yards between the camera and where the boy was last seen. This scenario repeated 3 times. The settings changed but the formula remained the same. This is the artist and her son. Places shifted but felt as everyday outings, a trip to the store, a day at the park, walking up a driveway This is their game. She let him wander away from her, the camera (us), until her motherly impulses grew too strong. My favorite iteration takes place in a grocery story. The cluttered grocery store aisles sandwiched the little boy on either end. In this more intimate environment he turned to the camera and smiled over and over. I’m taking one more step. Come and get me. One more step. A Mom and Mouse game. That clip ended with laughter as she darted to him around a corner off screen. She caught him.
Until Clayton runs before the camera, I’m the mother. He looks back at me, giggling at the game we play together. This could be documented in a multitude of mediums but Clayton chose film. Film demonstrates a Mulvey opposition as well as humor. There’s voyeurism, but upon what? Suspense, but to what build? She uses moving images to spur anxiety, danger is in the distance. And although suspense is there, it’s not acted upon. It diffuses.
The artist in her video doesn’t read as the antithesis to helicopter parenting. Yet I could see how one might think that. I don’t judge my Mom for teaching my brother a lesson. Or, as a friend put it, testing herself and her limits of letting go. But I could see the Child Protection Agency taking a double take. For the record my Mom is the best, most fierce, and intelligent woman I know. She’s pursuing a graduate degree in Theology and has led a women’s ministry at her Baptist Church. She had no memory of my little brother abandonment story though she said, “that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
Lenka Clayton’s exhibition at the Fabric Workshop opens herself to potential judgements. There is a social risk in letting your child wander away from you, but that’s how Clayton engages with Motherhood as an influence upon individual identity. Clayton faces the way motherhood can define a person, much like many other domestic, gender, sexuality, or race boxes seen as hindrances to success. Rather than put motherhood away she pushes the impulses forward to find herself within them. She teases out and gauges internal function in literal measurements. As the artist puts it, “despite a legacy of public artist-parents it still seems to be a commonly held belief that being an engaged mother and serious artist are mutually exclusive endeavors. I don’t believe or want to perpetrate this. I like to imagine the two roles not as competing directions but to view them, force them gently if necessary, to inform one another.”
Clayton’s show not only embraces the distance and dangers of parenthood but those of familiarity and household objects. This theme extends to the dangers of intimacy in interpersonal connections. The infallibility of communication with loved ones and the inevitable danger of household objects. She is literally playing with scissors in the piece, All Scissors In the House Made Safer. On one wall are the aforementioned objects carefully wrapped in felt and dangling from nails, like tools in a wood shop. Other works in the same vein are a checkered shirt, a piece I walked right by, until I realized the pattern on the garment was created with a typewriter. There are also a set of delicate drawings made by the ticking of a typewriter, and a boomerang Clayton mailed to Australia and back. She sets up experiments and then plays with their results.
In one project, One Brown Shoe, “100 married couples were invited to respond to a single prompt: to each make a brown shoe from material they found in their homes, creating inadvertent portraits of themselves and their partners.”
How is that inadvertent? I dare you to look to your partner, best friend, parent, and ask them to make a brown shoe using materials you co-own and say it’s not a direct response to how you see one another and yourself. Each of the shoes are paired, a picture of a relationship from two perspectives.
Since I had my Mom on the rope already I asked what her and my Dad’s pair might look like. “Dad’s shoe would be very polished and perfect,” she said with a sharp laugh. Hers would look different but I don’t press.
Clayton’s brown pairs of shoes are often ridiculous contrasts in scale. A giant paper Chuck Taylor sides a shoe made from a wine cork and some string. I wish there was more told about the couples. Maybe, it shows my desire to judge. Or maybe, I’m just curious who interpreted their partner as a metal surong.
There’s one pair that looks almost identical. Both are brown paper weaved together, one looks like a hip summer sandal, the other the male equivalent with laces. The only couple I know who could match as close would be my Mom’s parents. They would be made of leftover quilt pieces, brown flannel, maybe some tanned leather. They spent their whole lives together, cradle to (almost) grave.They worked together. They did everything together. Though, even a couple like my Grandparents can’t read each other’s minds. Clayton’s shoes brings up that inherent impossibility in communication. But we still try.
The conceptual threads of Object Temporarily Removed wrap intimacy and communication. Is Clayton an artist or someone carrying out some serious scientific method? She sets up scenarios and let’s people carry out as ‘x’ factors. She is able to measure what is hard to measure. As the exhibition press release eloquently puts it:
“the implementation of formal frameworks to allow new readings of the commonplace; the relationship between the individual and the collective; and the reframing of limitation to become the material and impetus for artistic practice.”
The second floor of Fabric Workshop houses a new body of work that embodies more of this scientific probing. For the last two years Clayton has been an artist in residence at FW. She didn’t come without a plan, per say, but her practice was quickly inspired by an object in another Institution’s collection: Constantin Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In unpleasant irony, this sculpture is only available for the sighted. It lives behind glass, obstructed for anyone actually blind or visually impaired to come in contact with. In her own witty way, Clayton took the title as a literal instruction in an attempt, “to get the sculpture into the hands of the blind.”
During her opening Clayton said the piece showed “two different logics”, the museum’s interest in keeping something safe and Brancusi’s interest in keeping it in play. To circumvent these opposing paradigms, Clayton did what any sighted member of the public could do. She looked at the sculpture, wrote her observations, and shared them with 17 blind Philadelphia participants. They listened to her instruction and made their own egg.
Her collection of works, Sculpture For The Blind By the Blind, shows those 17 objects and invites viewers to touch them. It reminded me of a game of telephone. Rather than experiencing the blockages of communications, we see an object change form.
While researching this piece in the archives of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Clayton discovered a type written letter. Something very typical to come across in archives. It was a personal letter written by a member of the public, Brian H. Morgan, to the curator at the time, Anne D’Harnoncourt. Morgan explains that he has a marble egg made in 1898 by his Great Grandfather and is identical to Brancusi's pieces. His question is simple, what is it that makes his Great Grandfather's egg a paperweight on a desk while Brancusi's sits aloft in a museum? The letter was never answered and in a scene as anticipatory as a mother watching a child, the letter ends, “I await your reply.”
Clayton has found another space for experimentation, one of an unanswered question. And again, never one to make assumptions nor answer her own question, she sent the letter to 1000 curators, museum directors, and other artists. She asked them to answer his response as if the letter had ended up on their desk. In her words, ‘miraculously’, 179 replied. Across the wall of FW, the responses hang. This piece, like most of Lenka’s work, requires time, to slow down, think about what these pieces are interrogating and absorb their implications.
Considering Clayton's exhibition, her scientific probing, and the identity roles with which she plays, it's not any surprise that she chose to read a particular letter during her opening remarks at Fabric Workshop.
"While I can't give you a definitive answer today, I can offer an update. The question of what makes a work of art suitable for a museum certainly remains relevant. However, today we find ourselves consumed by a very different though related question, namely, what makes a museum suitable for art? The answer to that has proven equally elusive."
A nice question to ponder while we see Clayton pulling her everyday onto the museum floor.