Friday, January 8, 2016

Hospital Hymn: Elegy for Lost Soldiers

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Washington, DC
October 17, 2015  

with Craig Woodward on fiddle and concertina
Hospital Hymn
was a site-specific installation and performance that conjured the National Portrait Gallery’s history as a temporary hospital for soldiers during the American Civil War, where Walt Whitman worked as a nurse. Inspired by Whitman’s notebooks from the period, the piece memorialized the war’s quarter million unknown dead. Whitman suggests that their bodies became the compost of the nation—their spirits imbued in every stalk of wheat, blade of grass and flower that sprung from the dark fields of battle. I enacted a ritual releasing thousands of handmade felt flowers, referencing Whitman's compost imagery and drawing on the language of Victorian mourning handcrafts to suggest the enormity of loss. Accompanied by Craig Woodward on fiddle and concertina, I sang 19th-century hymns that Whitman recalled hearing nurses sing to dying soldiers.  

Hospital Hymn: Elegy for Lost Soldiers was a companion piece to the exhibition Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872. It was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of its Identify: Performance Art as Portraiture series.

Thank you to Byer of Maine for in-kind support.

The names I embroidered on the sheets were taken from Whitman's notebooks. Most of these soldiers died in his care.  

Photos by Ryan Collerd 
Video by Greenhouse Media 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Martha McDonald featured on WHYY-TV's Friday Arts program

Martha and the Lost

The Lost Garden

The Woodlands
Philadelphia, PA
September 26 - October 18, 2014

The Lost Garden was a site-specific installation and performance exploring impermanence and the fragile nature of memory.  In the 18th century, The Woodlands was William Hamilton's spectacular botanic garden and greenhouse but it nearly disappeared in the rapid urbanization of the early 19th century. The garden was saved from extinction by transforming it into a Victorian cemetery, or "memory garden."  Drawing on the language of Victorian handcrafts like wax flowers under domes and jewelry made from human hair, my installation of knitted flowers memorialized the lost plants from Hamilton's garden. The performance took audiences on an intimate song tour of the cemetery and into my installation in Hamilton's 18th-century mansion to conjure the dream of the lost garden.

The knitted specimens are based on plants Hamilton collected and wrote about in letters and journals.  I researched patterns for botanically-accurate knitted flowers in Victorian ladies magazines and taught myself to make them. Then I developed my own.

Hamilton's greenhouse was larger than his mansion and held thousands of exotic plants, like this Banksia from Botany Bay.


Performance photos by Ryan Collerd
Installation photos by Joseph Hu

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Weeping Dress

Craft Victoria
Melbourne, Australia
March 10 - April 21, 2011

Featuring Craig Woodward on fiddle

The Weeping Dress was a performance and installation arising from research of Victorian mourning rituals.  During a woman's first year of mourning, nothing she wore could reflect the light.  That meant wearing wool bombazine or crepe, which didn't hold the plant-based dyes so color ran from the fabric in the rain and heat, staining her body.  I am fascinated by how this public performance of grief was experienced in such a private and corporeal way.  I constructed a period mourning dress out of black crepe paper that I activated in performance to release the fugitive dye and leave a stain, or trace behind.

The transformation of the dress and the stain it leaves behind suggests presence, absence and our own impermanence. 

 Photos by Christian Capurro

Martha McDonald interview about The Weeping Dress on SYN FM

Art Monthly feature on The Weeping Dress

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

crying portraits

Death Be Kind
Melbourne, Australia
September 4-26, 2010

This installation grew out of investigations into how Victorian women gave presence to absence through domestic handcrafts and the ritual of wearing black.  The fugitive dyes used in mourning dresses ran color and often stained women's bodies, transferring the symbol of the absent loved one from the dress to the body.  I made a Victorian mourning dress out of crepe paper and cried on it to release its ink and explore how the dress marks the body and the body marks the dress. 

Death Be Kind gallery is located in the bedrooms of a Victorian-era house.  It reminded me of homes where Victorian women would have endured years of lonely mourning.  In response to this sense of domestic isolation, I embroidered in white floss on black crepe paper several verses of an American folk song about a woman who, having been abandoned by her lover, vows to "eat nothing but green willow" and "drink nothing but my tears."  I dripped saline solution on the embroideries to mimic my tears, causing the black ink of the paper to "erase" the white floss. 

I recorded my voice humming the embroidered folk song and hid the recording inside an empty wood box which the viewer had to open up to hear.  Placing their hands on the box, they could feel the vibration of my voice resonating in the box, giving presence to absence.

Photos by Matthew Stanton

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Further the Distance, the Tighter the Knot

Linden Centre for Contemporary Art
Melbourne, Australia
October 31 - November 8, 2009

Featuring Craig Woodward on fiddle, banjo and mandolin
Project Coordinator Cheryl Adam

The Further the Distance, the Tighter the Knot was a performance installation that used Victorian mourning rituals, Old Time American folk songs and knitting to explore my longing for home as a recent transplant to Australia.

Linden is a repurposed Victorian mansion, built in the 1870s as a family home. The piece drew on Linden’s history and architecture to reflect on ideas of home, migration and memory.

I filled the exhibition spaces with hand-knit memento mori, riffing off the domestic crafts Victorian women made to memorialize loved ones (such as jewelry made from human hair) while they were sequestered in their homes during long periods of mourning.

Dressed in a Victorian-inspired costume that I designed and hand knit, I led the audience on a "tour" of my installation. Playing with the convention of the didactic tour guide you might encounter at a house museum, I slipped back and forth between historic narrative on 19th-century mourning rituals and personal confessionals about my yearning for the home and garden I left behind in America and how my memories of that home were being clouded by nostalgia. Singing folk laments about lost loves and longing for home, I knit and unraveled love tokens for the audience as polite Victorian mourning customs gave way to more cathartic expressions of loss.

I was interested in how labor-intensive hair work and embroidery helped 19th-century women cope with loss and survive their forced isolation but also in how the obsessive nature of these craft projects must have driven them a bit crazy. I spent 8 months in my studio hand knitting the costume and the objects, including a 35-foot banister cozy, and found the work at turns deeply comforting and totally maddening.

During the performance, I was in a constant state of knitting and unraveling to express this contradiction.

I was also interested in how these painstaking crafts forced me to slow down and reflect on the passing of time. I wanted to audience to experience that so at one point in the piece, I spent nearly 10-minutes unraveling a 12-foot-long knitted panel to the accompaniment of a solo fiddle.

My knitted interventions in the gallery ranged from simple representational objects referencing 19th century embroidered samplers and hair work like this vintage jewelry set...

...and this period hair wreath and bouquet...

…to more psychological environments where I performed a series of gestures in real time to reflect the isolation women endured during mourning and to meditate on the passage of time and the unstable nature of memory.

The piece began with me on the balcony and the audience on the front lawn. At the end of the performance, I led them out onto the balcony.

Then, like a bad tour guide, I snuck down the fire escape and out onto the lawn, abandoning the audience on the balcony. With our positions were switched, they were trapped in the house and I was free to leave. I removed my “widow’s weeds” and exited the property singing, my mourning complete.

Performance and installation photos: Christian Capurro

Camera and editing by Anne Scott Wilson.