Sunday, November 20, 2016

Songs of Memory and Forgetting

RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency)
Philadelphia, PA
June 25, 2016

Music in collaboration with Billy Dufala

Songs of Memory and Forgetting was a site-specific performance at Revolution Recovery, a construction-waste recycling facility in Northeast Philadelphia. As artist in residence, I spent six months sifting through the mountains of rubble to collect personal items that arrived from house clean outs, often after an elderly person died or moved into a care home. The performance took audiences on an intimate song tour of the site, navigating the sorting piles to explore the fragile nature of memory. I collaborated with RAIR co-founder Billy Dufala on the music, which we performed on instruments found in the dump. Inspired by the collecting and sorting done on a massive scale by excavators and front-end loaders, I activated objects made from thousands of photos and garments rescued from the dump.

The project was supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Photos by Ryan Collerd
Video by Greenhouse Media

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