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

The Weeping Dress (video excerpt)

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 my investigations into how Victorian women gave presence to absence through domestic handcrafts and the ritual of wearing black mourning costume.  The fugitive dyes used in mourning dresses ran color and stained women's bodies, literally transferring the symbol of the absent loved one--the color black--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.  As my tears accumulated in the same spot on the bodice, they wore away the ink of the paper, leaving a scar on the garment's surface and a stain on my neck.  I enacted this performance gesture for photos staged like 19th-century mourning portraits.

Death Be Kind is an artist-run gallery located in three bedrooms of a Victorian-era house.  The gallery conjured ideas of my home on the other side of the world as well as 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 on a kitchen table in the middle of the room, 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.  Each of the installation elements sought to give presence to absence and my longing for home.

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)

Thank you to Project Coordinator Cheryl Adam, Knitting Assistant Jessica Price, Hannah Neeson (who knit the skirt fabric on a knitting machine) and over a dozen volunteers for their invaluable knitting contributions to this project.


A larger version can be viewed at
Camera and editing by Anne Scott Wilson.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Womenfolk: Songs from the Valley Below

Out of Bounds: Art, Faith & Religiosity conference
Monash University, Faculty of Art & Design
Melbourne, Australia
August 22, 2008

a collaborative performance with Australian performance artist Catherine Bell

Womenfolk used folk songs passed down from Medieval times, the visual spectacle of Christian martyrdom and penance, and the sensory experience of church rituals to explore ways that contemporary utopian religious sects isolate themselves in self-sustaining communities, or "inner sanctums," in order to transcend the drudgery of daily life and secure a place in heaven.

The performance took place in a stairwell on campus, with the audience viewing the action from above, looking over the railing or through the slats of the stairs.

Photos: Andrew McLeod

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Artist talk at MICA

On November 9, 2007, I gave an artist talk to Fiber students at Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, MD. I showed performance videos and discussed my process for making costumes and how I use costumes to transmit stories and ideas in performance. Concurrent with the talk, ten years worth of my costumes were exhibited in the costume gallery. The two aqua costumes on the far left and the baroque undergarments on far right front were made by costume designer Gregory Nelson.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Dress Me Slow, I'm in a Hurry

Evergreen Museum and Library
Baltimore, MD
October 25-27, 2007

Project Coordinator, Kelly Cobb
featuring Micheal Simmons on flamenco and classical guitars and mandolin

As the 2007 artist-in-residence at Evergreen Museum and Library, I was invited to make a site-specific work inspired by the house museum, its collection and history. I was fascinated by Evergreen's idiosyncratic patroness Alice Garrett, who, in addition to being an esteemed art patron and high profile wife of a diplomat, sang, danced and staged lavish productions she called Songs in Costume during the 1920s in an in-home theater designed by Ballets Russes set and costume designer Leon Bakst.

As I researched Alice's archives, I discovered that while she was a consummate entertainer, Alice was not a very good singer or dancer and was deeply conflicted about her artistic aspirations. As an artist who has developed a performance form based on my passion for the music, obsession with costumes and an untrained stage persona (rather than undisputed vocal talent and acting skills), I felt a powerful affinity with Alice and developed the piece around our similarities and differences. Dress Me Slow was my own version of Songs in Costume. I sang songs drawn from Alice's repertoire of Irish and Spanish folk songs; wore costumes I designed and handmade inspired by the intensely colored costumes Bakst created for Alice; and shared monologues exploring Alice's conflicted artistic aspirations and my own ambivalence as a artist.

Throughout the piece, I was in a constant state of changing from one costume to another to suggest the multiple identities Alice navigated in her life—ambassadress, socialite, social reformer, art patron and performer.

The Irish costume was inspired by the Irish selkie, or mermaid. The belt suggests the ubiquitous Irish seaweed, with the brown i-cords on the belt, around my neck and in my hair referencing the ropey kind of seaweed. The "gloves" riff off cable-knit Irish fishermen sweaters.


The Spanish costume is a traditional flamenco dress rendered in a confection of red, purple and hot pink. It was inspired by a painting in the house by Miguel Covarrubias depicting Alice dancing the flamenco and a photo of Baltimore opera singer Rosa Ponsel as Carmen.  The ruffles were hand died prior to construction and the bodice was hand painted.

I embroidered the lyrics of one of the Spanish folk songs I sang on the ruffles.


The Exotic costume was inspired by Leon Bakst’s boldly colored, wildly patterned designs for the Ballets Russes.

Under the guidance of Kelly Cobb, a Fiber Instructor at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), I designed the fabric from drawings I made of plants and birds on the grounds of Evergreen. Kelly taught me how to hand paint the designs onto silk for the harem pants and Turkish vest in the style of Leon Bakst. MICA Fiber student Hanna Brancato screen printed the sheer scarf as well as a theatrical backdrop in the design. All scarves were hand dyed.

(Photos: Aaron Igler)

Gradation dyeing the Spanish costume at MICA

Silk painting fabric for Exotic costume

(photos: Kelly Cobb)

Dress Me Slow, I'm in a Hurry (video excerpt)