Sunday, April 1, 2012

Being Human Being

The following text is extracted from my 2005 Honours paper, Acts of Intimacy. I have recently revisited this paper looking to draw links with my current work with identity (see this post).

Part Three - Being Human Being

Art serves to establish community. It links us with others, and with the things around us, in a shared vision and effort. 
Gerhard Richter [48]

My art making has always been an attempt at intimacy, to communicate an experience of being this woman, at this moment, in this place, with this history and trying to connect my existence with that of others around me. The art I produce is inextricable from my experience and I am suspicious when artists’ claim their work is not concerned with themselves, as whatever subjects and ideas we may pursue first must pass through the self to become art. Albert Camus wrote, “That the idea of an art detached from its creator is not only outmoded, it is false.” [49]  This is not to suggest my particular experience is remarkable in anyway or to advocate a self-centered existence. In fact, it is more an effort to look at the interconnected commonalities of human experience, our needs, desires, fears and pains.  

Stitching is an important component of my work, thread and cord are representative of many things relating to the body; veins, tendons, the lymphatic system in fact the body is made up of thousands of cord like structures. There is a strong symbolic relationship between thread and life, when we are born the umbilical cord is cut to separate our body from our mother’s and of those who claim to have had out of body experiences many report an elastic-like silver cord joining them to their physical body. Thread also symbolises narrative and there are many phrases such as ‘to follow the thread’ of a conversation which incorporate this imagery. In Greek and Roman mythology the goddesses Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, also known as the three Fates controlled human destiny by spinning thread, each person acting as a spindle.

Stitching is also both a symbol of time and its physical evidence; with each stitch a second has passed, leaving a mark upon the cloth. When my grandmother started cancer treatment I was in the third year of my Bachelor of Arts degree. Nan, mum and me would spend long periods of time waiting in waiting rooms with other cancer patients and their carers, moving into the treatment room where nurses bustled about putting in and taking out needles – where again we all sat looking at each other, the carers with their healthy bodies and the patients – all just waiting. Occasionally we would try to make light conversation; many jokes were made about pincushions. I found it hard to come away from that space and sit in a studio to make art; it was difficult to think about art theories as many seemed absurd in the presence of life slipping out from real people who were suffering both physically and emotionally. In the final semester I wondered how I could continue, I decided I would take a piece of cloth that could be carried with me and just stitch with no forms in mind, just lines of hand stitching, being in the moment of the stitch.

Image11a. Claire Bushby, Time (or Mr Red), 2003.
Satin, cotton, steel and sand.

This resulted in a piece of satin approximately one metre square covered in stitches. When complete it was attached to a frame which held it in a cone-like shape (echoing the time cone diagrams in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time) with white sand spilling from the bottom. (see images 11 a - b) This work was first exhibited in the School of Contemporary Arts 2003 Graduate Exhibition, then exhibited at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in Hatched 04, titled Time (or Mr. Red), with a piece of text which is an absurd dialogue between artist, process and material. (see appendix 2) I mention Mr. Red here because it seems to be a turning point in my working method. Hand stitching is a meditative process; sometimes it is a refuge, a place to feel empty of thought but also like meditation stitching can sometimes be a challenge to stay with and requires discipline.

Image 11b. Claire Bushby, Time (or Mr Red) [detail], 2003.

For my Honours project I began making plaster body casts and making latex ‘skins’ from them. Each skin has lines of hand-stitching in red cotton. The first series were a pair of feet in six pieces (see image 12) – I had recently read the story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet in her tears and wipes them with her hair, the mixture of devotion and self-reproachfulness in this account seems to speak about the nature of caring for another’s body.[50]   Feet are also often a part of the body which must be cared for when someone is too ill or immobile to reach them. In the second series I cast parts of myself where cancer had visibly affected my grandmother’s body, my left breast, my left hand, my left underarm(see images 13).This was a cathartic action, a visceral extraction.

Image 12. Claire Bushby, Acts of Intimacy (skins) right foot,
2005. Latex and cotton.

Also produced is a series of photographs; close-up images of my grandmother’s tea-sets in my kitchen, combined with intimate images of my skin (see images 14 A short poem also accompanies this work [see appendix 3]). I inherited a large box full of Nan’s collection of tea-sets along with many of her other belongings such as clothes, letters, books and assorted memorabilia. It all sat on my kitchen floor and throughout my hallway for about for three months. Every now and then I would walk in to the kitchen stare at the box and build the courage to pull out a tea-cup or saucer, unwrap it and place it in amongst my own collection. Each of these objects stood as a raw reminder of the absence of their owner. You can’t help wondering of the importance of certain objects, asking was this one significant? Did this one have meaning, or was it just collecting dust? Each object a material fragment of the history of a life.

Acts of Intimacy (Skins) breast & armpit
Image 13. Claire Bushby, Acts of Intimacy (Skins) breast and underarm,
2005. Latex and cotton.

Sumantro Ghose’s explores similar issues in his Modern Painters/Guardian Prize winning Destruction and Nostalgia – Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View.[51]  Ghose muses upon his mother-in-laws death concentrating upon the boxes and bags of her belongings that his wife has brought home. Alongside this personal account he analyses Cornelia Parker’s installation Cold Dark Matter which is the remains of a shed and its contents literally blown to pieces. Parker has then assembled the burnt and charred fragments hanging from the ceiling as though in mid-explosion, like a frozen moment in time. Of the installation Ghose writes,
You scan the objects in Cold Dark Matter like a crash investigator or forensic scientist, sifting through the debris for a miniscule clue to someone’s identity, an object that belonged to a now vaporised existence. With the certainty and poignancy of a medieval shrine, a momento mori, this installation confronts us with our own mortality.[52]

Acts of Intimacy print series, 2005
Image 14. Claire Bushby, Acts of Intimacy, print series, 2005.

At around 9.45am on September 15th 2004 my grandmother, June Doris Storey passed away. Her two children (my mum and my uncle), her partner, Ian and I had decided to stay at the hospice the night before. I spent the night by her bedside, watching almost every breath, her chest rising and falling. A strange gut-wrenching expectation rushing through my body each time the rhythm of her breath slightly changed. After hours of watching through the night, morning came and for some reason I decided I should go move my car when Ian went to feed their dog. My uncle took my place by her side; I got back at 10am missing her last breath by minutes and was appalled with myself.

The hospice nurse later tried to console me by saying that it was a very common experience, often people who have spent days by the bedside of a loved one, walk out for the first time to perhaps have something to eat, only to return finding they have passed away. I had heard many stories about the opposite happening, of an ailing person waiting for someone they love to arrive before passing away with the comfort of knowing they are there. The nurse felt that it was the families’ inability to let go, that perhaps patients sometimes hold on for longer if they sense their families’ distress in the room. This only further heightened my sense of guilt; the thought that I could prolong my grandmother’s suffering through sheer fear of losing her was not at all comforting but it gave me a profound sense of humanity.

Contemplating the many people before and after me in that particular room, observing someone they love for every sign that life still flows through their body. Detecting the signs of losing time, as shadows on the wall change and the sun goes down, only to reappear hours later just like any ordinary day. This overwhelming sense of helpless loss is both personal and collective at the same moment. My loss is mine but I am not the sole holder of this pain. All forms of art have the potential for intimacy between people, to connect and share their subjective experiences.

Art is not about art. Art is about life, and that sums it up. 
          Louise Bourgeois.[53]

[48] Richter, G. (1995). The Daily Practice of Painting – Writings and Interviews 1962 – 1993. Thames and Hudson: London.
[49] Camus, A. (1955). The Myth of Sisyphus. (J. O’Brien, Trans.). Random House/Vintage Books: New York. p.71.
[50] Gospel of Saint Luke, Chapter 7:36-50.
[51] Ghose, S. (2004). Destruction and Nostalgia – Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. Modern Painters, Autumn. p. 19 – 21.
[52] Ghose, S. (2004). Ibid. p. 20.
[53] Bourgeois, L. (1988). Statements from an Interview with Donald Kuspit. In M. Bernadac & H. Obrist. (1998). Ibid. p.166


  1. I loved reading this....learning about what you make. So amazing.

    I think you need to know an artist friend of mine (and I will introduce your work to her, too).

    Her name is Meghan Willis and she goes by TsuruBride online:

  2. Thanks Hannah! Meghan's work looks fantastic, I look forward to getting to know more about it.

  3. What a fantastic read. I love the overlap between the personal and the political and the recognition that it is our individual experiences and the recognition of a common suffering that allows us to relate to each other. Beautiful words. I dread to go back and look at my honours thesis! *shudders* :) Love the Louise Bourgeois quote at the end. So true.

    The work is beautiful.