Dutch Woman at Large is an engagement with (the representation of) domesticity and the practice of everyday life. It is also a revisiting of Dutch genre painting, specifically Gerard ter Borch's (1617-1681) 17th Century interior entitled Curiosity in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting usually hangs in the Metropolitan's gallery # 12 as part of the Jules Bache Collection and has been reproduced in post card form by the Metropolitan in 1991.
When I first thought about doing a work in New York it became clear that it was entirely appropriate to locate the work within the Met, as it was the first and most important indicator for me of art, culture and scale, having been brought there (the word shlepped comes to mind), most Sundays by my mother along with my four siblings. My mother says that in making the long treck by subway and bus from Queens to the museum, she was satisfying her own desire for art and culture and was able to occupy her children for relatively little money -- while providing an access to the world of art otherwise unavailable to us in the Orthodox Jewish world that was my childhood.
My research has focussed on the history and anthropology of Dutch society during the 17th Century, the gender roles and the complex domesticity of that period and the portrayal of such in the visual arts of the time. This research into the dynamics of domestic ritual and practice in relation to public sphere continues from an earlier piece of mine entitled, a truth, a fiction... of sabbath clothes and feeling an imposter now in the Collection prêt d'oeuvre d'art of the Québec Museum.
During Dutch Woman at Large, I inhabited the outfit of the figure in the painting (note the French connotation of inhabit as an article of clothing). I engaged in conversation only if approached. My intention was to blur the lines between the passive/active roles of witnessing and being witnessed, theatricality and the performative, viewer and viewee, subject and object, and portraiture, narrative and storytelling, while activating a place for the seated figure in the painting to participate in the culture around her. Through this work she was be offered a different sort of agency after all these long years of being gazed at and (being limited to), gazing out of her forced pictorial domestic (interior) space. The public was, by extension, offered a different agency in reception given the curious dynamic created between the painted image of her, my embodiment, and their viewing / participation.
Upon wearing the costume, I began to become aware of how much this work is about the internalized and external expectations of the "good Jewish daughter" within the larger North American secular culture and historical constructions. These expectations, like most demands imposed by family and community are scarcely ever achieved. Despite the sumptuous fabrics, the resulting internal anxiety and discomfort is felt as vividly as the artificial shaping of my corsetted body.
Monday, November 13, 2000
Good morning Harley and Martha,
Even as large as I was, we still managed to somehow miss each other. Here is a brief accounting of my day yesterday, Sunday, at the Met. At 7:30 in the morning my sister and her daughter met me at the hotel and began the task of dressing me. This connection to family was important in reference to Dutch 17th Century society and the specificity of the painting by ter Borch. It also connected me back in a very profound way to what initially invited my curiosity about the relationship between culture, scale, performance and personal experience.
I arrived at the Met fully 'in-habited' with my sister, niece and Mario Belisle (who had driven down with me from Montreal to photograph my intervention), shortly after opening hours and gained entry relatively easily. There was a moment when I first appeared, that held a certain tension as the volunteers at the front desk didn't know what to think or do. I saw one of them reaching for a security phone looking straight at me. At that moment, I thought that it was a good thing I chose a costume of someone who could pass as a respected, even desirable, patron of the establishment. I mean, really, how could anyone refuse entry to this obviously well-dressed, high society woman? I wondered if it would have been so relatively seamless had I elected to embody a persona less obviously privileged or of good standing. As it was, my sister had the idea to swiftly purchase an entry button for me, and within minutes I had pinned it to my outfit, thereby legitimating my presence as a guest of the museum for the day.
I wandered in and around the Dutch period paintings for quite some time before exploring other parts of the museum including the Egyptian rooms, the 19th Century European painting collections, the sculpture garden and courtyard. At 13:00, I had a bite to eat in the Cafeteria with a friend and then after struggling with the inconvenience of contemporary toilets given the layers of my 17th Century clothing, wandered outside into Central Park to enjoy some of the glorious weather. Slightly before 16:00, I had a last visit with my century and my muse before winding up my visit in the bookstore.
Throughout, the reception was one of curiosity, astonishment and wonder. The guards, no less than the children and adults regarding the art works, had big eyes towards my presence. I had many solitary meditative moments and a number of meaningful exchanges leaving me now with some good stories to tell. At one point, after having been mistaken a number of times for a character in a Vermeer, I began to suggest to people that it was not only the famous Vermeer women who merited being noticed. I played with this and explored in conversation with some people who stopped to talk with me how easy it is for us to apply the 'star system' that we know so thoroughly from our own social functions in making reference to and understanding other cultures and cultural traces. After a number of these discussions, I made my through one of the back corridors where there was some installation of a temporary exhibition going on. The guard on duty took a long look at me and then promptly said, "Great ter Borch!" I laughed and said, "You mean you did not mistake me for a Vermeer?" to which he replied, "How could anyone mistake you for a Vermeer when you are so clearly the seated women from Curiosity. Enjoy your outing."
I found children in particular willing and receptive to playing in the zones of make-believe/for real. Perhaps it was so because on some level they were responding to the resonant driving force behind this work which was so located in my own childhood imaginations, exclusions, wishes and disappointments. Perhaps it is also that in childhood we are simply so much closer to the possibilities in and playing with perpetual (though constantly changing), states of becoming.
The shadow side of the psychological and physical pressure to conform to standards set by society and family were also vividly present and experienced. In short, as the aching of my ribs, brought on by the tight corset lacings and sheer weight of the clothing, subsides with time, so too will the clarity emerge, linking my intentions with my experience as I sit with and digest what I felt, what I learned, what became apparent for me in the doing of this, how people's reactions and responses effected and affected me and how my being present might have effected and affected them.
My gratitude to all of you and to the jury members of the Franklin Furnace Performance Art Fund for providing me with this opportunity to explore, (re)visit and care for a piece of myself, of New York, of the relationships between the personal and social, the intimate and the spectacle, the source of trauma and its negotiation and issues in the continuum of family and community in this manner. This performance has offered up some pretty interesting insights into 'performing the trauma' that I will integrate into my talk in Germany on the panel about this at the upcoming Performance Studies conference.
With many thanks,