( ) snip
With thanks to Gwen Allen, Juana Berrío, Marcella Faustini, Claudia La Rocco, Jodi James, Marnie Jodoin, Alexandra Pappas, Anne Lesley Selcer, Jan Willing & Dodie Bellamy for inspiration.
Not long before moving out of San Francisco (in March) I went to a dinner party
(for someone who was moving in) when the final hour (or more) of a conversation (volleyed by several women) turned toward the subject of hair and the “natural” 1 state of ours. To my surprise, most of us were born with generous, frizzy, woolly mops, which we have spent decades trying to detangle, manage, hide, or dominate by various means (think expensive blow-outs/pomades/sprays/head-shaving/hats/experimental haircuts/weaves/wigs/etcetera). Many of us had settled upon using a certain go-to product or treatment to flatten our hair while others (like me) had decided, after many years of straightening, to go curly—this, in spite of the fact that there are very few curly-haired heroines in the neighborhoods of Western myth, art, and literature,2 which have reserved such a look for the likes of Medusa or Lilith, in other words, the…
To speak of hair seems cosmetic, unimportant. And
(even for me) during that dinner party, I felt more and more anxious about the duration of the discussion, tittering in this corner and that in response to each hair story or confession told, wondering when we’d move on to more substantial matters and out of the territory of vanity. I had hoped the subject would comfortably evaporate before we’d be found out as p(r)etty fools, but I see now what I missed then — that this discussion was more than mere beauty talk. It was a testimonial pile-up, unmasking the volume and degree to which we had submitted our hair (and thus ourselves) to regulation. Beyond the political significance of this conversation (because feminism), there is an economic meaning (consider all our time and labor — not to mention money — and that of those we have employed in the pursuit of “better” or “good” hair).3 And, an historical one, too, for this conversation has (I presume) at least 30,000 years of precedence given that the model for the Venus of Willendorf (also a curly girl), wore perfectly ordered ringlets circa 28,000 BCE.
Exceeding the abstractions of politics, economics, and ancient history, though, I found myself at the dinner becoming aware of something much bigger at work than the literal details of these stories. It seemed to hover all around us like an inert gas, and then (given the right conditions) became active/visible/liquid, seeping through the screen of our light party chatter. It was not long after that when I realized women are the best/worst at policing our shag even if aesthetic standards for such things are set elsewhere (at a distance, in the metropolis). This is because hair is emotional or, as a message delivery system, hair transmits and receives emotions (along with a lot of other signals), but it is its emotional force that sticks, rooting itself into our psyche/memory, shaping and announcing our identities. In another sense, it is a thing that can say “I am me” and not a piece of meat, the distinction between human and animal being not always so clear or stable depending on company and circumstance.
Recently, I discovered an old videotape of a highschool project I had made with some classmates in which I served as the narrator. Popping the tape into a (now antique) VCR I then pressed play, half expecting to see the innocence of my teenage self onscreen next. Instead, what I saw was not me, but something altogether other/conceptual. At the figure on the television, I gawked initially, and then, remembered (with familiar horror) that forgotten density of brow, whisker, and curl, which stirred a hot panic that swelled and rose within. I had difficulty staying with this feeling because it made me so damn anxious, so I immediately ran away from it, making the apprehension less horrible/more bearable by trying to laugh. I thought: could she have been the consequence of a ménage-à-trois between Frida Kahlo/Cousin Itt/Bert of Sesame Street?
In reality, this anxious and antagonistic relationship to my hair had begun much earlier than puberty, forged in both ordinary and extraordinary moments during childhood. Monday-through-Friday it was part of the morning ritual at home (before school); my mother forcing out all the kinks and knots in my curls with the rapid, rough jerks of a plastic brush (which generally made me wince and occasionally made me cry). It was on one particular Sunday, however, that a certain event fixed my place in the hair cosmos during a session of the Greenfield United Methodist Church’s Sunday school. There, one of our teachers (who was also the mother of a friend) declared officially in front of the class that I was indeed a “hairy little creature.” In her mind (I wager) she thought the remark was some kind of joke, a trivial comment that would be easily forgotten by everyone, but in my slim conception of the universe and in my growing, yet still anemic, child intelligence, this comment was serious business (and mondo/hideous, of course); the scale of it forming (and then dropping) what felt like a boulder inside my soul, which I carried/accommodated until my cells eventually absorbed it mineral by mineral.
Only now can I acknowledge this experience and ask: How could I believe what she said? How was I a beast released into civilized society? And, really, who was she kidding? We lived in the boondocks where everyone was a hick. (But, that’s the thing in an outpost: everyone there appears (at a distance anyway) to be a barbarian, so the rules of politesse magnify/accentuate difference within the community.) There it matters to individuals whether or not they are only a little more sophisticated than others because in such a place social distinction is measured out to decimal places.
At this point, I must pause and consider how highly personal the last two anecdotes are. Not having shared memoiristic stories in writing to a public audience before, I am having doubts about whether to include them since the text might come off as too self-indulgent or exhibitionisitic. But just yesterday (April 27, 2016), the very talented (and affable) interdisciplinary writer and performer Jacob Wren tweeted something, which compelled me to include these stories after all. He wrote:
To say it’s myself that I’m trying to escape only briefly defers the question of who made me want to.
Hannah Black, Dark Pool Party
Wren’s tweet of Black’s words found its way through the tangled circuitry of my thinking/feeling. Into the jumble it illumined/clarified, reminding me to pick out of the experience of self-loathing/self-alienation the prospect of communion with similar others and confrontation with the ideological nature of (my) aesthetic disenfranchisement.
There is, in fact, a fundamentally aesthetic aspect to the racism and “race science” we inherited from the European Enlightenment according to Kobena Mercer in “Black Hair/Style Politics” (1987). In discourses of “scientific racism”, “the very observable, discernible, biological “traits” of skin color and hair texture” (along with details concerning the
of groups) have been mis-taken (over and over again) by Enlightenment thinkers as “signs to be identified, named, classified and ordered into a hierarchy of human worth,” with black/“Negro” aspects pushed to the bottom and white/“Caucasian” attributes forced up to the top, such that blackness constituted “the absolute negation or annulment of ‘beauty’…”4 For Mercer (and here I must radically oversimplify the sophistication of his complex, insightful essay), all black hairstyles enact a kind of resistance against a society whose racist logic is rationalized and sustained by discourses (aesthetic/otherwise) that reproduce and secure the inequality (racial/otherwise) that divides/defines us.5
Similar to Mercer, perhaps (and writing just three years later), Terry Eagleton brings the modern concept of aesthetics into conversation with subjectivity and the body (for him, however, aesthetics more broadly serves as the focus of his study). As a response (and not a challenge, he points out) to the regimes of European absolutism,6 Eagleton argues that aesthetics coincided with European monarchies opening themselves up to “sensual inclination” as a means for discouraging rebellion among their subjects. He notes that in this strategic tilt toward the sensual realm these regimes, in the process, also opened themselves up to delegitimizing their own authority, and, therefore, made way, ultimately, for the emergence of the bourgeois subject. And (with the articulation of this new subject), power altered in its expression, freshly exercised through the “binding force” of “habits, pieties, sentiments and affections.” In other words, (in this new social order) power became “aestheticized”.7 But, he later expands on this observation with a nuanced understanding of this power/aesthetics relation by writing the following:
“Power is shifting its location from centralized institutions to the silent, visible depths of the subject itself; but this shift is also part of a profound political emancipation in which freedom and compassion, the imagination and the bodily affections, strive to make themselves heard within the discourse of repressive rationalism.”8
Therefore, we may embody power both in its hegemonic accumulation and in its liberating dispersal. In this way, aesthetics puts forward a highly complex/contradictory discourse/politics that we should be ever vigilant towards if Eagleton’s insights hold true (and I am inclined to believe they do). It gives us, in a sense, the ongoing but difficult-to-ascertain choice of self-liberation or self-damnation.
So, what does art do? Here I would like to return to the subject of hair and look at its appearance (or lack thereof) in contemporary art exhibitions/practices. While preparing research for this post I quickly learned that there are relatively few artworks and exhibitions in which hair figures as a central feature/form/medium. I count only three group exhibitions related to hair thus far (one being a traveling show in the US entitled HairStories, which the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art presented in 2003, and another appears a decade later in Hair! Das Haar in der Kunst at the Ludwig Galerie Schloss Oberhausen in Germany). By my preliminary count, at least twenty two internationally exhibited artists have used hair in their work and at least nineteen more are doing so with a greater focus on the subject and medium itself.9I do not wish (nor think it necessary) to compile/distribute a numerical inventory of hair art, but I think that we can all agree on the fact that hair is not often subject to a serious consideration within the field. The relative absence of it might be symptomatic of a larger phenomenon — a chaetophobia (fear of hair) — perhaps not unlike David Batchelor’s identification of a chromophobia circulating within the same milieu. Chaetophobia in art, however, seems far stronger by comparison, yet a study of it may come to reveal that some of the same prejudices that Batchelor uncovers in his very intriguing study are also at work against hair.10
Despite the historical evidence of its absence, I’m under the impression that perhaps hair is “in” at the moment. Just in the last two weeks (on social media) I have noticed the appearance of a painting and two performative works featuring hair including Sondra Perry’s Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera (2013) at the Seattle Art Museum
“I make performances, videos, and digital imagery to investigate slippages of identity through manifesting ‘paraspaces’, a term coined by science fiction writer Samuel Delany, meaning a ‘space’ existing parallel to the normal or ordinary.” –Artist #SondraPerry (@sondraperry01) on her work. See this mesmerizing video on view in #SAMDisguise. [????: “Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera,” 2013, Sondra R. Perry, United States, b. 1986, video-projection installation, HD single-channel video loop, color, silent, 1:54 minutes, loan from the artist, © Sondra R. Perry, video courtesy of the artist.]
and Adam Linder’s 8 Minutes of Hair Care (2016) at Berlin’s Schinkel Pavilion. No doubt art history can accommodate many more studies/stories of hair, and we can look forward (I hope) to their ongoing elaboration.
A video posted by Slavs and Tatars (@slavsandtatars) on
Before closing, I’d like to bring back into conversation a piece by the Austrian artist Valie Export from 1968, entitled Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), which I believe used hair as a vital element. In the performance, the artist “walked into an experimental art-film house in Munich wearing crotchless trousers and a tight leather jacket, with her hair teased wildly. She roamed through the rows of seated spectators, her exposed genitalia level with their faces.” A year later, to commemorate the performance, she was photographed wearing the same ensemble, with her hair teased, holding a machine gun, her gaze confronting the camera (and, by extension, the spectator beyond). While Export likely shocked her audience at the time by showing a woman taking control of her (female and genital) representation in the context of cinema (which was/continues to be a medium that male directors have used to represent women and their exposed bodies) today this piece may shock an audience (or millenials within that audience anyhow) for a decidedly different reason — the presence of pubic hair! In past viewings of this work, I had always focused in on and appreciated the impact of Export’s provocative gesture and her direct indictment of the violence behind the male gaze. Today, I am compelled to look again and more closely at this work, and, in particular at her hair. I wonder if Export has not here released a “beast” onto civilized society? It is a thought that gives me pause, and more importantly, much pleasure at the possibility of identification and communion with an(Other).
According to Kobena Mercer, human hair is never natural or neutral in an absolute sense because “it is always groomed, prepared, cut, concealed and generally ‘worked upon’ by human hands.” In other words, it is a social medium that reflects and expresses meanings and values in relation to context. See Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” new formations 3 (1987): 34.
Not so emphatically true in pop culture, however, thanks to Eryka Badu, Beyoncé, Lisa Bonet, Helena Bonham Carter, Cher, Grace Coddington, Angela Davis, Jennifer Grey, Salma Hayak, Marsha Hunt, Iman, JLo, Grace Jones, Alicia Keys, Chaka Khan, Janelle Monae, Oprah, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bernadette Peters, Rihanna, Diana Ross, RuPaul, Shakira, Nina Simone, Solange, Esperanza Spalding, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, and Tyra, to name a bunch.
- Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair (2009) explains what defines “good hair” and the excruciating lengths to which African American women will go to have it, including, among other things, dropping thousands of dollars on hair treatments and regularly inhaling toxic fumes from relaxers.
- Mercer explains the history behind the terms “Negro” and “Caucasian” like so: “But whereas the proper name ‘Negro’ was coined to designate all that the west thought it was not, ‘Caucasian’ was the name chosen by the west’s narcissistic delusion of ‘superiority’: ‘Fredrich Bluembach introduced this word in 1795 to describe white Europeans in general, for he believed that the slopes of the Caucasus…were the home of the most beautiful European species.” Mercer, 35.
- Mercer nuances this argument by saying that black hair styles are resistant only before their commercialization and absorption into mainstream fashion/culture. Ibid., 37.
- Eagleton identifies this modern formulation of the aesthetic as originating in Alexander Baumgarten’s Aesthetica from 1750. In this book, Baumgarten takes inspiration from the Greek word aisthesis which refers to human perception and sensation and not to conceptual thought. He further goes on to explain that this concept did not divide along an art/life axis, but was more rooted in a division between the material/immaterial, which Eagleton connects to “the first stirrings of a primitive materialism” in a Marxist sense. See Terry Eagleton The Ideology of the Aesthetic p. 13. Apologies for these very rushed summaries!
- Ibid., 19-20.
- Ibid., 27-28.
- The artists whose works use hair as a material or motif include internationally known artists such as Francis Alÿs, Janine Antoni, Richard Artschwager, Vanessa Beecroft, Dawoud Bey, the Chapman Brothers, Birgit Dieker, Ellen Gallagher, Robert Gober, Wenda Gu, David Hammons, Mona Hatoum, Kerry James Marshall, Ana Mendieta, Ron Mueck, Kori Newkirk, Adrian Piper, Doris Salcedo, Chiharu Shiota, Lorna Simpson, Slavs and Tatars, Kiki Smith, and Paul Thek. Perhaps less known but more engaged with hair in their practices are Alice Anderson, Emily Bates, Jemima Brown, Nicola Donovan, Marlene Haring, Pearl Heneghen, Kate Gilbert Miller, Diane Jacobs, Susie MacMurray, Alice Maher, Victoria May, Nicole Mollett, Kathy Prendergast, Chrystl Rijkeboer, Paula Santiago, Annegret Soltau, Karin Stack, Kerry Vander Meer, and Anne Wilson. To me, the list feels rather short by virtue of not knowing all the artists working with hair, but also due to my suspicion that there are just not that many artists who use hair as subject or object. I compiled this list of artists based on my own acquaintance with works and by reading Heather Hanna’s very interesting book Women Framing Hair: Serial Strategies in Contemporary Art (2015).
- “This [prejudice] is apparent in the many and varied attempts to purge colour, either by making it the property of some ‘foreign body’ — the oriental, the feminine, the infantile, the vulgar, or the pathological — or by relegating it to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential, or the cosmetic.” See David Batchelor’s Chromophobia (2005).