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  • I Live in This Dress:Materiality and Identity in Visual Art Performance
  • Laurel Jay Carpenter (bio)

I've been making the same dress for 20 years, I think to myself as I step back to survey the finished piece. In fact, this is another utilitarian boxy grey dress much like ones I had designed and sewn for many performances before. My practice in performance, seemingly immaterial, is driven by materiality. Initial ideas occur in images as patterns and textures emerge from open research, but the work does not galvanize until something concrete lands in my hand. Often, this is a textile that will form the visual focus of the performance. Equally often, this is fashioned into a kind of garment. Oversized or somehow abstracted, these garments are considered "sculptural wearables" rather than costumes, as they initiate long-duration visual art performance beyond

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Figure 1.

The oft-made dress, author's studio, 2017.

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Figure 2.

Point Out, INHABIT, Neon Arts, House of Correction, Hexham, UK, 2017. Photo by Joanna Hutton.

the perimeters of theatrical space or parameters of character. I tend to perform for many hours enveloped in, burdened by the confining, unwieldy, or weighted dress. The body is grounded to that particular place, held in that suspended moment, by means of the constructed visual. The specifics of time and place may provide suggestions for extended research, but it is the hands-on endeavor, the deep investment in materiality, that opens an access point; the sculptural garment becomes the catalyst for the action and intention of the emergent performance.

Point Out

The medieval market town Hexham, UK, as a place, is full of suggestions, whispering inklings—conceptual, visual, and material—when I was invited there to develop new site-specific work. Two locations came into focus: the night cell in the historic House of Correction, a cramped, cold, former almshouse, and the night stair of the grand Hexham Abbey. Some emerging patterns connecting the two sites include the rhythm of the stone architecture with its aging patinas, the history of the Hexham tanneries and glove manufacturers, as well as a motif of the loss of [End Page 176] identity. With these in mind, I began the search for relevant materials. At a flea market, under a pile of rumpled linens, I extracted a pair of worn, red leather gloves that held the shape of the absent wearer's last gesture, alluding further back to the original animal's missing body as well. These gloves, rubbed softand thin, were heavy with the residue of loss and absence, or perhaps these gloves were the literal residue of such. Standing in the bustling marketplace, cradling these gloves in my own hands, I was flooded with longing. This moment of material communion was the source of a pair of companion performances, Point Out and Touch On.

A woman stands in one spot, her face covered by dozens of red leather gloves dangling from the hook above, the clustered remains of something no longer present, no longer alive. Removing one hand from the oversized pocket on the front of her simple grey dress, she determinedly points. She points out until her arm weakens and she can no longer hold the posture. Then she points again.

Action and symbol conflate in the spare, silent setting of the upstairs night cell. Referencing the social and political history of a workhouse, a site of detention for the denied and forgotten, Point Out explores our systems of suppression and restraint. The performer's point, the extended arm and finger, orients the act of implication as both an accusation and an insinuation; the performance further reveals the complexity within the conditions of vulnerability, responsibility, and anonymity. In the visual and symbolic association of the hands—hollowed and absent vs. dynamic and insistent—the gloves activate the content. As design scholar Donatella Barbieri claims, "Costume co-authors the performance with the performer."1 Further, the gloves serve as co-creator in the inspiration and development of the work. After discovering the first pair of gloves in the flea market, I scoured charity shops, antique fairs...


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