Thursday, 8 September 2011


Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism
Victoria and Albert Museum   

 This photograph, alongside another  entitled HAIRCLIP, is cracking an old joke.
 In the frame is a photograph of set of tweezers much larger than life. Tucked in the left hand bottom corner of the frame is a label which reads:

Thought to have been used for the removal of hair from the eye-brow. Whether the eye-brows were removed partially or totally is unknown.   European c 1990s

Beside it, in an identical frame, is a U-bend hairclip, also enlarged.
This is the label:

Used to secure hot rollers in the hair. Rollers were electrically heated, then applied to the hair, which was scorched into temporary curls.  British c 1980s                                                       
These two works are part of a series Daily Life, Women, a parody of the way museums (used to?) display artefacts from other cultures. By withdrawing the tweezers and hairclip from their normal context and enlarging them, the artist turns them into curiosities, inviting us to ponder the irrationality and naivety of our own cultural practices instead. Why, for example, do we eliminate hair from eye-brows, legs, chins, ears, (not forgetting more intimate parts) and even from the head itself, but send out for more to stick on our eye lashes or make toupees and hair extensions?

Postmodernism is playful and this time the joke is really on us.  Whatever happens, it seems as though people throughout the world will insist on using clothes and personal decoration for deeply personal ends. At the opening of Tate Britain the four architects on the platform were entirely clad in black. So was the chairman. So were all except one when the second bunch of celebrities took the stage. Black is useful in a dirty city? It makes you look slim?

Anthropologists know better. Clothes and personal grooming have an instrumental function (they keep us warm, cool, decent etc) but also an expressive (they tell the world who we are). They are the goods we daily use to think with.

(On the way back from my visit to the V&A I saw a woman with I'm Not A Plastic Bag beautifully embroidered in pink on a cream linen shopping bag. Since no one could have imagined otherwise, is she telling us something about her values, with a hint that the world would be a better place if we followed her example?)             

The U-bend hair clip is particularly interesting. Nowadays things happen fast and postmodernism has to run to keep up. Jones could have photographed a pre-electric curler - tongs thrust into a fire and, when hot enough, opened up and clamped around a lock of hair until you could smell singeing. As long as newspapers said that 55 golden ringlets were tossed every time the American child actress Shirley Temple shook her pretty little head, many a small girl endured such treatment 50 years ago. And a short time ago hair straighteners were all the rage - how long will it be before they too are  seen as another quaint if slightly barbaric attempt to turn ‘nature’ into ‘culture’?

We now know that a superior tone is unsustainable in a post modern world. The Wellcome Collection in London and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge are but two examples I know of which transform the way we are invited to connect with material from around the world.
Both are places where we can consider what it means to be human.

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