Taken as a species, we humans could collectively be taken as, well, rather bi-polar. By that I mean we seem to easily oscillate between two opposing states: creation and destruction. We are, individually and as a species, very very good at making, at creating the new. And we are, individually and as a species, very very good at destroying. A young child stacks wooden blocks atop one another, and then sweeps them away with glee. Is this simple gesture, this act – making and unmaking – genetically prescribed in us? Are we coded at the molecular level to be that way?
I haven’t a clue – sorry. Certainly no pat answers around here. But I bring up this intensely thorny and complex issue that neither religion, culture, nor science have any definitive responses to by way of talking about the work of Canadian artist Barb Hunt.
Hunt’s been exhibiting art work since the 1980s. A graduate of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg who obtained her MFA at Concordia University in Montreal, Hunt taught at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario before becoming a Professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland.
The culture and meaning of craft, and the longstanding notions of what constitutes “women’s work” have long been addressed in Hunt’s work in aesthetically intriguing ways. Like her body of Steel Dresses from the mid-1990s. They’re like enormous versions of the paper cut-outs of the type once popular with children. But Hunt’s are made of thick steel, and they are cut through with patterns courtesy the use of an industrial plasma-arc welder. And they’re life-size, not miniatures. And they’re only dresses in the loosest sense; seen, they clearly resemble the flattened outline of a dress, propped up against a gallery wall, intricately inscribed with complex and beautiful patterns. The titles tell the whole visual story: Web Dress, Root Dress, and Leaf Dress, the pattern of each comprising the body of the dress.
The body. It’s also important in Hunt’s work. With her interest in working with ideas of what constitutes craft, how could it not be? But Hunt takes the body in unexpected aesthetic directions. Still interested in addressing the things – the clothing, the apparel – within which we cocoon it, Hunt began working with military uniforms. Specifically, with camouflage. Ostensibly intended to make the wearer less visually obtrusive in a natural environment, camouflage has of course long been co-opted by fashion to do just the opposite, and Hunt explores those push and pull directions while simultaneously expanding on them, giving them more meaningful social and political edge. Taking a standard set of camouflage fatigues, for instance she painstakingly embroidered around all the blotchy patterns imprinted on it – in bright pink thread. Incarnate (2001-2004) neutralizes the cloak of invisibility often attributed to such wear, dissolves the malignancy of what is, in essence, a weapon of war, and renders it neutral – almost friendly, even.
The color pink has a way of doing that (which it the reason it’s often used in holding cells to calm those placed there). And nowhere is pink more evident, more aesthetically significant, than in the work antipersonnel.
It’s a widely exhibited piece Hunt began in 1998 and which is open-ended – meaning that she can contribute into it on an ongoing basis as circumstances change. (I’ll explain that shortly.) Collectively it comprises dozens and dozens of individual pieces, well over one hundred of them to date. They’re sculptural objects of various sizes and shapes – some are box-like, some long and rather tubular-shaped, others are circular and disk-like, and one for all the world even resembles a toy elephant that’s been flattened.
It’s not, though. These are landmines. Or, more accurately, Hunt’s 1:1 scale sculptural rendition of the actual landmines produced and actively used by nations around the world (and when I referred to circumstances changing, I meant the advent of new landmine designs – for it’s a booming business – to which Hunt can continue to aesthetically and morally respond). And they’re all pink, every single one of them. Oh, and they’re made of knitted yarn. Every single one of them.
So Hunt deals head-on with one of the most malignant and vile things humanity has ever created – a device of horrific physical negation. Landmines are pure, unmitigated evil. They render places uninhabitable – land cannot be farmed, lived on, even walked upon. And when they do not kill outright, they maim – horrifically so. In many regions of the world where conflicts seem to rage on a semi-permanent basis, they are ubiquitous, a devastating presence in the lives of the innocent. They devastatingly alter the fabric of human existence.
So Hunt made them sculptural – unique, one-of-a-kind reproductions, of a sort, based on originals mass-produced in the tens of thousands . She made them pink. And she has knitted them. The sculptural part is aesthetically straightforward. And pink is, of course, the aforementioned color of neutralization, of the draining of malevolence – of the benign.
But about knitting. Knitting has layers of meaning, of course, much of it engaging the notion of “women’s work.” But it has a larger context, one pertinent to the aesthetics of Hunt’s work. “Knitting functions as a metaphor,” Hunt has written, “for recuperation, protection, and healing.”
So, drain the pernicious evil from a horrifically destructive human creation with simple color. And render it in knitted yarn to try and heal the wounds it has caused.
All symbolically or metaphorically, of course. Landmine use is widespread, despite international treaties and the efforts of individuals and organizations around the world. So antipersonnel, then, could be likened to objects of a cargo cult – fetishes, of a kind – things intended to retrieve wholeness from a world splintered and tearing itself asunder.
See, sculpture can do that. It can intend.
And Barb Hunt most definitely intends.
By Gil McElroy