Reframing Domesticity


Domesticity, traditionally and historically, and as described in common terms, is the fondness one has for running a home. Feminism often casts the term in a negative light in order to empower women toward equality, but feminism also provides us with a more contemporary framing of domesticity. This paper aims to reframe domesticity as a coping mechanism to fill the void left by the “feminist sublime”, or terror women feel at being unable to control their environment. The prevalence of traditional, and stereotypically domestic, craft methods in contemporary art provides a lens through which to reexamine domesticity.

Reframing Domesticity

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Laura Splan Research

beauty and horror
comfort and discomfort
combine scientific images and materials with more domestic or familiar ones
triggering a double take in which the viewer re-evaluates their initial perceptions

“immediately appealing and repellent”

*kinetics of the unseen: all of these little parts have jobs, constantly moving without us seeing or being aware; embroidering them freezes them in time

*using biological materials to represent the microscopic beauty of life – paying homage

*domestic, feminine, delicate [and] scientific, biological, factual (masculine)

*using grotesque materials with traditional, craft-based techniques

Freeman, Barbara Claire. The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction. University of California Press, 1995, p. 1-4
“Barbara Claire Freeman believes that the so-called “feminine” sublime does not attempt to dominate and master the feeling of terror that the “masculine” or “dominating” sublime. Instead, they accept the feeling of rapture and attempt to delve into its “metaphysical” secrets and aspects. Freeman believes that the domestication of the sublime, which is typically associated with femininity, is not the only aspect (and often is not even found) in women’s literature.”

The sublime is calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur. Oxford English Dictionary “Sublime”

Women’s Liberation and the Sublime: this book is responding to the terror of being unable to control what is happening around us; people with money/power, “almost exclusively men”, make all of the decisions about the environment and social rights; the feminist sublime is the feeling of terror, the “mundane, daily fear that grips a woman dependent on her planet for survival, yet unable to stop either her own or anyone else’s participation in its destruction.”

Splan is confronting this terror through her artwork (and the terror of biological warfare, germs, disease… and perhaps the feminine terror of vulnerability… that’s the feeling I get from projects like “Blood Scarf” and even the purse… bearing what is normally hidden); also celebrating these things for their undeniable beauty (as she says, the beauty and the horror)

“Socialist feminists see prostitution, domestic work, childcare, and marriage as ways in which women are exploited by a patriarchal system that devalues women and the substantial work they do. Socialist feminists focus their energies on broad change that affects society as a whole, rather than on an individual basis. They see the need to work alongside not just men, but all other groups, as they see the oppression of women as a part of a larger pattern that affects everyone involved in the capitalist system.” Wikipedia from Ehrenreich, Barbara. What is Socialist Feminism, in WIN Magazine, 1976.

I don’t see Splan as a feminist in this sense. I don’t think her work is calling attention to domesticity as exploitation, I think it is recontextualizing it. Definition of domestic from Oxford Dictionaries: fond of family life and running a home. To me, the definition has changed with the rise of recent craft. Domesticity in craft is not about being a stay-at-home mom or wife. It’s a celebration of values–locality, community, repurposement, femininity–and a way to control one’s surroundings in response to the rise of technology (which Splan embraces), the decline of the environment, a decrease in “face time”, and an increase in importation and outsourcing. Independent, self-sufficient women are reverting back to traditional methods in order to address the terror and the loss of control.

When I make my art, I prefer to use materials that had a previous life–fabric and sewing notions from my grandmother, items found at yard sales and the GoodWill store–and I think this is a reaction against technology. By profession I am [was] a graphic designer, where I sit in front of a computer for hours. My personal artwork rejects technology. Splan, however, uses the conflict between traditional, feminine crafts and science and technology to her advantage. She uses biological materials (blood, plastic tubing, skin peel) and creates decorative, scientific designs via computer (tear ducts, virus cells) which are then computer-embroidered. So there is this marriage of what is traditionally handmade and feminine (craftwork) with what is technical, scientific, and stereotypically masculine. Definition of feminine from Oxford Dictionaries: having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness.

“Our ideas about traditionally handcrafted domestic objects are subverted by the use of materials with a direct connection to the body.” (1)

“The highest compliment people may pay her is when they label her latest work ‘ feminist’ or ‘queer’. ‘These readings are of the same work that people call exquisite or beautiful,’ she says. ‘That’s when I know I’m on the right track. That’s what is so wonderful about craft (feminine or otherwise): it can serve as a camouflage for another underlying meaning or agenda.’” (2)

“The doily, with its nostalgic evocation of middle-class gentility, becomes the marker of the biological hazards that have invaded everyday life.” (3)

Splan’s work addresses the sublime from the feminist sense (terror) and the traditional sense (awe/reverance)

The object is not sublime, it is the brain’s reaction to the object that is sublime – Kant

The definition of domesticity has shifted and is no longer simply a fondness of family life and running a home (site, dictionary). Contemporary domesticity is far heavier than this and is a response to the feminine sublime. The contemporary craft movement, and specifically, for the purpose of this paper, the artwork of Laura Splan, are direct evidence of this. Splan manages to marry the feminine sublime and Kant’s sublime by bridging what is traditionally considered “feminine” and “masculine”.

Wikipedia on Kant:
“The feeling of the sublime, itself divided into two distinct modes (the mathematical sublime and the dynamical sublime), describe two subjective moments both of which concern the relationship of the faculty of the imagination to reason. The mathematical sublime is situated in the failure of the imagination to comprehend natural objects which appear boundless and formless, or which appear “absolutely great” (§ 23–25). This imaginative failure is then recuperated through the pleasure taken in reason’s assertion of the concept of infinity. In this move the faculty of reason proves itself superior to our fallible sensible self (§§ 25–26). In the dynamical sublime there is the sense of annihilation of the sensible self as the imagination tries to comprehend a vast might. This power of nature threatens us but through the resistance of reason to such sensible annihilation, the subject feels a pleasure and a sense of the human moral vocation. This appreciation of moral feeling through exposure to the sublime helps to develop moral character.”

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New Media Artist Research

Eduardo Kac: splicing genes, bio art, “creating a subject”; “creation of a chimerical animal that does not exist in nature”

Laura Splan: doilies; beauty and horror, comfort and discomfort; combine scientific images and materials with more domestic or familiar ones; triggering a double take in which the viewer re-evaluates their initial perceptions

“The Trousseau series uses a transparent plastic-like material that results from a common drugstore facial peel-off mask.  This bizarre beauty product picks up and retains the detailed impression of texture and hairs on one’s skin.  I essentially cover my entire body with the product.  Once it dries, I peel it off in one large “hide” so that I have large sheets of “fabric” to work with in constructing the sculptures for the series.  I treat the peel material as if it were fabric resembling organza or chiffon.  The sculptures are embellished with computerized machine embroidery using abstracted anatomical, botanical, and ornamental imagery as decorative motifs.”

Erika Biddle: co-articulation of art and politics; FROM NONE, TAKE ONE, ADD ONE, MAKE NONE: plastic, auto-destructing babies in test tubes (pre-program their genetic offspring); video and installation based work

Bill Scanga: 18 frogs with pants

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Studio Investigations

We spent the last two weeks in Studio Investigations with John Crowe, exploring and developing our own studio artwork. The following images are a catalog of the work I created via speed dating, going steady, and getting married.

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