This season, the Society for Domestic Museology is exhibiting the work of artist, Spencer Merolla. This series (Mourning Art for Moderns) takes the Victorian women's practice of sentimental hairwork as its jumping-off point. For the Victorians, mourning was a very public act. Rather than a private emotion or an embarrassment, grief was a popular motif for the arts and fashion. What strikes modern sensibilities as mawkish and overly sentimental behavior was, at the time, considered proof of a person's sincerity and morality. Ornamental hairwork, painstakingly crafted from the hair of loved ones, was a fashion that insisted the wearer embodied these virtues. This work plays with the tension between sincerity and emotional performance, imagining a contemporary practice in which moderns might socially engage with death's physicality. The dissonance of the craft (when transposed onto the emotional and aesthetic landscape of our times) draws attention to the ever-shifting boundaries of permitted public display.
That the hair must be severed from the body to be worked in this fashion is a compelling aspect of the practice for me. With few exceptions, the provenance of antique hairwork is now unknown. As a result, it loses its essential quality of referring to a specific person, while still being a distinctively “personal” object. In a sense, the story of hairwork is a testament not of our capacity to remember our lost loved ones, but of our ultimate inability to hold onto them.
Opening & Art Talk - Sep 20, 2015
Before meeting artist Spencer Merolla, I knew nothing of hairwork. The art of weaving human hair (ideally that of a loved one, living or deceased) into intricate adornment, to be worn or displayed in the home, originated in the late 18th century. It reached its apotheosis in the Victorian era, when sentimentality reigned and death and mourning were not subjects to be avoided. Pins, wreaths, and buttons, among other decorative objects made with hair, were seen as proper expressions of emotion, particularly grief. For a widower to keep his watch on a chain made of his wife's hair was a customary way to signal that he was in mourning, to make visible the anguish of his interior life.
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