VAN Critique March/April 2014: Gráinne Bird at Higher Bridges Gallery

Gráinne Bird, work from ‘Hirsute’, Higher Bridges Gallery

Gráinne Bird
Higher Bridges Gallery, Enniskillen
6 February – 8 March 2014

Hair salons and barbershops do not often act as art supply stores for artists, but in the case of young Irish artist Gráinne Bird, they provide her primary material: human hair. ‘Hirsute’ is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Northern Ireland, in which she manipulates human hair through spinning, felting, crocheting, knitting, sewing and dressmaking to create tapestries, clothing, sculptural objects and complex installations in shades of brown, blonde, black and red.

Bird considers her practice self-sufficient, as the human body produces the source material from which she creates garments, which the same body can then wear for fashion or practicality. There is also a rich sense of community here, as numerous people have come together in the creation of these works, donating their own hair, which is felted, plaited and crocheted with that of others in the fabrication of each piece.

There is, however, something dark about Bird’s use of human hair, which is spun into garments that one imagines could be worn by mythological hirsute goddesses. Glass jars containing human hair – complete with labels listing the details of the donors – are displayed within the space, as the art gallery and craft store merge with the science fiction laboratory and the witch’s basement.

Gráinne Bird, work from ‘Hirsute’, Higher Bridges Gallery

In folklore and mythology from around the world, human hair is a common ingredient in traditional spells. The ancient Egyptians believed that a potion made of hair, nail clippings and human blood would give a person absolute power over another. Pubic hair is considered an especially potent ingredient in love charms; and for centuries practices have existed for the safe disposal of hair so that it could not be used for magical purposes. In Ozark lore, hair combings were buried, never thrown out; French peasants buried hair; Turks and Chileans stuffed hair clippings into walls.

Yet, despite this loaded history, the wealth of connotations associated with human hair are not obviously addressed by the works in this show. The emphasis of the exhibition veers towards the beauty of working with this natural material. However, when the darker connotations of using hair as a material are touched upon, the work moves beyond the realms of craft-making and into more informed and nuanced territory. For example, a spun doll – which is exhibited beside a babygrow (complete with teddy bear motif) – is presented as a child’s toy, but when one sees adjacent jars of human hair and needles stuck into the doll’s leg, an inherent eeriness and associations with voodoo come to the fore.

Items of clothing – worn by models in Bird’s original presentation of this work from her graduate exhibition at the Dublin Institute of Technology in 2011 – now hang like skinned furs on the gallery walls. Women’s underwear (crafted from felted hair with plaited blonde detailing) no longer feels like contemporary fashion, but rather artifacts of clothing worn by cavewomen, pagans or formidable female warriors such as Boudica, Red Sonja, and Xena, Warrior Princess.

This idea of reclaiming hair within fashion has the makings of a powerful feminist message but could be more fully explored. We live in a society where women are pressured to shave and wax their bodies to smooth perfection, and to be immaculately coiffured.

Bird’s chosen source material is simultaneously beautiful, disturbing and in some ways problematic. The artist’s manipulation of human hair into tapestries, sculptures and apparel are demonstrative of sophisticated craft skills, but the unusual source material threatens sometimes to overshadow the work itself. Furthermore, its relevance is not always clear. Bird’s tapestries of natural landscapes are intricate and beguiling – but why create the work using human hair? Conversely, the striking installation 175 Portraits is very finely tuned to its source material: 175 donations from individual haircuts are skillfully crafted into rose-like spirals that hang from the ceiling and against the back wall of the gallery.

Gráinne Bird, work from ‘Hirsute’, Higher Bridges Gallery

‘Hirsute’ is undoubtedly an accomplished solo exhibition. But some of its components – the babygrow, the slippers and the felted “Welcome” sign that greets visitors as they enter the gallery – verge on the twee, albeit offset by a sense of irony and tongue-in-cheek humour. Bird’s work is strongest when it considers human hair as much more than just a source material for craft-making. A visit to Bird’s studio, which one imagines contains hundreds of jars of human hair and a host of surreal tapestries and garments, would perhaps be a rewarding experience, providing a rich insight into the workings of the artist’s mind. Overall, ‘Hirsute’ successfully positions Bird as an artist worth watching.

Ben Crothers is a Belfast-based curator and writer. He holds an MA in Art History and Film Theory from the University of Essex, and has curated exhibitions at galleries including Golden Thread Gallery, PS2 and the Naughton Gallery.

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