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Columns : Art Life - Susan Mackay Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

"Piss Flowers" - Searching for Self
By Susan Mackay
Jul 15, 2007 - 11:21:46 PM

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It’s that time of year, when my children have left for the summer, to spend time with their Dad in Canada.


I confess I find it hard.  Not only do I miss them, but I realise that part of the ache and disorientation I feel is due to the shift from being ‘mum’ to Susan.


Being ‘Mum’ requires my constant attention; the day runs on a schedule punctuated by the needs of my two children. Without them, the world tips and I have to rediscover my sense of self.


I have a friend who likes to ask challenging questions. “Who are you?” is a favourite.   Not content with a description of career choice or even likes and dislikes, he wants you to consider the very essence of what makes you unique.


This search for ‘who are you’ was an integral part of an art project I worked on while living in Scotland. I was commissioned to take photographs for a musician who wanted images to complement his lyrics and music—music that explored issues of society and self.   As we discussed the question of ‘who he is’, the words that came up were, ‘Father, Brother, Friend, Son, Musician etc.’, all of these words he realised were labels that he had either given himself or others had given him.   On questioning his self identity further, he found the labels painful as they seemed to limit him.   To express this concept, I took his picture outside in the bleak and freezing Scottish winter, bare-chested, we physically attached to his skin, bulldog clips with those labels people use at conferences, that normally say ‘Hi, My name is…….’ On the labels he wrote all the words that he felt confined him and were not a complete expression of his true self.


In the final picture you can clearly see the pain of his exposed skin mutilated by those tiny clips - a testament to the pain of labels.


So who am I beyond the labels I have given myself and allowed others to give me?

Society becomes the frame from which all our ideas of identity seem to stem.   The labels are words that seem to contain and restrict the truth of who we are, but are comfortable stereotypes that we can easily accept about other people.


I believe I am more than ‘mother’, more than ‘artist’ or ‘daughter’ or ‘Scottish’ or ‘friend’.


Expressing our identity, either as a group within society, or as an individual, is a familiar genre for artists.   An example of this comes from one of my favourite artists, Helen Chadwick (1953-96).  Initially I found her work disturbing, I was not comfortable with her obscenely sumptuous depictions of herself.   I felt left out of this seemingly private world she expressed.    

However, time brings lessons, and as I experienced more in my life, her work suddenly spoke, no—shouted—my own truths. As Chadwick’s work developed through the years, eventually she consciously rejected using her nude form, the motif that had run through the majority of her works. Instead, she chose to become more discerning in her expression of human existence.   From the external body image, she turned inward using the physical matter of flesh and cells in her work—finding a commonality to our human identity through our fundamental organs, as well as our desires. This quote from Art in America, (January 2005 ), is about one of the thought-provoking conceptual art pieces she created later in her career:


“Chadwick also used animal flesh as a metaphor for the human body. The "Meat Abstracts" (1989) are large-scale Polaroids of still-lifes with organs and offal arranged on suede, wood veneer, and silk. Nestled among the animal parts are illuminated lightbulbs; as the meat evokes the body, so the bulbs suggest the mind, consciousness glowing amid flesh.” by Lynn MacRitchie, Art in America, 2005

Sadly, Helen Chadwick died in 1996.   However, her work is a legacy that has directly influenced, particularly the Y.B.A’s (Young British artists), of today. Helen Chadwick’s search for identity developed from the context of self into an exploration into the identity of all ‘humans’ in expressions that were made more memorable in their base, clinical, and also fun and frivolous form. For example “Piss Flowers” (1992)    Chadwick and her partner peed in the snow and then made brass casts of the impression left in the snow.   By using something as irreverent as going to the bathroom, Chadwick makes a mockery of any prudery around the topic by creating such pretty ‘natural’ sculptures.   She is also beautifying a common aspect of ALL our humanity.   It is a natural thing that we ALL do! Which she has transformed into delightful sculptures! The sculptures look like flowers, hence the title and also have very pronounced male and female sexual aspects.


And so, in considering ‘Who am I?’, my thoughts may go into common bodily functions or universal emotions, like laughter, and beyond being defined simply by my ancestors, my skin colour, my gender, my work, or any other convenient society labels—even the cherished label: ‘Mother’.


Art, in its infinite varieties, helps remind us that life—in all its natural expressions—does not have to fit neatly into the narrow definitions and pressures formed by societal expectations. By more fully embracing   our uniqueness and individual identity we are also more deeply in touch with the truth that we are all part of something far bigger than ourselves—a common humanity much stronger than any of our differences, and more beautiful than anything we have yet to dare to imagine.



View Helen Chadwick's work on this Danish site

About the author: Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Susan Moir Mackay is a professional artist with a B.A. (Hons) in Art and Design from Edinburgh College of Art. She is an impassioned advocate of art and has a deep abiding belief that art benefits individuals and communities. Susan has travelled extensively, observing art in all its forms and has invested much of her time to art education projects, as well as developing her own art works and exhibitions.   Susan currently lives in Freeport with her two children, Fiona and Dylan. She can be reached at sozmac@hotmail.com



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