Back in 2013 as a newly minted Assistant Curator, fresh out of graduate school with my diploma in hand, bright eyed and bushy tailed like a little white rabbit, I curated an exhibition of work by then local Prince George artist Susan Barton-Tait. I went on to work with Susan on many occasions and become good friends with her as well. This is the text from that initial project we worked on together.
…, well beyond geometry…, we must recapture the quality of light; then come the sweet smells that linger in empty rooms, setting an aerial seal on each room in the house of memory. Still farther it is possible to recover not merely the timbre of the voices, ‘the inflections of beloved voices now silent,’ but also the resonance of each room…” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 60 – 61)
Susan Barton-Tait’s exhibition Home Making embodies the notion of home as elaborated by French philosopher and phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard. The author examined his understanding of the house as a fragile, nebulous kind of place in his 1964 book The Poetics of Space. The magic of the home, as we have all experienced and as Bachelard suggested, is imbued in our memories, in our imagination. We carry with us these figments from our childhood homes, emotive understandings that can no longer live on in the walls of the homes we have left behind, but only in our memories.
Barton-Tait’s large scale installation Home Making brings together the nostalgia, fragility and monotony of homemaking. Simultaneously, her installation focuses on the tenuous aspect of home that Bachelard spoke to, while also demolishing the boundaries around the traditional understanding of domesticity and the home. Her inspiration for the work was her experience of being a new mother and wife in Winnipeg in the 1980s. The house the artist was living in at the time, a converted cottage by the Red River that the artist affectionately nicknamed “The Smallest House Known to Man”, resurfaces in this installation, as do the chores that are familiar to many, which Barton-Tait was performing as a new mother and continues to perform to this day. They are the activities of any household looped together in a silent dialogue that drills the tireless redundancy of homemaking into the viewers mind.
Casts of the walls of the “Smallest House Known to Man” hang in layers throughout the gallery space, growing and diminishing in size. Made from paper, the walls of the house come apart at the seams. They no longer create a closed off space but rather a lateral one through which the viewer can freely move. The ephemeral nature of pulp suggests the obliteration of a traditional sense of the home, lacking shelter from rain or snow, protection from the outside world, and the enclosed safe space of a traditional notion of home. In destroying these boundaries, Barton-Tait builds a kind of universal home. Projected over these scattered walls are a series of looped videos portraying a variety of domestic activities. A pair of hands are seen making sandwiches, folding laundry, hammering and vacuuming among other household tasks. The perpetual nature of these chores is amplified by the looping of the videos. The work never ends: more sandwiches need to be made, more laundry washed and folded, and the pile never seems to grow smaller. This continual repetition of activities heightens the viewers sense of the monotony involved in these types of chores. In the end, the work is rendered redundant and begins to lose all meaning. Home Making thus draws together the fragile, reminiscent, nostalgic yet tedious nature of making a home.