These are the things that hold me here (a house, a vessel, a shell, a ring) is an intriguing title for a collection of jewellery and small objects. Katherine Bowman seems to suggest that without these delicate items she would simply float away. It is as if she believes that the weight of accretion, a certain accumulation of household detritus, is necessary to keep us tethered to the here and now. Perhaps with this in mind, Bowman has created physical manifestations of memories; memories to remind and memories to bind.
Jewellery, due to its long standing role as heirloom, is often used as a repository for memory, a cache of nostalgia. Katherine Bowman has extended this capacity to include her miniature houses (as well as her wearable pieces) though a judicious selection of materials. The materials she uses illicit instant sentimentality: mangled gold charms, faded lace, hazy diamantes like cloudy old eyes, floral prints and tiny glass seed beads. All of these materials conspire to evoke grandmothers generally, or perhaps more accurately, generically. Bowman's exhibition is shrouded in a pervasive feeling of the past; a specifically feminine past, part Victorian lady in perpetual mourning (black beading, black lace, black metal roses) and part stoic World War Two mother battling hardship and loss (grey army blankets, patched and faded textiles). These works are clearly, obviously and deliberately sentimental. Nothing beats a floral motif and a few beads for conjuring up feminine nostalgia. But Bowman's sentimentality is a thin veneer; underneath a dark and powerful anxiety is bubbling up to the surface.
This anxiety is evident even in the most innocuous objects. Katherine Bowman has preserved mementos plucked directly from the sea and cast them into metal jewellery as more permanent (and less smelly) reminders of a family holiday, a romantic walk or solitary seaside wander. While seemingly innocent, this type of collection also points to our inability to live in the here and now. Even as we are in the moment we begin to horde objects to remind ourselves of it later; evidence to prove we were there. We leap to the future-past while still in the present.
Susan Sontag speaks in similar terms about our voracious appetite for photography. A photograph is a captured slice of time, a tangible remnant of the light bounced off an actual subject and recorded. This thing, person, event, irrefutably really did exist, somewhere, somehow if only for a moment. The photograph is the proof, evidence of reality 1 . In the same way the heirloom pearls of a long dead grandmother or a shell from a childhood holiday are less about actual memories or proscribed nostalgia than evidence of perceived reality and personal identity. Sentimental items become talismans against anxiety; proof used to reassure ourselves of our continued linear existence in the resolutely non linear space of time. We use objects to define a sense of identity, as Bowman says they hold us here.
Objects may be used to mark our tenuous sense of individuality, but the perimeters of self are already defined by the body. Characterised by ambiguity, the body's boundaries are both firm and fragile. The human form is often described as a vessel which (barely) contains the leaky fluids and electrical impulses that conspire to maintain our sense consciousness. Bowman uses miniature representations of houses to stand in for the body. These houses are constructed of memories. Like the body they are unreliable and permeable; like identity they are contingent and subject to change.
The house/body metaphor is not new, as we all know "Home is where the heart is". But in Bowman's work home is also where the lungs, kidneys, liver and brain are insufficiently restrained. Grey House 2 is literally spilling its guts, unable to withhold its secrets they leak and spread. This failure of the body/home to contain is a pervasive theme in Bowman's work. Trees burst through hand stitched roofs, ceramic eggy pods tumble off tiny shelves, threads trail down through unseen floor boards like constantly dripping water. Everywhere something is oozing, bulging, leaking. We seem helpless against this perpetual flow. Secretions and secrets seem inextricably linked. As the generic grandmother might have said, "The truth will out".
Inside is a spindly home, wobbly and knock-kneed it is unable to accommodate a bright stream of bile yellow arrested in mid drip; a visceral disaster not quite averted. In Vessels , crocheted tentacles and bulbous eruptions burst and ooze from small blackened copper containers, like embarrassing teenage acne, menstrual blood on skirts, semen on jeans. These objects exude shame, the inevitable humiliation at the failure of the body to contain; evidence of the losing battle of mind over matter.
However, all is not loss and corporeal defeat. Bowman also celebrates quiet triumph. Like scars on skin, the fabric of many of her small houses bear evidence of traumatic experiences. Tattered and mended these homes provide shelter that seems fragile and provisional at best. But paradoxically these flimsy structures, patched by tiny stiches, also possess a powerful feminine strength. They seem to be lovingly held together, against all adversity, by sheer force of female will. In fact all of the works secrete a certain feminine funk. One house has a rather blatant red slit, a crude gash in its muted grey wall. Many others have pockets, pointing to the feminine capacity to keep (as well as leak) secrets and the female ability to hide, internalise and protect, both emotionally and quite literally, in warm dark cavities.
Like the mind, the body, identity and memories Katherine Bowman's objects are complex structures. Her constructions are both delicate and powerful. They are duplicitous without malice; layered with multiple meanings. At first glance, Foundation , a series of small puffed up white fabric houses reminiscent of inflated balloons, appears to be the most fragile in the collection, prone to deflation or bound to burst. However, these houses are actually made of solid plaster making them the most solid, heavy and stable of all the objects. First impressions can be deceiving.
Katherine Bowman says of her work, "You keep discovering things if you make the effort to look" 2 . Her work invites, in fact demands, careful and extended observation. And what you will see, if you bother to take the time to look, is that in Bowman's houses (as elsewhere) things are not always what they seem.
1 Susan Sontag, On Photography , Penguin Books, 1979.
2 Katherine Bowman quoted from a conversation with the author at Craft Victoria on 13 February 2004.