Sarah Eyre is a lens-based artist whose practice centres around the rather hairy subject of wigs – specifically women’s wigs, and their relationship to gender, identity and the female body. She’s currently very busy developing two new series of work which will appear in her upcoming solo exhibition at PAPER in October. Here she explains where she’s up to in the process, giving a fairly unique insight into the creative journey behind what we will later see on the gallery walls.
Sara Jaspan: Can you tell us a bit about the two projects you’re currently working on? How do they build upon your previous work?
Sarah Eyre: For the last five years, I have mostly focused on exploring the body’s relationship with objects, specifically wigs. Why wigs? Well, in my opinion, there’s no other object quite like them. They play a very particular social, performative function, which is to affirm, exaggerate or disguise some aspect of the wearer’s identity, or project a new one. Part object, part body; wigs can reveal anxieties around the boundaries between the self and the outside world. While the knowledge that they are often made from real human hair taps into deep, inbuilt fears around ‘contamination’, that threaten the otherwise clearly defined social boundaries we create around class and gender.
The two new series that I’m working on for PAPER are quite different from each other, though both are fundamentally about exploring the body as something fluid and porous. The first, I currently refer to as Untitled Wig Cuts (though this title may change), and connects to Penetralia – a series I developed back in 2015 during the Tracing PAPER artist mentorship scheme. Penetralia (an architectural term for the innermost parts of a building; a secret or hidden place) examines the more fundamental properties of a wig; probing its interior spaces – or ‘dark underbelly’ you might say – treating it in quite an abstract way. I’ve kept this element in Untitled Wig Cuts, using my own pictures of wigs to create photo-montages, then cutting into the surface of each to suggest a sense of layering. This also taps into my interest in the boundaries of photography itself – a medium that deals entirely with surfaces.
The second series, which I’m currently calling Fluorescent, is more collage-based; incorporating found images, mostly taken from fashion magazines. Instead of concentrating on the subjects in each picture, I’ve been more interested in the negative space in between the models’ bodies – cutting around and utilising the ‘empty’ bit of the picture. I’m not quite sure what exactly draws me to this yet, and will probably only understand properly once the work is ‘finished’. But it probably relates to my fascination with incompleteness and the interior space of the wig. As well as fashion magazines, I’ve also been drawing a lot upon sculpture books, and the very idealised depiction of gender and the human body that they present. Which, in turn, connects back to my interest in fashion photography.
SJ: What thoughts or ideas remain still unresolved?
SE: Neither series is quite ‘finished’ yet and are very much works in progress. But one of the big questions I’m still unsure of is how I will present the work. I feel a third element might be needed to draw the two series together within the context of a single exhibition. This could mean creating a third piece that does this; or introducing an earlier work. For example, the individual parts of Fluorescent look a bit like animated cells when all laid out together, as if illustrating movement; so they might work well alongside one of my GIFs. Alternatively, it might just be a question of playing with different hanging methods. I could experiment with layering, framing or different grouping patterns, or installing the two series in different spaces. We’ll see.
The title of each series is the other element that remains unresolved. I often struggle here. I’m quite interested in the names given to different styles of wigs by their manufacturers, such as ‘Ruby’ and ‘Anastasia’, which are loaded with certain social and cultural baggage. So maybe this will lead to something.
SJ: What is your working process like? How do you approach making new bodies of work?
SE: I take a very intuitive, experimental approach to begin with – which often results in a lot of unfinished work! When something feels unresolved, I like to just throw something new at it and take things in a whole other direction. When I’m in the studio, I also try to keep as much work out and within eyesight as possible, so ideas can feed into each other and be quietly developing in the background. Once a piece is properly underway, however, I then enter a period of research and reflection, drawing out different connections and considering the direction I want things to evolve in. Though I don’t tend to think of a work as ever completely ‘finished’, it’s only after you’ve moved on that you really start to understand what it’s about.
SJ: Where did your interest in wigs first begin? What led you to begin using them in your work?
SE: I’ve always been fascinated by their power of transformation, and liked to play with them when I was younger as a way of altering my identity. I began using them in my work when I realised how interesting they are to see photographed – it really draws out their uncanny, macabre side. You can also mould them, shape them, turn them inside out; exploring their many literal and suggestive layers. My first body of work using wigs featured shop bought, off-the-peg ones, photographed from behind, with just enough ‘pose’ to suggest a wearer. I was making reference to the way that surface attributes are the site where identities – especially female identities – tend to be interpreted and classified.
By the time I started making Penetralia, I had become more interested in the wig’s formal properties. We don’t often see wigs without the structure of a head or stand. Once these are taken away, their inside and outside begin to collapse in on each other, confusing the boundaries between interior and exterior. Similarly, folding a wig could be seen as a ‘folding’ its purpose: externalising the inner aspect of the wearer’s identity. A wig’s interior is actually a space that doesn’t really exist in a physical sense, as it is designed as a surface that moulds to the wearer’s head.
SJ: Could you tells us a bit about the role of gaps, holes and negative spaces in your work?
SE: I’m interested in opening out the idea of body and gender: undoing the binary perspective through which we tend to see masculine and feminine identity, and opening channels of passage between the two. I’ve also become increasingly fascinated by the difference between a gap and a hole. Is there one? Holes connect inside and outside, and can suggest a sense of incompleteness. While gaps seem to suggest movement, flux, change or transition. As the work develops, I may begin accentuating the gaps more to develop this idea of change or transformation further, connecting to the idea of gender as something equally fluid.
SJ: Where does your interest in gender and the body come from?
SE: I guess I became particularly focused on these subjects whilst studying for my undergraduate degree in Photography at Nottingham Trent University. I did my training in the 1990s, and was very influenced by the many feminist artists making work at the time, such as Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. Alongside my art practice, I also teach Fashion Photography – a form that I have a rather difficult relationship with. It presents the body in such an exciting, seductive, yet deceptive way. I aim to offer a playful yet critical position on this through my own artwork.
SJ: What connection do you see between photography and your subject matter?
SE: As a society, we consume a lot of our ideas around gender and identity through the images we are presented with, so there’s a very direct relationship there. However, as someone who has worked with photography for a long time, I’m also very interested in using these subjects as a means of exploring the medium of photography itself – destabilising our understanding of the photograph (which we tend to think of as a very stable thing), as well as gender and identity. It’s all about questioning what we see, and how the photograph presents the world back to us.
Sarah Eyre’s solo exhibition opens at PAPER on 7 October and runs until 12 November 2017.