Backbone is a series of linear assemblages using plaid flannel shirts ranging from 50 to 125 in number. Hung by the collars, side-by-side at chest height, and running corner-to-corner of the room, these dense horizontal fields of colour push against architectural boundaries. Walking the length of the work is like a kaleidoscope of tumbling geometric patterns and colours.
These long lines of shirts could be a welcome, a confrontation, a celebration of labour, a changing room, or form a palpable absence realised through the viewer’s presence.
Plaid flannel shirts, commonly referred to in North America as “lumberjack” shirts, are also associated with commonly held notions about Canada - the great outdoors, cold weather, and the country’s heavy reliance on hard physical labour to extract natural resources through logging, fishing, hunting, trapping, farming, and mining. The shirts are hard-wearing; ready to absorb sweat, and to protect the body from the ravages of insects, cold, and too much sun. The ubiquitous plaid flannel shirt is the unofficial uniform and emblem of outdoor labourers; labour which for centuries has formed the backbone of the Canadian economy and construction of a Canadian cultural identity.
My shirts are all second hand, many are faded, torn, repaired, threadbare, stained, or splattered with concrete, paint, or tar. Some have had the sleeves removed for comfort, or to lend an air of toughness. Each shirt is an individual, someone who laboured long and hard to work the ground - their presence still palpable in the rounded elbows, faded shoulders, missing buttons, threadbare cuffs and frayed shirt tails.
Each version of Backbone contains numerous shirts that have been deconstructed and reassembled incorporating materials and commercially printed fabrics. Here and there, plaid sleeves, cuffs, collars, and shirt backs have been removed, carefully, their seams freed of stitches, then ironed flat, and used as patterns from which I cut identical-sized pieces of fur or printed textiles. Commercial prints, such as quilting fabrics, reflect utopian landscapes, such as big game animals relaxing in pristine wilderness settings, men in plaid clothing with trophy-sized fish, log cabins with wisps of curling smoke (you can almost smell the bacon), and various representations of indigenous people with bows and arrows or spears. This is the stuff of escapism, nostalgia, colonialisation and nature as an illusion all mixed into one. We tame the outside before we bring it inside. Ready-made landscapes to decorate our homes.
Tucked in amongst these utopian ideals are subversive inclusions of fur pelts (rabbit, wolf, fox, beaver, muskrat, ermine, kangaroo, emu feathers), glass trade beads, Hudson’s Bay striped blanket material and commercially printed fabrics depicting transport trucks. In some instances, fur pieces are juxtaposed with prints of cute, fur-bearing animals. The juxtapositions echo the tragedies of colonisation, the incessant howls of chainsaws and of logging and mining trucks rumbling across denuded landscapes. These are the realities of land use we do not want to wear.
In 1995, six months after commencing my course of study at Canberra School of Art, Backbone 1 was exhibited at the Surrey Art Gallery in Vancouver. I had modified approximately one quarter of its 50 shirts with the addition of fur pelts and textile prints. This row of shirts faced a broad glass-paned gallery entrance that allowed a rapport between the work inside the gallery and the out-of-doors. This intersection of inside with outside and with representation of rural inside and the reality of an urban outside was a turning point for me, and instilled new ways of working and thinking about sculpture, that has influenced my later work. Subsequent works conceptually infer connections between the viewer inside and distant geographies outside.
While Backbone 1 was in Vancouver, Backbone 2 was at de Vaalserberg, an artist-run initiative in Rotterdam. Backbone 2 was twice the length, using a total of 121 shirts to cover a 11.5 m wall, and contained the beginning of a series of Australian shirts that I had been working on as a means of exploring connections between Australians and their country. I was very interested in exhibiting in Rotterdam because it was from this port city that my family left the Netherlands in 1962 to emigrate to North America. Through this exhibition and residency at de Vaalserberg I explored both Canadian and Australian constructions of national identity in relation to land. The grid format of the exhibition invitation aptly reflected my mapping and navigational interests.
I increased the number of altered shirts and included many more fabrics that romanticised the great outdoors. The Vaalserberg’s exhibition space in Rotterdam was long and typically very narrow. Rather than hanging the shirts in one long continuous row, I grouped the shirts according to theme, such as fishing, big game hunting, roaming wildlife, and cowboys and Indians, etc. Each theme was segregated from the next by one or more empty nails, thereby breaking up the work into sections with pauses in between. Appropriately, the shirts in the hunting theme were predominantly red in colour and the shirts in the fishing theme were variations of blue, and so, by grouping the shirts according to theme, I had grouped them according to colour as well.
Working with broader sweeps of colour, I was able to hang the shirts in the form of a modified colour spectrum. I placed the darkest coloured shirts in the centre of the wall, drawing the viewer into the space, and placed progressively lighter shirts towards the large banks of windows that dominated each end of the gallery. The windows at each end provided an excellent opportunity to extend the work around the window frames and continue outside. At one end, overlooking the back yard and in close proximity to an old large-leaved tree, I hung light green and yellow shirts with green military camouflaged sleeves. At the opposite end, overlooking the street below, I placed bright red shirts that picked up the colours of neon signs from adjoining buildings. The outside shirts thus connected the second story gallery with its outdoor environment and brought the exhibition to the attention of the immediate neighbourhood. It occurred to me later that the work was simply passing through the space of the gallery as it entered through one window and exited at the opposite end of the space, a kind of metaphor for my relationship to the country of my birth - as always, just passing through.
The Old World’s stereotypes of the New World are more ingrained than I had anticipated. The fabric prints of North American and Australian landscapes were perceived by many European viewers as accurate representations of land. The occasional fur pelt was regarded with alarm and disgust. Almost completely out of context with the European landscape in which it had been placed, the work was labelled as foreign. No one here could identify personally with any of the unaltered or altered shirts. In Rotterdam, the modified shirts were simply curiosities: a small taste of some of the last remaining wilderness on Earth.
I thought back to the reception of Backbone 1 in Canada where viewers’ responses to the work had been nostalgic and deeply personal. There the work in its entirety was construed as a kind of visual iconography of what it means to be Canadian, complete with unspoiled constructions of wilderness, a history and national identity constructed on the fur trade, and a league of work shirts ready to chop more timber, work in the mines, and yank salmon out of the ocean. I believe this reflects the Canadian viewers’ insecurity about their national identity, their subsequent desire to keep intact the notion of nature as wilderness, and yet the need and desire to domesticate and control nature. This is the paradoxical Canadian heritage, despite the fact that this construction has little resemblance to their suburban reality. As is the case in Australia, the kinds of rural myths and bush tales with which people still identify keeps intact their concept of an ideal land.
In Canada, Backbone 1 brought tears to the eyes of one woman who walked me along the length of shirts pointing out patterns and colours she identified as belonging to past and present members of her family: two miners, a lumberjack, a bush cook, a truck driver (also an ex-husband), and a commercial fisherman. Another woman remarked that the row of shirts was just like her workplace. Her job was to clean the “dry”, or miners’ changing room, while the men were on their shifts underground. In the dry, the neatly hung plaid shirts waited to be exchanged for soiled ones, at the end of the shift.
Backbone 3, Canberra, 1995
With Backbone 3, the association between plaid flannel and the outdoors became more abstracted. In this exhibition, at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Manuka, there were only 10 shirts, all modified with Australian contexts, such as Australia Riding the Sheep’s Back and Koori Shirt. Interestingly, the ochres, grey/greens and rust reds of the Australian work shirts are not available in Canada. Still intent on pursuing the intersection of man with land, and place with cultural identity, the work shirts led me to consider a different context in which they are used. Fabric is used often as a metaphor for culture or society, and I wanted to reinforce this by combining it with some other materials with the same metaphorical quality.
According to some Canberrans with whom I spoke, plaid flannel shirts are associated sometimes with Sydney’s western suburbs. I started thinking about boundaries: socio-economic boundaries, stereotypes, and physical boundaries, such as suburb limits. The association of the shirts with a particular suburban context that, in turn, was associated with the working classes, led me to cover bricks in flannel and to build pseudo-architectural constructions that mapped a kind of socially constructed space and landscape.
For me, the idea of covering bricks in flannel seemed a natural extension of the shirt works. The Canberra suburb in which I lived was heavily under construction. I observed that the most prevalent form of work wear was the ubiquitous plaid flannel shirt and the most common building material was brick. During the very hot hours of the day the brick layers would hang their shirts from fences surrounding the sites. In a sense it was a site-specific rehanging of the earlier Backbone works. I started to sew plaid flannel covers for the bricks and upholstered them. I wondered how Michelangelo Pistoletti attached fabrics to the bricks in his work Muro di Stracci, (1968).
This material conflation I conceived initially as a metaphor for human manipulation and development of the land. The grid of the shirts echoed the grid of stacked bricks on pallets, the gridding of the suburb into rectangular building lots, and the gridding of the city into streets and suburbs. The way we grid the land is visible from space. The colours I employed to cover the bricks looked as though they could have been taken straight from the earth: dark, sombre and intense. You could almost see the dirt and smell the sweat.
With the plaid flannel upholstered bricks I built walls and chimneys. Although mortar-free, these assemblages were quite solid and I experimented with walls of varying heights and thickness. Eventually, the walls I exhibited for Backbone 3 in Manuka (Figure 2.7) were of two types: inadvertently socially-economically stratified with the construction of single and double brick walls. Viewers immediately associated the single-thickness walls with more economical constructions (brick as a facade), and the double-walled construction (brick as a structural component) used for more affluent homes.