The Nuclear Family, 1984 - 1990
I developed the body of work comprising The Nuclear Family from 1983, completing it in 1990 with a burial in Gunnersbury Park, London. The Cold War was at its height during the 1980s. The issue of the nuclear threat was very prominent, and at the time I took part in anti-nuclear protests organised by CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and women at Greenham Common.
The work was about the ‘nuclear family’ in the broadest sense, from the conventional family unit to the implications associated with nuclear war. Its meanings evolved over time as its scale increased and format changed. The title ‘The Nuclear Family’ ceased to feel adequate as the spaces and context for its exhibition changed, and the venues began to play an increasingly important role in determining the specific emphasis of the work. I changed titles to include ‘Bural and Preservation, 'Human Remains’ and ‘Excavation’.
The theme was wholly integral to the materials and methods of its making. I used items of clothing as my support for colour pigments. By soaking the clothes in finish plaster, I created surfaces suitable for colouring with dry pigments, dyes and paints. The clothes are deformed by the plaster, bruised and frozen, petrified. I manipulated the plaster to create a range of surfaces, from hard and durable to crumbling and unstable. By using items of clothing which remained recognisable, I felt the work became more accessible to a wider audience.
The work came to represent a constant process of growth and perpetual renewal. I used items over again and built a ‘stock’ of about 800 pieces. As individual pieces gradually disintegrated, I combined them with freshly made ones for each exhibition. The work was deliberately impermanent, both fragile and durable, beautiful and horrific. I wanted it to have a haunting effect. I tried to use its formal qualities to help extend its meanings, act as metaphors and encourage us to ask questions.
As my work began to echo familiar shapes and structures we associate with burial, I tried to emphasise this side of its meaning. The opportunity to exhibit in museums enabled me to address the issues surrounding preservation more directly. I tried to bring out the irony of placing my continuously deteriorating work in a museum context. I wanted to make us more aware of how we attempt to make the fragile permanent, save the unsaveable; make the horrific presentable, enshrine what we have destroyed.
There is a delicate balance between creation and destruction, finding and retrieving, saving what we destroy. The later works ask us to consider how deliberate and accidental creation of remains can become blurred. Preservation simultaneously suggests trophy, memorial, epitaph.
Some of these ideas were nurtured by my growing interest in archaeology and ancient stones. In 1981 I began working in the geographically remote countryside on an annual basis, originally in Ireland in Connemara, County Galway, and subsequently, from 1985, in Shetland. I drew and photographed dry stone dykes, cairns and ancient stone remains, particularly one Bronze Age burial cairn on East Burra I exhibited the drawings in London. I even visited Malta in 1986 to visit the ancient stone temples there which some have suggested may be linked to burial cairns in Shetland.
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