BEFORE AND AFTER
1 - 18 June 2011
Susie Quillinan’s Before and After explores the relationship between imagery of the hysterics of the late 19th century and imagery seen in contemporary fashion photography. Before and After posits a space where images draw on the idea of a staged representation of identity and the allure of the madwoman. Quillinan extends this exploration through quilting, structuring their role as tangible memory, a form associated with women, femininity and the passing on, collecting and connecting of stories.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European physicians developed a fashion for the diagnosis of female hysteria, an ailment that one Victorian physician claimed a quarter of all women suffered from. A medical condition with an absurdly broad range of possible symptoms, it could be blamed for almost any illness or nervous personality. The typifying of women as inherently hysterical ‘or in danger of succumbing to delusion at any moment’ was rapidly dismissed as medical science developed in the 20th century. However, the construction of the character of female hysteric continues to pervade the female image, while hysteria itself was a scientific justification for ancient concepts of the irrational and unreliable female nature, and its alienation from the rational male mind.
Photos of the Victorian hysterical female often show her prone, in bed, disconnected from our reality, while entirely engaged in a parallel world. The half-undressed, unselfconscious women leer or laugh or stare at some non-existent point, far enough from our grasp to objectify, to look with as much curiosity as we want at their deviant forms. Susie Quillinan addresses the parallels in the documentation of hysteria with contemporary fashion imagery – models form themselves into strange shapes, arms hanging at odd angles, hair covering their faces, eyes engaged with nothing. The allure of the distant, mysterious woman plays against our idea of the madwoman and we are left to contemplate a form only barely removed from that of the hysteric.
Beyond the basic objectification in the imagery of hysteria, there was something more unsettling in its routine diagnosis. Doctors would identify hysteria as a stand in for what otherwise could not be diagnosed, treating the incurable non-disease indefinitely – as an ongoing and easy source of income. The patient, like the model, is moulded into an object of means, based on precedents of constructed representation.
Multiples and mirrors abound in Quillinan’s work, like contact sheets from magazine photo shoots, the one chosen representation indistinguishable from the rest. The mass of analogous images point to a generalised typification of the female image. The exhibition title, Before and After, parrots the endless stream of makeover shows on TV – the woman appears, a little overweight, with bad skin, ill-fitting clothes. After 10 minutes, she reappears a new woman, expectedly in neutral tones, makeup and a hair rinse. The airbrushing of personality in favour of by the book beauty is exhausting.
The historically feminine crafts of quilting and embroidery speak both of the particularly female world Quillinan is interested in, while also situating the work in the personal realm – the handmade is modest and idiosyncratic, an antidote against the historical and broad social ideas of representation. Bedding and clothing protect us, keep us warm and accompany us through experience. Quillinan’s work draws us in with its promise of familiarity, retelling stories from our mothers and grandmothers’ the hand made harking to something in our collective history, while adding something of our own time and experience. The connections formed between the general and personal narratives are at the core of Quillinan’s enquiry. She provides points of reference, glimpses of text and image are revealed, while inviting you to wrap the covers around you and put yourself in the story.
- Brigit Ryan