Sophia Berrow interviews Michelle Hunter-Gray
March 19, 2009
SB: You are a late comer to the art world, what led you here?
MHG: I have always been interested in making things and in telling stories I suppose it’s been a case of one stage leading to the next. I began writing stories and poems, then started making and designing jewellery and as the jewellery got less and less wearable I realised what I really wanted to do was tell stories visually, if that makes any sense?
SB: So you see yourself as a story teller, does that mean that your work is narrative?
MHG: I try to make it that way. My work is generally autobiographical and I feel that the stories that I pull from my own life are the stories of a million women my age. I find that universality interesting.
SB: So does that mean that your work is mainly aimed at women of a certain age?
MHG: I hadn’t thought of it that way. I hope it is accessible to a wider audience than that. I hope that my work tells ‘everyone’ something about ‘everyone’. I can only speak as a woman of a certain age and background and my art can only reflect my own experiences. I don’t believe that you can ever work outside of who you are.
SB: Taking the wedding dress performance, (here) for example. What do you think it would mean to someone who has never been married or divorced?
MHG: The dress itself stands for, or is a cipher for very particular associations and meanings. It has a particular place within our culture, right from the beginning such as reading fairy tales to our children, the story of Cinderella ends up with a wedding and a big white dress. I think that anybody within our society can automatically read the meanings that the dress holds and what I wanted to do is to slightly subvert those meanings. Instead of the ‘beautiful, young bride’ taking this incredibly special object out of its protective coverings, here we have a middle aged woman carefully unpacking a wedding dress from a black bin liner. The dress has stains on it that have developed over the years, the marriage it represents no longer exists, and the fantasy kind of disintegrates. It is just a dress and yet it contains so many memories and the very act of unpacking the dress again resurrects those old memories, simultaneously making new ones. So the viewer, whether they have experienced a wedding day of their own or not, understands the symbolic meanings of a wedding dress.
SB: You describe the wedding dress as an object that carries memories, would you say that this is a theme that runs through your work?
MHG: Yes. I am very interested in the way that we make objects hold stories and then use them to define ourselves, to define our identity. Yet the connection is very fragile, an object is just an object and the memory and the stories only exist in the minds of the possessor. I try to tell my stories but hope that the viewer will often be stimulated to find their own stories, using their own imagination and memories.
SB: So where does a sewing box factor into this theme with your latest piece, ‘Looking for Mother’?
MHG: The sewing box in the piece belonged to my mother. (here) I was originally attracted to it because of the way it looks; there is something attractive about the object itself. Then I began to think about what an unlikely object it was to remind me of my mother, since she wasn’t the most domesticated woman, but it did. So I began to think of the significance of the sewing box and its contents. There is something very personal about a sewing box, it’s a place where you can hide things, or tuck things away.
It is also very representative of the cultural image of what a mother is or what we think she should be. Yet how many mothers now darn socks and patch jeans? And mothers are also daughters and sisters and people, they have other identities but ‘mother’ sort of swamps everything else, it is all encompassing. You don’t even have a name once you become a mother, you are ‘mum’. I was curious about the way I was trying to make my memories of my mother fit in to the social construction of what she was supposed to be. So I have used the sewing box both to illustrate this sort of traditional notion of what a mother is and at the same time subvert it by introducing other things in to the content of the box such as newspaper clippings covering stories of mothers who don’t fit society’s profile. I hope that the viewer will initially have their own memories stirred and be tempted to look closer and perhaps think of mothers in a different way. The mother in the title refers to the idea of mother both inside and outside of ourselves. The one I am as well as the one I had.
SB: Do you think it is more important that your work conveys your own memories or encourages people to focus on and re-evaluate their own memories and what they mean to them as individual?
MHG: My memories are just the materials that I use, and I use this material in an attempt to facilitate an act of remembrance from the viewer. I also want them to re-evaluate what they think they remember and perhaps become more aware of the way that memory is so often socially constructed.
SB: So where do you think your memories will lead you in the future?
MHG: I don’t know. I feel that I have still got a lot of material to work with, as an inveterate hoarder I have boxes and boxes of objects with stories to tell.